I think I began to identify as a feminist at around the same age as I decided to learn how to cook--around ten or eleven years old. Feminism and cooking...you wouldn't think they would go together, but so often they do. Perhaps because so many women cook?
I was not looking for a good definition of kugel when I read Rachel Adler's 1998 book, Engendering Judaism. This passage (from Adler's introduction to her book) on cooking as metaphor for feminist theology actually changed my cooking as cooking!
The Shit Method: A Grandmotherly Heuristic
Eastern European Jewish grandmothers used to joke that they cooked by the “shit” method: men shit arein a bissel mehl, men shit arein a bissel zukker…(You throw in a little flour, you throw in a little sugar…). The joke rests on a bilingual pun—the Yiddish word shit, through, is in fact cognate to the Ango-Saxon root that provides English with its oldest, baldest word for excrement. The joke is, on one level, self-deprecating. In comparison to the precise measurements and ingredients lists of American cookbooks, says bubbe, my methods are haphazard, messy, and worthless. On another level, grandma’s naivete is an ironic con. I haven’t got a cooking method at all, she says. This delicious result? I just threw some stuff in the direction of the pot.
In reality, the "shit" method has has little to do with dumb luck. It is a carefully crafted heuristic originally designed for cooking in environments where resources are scarce and undependable. Take a kugel, for example. Kugel can be made with noodles, potatoes, rice or matzah or even with yams or zucchini. If sugar and raisins are available, kugel can be sweet. If there are only onions, kugel can be savory. If eggs are plentiful, a kugel can be almost as light as a soufflé. If scarce, it can be flat and substantial.
Yet a kugel is neither a hodgepodge nor a culinary masquerade like mock duck made of tofu. A rice kugel is not a mock potato kugel, but a rice kugel. The true measure of the practitioner’s skill is not how ingeniously she disguises what is there or compensates for what is lacking, but how well she chooses and honors the resources at hand. That is what makes the “shit” method as adaptable to plenitude as it is to dearth.
My mom didn't make a lot of kugel when I was growing up, because she was almost always on a diet, and neither Weight Watchers nor the Diet Workshop featured recipes for low-calorie kugel. (Low calorie kugel! Bwa ha ha ha! Not only is the whole concept hilarious, I am envisioning a lot of new hits from people looking for recipes for it! Sorry. Try the Jewish-food.org recipe archives--here is the kugel page.) My grandmother, who was raised in German, not Yiddish, in the United States, not Eastern Europe, never said "shit." So my kugel skills were necessarily limited.
The first time I tried to make a kugel, in college, it was terrible. I put in both sour cream and cottage cheese, and it was bland to the point of being quite disgusting.
At some point around 1990, I had a boyfriend who was extremely excited that I could make a kugel. I followed a Mollie Katzen recipe for noodle kugel. It called for pitted prunes and I used prunes with the pits still in them, which I think is a faux pas, don't you? He liked it anyway. I guess sweet noodle kugel had some strong associations for him! It was not a long-lived relationship, but I learned a lot from it.
My husband won my heart with his cooking, among other things. Really it was watching the careful way he poured the vinegar for salad dressing that did it for me. But he makes a great variation on his mom's savory noodle kugel, with spinach or zucchini. I like the way he combines precision and ritual with improvisation. He always makes the kugel with the same proportions, except he doesn't measure the seasonings so it's always a bit different.
Here is the spinach kugel recipe I have been making lately. I have been using frozen organic spinach, but of course you can use fresh.
Thaw the spinach. If it's the kind that comes in boil in a bag pouches, immerse the pouches in warm water until the spinach is liquid in the bags. (Why organic? Because conventionally grown spinach is very high in pesticide residues.)
Chop the onion and fry it in olive oil on low heat until it is very brown. You want it to be sweet.
Beat the eggs into the Vegenaise with a wire whisk to make a custard. You might have to mix it for a few minutes to get it to blend in without curdling. (I like the taste of Vegenaise.)
Mix the spinach and the onion into the eggy custardy gloop. Season it with salt or tamari and black pepper to taste. Generously grease your kugel pan with Earth Balance. (if you are serving a dairy meal you could use butter instead.) Sprinkle the bottom of the pan with wheat germ. Dump the spinach glop into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the top of the glop with wheat germ until it has a nice coating of wheat germ. Put little lumps of Earth Balance on top. Bake this in a 350 degree oven for 45-60 minutes, or until the kugel is firm and the top is nicely brown but not burnt.