Feast of the Immigrant

Monday Morning Musings:

When I was a teen

My grandfather used to bring

Sunday brunch

To our house.

Heralded by a cloud of cigar smoke–

That I could smell

From my attic bedroom,

He entered,

Calling out greetings

In his loud voice

And making everyone scurry

To get the food on the table.

Perhaps it wasn’t technically

A feast,


It was a ritual

Of sorts.

A Sunday brunch

With an abundance of food.

My grandfather,

My father’s father,

Had a personality

That was far bigger

Than his short,

But corpulent


My sister and I secretly called him

Harry the Hat.

There’s a photo of him

On the Atlantic City Boardwalk

With said hat

And swaggering stance.

And now that I think of it,

He always did wear a hat,

As men used to do.

I picture it on a side table

In our living room.

I imagine his scrappiness

Came from growing up

As an immigrant.

I remember him telling me

About his voyage to America.

How his ship was stalled for some time

In Trieste,

Then part of the

Austro-Hungarian Empire.

I recently discovered,

The ship was called the S.S. Gulia.

It carried him, his mother, and a sister

Across the ocean to New York

In 1904,

His father having left Kiev earlier—

Was already in Philadelphia.

And I wonder

What this voyage must have been like

For a young child–

He was only 7

His sister 4.

And for their mother.

Traveling from Kiev,

Second class citizens

In their homeland,

To Trieste,

Escaping persecution,

And then

To the United States.

And I wished I had

Asked him more.

But it’s too late.

As a young man

He sold newspapers

At the Pennsylvania Railroad Station.

He and my grandmother eloped,

And then returning to his parents’ home,

They were given a bed

That broke

A memorable wedding night,

I imagine.

Did that immigrant boy,

That young man

Ever think

That someday

He would be sitting in a dining room

In a Philadelphia suburb

With his grandchildren?

Or that he would be bringing a feast?

Who knew from Sunday brunch then?

(As my relatives might have said.)

There would be two world wars

And countless others,

Battles and fear

And fights over immigrants

And immigration


And now.

Who will be the lucky few

To be admitted?

But he was fortunate.

He lived

The American dream.

We sat amidst Old World antiques

In modern American comfort.

We were consumers,

And we consumed.


Never nova,

Cream cheese,


And the fish that we called “yum yum fish”

(What WAS it?)

A mystery lost to time.

Chewy bagels,

Good Jewish rye–

With seeds

Of course.

My mother sliced onions

And boiled new red potatoes.


The plate my mom always used for Sunday brunches, although we ignored the categories.

My then boyfriend,

Now husband,

Had never had such food.

He glanced at me,

Trying to follow my lead,

But it didn’t take him long

To love these,

To him,

Exotic dishes.

My grandfather must have been in his 70s.

He seemed very old to me then,

And my mom

Was younger than I am now.

My parents were divorced,

But still my grandfather


And my dad, too.

Family bonds

Perhaps strengthened from immigrant status.

My mom discovered only after she was married

That the people she sometimes visited with her father

Were the relatives of his first wife

Who died soon after they were married.

My mom thought they were cousins

Because she had so many

So she finally asked her mother

Who are these people?

And found she was not

Actually related to them at all.

But still–

Immigrant bonds

And immigrant food

More precisely,

Food eaten by immigrants here,

Now fashionable and expensive.

And nostalgic.

My sister decided her birthday

And a shopping trip for my mom

Was a good excuse to enjoy these delicacies

Once again.

A brilliant idea!

And so we did.

Discussing family news and memories

As we ate.

After brunch,

My husband and my sister’s wife

Stayed behind to watch football.

American football.

My mom, sisters, and younger daughter

Went to the mall.

We piled into a dressing room—

Our dressing room at that Macy’s—

And the saleswoman grumbled that we

Weren’t supposed to be there,

Although there was no sign,

So we stayed.

My mother dismayed by her body

That has grown and aged

And we dressing her

And all of us laughing

Laughing so hard


Well, dressing someone is funny,

Isn’t it?


Dressing Room antics

And we lovingly teased

My mom about boyfriends

And showing cleavage,

And then we went back

To my sister’s

For dessert.


After all

Birthdays need cake.

And shopping

Is hungry work.

Recipes and Other Stuff:

Chocolate Chip Sour Cream Coffee Cake:

I forgot to take a picture and quickly took one at my sister’s that is not very good, and so then I took one at home, which still is not good, but oh well, did I mention it’s Chocolate Chip Sour Cream Coffee Cake? That’s all you need to know, right?

Also, it’s made in a 9×13 pan (or whatever is similar in your part of the world) so it’s easily transportable–in case you’re taking it to your sister’s house for brunch.


I used this recipe from Smitten Kitchen

BUT I changed the filling

Because sorry, Deb, but really, brown sugar and nuts were calling out to me.

Here’s the filling I used—half inside, and the remainder on top.


¾ cups firmly packed brown sugar

¾ cup chopped nuts (it might have been a bit more. I used walnuts, but it’s entirely possible there were also some pecans mixed in. The nuts at my house fraternize.)

1 ½ tsp. cinnamon

1 bag bittersweet chocolate chips

The batter is thick and will fight with you as you try to spread it in the pan. But fight on, and you will be victorious!

On a related note: This past weekend, we saw the movie, Brooklyn, which is about a young Irish woman immigrant who is caught between her new life in Brooklyn and her old life in Ireland in the 1950s. My husband and I both enjoyed it very much. Also, she, the Irish immigrant, learns to eat spaghetti with her Italian-American boyfriend. So you see, there is a connection to this post!



41 thoughts on “Feast of the Immigrant

  1. All the food and talk of food has my tummy rumbling (I haven’t had breakfast yet). Such lovely memories brought forward for a birthday celebration. And yes, dressing someone is often funny. 🙂

    I love your poetry. It flows and carries me along with it.

  2. I too love your poetic musings. They flow so smoothly and carry me right along with you. I envy you your poignant memories. AND your chocolate chip coffee cake. Now, there’s a distant memory I can relate to. Lovely.

    • Thank you so much, Janet! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
      I had never made that cake before, so I’m glad it turned out to be so delicious–but how could a sour cream coffee cake with chocolate chips not be? 🙂

  3. This lovely poem brought back some memories for me – my grandfather was a Ukrainian immigrant who arrived in 1909, when he was 27, and my grandmother followed him in 1910. It didn’t take my husband long to love my aunts’ cooking, either. My grandmother died before I was born and my grandfather died when I was in third grade, so I never had a chance to ask them about the things I think of now…

    • Thank you for your comment, Barbara. I’m glad my post brought back memories, but sorry you didn’t get to ask your grandparents the questions you’ve thought of as an adult. Both of my grandmothers died when I was young, so I really didn’t know them, but my grandfathers lived into their 90s. Unfortunately, I never thought to ask the things I think of now either.

  4. The lyrical, short lines you have adapted recently make your stories easy to “stomach.” My Mennonite father too wore a hat, a felt Fedora like most men in the 1940s and 50s. I thought it was funny that your mom discovered only after she was married “that the people she sometimes visited with her father were the relatives of his first wife who died soon after they were married.”

    Having been to Kiev, I can picture the heritage of your forefathers/mothers, who derive from a land that loves the visual arts and literature and good food. I’m sure you’ll have another poignant story of Thanksgiving this week with family, probably including some antics!

    • Cute pun, Marian! 🙂
      Of course your father wore a hat, and you have taught me much about women’s hair coverings in your posts that I did not know anything about. I don’t remember my father wearing hats–or my mother, for that matter.
      It is so funny that my mom never even thought to ask who the supposed relatives were.
      As far as Kiev, I’ve seen photos of beautiful buildings there, but I doubt that my ancestors experienced much of it. There were many restrictions placed on Jews.

      You know me well, Marian. I’m sure there will be “antics” aplenty this week! 🙂

  5. As your grandfather couldn’t have known where he’d be and what he’d be doing with his grandchildren so many years after arriving. What his grandchildren sis was a world away from their grandfathers experiences at that age.It’s good that the knowledge is shared.
    xxx Massive Hugs Merril xxx

  6. Thanks for this lovely piece of history Merril, strangely fitting at this particular time when we remember our forefathers and their courageous travels to distant lands for a better life. A peek into your life is always delightful thank you again – and that recipe? Oy vey – I reckon I could fight with making it.

    Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  7. I didn’t have time to comment before, but wanted to come back and tell you that hubby’s dad’s family came from Kiev and also from Tiraspol, Moldova. We imagined the latter was very close to the former, but it’s not!! Younger generations know so little of what went on “before.” Happy Thanksgiving, Merril! (I wanted to cry at the coffee cake, gluten free over here as we are sigh).

  8. So much to love here! The broken wedding bed, the food, the long view of so many of the issues in the news today.

    Thankful for you, Merril. Your thirst for wisdom makes me hungry for more also.

  9. Love this. And somewhere, in an article I tore out about the lost fish of Yiddish America, there will be something that might be a lead to your “yum yum fish.” Must somehow effectively bookmark this so I can come back and tell you what I discover when I find that piece of paper.

    • Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment. Yes, please let me know what you find. We think it could be smoked sable, but it’s hard to say with my grandfather and others now gone.

  10. OK, I found the article. I think I am going to write about it sometime soon so I will try to remember to tag you in somehow. Wondering if your grandfather’s fish was “Butterfish” or “Russian White Lox” (Bellaribbitzer) ?

  11. Your Mom’s Sunday dish for brunch is so beautiful. Your memories of food, certain dishes and places evoke a time and place that I wish could be recaptured. Thank you for sharing, Merril. 😉

    P.S. I wish you had a photo of your grandfather.

  12. Pingback: “The Ones that Got Away: A Field Guide to Rare and Extinct Varieties of Jewish Fish” | Kitchen Counter Culture

  13. Hi Merrild, came here via Kitchen-Counter-Culture, and really enjoyed your poem. So many stories my mum and her relatives told that I only half-listened to and should have asked more about. And now it’s too late. But the food memories endure. Thanks again, Deborah

  14. Pingback: Safe Harbor: Haibun | Yesterday and today: Merril's historical musings

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