Before there was a Mason-Dixon Line or a Maginot Line there was a Gefilte Fish Line. It is farther east and north than the other two but as important, at least to culinary historians.
Without the Gefilte Fish Line it would be almost impossible to explain why there is such unresolvable controversy when the child of a Russian Jew marries the child of a Polish Jew. Not only do the Russian and Polish Jews speak different Yiddish dialects (always the subject of much disparaging merriment), they also cook differently.
If you were to draw a line down from the Baltic Sea to Hungary, you would separate the sweet gefilte fish crowd from the peppery. Thus the Gefilte Fish Line. That line also separates sweetened from savory cooking.
One of the most famous examples of this difference is noodle pudding or luchen kugel. The Polish side makes sweet kugels, pronounced keegel; the Russian side makes savory kugels pronounced kogel with a short "o." Ingredients common to both are egg noodles and cottage cheese. After that it's everyone for her (him) self: sour cream, butter, cream cheese, sugar, honey, raisins, nuts, etc., and so forth. Some form of this pasta and cheese dish has been around since the Middle Ages.
Two current events make the kugel controversy significant at the moment: The arrival of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which begins next Friday night, when kugel is often served, and the results of a noodle pudding contest in the current issue of Jewish Living magazine.
The first prize winner in the kugeloff was a local resident, Ellen Epstein. Second place went to her sister, Eleanor Siegel of San Antonio. With one exception, all the prize-winning recipes were sweet. (The one savory kugel had so many vegetables in it, some would say it doesn't qualify as a kugel.) Even the one called "Diet Kugel," a contradiction in terms, contains sugar, raisins and orange mandarin yogurt.
Having been brought up in a household where kugels contained no sweetening of any kind, the judge's choices were distressing to me at first. It seemed as though kugel, like almost everything else in this country, had gone sweet. After consulting half a dozen Jewish cookbooks, some of them more than 40 years old, and finding only one savory kugel, it seemed another explanation was in order.
Washington has a number of Jewish culinary experts, including Phyllis Frucht, owner of the cookware shop and cooking school, What's Cooking, and editor of "The Best of Jewish Cooking." Frucht offered a reason but not an explanation: "My mother never made a sweet kugel in her life; my mother was from Russia. My mother-in-law made sweet kugels; she was from Poland."
Patti Shosteck, who writes a food column for a local newspaper, Jewish Week, had some hard facts, as hard as such facts are likely to be.
The first kugel recipes, she said, were Italian and they weren't called kugel they were called lasagna. Layered kugels were known in Italy and areas that bordered on the northern part of the country, areas which were centers of Jewish population.
Jewish people had a noodle dish called fluden, she explained, which is mentioned frequently in the Rabbinic literature of the Middle Ages.
What the words fluden and kugel have to do with each other is not clear. Shosteck said even though "the stymology of the word fluden is different (from kugel) the dish is the same, pasta and cheese, usually sweet. There are references to it going back to the 11th century."
Shosteck should know. Her book, "A Lexicon of Jewish Cooking" will be published by Contemporary Books in October.
Having imparted that much information Shosteck pressed on: "The Eastern European version of fluden is kugel; the word is Slavic and it refers to pudding, not necessarily of noodles (that's the luchen part).
"Russian Jews tended to make sour or savory foods using schmaltz (chicken fat), onions, garlic and meat and mixing it with noodles. Polish Jews tended to sweeten their food a lot. This is true," Shosteck said, "not only of kugel but also of gefilte fish, borscht, etc. In general, Russian cooking tends to be more sour," she said.
Shosteck believes this difference has to do with the spread of Hassidism, a mystical religious cult which brought joy into the trying lives of the Jews in the ghettos.
At this point Shosteck's theory becomes conjecture: "I think it has to do with the Hassidic influence in Poland and their intensely close interpretation of the Bible with so many references to Israel as the land of milk and honey.
"The Jews of Poland were isolated from the Jews of Russia because of the politics of the two countries."
Joan Nathan, a frequent contributor to The Post's Food Section, agrees with Shosteck, but carries the theory one step further. Nathan, whose book, "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen" will be published in November by Shocken, believes the difference in cooking "had more to do with economics than anything else." Nathan conjectures that sugar was not as important to Russian Jews because "some Russian Jews were better off" than those living in Poland, "like those from the Ukraine" where food was plentiful and sugar was not a special treat.
Jewish Living, the magazine that started all this, shed no light on the question at all.
"Among the many legends of the original kugel," it wrote, "two best represent the opposing view of this archetypal Jewish dish. One story, propounded by Cabalistic kugelphiles, is that the original kugel was created at the very beginning of the world and given to mankind as a symbol of the harmony and concord-the stiff rendered pliant, the many brought together in a unified whole. Enemies of the kugel, on the other hand, allege that it was developed by the Kosher Nostra as a Jewish equivalent of the cement overcoat."
Instead of resolving the controversy the magazine's contest only served to heighten it. Said one Jewish culinary historian, after reading the winning recipe: "It's an extravaganza of dairy products. It's not even kugel at all."
That's her opinion.
If it was good enough to win first prize in the contest, it is worthy of reprinting. In addition, Exciting Noodle Kugel from Joan Nathan's book is included. It is Nathan's mother's recipe.
And this is my mother's recipe. If your roots are from the eastern side of the gefilte fish line, you'll love it.
DOT'S NOODLE PUDDING (12 servings) 1 pound broad egg noodles 1 pint sour cream 1 pound cottage cheese 1 cup milk Salt to taste 6 tablespoons melted butter Crushed cornflakes Additional butter
Cook the noodles according to package directions. Drain and rinse with cold water. Mix the noodles with sour cream, cottage cheese, milk, salt to taste and melted butter. Place in greased casserole and sprinkle with crushed cornflakes. Dot with butter. Bake at 375 degrees for 1 1/2 hours.
May be prepared ahead and refrigerated, baked just before serving.
ELLEN EPSTEIN'S NOODLE KUGEL 1/2 pound medium-sized noodles, cooked in salt water and drained. 1/8 pound melted butter 1/2 cup sugar (scant) 1 cup sour cream 2 cups milk 1 pound cottage cheese 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 pound farmer's cheese 1/2 pound cream cheese 6 beaten eggs
Mix all the ingredients together and stir in the noodles. Pour into a 9-by-13-inch buttered casserole dish.
Topping: 1/2 cup brown sugar 1/2 cup slivered almonds 2 tablespoons melted butter
Combine and spread on noodles. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 1/2 hours.
ELEANOR SIEGAL'S FRUIT NOODLE KUGEL 1 package (16 ounces) broad egg noodles 3/4 cup sugar 2 eggs, slightly beaten 1/2 to 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 pound margarine 2 grated winesap apples 2 grated pears 1/2 cup orange juice Juice of 1/2 lemon White raisins, 1/2 to 1 cup as desired
Cook noodles in boiling salted water 25 to 30 minutes. Strain and rinse with cold water.
Add margarine to noodles and mix till melted.
Add sugar, eggs, cinnamon, fruits, juices, and raisins. Mix gently.
Pour into greased 9-by-13-by-2-inch pyrex dish. Bake at 325 degrees for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, depending upon degree of crustiness desired. Serve warm or cold.
EXCITING NOODLE KUGEL (4 to 6 servings)
When my mother was must about my age, she edited Regard thy Table, put out by the Larchmont, N.Y., temple. One of her favorite recipes in this charming book is Exciting Noodles, basically a tart noodle kugel with onions and sour cream. It can be prepared in advance and served for Friday or Saturday dinner if you are having a fish or vegetarian meal. 8 ounces medium-wide noodles 1 cup uncreamed cottage or pot cheese 1 clove garlic, chopped 1 cup sour cream 1 onion, finely minced Salt to taste Dash of hot pepper sauce 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce Grated parmesan cheese Sour cream
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook noodles until tender. Drain and combine with the cottage or pot cheese, garlic, sour cream, onion, salt, hot pepper sauce and Worcestershire sauce.
Butter the inside of a 1 1/2-quart casserole and insert the mixture. Bake until brown and crusty on top. Serve with grated parmesan cheese and additional sour cream. From "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen" by Joan Nathan