The revelations began with a peek into the soup pot, which Ruth Knelman nudged open with a bare hand knuckled by arthritis.
"You can't touch that hot lid," blurted Ruth Cély of Apple Valley, before realizing that Knelman hadn't flinched. What the cooking students didn't yet know was that Knelman trusted her instincts. What Knelman didn't yet know is whether they would catch on to her.
Then Cély glimpsed the simmering chicken. "That's the size of a small turkey," she said. Using a buxom roasting hen -- "not those stringy little fryers" -- was only the first of the revelations that Knelman would share in the kitchen of Temple Israel. Some were even about cooking.
A 102-year-old woman, especially one wearing tennis shoes with glitter paint starbursts, knows a lot of things.
She knows that it's not worth stressing over most of what life dishes out.
She knows that patience is one of the most valuable qualities we can possess.
She knows that it's not good to be so busy all the time.
She knows that it's a gift to be able to say, "I never get bored, even if I'm alone."
On a recent morning, Knelman was teaching a half-dozen women how to make chicken soup with matzoh balls, one of a series of classes she teaches about traditional Jewish cuisine, from a good brisket to noodle kugel.
"I just like cooking," she said, eyeballing the bunches of parsley and dill, then leveled her gaze. "No, I love cooking."
"How could we not tap her for something as personal as food?" said Liz Mack, membership director at the Minneapolis temple. "She's the perfect person for what we call radical hospitality," or going over and above to create a welcoming culture. "She draws people to her. You can't not get caught up in what she says."
Attribute part of that attention to Knelman's age. Before she was 15, the Titanic had been both built and sunk, and World War I begun and ended. The tallest structure in the world was the Eiffel Tower. F. Scott Fitzgerald was just publishing "The Great Gatsby." In a Twittering world, her longevity gives pause.
Learn to trust your instincts
Surrounded by her students, the petite cook with a cap of silver hair looked like the smallest of those Russian nesting dolls -- something her own parents, Russian immigrants in New York, might have owned. In 1953 Knelman and her husband moved to Minneapolis, where she began volunteering at Temple Israel. Twenty-five years ago, she began working in its Early Childhood Center, which led to her cooking classes for young parents seeking economical ways to feed their families.
They also needed advice on preparing the food of their culture. As Joani Reichert of Eden Prairie observed, "Jewish people don't really have recipes. It's 'a little bit of this,' or 'a little bit of that.'"
Knelman's recipes proved no exception, taking the women back to a time long before Manischewitz started marketing boxes of matzoh ball mix.
For instance: Drop a whole yellow onion, unskinned, alongside the simmering chicken. "The onion skin gives the soup some color," she said.
And: Add a tablespoon of sugar to the broth. "It brings out the flavor."
Both directives met with initial doubt ("You don't peel the onion?" "Sugar?"), but were accepted. Then Knelman offhandedly told them to season "to taste," dribbling the salt from the box into the palm of her hand, and then adding a few additional shakes directly into the soup.
How much was that? How do you know? What is that in tablespoons? That much salt, really?
Knelman shrugged ever so slightly, smiled and replaced the pot lid. "After an hour, we'll taste it again and see."
In other words, these things take time. Let the flavors unfold.
As Knelman began her tutorial on matzoh balls, it became even clearer that the answers weren't in the recipe, but in her insistence that the women trust their instincts about whipping, folding and texture -- as well as her utter faith that everyone possessed such instincts.
In her passion to instill confidence, the true value of the class was revealed.
Deftly, she cracked each egg, sliding the yolks onto her fingers and letting the whites drop into a bowl. "Who wants to try this?" she asked, getting no takers. Then she began whipping the whites with her own handheld mixer (60 years old, bought with Green Stamps).
Again, she asked, "Who wants to try this?" As Rikki Brower of Plymouth edged forward, it was as if the ice along the edge of some ancient Russian river began to crack.
Soon the women were sprinkling matzoh meal onto the whipped whites as Knelman gently, gently, folded the batter. "This takes time," she said, and they caught on. They began forming the matzoh balls, mirroring Knelman's gentle, gentle, touch. "Don't squeeze so hard," she said, and they caught on.
Before long, everyone had an opinion about whether the soup needed more salt, if the carrots were done, how big the pieces of chicken should remain as they pulled the meat from the bones.
'I try to be happy'
Emboldened, Knelman's students wanted to know even more, not so much about food, as about how you get to be 102.
Does she exercise? "No way!" Knelman practically spat. "I hate it," although allowed that she stands a lot.
She doesn't drink much water, but is fond of coffee and Scotch.
How much sleep does she need? "I go to bed about 1 a.m., and get up by 5." The room sagged. "You make me feel like I should never sleep again," Cély said.
Then Knelman elaborated. It's not that she stays so busy, beyond playing in a couple of bridge clubs, as that she doesn't stress out over what she can't control. "Stress can be terrible on a body," she said. "You have to have patience. I try to be happy."
Then someone mentioned that Knelman would go from this class over to the childhood center for a bit, before heading home to prepare for a dinner party she was hosting that evening.
Clearly, if there was a tough old bird anywhere in this kitchen, she was standing on two legs, in tennis shoes with glitter paint starbursts.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185