Last week, Norene Gilletz the editor and force behind the iconic 1968 Jewish cookbook Second Helpings, Please! died in hospital in Montreal after a long illness. Gilletz was 79 years old. Some have called her the Julia Child of kosher cuisine, others have said she’s a Canadian-Jewish Martha Stewart. She leaves behind tens of thousands of fans who call themselves “Noreners,” a good bibliography of other cookbooks, a kosher prepared food company called Gourmania and a rollicking podcast begun in 2018, when she was 77 years old.
But most directly, for many who grew up around Canadian Jewish kitchens from the late 1960s onwards – all of which seemed to have a copy of Second Helpings, Please!, now in its 17th printing – Gilletz also leaves the recipe for Tangy Sweet & Sour Meatballs.
Gilletz’s Tangy Sweet & Sour Meatball is not the O.G. of Jewish sweet and sour meatballs. The true original is something that would have arrived in North America off a boat from Galicia in the 19th century. Nor is its recipe to be confused with the book’s recipe for Sweet & Sour Meatballs #1 or Sweet & Sour Meatballs #2 or Passover Sweet & Sour Meatballs, or its recipe for Chinese Meatballs (basically sweet & sour meatballs), Steamed Meatballs, Meat Ball Stew or Meat Ball Casserole.
Those are all fine, but it’s the Tangy Sweet & Sour Meatball that has achieved some kind of continuing, intergenerational virality for Ashkenazic Canadian Jews. And if you are eating this die-hard food – this ball of beef as sweet as candy – you know exactly where you are: At a festive table, with a dish of pickles in the middle, a family around it, most probably including one elder member with big opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one younger member who brought their own vegan nut loaf (and might walk off due to said elder’s opinions) and at least two people with their top pant buttons undone, asking what’s coming for dessert. You are in a Jewish home where probably the great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents came from Eastern Europe and it is a holiday.
Gilletz was born in Winnipeg in 1940. At 19, she moved to Montreal, where she raised her family. It was in Montreal that she began Second Helpings Please! as a fundraising project with other women from the Mount Sinai #1091 chapter of the Eastern Canadian wing of the service organization B’nai Brith Women.
It was the mid-1960s. None of these volunteers expected to create a cookbook that would sell more than 200,000 copies and flavour a million bar mitzvah buffets. The idea was humble – to make a book of traditional Jewish recipes, redesigned with simplicity and convenience in mind. Gilletz and her friends knew women in their era would not cook as their mothers did. They would not fry chicken feet or shred cow’s tongues or particularly want to stuff intestinal derma. But in Bubby’s recipe box, there was also bean and barley soup and kugel and brisket and sponge cake and all the holiday foods, and these recipes could be updated for a new age.
The age of supermarkets, of colour TVs, of modern conveniences. Out went the fresh tomatoes and beans and mushrooms, and in came canned everything. Ketchup became a major ingredient, as did ginger ale, soup mixes, tinned pineapple chunks, condensed milk, “Italian seasoning,” Thousand Island dressing and other ingredients ready for anything, be it Passover or nuclear lockdown.
Second Helpings, Please! is in so many ways a product of its time. There is a vegetable aspic made with lime Jell-O (I made it: It’s crazy!), there are mock blintzes made with fried soda crackers, and something called Lazy Lady’s Borscht. There is also a great shift captured, in measured cups and pinches of salt, where Judaism plays out not in the study house but in the domestic realm of the home; where the assimilationist suburbs replace the dense inner city, where religion tries to exist as “Jewishness,” not the fabric of one’s entire being, but a culture that might stud the year in the form of holidays, attitudes, cherry-picked traditions and, more than almost anything else, food.
So now, ask any non-observant Jew what it means to be Jewish and it won’t take a minute before you get to latkes for Hanukkah, matzoh balls for Passover and brisket for the Jewish new year. And in Canada, it won’t take long to get to Norene Gilletz. In this way, Gilletz has proved more resilient than any synagogue or organization in an increasingly secular and intermarried age. My step-grandmother made the Tangy Sweet & Sour Meatballs from Second Helpings, Please!, and on occasion my mother did too. My aunt Sybil made them and so did my aunt Lilia. My best friend’s mother makes them, my friend Rebecca in Toronto knows how to make them, I know a single dad in his thirties who has made them and when my children were babies, their Manila-born nanny came into the job knowing how to make them already, from the previous Jewish family she worked for, and the one before that.
Last night, using my late grandmother’s splattered Gilletz, I made them too and my house in Montreal smelled like a home during the holidays. The sauce has two ingredients only, and they are not at all classy: a can of ginger ale and a cup and a half of ketchup. You don’t brown the balls either. You just drop them into the sauce and simmer the lot for two hours. It sounds dire, but the result is anything but. And if you don’t believe me, try it yourself, and if you can quiet down your inner food snob, I bet you do have second helpings.
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