Listen up, all you non-Ashkenazi Jews out there. I’m going to teach you a useful Yiddish word, just in time for Thanksgiving.
That word is “potchke,” which can also be spelled “patchke” or “potschke.” It is pronounced POTCH-kee.
It means to fuss or bother. Originally it meant “in an ineffectual or ineffective way” like when you say, “I spent all day potchke-ing around and didn’t get anything done,” or “Stop potche-ing, let’s go already.”
But lately it’s come to mean to make a big production out of something, or to do something that involves a lot of fuss and bother. I often dismiss difficult or involved recipes I come across because they’re “too much of a potchke.”
I bring this up now because I associate the word with a memorable Thanksgiving we spent with friends more than 35 years ago, before any of my children were born. It was at this Thanksgiving dinner where we first ate spinach kugel, the recipe I offer below. “Kugel” means “pudding”; it’s really a kind of firm casserole that you cut into squares to eat.
This is not a traditional Thanksgiving dish, and I don’t think I have eaten it at Thanksgiving dinner since then, but it is delicious and easy to make. It’s been in my repertoire since that day long ago, and I’ve shared it with many friends who also make it often. So if you’re looking for something a little different for Thanksgiving dinner this year, this could be it.
She knew how to potchke!
On that Thanksgiving many years ago we went to stay with friends who had recently moved from Detroit back to their original hometown of Chicago. I’ll call them Henry and Diane to protect the innocent.
Thanksgiving dinner was to be at the home of Henry’s brother and his wife, Richard and Donna–also not their real names. Henry and Richard’s parents were also there.
As Donna, who was about eight months pregnant, finished up the turkey and trimmings, she invited us into the basement rec room for hors d’oeuvres. They came in the form of a pu pu platter, something popular in Chinese and Polynesian restaurants in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a large tray of appetizers, like mini-eggrolls and wontons, complete with a volcano-shaped mini-charcoal grill that we could use to toast the tidbits. We were goggle-eyed with admiration.
Then Donna decided their dog, a huge, rambunctious German shepherd mix, deserved a holiday treat too. She took out a gigantic chargrilled bone that must have once been the thigh of some unfortunate steer. The overjoyed mutt dragged it around the gold-colored carpet of the living-dining room, spreading the char from the grilled bone all over the rug.
As we hovered around the table, preparing to take our seats, Donna got out the rug shampoo machine to clean the carpet.
The defining comment on the dinner came from Henry’s mother. “Boy,” she said, “Donna really potchkes.” Afraid that she might be insulting her daughter-in-law, our hostess, she added. “Diane potchkes too. But Donna POTCHKES!”
Although we haven’t seen Henry and Diane in more than 30 years, I think of that story every Thanksgiving.
I wish you all a happy holiday. Enjoy your family, enjoy your food–and don’t potchke!
(This recipe calls for Coffee Rich, a non-dairy creamer, so that people who observe the Jewish dietary laws can eat it with meat meals where no dairy foods are permitted. If you have no such concerns, you can use milk–or even half-and-half if you want a richer dish. I actually prefer to make it with water. You can also use butter instead of margarine.)