Cholent n. choh’lant an eastern Eureakean stew, typically containing a mixture of beans, grains, lentils, potatoes and beef cooked on a low heat for a long period of time. Other ingredients are optional, and in the case of some remote areas of Pudlin, they are shrouded in mystery.
Feivel Zunderbar, my grandfather, or ‘Zaideh’, as we call him, came from a remote area of Pudlin, from an obscure village called Lockshin, which no one has ever seen on a map. Lockshin was two miles from Kugel, its only neighboring village. Both villages were named after their patriarchs, who were also indirectly responsible for the hostility that had always existed between the two towns. The story goes that Reb Lockshin had a daughter, and Reb Kugel had a son. Both Rabbis agreed that the two should marry, but Lockshin’s daughter, Shopsy, refused, on the grounds that Kugel’s son, Yossele, was a good-for-nothing, thereby preventing the much anticipated Lockshin-Kugel wedding. Shopsy then ran off with a traveling cured-meats salesman, named Ivan Deli, a scandalous move that humiliated both families and created a rift between the two villages.
Still, over the years, the rift had somewhat subsided, and being so close to each other, there was a certain amount of intermingling between the villages. So it came to pass that my Zaideh Feivel’s maternal grandmother lived in Kugel, whereas his own family lived in Lockshin. Feivel was very close to his Bubbie (grandmother) and visited her every Shabbos morning after shul. Bubbie waited all week for the moment when she would smush Feivel, pat his head and then give him the legendary cholent pot to take back to his family for Shabbos lunch.
One particularly cold Shabbos, in the middle of winter, Feivel prepared to set off in his heavy coat and wool hat for the usual visit with his Bubbie. His mother was concerned because the temperature was dropping, but Feivel insisted on making the trip, saying, “Bubbie will be worried if I don’t show up.”
Thus determined, Feivel crossed the frostbitten fields between the villages. On his left was the Fershluggener Forest, a giant dense black-wood that was forbidden for children, and on his right were the Gezundheit Mountains with their sheer peaks, which were forbidden for everybody. The rabbis of the villages ruled that these two natural obstacles created an eruv, or boundary, which allowed carrying between the villages on Shabbat, otherwise forbidden according to Jewish Law.
As Feivel reached the edge of Kugel, he noticed that it was beginning to snow.
“I’d better get back soon,” he said to himself.
“Oy, Feivel, it’s so good to see you!” shrieked Feivel’s Bubbie. “But you’re not dressed warm enough for the cold. You should never have come in this weather. Why don’t you ever call? Is there someone new in your life? You look like you don’t eat enough,” she continued in typical Bubbie fashion, before he could respond.
“Bubbie, it’s fine. I’m fine. Everyone’s fine. I’m not even 10 and you want me to find a Shidduch. How are you?”
“How am I? What does it matter? I get by. Here, let me give you the cholent, Feivele,” she said as she shmushed his cheeks and patted his head.
She shuffled off to the kitchen, humming to herself. Feivel noticed a letter on the lamp table. It was addressed to a certain Colonel Krumplefrumple.
Bubbie returned with the cholent in a largish pot and carefully put it in Feivel’s mittened hands.
The cholent was extremely hot.
“Be careful not to burn yourself, Feivele,” she said. “Wait,” she continued, “it’s freezing out there, let me get you a scarf.”
“It’s alright, Bubbie. It’s not so far. I’ll be okay.”
“Well it won’t be on my conscience if you catch a cold. Tell your mother she should call more often.”
“There are no phones in either village, Bubbie.”
“Right. Well tell her in any case. I love you, Feivele. Zei gezunt!” she said, sending him off with a wish for good health.
Feivel was met with a blast of cold wind as he left his Bubbie’s house. Was it even colder than before? Impossible. Still, he pushed his nose under the collar of his coat and breathed out some air, warming his face. As he made his way into the fields, he noticed that it had begun to snow quite hard. Already, his boots made imprints in the steadily rising blanket of white. The icy wind howled a shrill song. The snow flurried about his small body. Feivel clutched the steaming cholent pot and pushed on, finding it harder and harder to tread through the snow. Not yet half way, he was gradually slowing down. His face was freezing over! It was at this point that he realized he might not make it. To die of cold between Lockshin and Kugel — what could be worse! He shed a tear at the thought, but it froze on his cheek. At last, Feivel’s slow steps came to a halt. He could no longer move forward. This was the end.
Or was it? Feivel’s mind raced, thinking of something, anything that could save him from the cold death that was moments away. Suddenly he had it! The cholent! Without a thought, and with his last strength, he ripped off the top of the steaming vessel and raised the pot over his head, tipping violently. The contents sloshed over him, covering his entire face with mushy, hot liquid. The action saved him from the immediate danger of frostbite, but something terrible began to happen. The specific chemical content of the cholent, which included obscure ingredients, was working a strange reaction on Feivel’s face. Potato and bean bonded with skin, meat pieces merged with eyebrow, the twitching muscles distorting Feivel’s face into a hideous visage, transforming him into —
CHOLENT FACE BOY!
Feivel’s brothers, Srulick and Shmulick, were having a snowball fight outside their house. Srulick had just been hit with a really wet slushball. He was about to retaliate, when the boys were met with a grotesque sight. A monster was staggering into the yard. Dripping fat and grease, Cholent Face Boy made for the two, waving his hand in a sign of greeting.
The gesture was misinterpreted by the boys, and yelping, they dashed into the house.
CFB (Cholent Face Boy) knocked on the door. Moments later, it opened. It was his mother.
“Hi Mom, I’m back from Bubbie’s. She sends her love. Why is everyone running away from me?” asked CFB.
But all Feivel’s mom heard was, “Gaf Bubble, angle babble Bubber. Sheeze herlow. Whaggawon wundlay frommog!?”
“Aaaaaaaaaah!” Feivel’s Mom shrieked and slammed the door in his face.
CFB couldn’t believe it. His own mother had rejected him. Choked with grief, he felt like crying, but only a lone cooked lentil slid from his cheek. He made his way into the street where townspeople fled from his approach, screaming.
Finally, homeless and hopeless, CFB went back to the fields from whence he came. He sat down in a pool of grease, the Fershluggener Forest at his left. In his sorrow, he thought about better days, when he was a normal boy and not just some Shabbos lunch disaster.
Suddenly a low moaning sound could be heard from the wood.
“Oooooh, ooooooooh, oooooooooooooh.”
There was nothing else to be done, so CFB rose and made for the sound. As he entered the dense trees, he heard the moaning getting louder. Soon, in the distance, CFB perceived a tall figure. Approaching the Thing, CFB cried out, “Hello! Who are you?”
The moaning ceased abruptly. The figure turned toward CFB. CFB gasped and jumped back. The beast was made entirely of Cholent!
“I am the Cholent Goon,” it said. “And you,” it continued, “are Cholent Face Boy. Do you know what that makes us?”
“Lunch buddies?” said CFB, hopefully.
“No. It makes us rejects, boogie men. We will never be wanted, except as scapegoats.”
The Cholent Goon looked sad. Giant pieces of bloated barley and split peas fell from his shoulders.
“It is too late for me. I was once a child like you. I accidentally slipped into a vat of Cholent made for an army contingent. And look at me now — I’m hideous! But for you there is still time. Listen, Cholent Face Boy! You must go to the Gezundheit Mountains. On the tallest peak lies a small hut. There lives the Gevalt. Go there! She is your only hope to become a real boy again. But you must get there before the end of Shabbos!”
CFB digested the news. He looked up at the Goon.
“Thank you very much, Goon. I’ll do what you said. But is there anything that I can do for you?”
The Goon looked reflective. Beef creased on his forehead. He bent down and whispered something into CFB’s ear — something very important and very secret, something so secret and special that my grandfather would never reveal it to us. I often wondered what the Goon had said that was so important, and one day I came upon the answer. Can you think what it was?
Soon CFB was out of the Fershluggener Forest, across the fields and on his way up the Gezuntheit Mountains. The cold winds didn’t bother him at all. The treacherous passes snaked their way up to great white peaks. CFB lifted his gaze to the summit of the highest mountain, where he could just make out a small black dot. The journey took hours. By the time he had reached the small hut, it was late in the afternoon. He looked back at the red disc of the sun, which was edging closer and closer to the horizon. There wasn’t much time left.
The hut was made of neatly cut logs. A thin line of smoke rose from its chimney.
CFB boldly knocked on the door. It was opened by a tiny wizened wisp of a woman.
“Oy vey’s mear! What have we here? A boy with the face of cholent!”
“Are you the Gevalt?” asked CFB.
“No, I’m the other oldest woman who lives in the middle of nowhere. The Gevalt is the next summit over. Of course I’m the Gevalt! And are you lucky to be here. Come on in. Oy oy oy!”
Our hero followed his quirky host into her living room. There, his eyes drifted over an enormous conglomeration of pots and pans from different places and times. They covered the floor and hung from the walls and ceiling. The Gevalt was obviously some kind of a collector.
“Oy Gevalt. Watch that you don’t trip on that precious thing. It’s a Spashatravius 76, a real prize,” she said, indicating a dainty little wok as they crossed the room.
The Gevalt opened a small door beside the fireplace, motioning for CFB to follow her. CFB hunched over and managed to fit through. They were now walking down a spiral set of stairs. Darkness enveloped them. CFB could hear the Gevalt muttering a few feet ahead of him. A strange aroma reached his nose as they continued down, down. After what seemed an eternity, they finally reached the bottom. The smell was overpowering, but CFB couldn’t place it. In the distance, CFB perceived a faint red glow.
“Come with me, we’re almost there, boychick.”
Walking with his head bent so as not to hit the ceiling, CFB followed the Gevalt down a low stone hallway, which suddenly opened up into a large cavernous chamber. This part of the house was obviously cut out of the mountain itself. In the center of the chamber there was a huge steaming pot. Beneath it were red-hot coals.
“What is it?” asked CFB.
“This,” said the Gevalt, “is all the things that people never put in cholent, oy, oy, oy: pineapple, cereal, jam, chocolate, sardines, peanuts, cherries, bubble gum, brussels sprouts… What you are looking at, my friend, is 100% pure Anti-Cholent!”
“And I expect you want me to jump into it,” said CFB, skeptically.
“No, ho, ho, ho!” laughed the Gevalt. “That would be too easy. I want you to eat it!”
“Oy gevalt,” said CFB.
“Exactly,” said the Gevalt.
CFB nonchalantly edged closer to the pot of Anti-Cholent. He peaked inside. The Anti-Cholent didn’t look very good. He took a delicate sniff. It didn’t smell very good either. All the things that are not put into Cholent don’t necessarily go well together. That is why Anti-Cholent is not a very popular dish. Still, CFB had to put taste aside if he wanted to be a boy again.
The Gevalt handed him a large spoon. Gently, he dipped it into the mixture and put it to his mouth. He took a tiny nibble. It was awful. I will spare the reader the next twenty minutes of torture. After they were over, the pot was empty, and an unconscious child lay on the floor beside the Gevalt. The Anti-Cholent molecules had neutralized the Cholent molecules in Feivel’s face and he was a boy once more!
The Gevalt revived Feivel with some very strong horseradish.
“Oy vey’s mear, “ she said. “You look weak. How about some of my Anti Gefilte Fish?”
“No thanks, Gevalt,” Feivel said hurriedly. “I think I’d better get back to my family.”
And he did.
There’s just one thing in my grandfather’s story that doesn’t make sense. It’s the part where Srulick gets hit with a wet slushball. If the temperature was so low, enough to endanger Feivel’s life, the snow would be powdery, not slushy. But other than that I’d say it’s a believable story. Wouldn’t you?