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Expressions of love at the heart of Nana's kitchen

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THE PREPARATION of special meals for special occasions has long been an expression of love in traditional Southern households. For Portsmouth native Amy Ostrower, the carefully precise rituals of holiday cooking were recipes for life.

Ostrower, who grew up in the Churchland section, now lives in Los Angeles, where she writes screenplays. She has also written a new book, Nana Lenas Kitchen: Lessons for Life, dedicated to the woman who instilled in her a love of cooking and a deep sense of family and belonging.

Nana Lena was Ostrowers grandmother, Lena Goodman Herzberg, who passed away in 2000. As part of what once was a thriving Jewish community in the Berkley section of Norfolk, she saw cooking as an act of love and passed this on to her granddaughter, Ostrower said. Whether creating a noodle kugel for a neighbor mourning the death of a loved one, or gefilte fish for a Passover table, each recipe had a story or pearl of wisdom associated with it.

Cooking was never a solitary activity, but rather a chance for the women in Ostrowers family to come together and create something special.

One of my favorite places to be as a child was in the kitchen with my grandmother, said Ostrower, who was in town recently for a book signing. Cooking was a family activity for her. Most of the recipes in the book look like they take a lot of work, but when there were lots of people helping, it didnt seem like work.

This is what Ostrower said she wanted to capture.

Holiday meals and family celebrations usually included as many as 40 or 50 people. As part of a large Jewish family, there were many important traditions, but these traditions were flavored with many accents.

My grandmother spoke Yiddish with a Southern twang, Ostrower laughed. Everyone in town knew her and she knew everyones name. She was definitely a Southern lady.

This lady is portrayed vibrantly in the book. Each recipe is preceded by one of Nana Lenas stories - each one full of insight, humor and family history. Ostrower said there was usually a specific story that went with a certain recipe, which added richness to the cooking tradition she shared with her grandmother. This is what sparked her interest in writing the book.

There was a natural affinity with the story whenever I made the recipe. She was a great cook and a great storyteller.

Although the recipes in Nana Lenas Kitchen are directions for traditional Jewish fare, Ostrower said she hopes the essence of the food and the message of family unity will have universal appeal.

I hope people will come away with a greater understanding that were all the same. We might have slightly different flavors, but families are families.

Ostrower said she wrote the book as a way to deal with her grief in the wake of her grandmothers death. The process brought her a great deal of joy as she recalled four generations of women working together in the kitchen, all under the direction of Nana Lena. She was an amazing teacher, and I think the things I learned in her kitchen will last a lifetime. Ill never forget her.


Reach April Phillips at

(C) 2005 The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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