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For many families, celebrating holidays means celebratory food, and celebratory food means going back to flavors and smells that have been in the family for many years. For reporter Alex Schmidt, it's a hybrid of Mexican and Eastern European Jewish food. Recently, she took a trip to discover more about her family's food history.
ALEX SCHMIDT, BYLINE: Food memories are vivid. What you ate as a kid can whisk you right back to that lost time in your life. But for my mom's parents, Martha and Jerry Schneider, one special memory eludes them - it's just on the tip of their tongue.
JERRY SCHNEIDER: I don't know if it was a special touch, or the ingredients, I don't know. But you just wanted to go there, to Justo Sierra which was...
MARTHA SCHMIDT, BYLINE: Justo sierra was the street in downtown Mexico City where my grandparents say you could eat the best Jewish food in the world. Martha and Jerry spent a big part of their lives in Mexico City. But their families were from Eastern Europe, and that's the kind of food they grew up eating: soups with noodles in them, baked meat in sauces of caramelized onion. Even when my great-grandfather would visit from New York, he went to Justo Sierra to taste the food of his childhood.
SCHNEIDER: My father went there because he said just like my mother made, just like my mother made. Whenever he get to Mexico, the first stop was Justo Sierra.
SCHMIDT: The food conjured distinct, comforting memories for Jews from Eastern Europe who found themselves in strange, foreign Mexico. The funny thing is, for me, my strongest food memory is Mexican food. Every year when I was growing up, we'd go home to Mexico for Passover. When I eat a spicy turkey sandwich between two pieces of matzah, feelings of being surrounded by family in a safe, loving place come simmering up. I wanted to see if I could find this Justo Sierra spot that gave my grandparents those same special feelings about their past. Just one problem - the location.
MARTHA SCHNEIDER: I don't think it had a name. So whenever we went there we never called it any other name. We just said let's go to Justo Sierra. That was it.
SCHMIDT: My maternal grandparents couldn't lead me to the old restaurant. But luckily, my dad's mother still lives in Mexico City. Also luckily, I recently went to visit her.
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SCHMIDT: Dora Schmidt, 87 years old, also known as Bobe to her 16 grandchildren. She was born in Poland, but moved to Mexico City when she was three years old. She curses at other drivers in Yiddish as she speeds her little red car through wild traffic.
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SCHMIDT: When I told her about the Justo Sierra memory that my other grandparents mentioned, she instantly knew what I was talking about.
DORA SCHMIDT: It was the shul, the biggest temple, Ashkenazi, that were in Mexico City. And we had over there a caterer that his name was Motele Shlejter, and his wife was the one that she used to cook for all the affairs that are going on there in the shul.
SCHMIDT: The same people who cooked the food that transported my Mom's parents also filled the guests' bellies at Bobe's wedding.
SCHMIDT: Oh, she used to make chicken broth with kreplach and with all the goodies that the Ashkenazim used to eat with the soup. And she used to make veal, with kugel and so delicious that it's amazing because I don't think that whoever cooks cannot give the flavor that she used to give to the food.
SCHMIDT: About 100 years ago, the Jewish community was centered here in Mexico City's rowdy downtown.
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SCHMIDT: The community started out small, with just a few hundred Jews, so everyone knew the place to find the best traditional food in town. Today, Jews have scattered across the city. Most days the old temple just sits there, empty. On the busy street, you could almost miss the elaborate wooden doors with Jewish stars.
SCHMIDT: (Spanish spoken)
SCHMIDT: It's been decades since my grandmother walked into the temple where she got married.
SCHMIDT: Oh, it's amazing. It's so thrilling that I can't believe myself that I'm here 65 years later. It's something unbelievable. (Spanish spoken)
SCHMIDT: There are old black and white photographs in the temple. In one of them, my Bobe pointed out the legendary chefs, standing in the back row.
SCHMIDT: (Spanish spoken)
SCHMIDT: They were the ones who used to make the food.
SCHMIDT: Yeah. This is Motele. (Spanish spoken)
SCHMIDT: Motele is wearing a black hat, and Etel is in a plaid apron. They look serious, like people in old black and white photos do. It turns out that black and white photographs, and 50-year-old grease stains on the walls in the old kitchen, would be the closest I'd get to the fabled recipes. Only one of the Shlejters' children got married. And believe me, I know this is a sad and strange twist, but their lone grandchild killed his parents and he went to jail. As far as I can tell, the recipes just didn't survive through the generations for us to learn how the Shlejters gave their food its special flavor. Would you like to know what Etel's secret was?
SCHMIDT: Oh yes, I would love to ask her, but I don't know if she will tell me. You know, a lot of people has your own secrets, like me.
SCHMIDT: My grandmother likes to play at being mysterious, but she did let me and my sister take a video of her cooking in her little apartment.
SCHMIDT: Twelve tablecloths...
SCHMIDT: ...tablespoons of confectioner sugar. OK. Yeah, I'm done, see?
SCHMIDT: She showed us how to make delicate horseshoe shaped walnut cookies, typically served at Mexican weddings. As far back as I can remember, she's served them at Shabbat dinner, alongside Jewish Mandelbrot pastries.
SCHMIDT: (Spanish spoken)
SCHMIDT: For a snack, Bobe fried up rinds of chicken fat with onions, shtetl style, and put them in a taco with guacamole and chile. As I watched her through the camera, flavors and memories mixed together in layers - the Eastern Europe of my great grandparents, and the taste of home in Mexico City. For NPR News, I'm Alex Schmidt.
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