Simmering the Stories

Monday Morning Musings:

“We order our lives with barely held stories.”

“I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth. In retrospect the grains of sand had always been there. . .”

–Michael Ondaatje, Warlight: A Novel

“A poet once said, ‘The whole universe is in a glass of wine.’ We will probably never know in what sense he said that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look in glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. . .”

–Richard Feynman, Lectures on Physics, quoted in Brainpickings.

 

 

 

We hold memories, winter to summer

try to put them in sequence in order,

but there are no real boundaries, no border,

all and everything colored by the moment—

and by every second after.

They pile together, memories,

more than accessories, the clothes

tumbled in a heap on the floor,

stories that flow one from the other,

cooked together and through

into a stew–

What is desire? What is true?

Pick out the potato,

a childhood experience here,

the job carrots there,

find the herbs of love. . .

all of the above,

blended together,

each stew different,

though the same in name,

constantly changing

while it simmers over a flame,

new ingredients added,

not expanded so much, as made richer,

a broader picture.

But one day the flame goes out,

the stew gets tossed, buried, old news,

but the aroma lingers—to flavor other stews.

Summer Color
Ratatouille

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now summertime, the days still long

though getting shorter, the sunshine bright,

when not clouded,

parks and beaches crowded

and summertime bounty is everywhere

on tables, and farm stands, and fairs

where people display their colorful wares

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And peaches are fragrant and full of juice

that drips down by chin—oh sing a hymn

to summertime produce,

eat it raw or cooked, baked into crumble or pie.

Mixed-berry Crumble

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I talk to a friend at a festival to celebrate the butterfly.

There are bees and plants and flowers in bloom

through which insects flitter and above birds zoom,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a little girl dresses the part,

her heart dances as the butterflies dart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then there’s wine, made from the fruit

now growing on vines, waiting for harvest

rooted, grapes well-suited

to the clime

to make a beverage sublime.

We sit and sip our wine

dine on paella,

enjoying the weather

sitting together

in summertime.

William Heritage Vineyards
“Vino and Vibes”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We learn about wine in barrels

so much more than shells,

containers to hold the wine,

aging and flavoring it–

we learn to swirl and sniff and taste—admit

we enjoy it. We’ve done this tour before.

Still we learn more, then step out the door

to sit with glass and food—

the mood?

Call it relaxed and at ease

in a summertime breeze.

Sharrott Winery
Barrel Tasting

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so—

I hold moments, tiny, grains of sand

let them trickle from my hand

watch them expand

till there’s a beach

where I can walk and leave a mark,

in the darkness, stark upon the sand

as the sun rises, and the tide

slides over them again and again,

and then

they become part of the sea–

the memories, the fruit, the wine, and the bee–

all connected,

all what was and what will be,

as summer turns to fall and then winter,

time may splinter

into paths that wander back

elusive, barely there–

the traces of a footfall

or a scent still in the air.

Red Bank Battlefield

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laboring

I dreamt I was in labor

and cooking up a storm,

a storm of food,

the birth of new ideas,

there were canapés and cakes

covering the tables,

and I was laboring,

in travail,

producing and reproducing,

a woman’s work is never done,

but I was smiling–

there was no mess to clean–

only a dream

and a poem.

 

This was a real dream I had the night before last.

A Holiday Dinner

Monday Morning Musings:

I often wonder what I would do to survive, to escape

it’s the story of Passover, after all.

the story of a group of enslaved people who escape

(with the help of a few miracles)

and of people all over the world in the past and present.

My grandparents left a repressive land,

pogroms and restrictions,

coming here where they could prosper

they met and married.

Both sets of grandparents—love matches.

They worked hard through the Great Depression

and WWII

making certain that their children were educated.

Some people don’t want to think about

slavery in this country.

They want to visit historic sites

without a reminder that slave labor kept the homes and farms running.

But we can acknowledge the achievements

and the faults of historic figures.

I listen to Annette Gordon-Reed and

Peter S. Onuf discuss Jefferson’s complicated

moral geography—

people and situations are seldom simple

black or white–

and still the world has slavery,

people forced to work with little sleep or food,

beaten if they disobey,

women kept as sex slaves,

a young woman, now a college student here,

who escaped from the

Boko Haram:

“And I say to one of my friends that I’m going to jump out of the truck. I would rather die and my parents will see my body and bury it than to go with the Boko Haram.”

I wonder if I would have had the courage to jump from a truck and run.

I read Those Who Save Us, a novel by Jenna Blum,

and I wonder—

what I would do in war time to survive?

It’s easy to judge others.

And so on Passover,

I think about slavery and escape,

of generations of people celebrating this story with words and foods,

celebrating in basements,

in wealthy homes,

in concentration camps,

We sit around the table(s)—reading from our homemade “Haggadah,”

going through some of the Seder steps, mixed with family lore,

“the spirit of roast beef.”

We read our parts in our Passover play,

and laugh,

this year, the play includes “Pharaoh Trump,

and rap songs.

We eat the food that I spent days cooking–

chicken soup, vegetable broth, knaidlach made the way my mom taught me

with separated eggs,

no recipe of course,

done by feel,

done with love,

but they are light. No sinkers here!

Matzo balls that float,

and don’t land with a heavy thud in your stomach.

Gefilte fish with horseradish

to clear away those spring allergy symptoms

Oh—that’s not what it symbolizes?

We eat my sister’s charoset,

the mixture of fruit and nuts that symbolizes the mortar or mud used to make the bricks in

the Exodus story.

The meat eaters consume brisket and turkey breast with delight.

Those who don’t eat meat, enjoy the roasted sweet potatoes and salad of spring greens.

Many glasses of wine. No Manischewitz!

For dessert, flourless chocolate cake,

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And my daughter’s cheesecake, made with a crust of chocolate almond macaroons.

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And coffee meringues with chocolate chips

And lemon-almond macaroons

My daughter, believing she is addressing a lack in my education,

brings Fireball whiskey for me to do my first shot ever-

It’s a group activity—with dancing.

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I really do dance in my kitchen.

 

I realize suddenly that this is the first holiday in years

where all of my siblings

are here together,

and both of my daughters with their spouses.

My mom is still here, too.

I feel love.

I feel content.

OK. I feel a bit tired

by the time it ends.

But happiness, too.

And love.

 

Recipes for the Flourless Chocolate Cake (to which I add 1 Tbsp. espresso powder and 1 tsp. vanilla, and bake for one hour at 325 degrees) and the recipe for the coffee meringues were in this post from last year. https://merrildsmith.wordpress.com/2015/03/30/a-passover-legacy/

December Celebrations: Warm and Cold

Monday Morning Musings:

My mother says,

That one year my sister and I received

Presents and celebrated

For nearly two months.

In the days before Amazon

And same and next day deliveries,

I suppose packages took longer to arrive.

So they came in trickles and waves

Over the course of weeks

To mingle with those already at home.

The season of celebration

Began with my sister’s birthday

In November.

Then went on

To Thanksgiving,

Followed by

My birthday,

Hanukkah,

And Christmas–

The festivities went on and on,

Or so it seemed to us.

Then one day it stopped.

We asked,

“What no presents today? No holiday?”

I don’t remember this at all.

But that is what my mother says.

And though her memory is sometimes

A bit faulty

I suspect it’s true.

It may have been the year my aunt sent us

The Easy Bake Oven.

I made a few of those cookie-size cakes,

The oven set-up in our bedroom

Novelty there,

But, truthfully,

I was much more interested in

The real oven and stove.

I “doctored” canned soups

With spices from the rack

Before I tackled real meals

And baking.

I remember misreading “marjoram”

And thinking it said “marijuana.”

Well, that would have been interesting, right?

I’m not even certain how I knew the word.

This was before the War on Drugs.

And our schools were more concerned

That we “duck and cover,”

Giving me vague terrors

And fears

Of losing my parents.

Cold War fears

Of losing the warmth

Of family and home.

Is that what draws me

To the heat of the kitchen?

Now, that I’m older

I like to think each day is a gift,

Something to unwrap joyfully

With the dawn.

Of course, the dawn is so late in December.

Perhaps that’s why I bought myself a new laptop

For my birthday

And perhaps to chase away the coming

Winter chill

And fears of the future.

Well, it’s for my business, you know,

Even my husband agreed.

My old computer is only old in

Computer years,

Which pass faster than dog years,

But still,

They’re the ones that count–

To the computer–

And the person using it.

I haven’t spent months celebrating,

Well, not unless you count the weddings,

Three in about a years’ time,

But I did manage a week or so—

Hanukkah running into to my birthday,

Celebrating with dinner at a local winery,

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Then the next night dinner with my daughter and son-in-law

Followed by chocolate cake and watching my grandpets

Chase each other around the apartment.

Brothers of other mothers for sure.

 

The next day there was a trip to Grounds for Sculpture

Just hanging out

Enjoying nature on a

Freakishly warm December day.

Standing at a bread line

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Having a snack

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Dancing a waltz

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Maybe reading a book with a friend

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Enjoying lunch in the balmy weather

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Returning home to light the candles

The final night

Till next year.

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On my actual birthday

We went to the movies,

The Danish Girl

Me wondering how strange

And horrible

It must be

To feel like someone else inside,

And how sad but

Beautiful and brave

It was to love that person–

And to believe.

My husband and I discussed this

Over tapas and drinks afterward

(The Spinach and Manchego Buñuelos divine)

Because,

Well, celebration, remember?

And from birthday

We’re on to

Cookie-baking season

That is, not the usual cooking baking

That happens all the time here.

Special, once-a-year cookies.

And decorating them with our younger daughter

And missing our older one.

We will have to eat her share,

I suppose.

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It will soon be Christmas.

The skies are dark, dismal, and dreary

The news is ghastly, glum and, gloomy,

But there is warmth and light.

Our own little miracle of lights.

The light on the stove hood–

You know, the one that hasn’t worked

For months?

Well, now it does

Just like that.

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More lights are glowing

At windows

On trees,

And in hearts

That are open to it.

Soon the New Year will come

With new dreams

And old memories.

 

Wishing all of you a joyous and happy December-

And beyond.

With hopes that it is not too warm

Or too cold

But, just right.

Places we visited and things we saw:

Auburn Road Vineyards  

Kitchen 519 

Grounds for Sculpture 

The Danish Girl 

Cuba Libre 

And here’s a 1951 Civil Defense Duck and Cover Film. It would have terrified me, as a child. It’s before my time, but we were still ducking and covering in the 1960s.

 

 

Time Bubbles

Monday Morning Musings:

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”

–Thornton Wilder, The Woman of Andros

When I was child

My little sister and I broke bread

For stuffing

On Thanksgiving morning

As we watched the parade

On TV.

One Thanksgiving morning,

My father took us out

So my mom could cook

Without interruptions.

We were dressed as pilgrims

Or Indians perhaps,

Me with my hair in two long braids,

And the waitress fawned over us,

Or perhaps she was flirting with my dad.

I can’t be sure now.

The restaurant,

I seem to recall,

Was empty,

Which seems strange

On Thanksgiving, doesn’t it?

And perhaps the whole event

Happened in some other way,

But this is what I remember

On that Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving dinners

For me

As a child,

Meant crumbling slices of white bread

Into a large pot

While watching the televised parade.

I don’t even remember the meals.

And I certainly didn’t appreciate

All of the work

My mother did to prepare them.

Later,

When I was a bit older,

It was my mom making cranberry sauce

In the squirrel mold

That stood out.

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We never understood why

After turning the mold

Onto the platter,

She then raised them together

High in the air

And rested them on her head—

Strange,

But dramatic.

And we looked forward to it

Every year.

My daughters took over

The bread-breaking chore

When they were young.

Crumbling the bread

And

Eating pieces,

Thinking I didn’t see them.

We’d place their hand turkey placemats

On the table,

But as their hands grew larger

The placements no longer appeared.

Where are those placemats now

I wonder?

This year,

My younger daughter,

Hands woman-grown and

With a wedding ring

On one long, slender finger

Tore the bread with me,

Loaves and loaves

Crumbled

Into a large soup kettle,

As we spent the afternoon together,

The day before Thanksgiving,

Watching Netflix

And enjoying tea, cookies,

And companionship.

After she left,

I waited for my

Older daughter and her wife

To arrive.

And I sat with them while they ate

The Wawa hoagies

My husband had bought for them.

(No Wawa stores in Boston!)

And we talked

And I was so happy to have them here

And willing to sleep

On an uncomfortable bed

In my daughter’s childhood room.

I’m profoundly aware

That many throughout the world

Are suffering,

In pain,

Missing loved ones,

Perhaps without a home,

Food, or water.

And I am deeply grateful

For what I have,

Our traditions

And crazy family.

I think of our Thanksgiving dinner—

The ritual unmolding

Of the cranberry squirrel,

Now done by my sister-in-law,

With encouraging advice,

Laughter,

And glasses of wine.

The scurry to get everything to the table,

The fifteen minutes it takes to get everyone

To actually sit down.

(Why does it take so long?

Another mystery.)

What do you want to drink?

Wait, where’s the corkscrew?

Oh, I’m sitting over there.

But the food,

Of course,

Worth the days of cooking.

The Thanksgiving favorites

Prepared every year.

My daughter and I discussing how much

We love stuffing.

“It’s good we don’t have it all the time,”

She says.

“Then it wouldn’t be special,”

I say.

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The various conversations going on

Across the table,

Whispers and glances between couples,

The newlyweds smiling and hugging,

The children restless,

Holding two fingers up behind heads

Preserved forever in photographs

Of this night.

Secrets and stories.

Talk of jobs,

Family,

Gossip.

The under-the-table pokes.

Yes,

More wine–

Please!

And then dessert—

Pies and pumpkin cheesecake

And chocolate port, too.

You know,

In case the wine was not enough.

My mind hovers

Seeing each moment

Frozen,

Stilled

And replayed,

But connected to all the Thanksgivings

Of my life.

Each memory

A little bubble of time

That floats to the surface

To be tasted

And savored.

Sparkling water of the mind.

This holiday is special to me.

Not because it commemorates

A feast shared by

Pilgrim refugees

Who called themselves

Saints

And the Wampanoag

Who lived there.

(Well, those who had survived

Earlier exposure to diseases brought by

Europeans).

And they didn’t have pumpkin pie

And they probably ate venison and shellfish,

And they did not have our cranberry squirrel,

But no matter

No,

For me,

Thanksgiving is beautiful

Because it evokes my past,

The scents,

The taste,

The history,

The love,

And connects it

To the present

And the future.

Each bubble of time

Sparkling,

Glimmering,

Floating

And popping

To make way for the next.

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I am grateful, too, for all of you who read my blog and for the comments you leave. Thank you for your encouragement!

This may interest some who want to give and provide hope to others.

 

 

 

Shifting Gears

“Life is like a ten speed bicycle. Most of us have gears we never use.”

–Charles M. Schultz

“Great ideas need landing gear as well as wings.”

–C.D. Jackson

I take indoor cycling classes at a local gym several times a week, a fact you may not know about me. I also take other gym classes, such as bootcamp and Zumba because I’m crazy trying to stay healthy. You probably don’t care about my exercise habits. Fair enough. It’s not an exciting subject, but keep on reading anyway. There is a point, and it has to do with gears. Well, with shifting them.

BIKE TIRES

There are no actual gears on the indoor cycling bikes, but there is a knob or lever that changes the resistance. In the cycling classes, the instructors exhort us to raise the resistance (“Strong is the new skinny!”), and then sometimes to lower it (a bit) so we can sprint (“Break away! Break away from the pack.” “Let it go” OR—“Strong, but fast. Make sure you have some control.”). The idea is to mimic—to some extent—an outdoor ride with both hills and flat surfaces. The ride is more challenging when riders climb and jump, as well as sprint, and it is also more fun. (Fun on some days being a relative term.) During these cycling classes, riders must consciously turn the knob or move the lever to change the resistance and adjust positions. It becomes almost automatic, but not quite. After all, it’s hard not to notice if the resistance is up so high that you can’t turn the pedals, or if there is suddenly no resistance. Or if the pedals suddenly fly off the bike. Ooops! Nope, never seen that happen. Well, not more than 3 or 4 times. So, I’m sure big name gym, there’s no need to replace the bikes yet. It’s only been about 7 years, and what’s a pedal or two?

Sorry, got off on a rant there when I a really wanted to talk about was switching gears. You know, like on a bike—if you rode a bike that had gears. And pedals.

Most of us metaphorically switch gears throughout our days. We switch from talking to family or friends to interacting with co-workers, customers, or patients. Language, demeanor, and tasks all change. Sometimes we work against resistance, challenging ourselves to climb hills of indifference or scale the steep grades of drudgery. If we’re fortunate we sprint to the finish of a project. Ride completed. Woo hoo!

Hundreds of times throughout each day, our brains switch gears. We concentrate at various intensities and focus on a variety of tasks. We multi-task.

If you drive a car with an automatic transmission, like I do, you don’t think about switching gears while you drive. But you probably think about other things while you’re driving, even while you’re watching the road and singing along to the song on the radio. Most of the time, as we go about our daily life, we don’t think about how we switch gears either. We automatically switch our roles from parent to co-worker or from daughter to mentor.

Most writers work on different types of projects. Even bestselling novelists might take time from working on that next big novel to compose an op-ed piece, some poetry, or even something bigger, like a screenplay. Writers are familiar with switching gears as they move to or back and forth between various writing and editing projects. I was struck by the variety of topics I researched and wrote about for different projects this past week. As I worked on captioning the illustrations for my World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia and read through the copyedited manuscript (still working on that, folks), I was immersed in the American Revolution. There I was lost in the battle at Lexington and Concord for a time, or thinking about clothing and its care, or pondering the fate of soldiers who died or were disabled. Then I was researching topics for test writing: bridge barriers, sustainable green roofs, and color trend forecasting. Then I had a meeting to discuss food history, scholarship, and nutrition with a friend for a possible new project.

So these were some of the topics I researched and/or wrote about as part of my professional life. But, of course, in switching gears to my personal life, I read about, discussed, and experienced many more. For instance, there was a memorable family dinner discussion on The Diary of Anne Frank, the Holocaust, and poetry. Then there was THAT episode on Grey’s Anatomy this past week that had my daughter and me crying.

We need to be flexible in life. We have to be ready to shift gears when necessary—when pedals fly off of a bike, when projects get delayed, and when the cat steals the chicken from the roasting pan in the kitchen. (Umm. . .yes, it’s possible that might have happened here once.) But we also have to be ready with the landing gear for our amazing ideas. It’s all well and good to have a brilliant idea for a book, but it doesn’t get written and published without work. The ideas may soar, but you have to find a way to make them land, too.

Then again, sometimes life gets too crazy, and you need to just put the gear in neutral, sit down, eat chocolate, and watch Grey’s Anatomy. I lie. I always need to take some time during the day to eat chocolate.

So while you’re thinking great ideas, multi-tasking, and being a superwoman or superman, here’s a super easy chocolate treat to make. I made it this week. You can pretend it’s healthy because there’s fruit involved. And nuts, too, if you want. I’ll pretend it’s an actual recipe, when it’s only melting chocolate and dipping in fruit. Or whatever. You can make these fancier by piping white chocolate or coating them in nuts, but really, you know you just want an excuse to eat chocolate. So keep it simple. It’s still super. I suggest making these when no one is around so you can lick the chocolate off your fingers and from the bowl–when you’re finished I mean, not while you’re making them! Practice good hygiene, kids. Enjoying these treats with a glass of red wine is optional, but highly recommended. Also, chocolate covered fruit does not really keep—so you have to eat it within a day or so. Oh, the tragedy.

Super-Easy Chocolate Covered Strawberries or Other Stuff

Ingredients:

Good quality chocolate

Fruit, nuts, espresso beans

I used about half a bag of Ghirardelli Bittersweet Chocolate Chips. You could use a bar of chocolate, but this is really easy. It’s 60% cacao, so it counts as dark chocolate, but it has enough fat to melt and coat the fruit. You could use semi-sweet, but really, use bittersweet. I covered about 6-7 strawberries, a bunch of blueberries, and some almonds. If you want to make more, just remember that the chocolate cools and gets hard quickly, so sometimes it’s better to make more in two batches.

Also, make sure the fruit is dry before dipping it into the chocolate, or the chocolate won’t stick.

Method:

Place chocolate in a microwave safe bowl. It should take between 1-2 minutes to melt the chocolate, depending on the amount of chocolate and your microwave. Don’t overheat it. The chocolate will cool quickly, so dip fruit into it right away and place on wax paper to harden. Yeah, that’s it. It takes about 10 minutes to do, but it looks impressive, and it tastes great. It’s chocolate–shift your gear to bliss.

Chocolate Covered Strawberries, Blueberries, and Almonds

Chocolate Covered Strawberries, Blueberries, and Almonds

The Play’s The Thing

Monday Morning Musings

“The play’s the thing

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

–William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Matzah is probably the most recognized symbol of Passover. Before commercialized matzah became available, members of Jewish communities sometimes baked it themselves—under close supervision, of course.

In Colonial America, congregations often had to produce their own matzah, although not all colonies grew wheat or had adequate supplies, so the grain sometimes had to be imported. Matzah, and other Jewish/kosher food items, were also imported. It was helpful that many prominent Jewish families were merchants with contacts throughout the transatlantic mercantile community. Here is the board used for preparing matzah at the eighteenth-century Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island.

In the nineteenth-century, machines became available to make matzah. There was some controversy, however, over baking commercially baked matzah and matzah machines and whether the matzah produced by them was kosher for Passover. Something I had never before thought about–most of the hand-produced matzah was round, but the matzah produced by Manischewitz  and other mass-producers was square, and of course, each piece was the same.  In 1942, however, the company produced V-shaped matzah as part of the WWII war effort, “V for Victory.”

Aron Steits founded a matzah bakery in 1915. This matzah factory, the last major one that is still family-owned in the US, is set to close.

 “Though matzo is a simple mixture of wheat flour and water, producing it is an intricate affair. During Passover, observant Jews are forbidden to eat grain products that have been allowed to leaven, or ferment and rise, so the flour and water must be placed in an oven within 18 minutes after they are mixed. The entire process is supervised by what are known as mashgichim — Orthodox people trained in the fine points of kosher law. Streit’s employs seven of them.”

–Joseph Berger, New York Times, January 6, 2015

In some places kosher for Passover matzah is still handmade. Joan Nathan describes one such bakery in Brooklyn, where the men and women work quickly to produce the matzah within eighteen minutes. Under Jewish law, it must be mixed, rolled, pricked, and baked in that time—from when water first touches the flour–so that there is no danger it will sprout. If the work is not finished within eighteen minutes, the matzah is not considered kosher for Passover. The flour is carefully produced and ground under supervision, as well, and even the water used in the baking is examined. Nathan mentions one of the workers, Reuven Sirota, who baked matzah in secret in Uzbekistan because celebrating Passover was forbidden there. (Joan Nathan, Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook (New York: Knopf, 2004), 339.)

On Saturday night, we celebrated Passover at my house with a dinner and a modified Seder—and commercially made Streit’s matzah. There were seventeen people around our table–tables, actually—the dining room table, the kitchen table, and a card table all placed in one long line with three separate tablecloths. Our group included family and friends, and my older daughter and her wife joined us by SKYPE.

A few years ago, I created a sort of family Haggadah, cobbled together from various sources, and including family jokes, such as a line about celebrating “the spirit of roast beef.” Seder means order, and there are fourteen steps to the Seder. We never get through the whole thing. In true scholarly fashion, however, the Haggadah I put together has appendices with further reading and lists the sources and documentation I used—you know, just in case anyone has additional questions. I always think we might debate and discuss, but we never do. This year, we totally forgot to open the door for Elijah. Ooops. Once we get to the eating part, the Seder pretty much disappears. This year, my niece’s children were not even interested in hiding and finding the Affikomen, the middle piece of matzah broken and wrapped in a napkin during the Seder. There will have to be a new twist on that tradition next year.

Our Seder always includes a play. My husband and I recently saw a production of Hamlet in Philadelphia. During the play, there is a play within the play. Hamlet wants a group of traveling players to perform a show with a storyline that is similar to how he believes his uncle, now the king of Denmark, murdered his father. He thinks that when his uncle sees the play, his reaction to it will reveal his guilt. In a soliloquy in which he describes the plan, Hamlet says, “the play’s the thing.”  During our Passover Seder, the play is also “the thing.” We’re not out to catch murderers though. The play began as a fun way to tell—or reveal–the Passover story. Telling the story is one of the steps of the Seder.  Over the years, it has become THE highlight of our Seder, our family’s thing. Our daughters have written it for the past few years. They have given notice that they will write it for two more years, and then they will hand-off the play-writing torch.

Well, it will be difficult to top this year’s play. It was an interactive experience called “Whose Passover Is It Anyway?” based on Drew Carey’s comedy show. There were different scenes, in which we were assigned parts and told to improvise using props on the table or by acting out in the emotions called out by one of our daughters. In other scenes there were scripted lines, but the scenes had to be acted out in a particular way—using only three words, as an action movie, etc. I think everyone thoroughly enjoyed it, and everyone had a chance to participate.

I suppose the only thing that might have topped the play was the food—because everyone was VERY hungry by the time we were finally ready to eat.

Chicken Soup simmering on the stove.

Chicken Soup simmering on the stove.

Did I also mention that we went through many bottles of wine? We had red and white, including a tasty, Australian shiraz, and wines from Spain and the United States, too.  I know I didn’t drink the four glasses required by the Seder, but others may have. I’m not naming names. We had all the standard food—chicken soup (and vegetarian)–both with knaidlach, or matzah balls, gefilte fish, hard-boiled eggs, brisket, turkey breast, roasted sweet potatoes, and some delicious roasted carrots brought by guests. By the time we got to dessert, my sister literally groaned while tasting the flourless chocolate cake (my brilliant idea was to top it with a chocolate drizzle and sea salt)—“Oh my god! This is so good.” The cake also conveniently doubled as a birthday cake for my brother, whose birthday is today.

After dessert, our guests, bellies full, slowly crawled out the door. The cats wandered back downstairs. Time to cleanup.

The empty tables seem lonely.

The empty tables seem lonely.

Hope all of you had a pleasant weekend, whether you celebrated a holiday or not!

Indecision, or Sometimes I’m a River

Did you have those days when you can’t decide what you want? Salty or sweet? Comedy or drama? Work or nap? Years ago, the Peter Paul Cadbury candy company made use of people’s indecisiveness with a campaign telling consumers that they could have either Mounds (no nuts) and Almond Joy (with nuts)–or both! The advertisements also played on the word “nuts” as slang for crazy.

“Sometimes you feel like a nut / Sometimes you don’t / Almond Joy’s got nuts / Mounds don’t.”

(You can see one of their TV advertisements from the 1980s here.)

One of my favorite treats is dark chocolate covered pretzels—salty, bitter, sweet, and crunchy all in one bite. You might decide to watch a movie that’s classified as a drama, but that also has funny scenes. You might choose to write a work of fiction that’s based on a historical incident. You might plan to work for an hour, and then go out with friends or watch TV—and then eat sweet and salty treats.

“I don’t see much sense in that,” said Rabbit.
“No,” said Pooh humbly, “there isn’t. But there was going to be when I began it. It’s just that something happened to it along the way.”

I’ve been Pooh. Sometimes things happen. Icy streets force you to change your plans, but you end up watching a movie or reading a book instead and have a great day.

Discoveries are made when something happens along the way. You wander away from your usual route, and there’s a restaurant you never noticed before. You suddenly decide to make a pot of soup and add all those leftover bits in your refrigerator to it—and it’s the best soup you ever made.

You think you’re writing a blog post about one thing, and suddenly it’s something else entirely.

Hmmm. . .well, yes.

The other day in a spin class (have you figured out that I do a lot of thinking while in spin class?), the instructor played a song that began with the theme from the old TV show, The Munsters, but then went into something else–something happened along the way to the melody. I meant to write more about musical “mashups,” and other types of combinations, but then I started thinking about something that happened when my daughters were young.

One day I played a game with them that became known as “The Queenie Queenie Show.” I think it began on a cold day, perhaps there was bad weather, and I was looking for something to do with them. I really don’t remember. It was the spontaneous decision of a mom at home with the kids. I had them place their kid-sized chairs in the living room and sit as though they were the audience for a show. I was the queen, of course, so I became Queenie Queenie. The show started with me putting on a fake genteel air and telling them the Queenie Queenie show was very refined. I think I played part of a Bach minuet on the piano, and then I hummed and did a really fake dance with exaggerated movements—talking all the while about how cultured and refined it was. I may have been channeling the “Washington’s Birthday” number in the movie Holiday Inn. My tune changed and my movements wilder, but then went back to the slower “the minuet.” Gradually, the dance became sillier and sillier and faster and faster until they got up and joined me in dancing around, and we all shouted and danced and collapsed in a heap of giggles. I only did the Queenie Queenie show a few times, and only for the two of them. Even my husband has never seen it.

So what was the point? It was something that happened along the way, a spontaneous idea that became a family memory. It is something that never could have been planned. It just happened.

I’m between book projects right now. I’m trying to decide what I want to do. Encyclopedia or monograph? Fiction or nonfiction? Maybe some type of weird combination? I can’t decide yet what I want. Sometimes indecision is a good thing. I’ll let my mind wander and see what happens.

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”

A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

Indeed, Pooh.

In Memoriam: Monuments, Cookies, and Tea

 

In the United States, this past weekend marked the celebration of Memorial Day (on Monday), and the Memorial Day weekend. Memorial Day is a day for remembering the men and women who died serving in the US armed forces. It is observed with parades, visits to cemeteries, and other solemn events at monuments, such as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The weekend is also celebrated as the unofficial start of summer with people traveling to the beach and attending other outdoor events, such as picnics and barbecues. Over the past few days, I’ve pondered this dichotomy. On NPR I heard the father of a son killed in Afghanistan say that he never faults people for having a good time on Memorial Day because it never meant anything to him until his own son was killed—and this man was on active duty at the time. (Link to the story here.)

I can’t imagine what it must be like to lose a child, parent, spouse, or friend in war. I don’t know how I would react, or how I would grieve. Yet to those who are not grieving, the mixture of solemnity, remembrance, and frivolous fun that takes place over the Memorial Day weekend seem fitting to me because that is what life is about, isn’t it? It’s solemn moments of remembrance, honoring and sharing memories of those gone but not forgotten, and then going on with life and creating new memories.

I’ve also pondered another aspect of Memorial Day—how do we honor those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country without condoning war itself? As far as I know, there is only one veteran in my family, my mother’s father. His duty to his adopted country is ironic because he fled the country of his birth to escape being drafted into the Tsar’s army—or at least that’s the story I’ve been told. Whether that story is true or not, it is true that Russia was going through a turbulent time, and such times are often even worse for Jews. My grandfather must have left Russia just before the war and revolution. In any case, he did not serve in the country of his birth. He had only lived in the US, his adopted country, for a brief time before the nation entered WWI, and he was drafted. I never spoke to him about his early life, or about his service in the US navy. I imagine it was not something he particularly wanted or chose to do. If someone were to ask me if I was proud of him for his military service, I would say yes, but since I know nothing about his service, I am more proud of him for having the courage to leave his homeland and travel across the ocean (the recent movie, The Immigrant is a vivid portrayal of the perils of immigration in the early 1920s just after WWI), of learning to speak, read, and write English, of making a living during the Depression, of raising two wonderful children, my mother and my uncle, and of living a full and rewarding life after the tragic death of my grandmother in a car accident. He was the driver.

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My Grandfather Jack, taken during WWI. He looks so young. I wonder if he had this photograph taken for his family or for my grandmother?

He was a fun grandfather. He took my little sister and me for long walks when he visited us and played games with us—the type of activities he did not have time for when his own children were young.

I’ve been thinking about war recently. There has been a recent bounty of material on WWI, which began one hundred years ago with the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 in Sarajevo. It was the war that brought soldiers to the hell of trench warfare. It was the first war to use particular forms of machinery, such as machine guns and flamethrowers, as well as poisonous gas. The war decimated the young male population of countries throughout Europe, and left thousands of men physically or mentally damaged—“shell shocked,” as it was called then.

For my current book project I’ve been reading and writing about the American Revolution. It was a different type of warfare from WWI, with different causes and different aims. Similarly, WWII was different from WWI. Each generation fights over different territory; each invents new ways to fight, but the result is still death. I’m an idealist, but not totally naïve. I understand that there have always been wars, and that people will always argue whether they are “justified” or not. I honor those who have served in both war and peace, but I don’t think war should be glorified, even if necessary to fight evil. There is nothing glorious about war and killing people.

The British war poet, Wilfred Owen, who fought during WWI, and who ultimately died in combat, expressed these sentiments better than I ever could; he also captured the absolute horror of war in his poetry. His poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” ends with these words:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

 (You can access the full poem here. )

We memorialize wars publicly with monuments and parades, but we build private memorials in our hearts and minds. We remember what our loved ones enjoyed or disliked, what they wore, said, and did. So perhaps moving from war to memories of food here is not such a stretch. After all, people often bring food to those who are grieving. The preparing of food brings comfort to those who wonder how to help or what to do, while eating and sharing meals brings its own comfort.

Thinking about my grandfather, reminded me of these cookies pictured below, which I have probably not made in twenty years. They are labeled “Aunt Rae Cookies” on my recipe card, named for my grandfather’s second wife. My mom told me though that all of her aunts made similar cookies. They are dry, rather bland cookies. My grandparents and their relatives did not like sweet, gooey treats. Their cakes and cookies tended to be dry and only slightly sweet—something to have with tea. Memories have compelled me to try them again. So in memory of those long gone, and with the memory of my own teenage self learning to bake and collecting recipes, here are the slightly updated version of Aunt Rae Cookies. Although they are not “Wow” cookies, they are strangely addictive. I “tasted” one, and then ate three more. The recipe has ingredients, but no real directions. Also, I’m not certain if I didn’t count correctly, or if the cookies simply needed an extra cup of flour, so it might be 3 cups or 4 cups. OK. I’m not a professional. I’ve added some flavoring—vanilla and almond extract—to the recipe, along with some finely ground walnuts, and a sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon. I think I would add more nuts next time. Enjoy with a cup of tea, coffee, or a glass of wine—and your own memories, of course.

 

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Aunt Rae Cookies

3 (or 4) Cups Flour

1 Cup Sugar

3 Eggs

2 Tsp. Baking Powder

¼ tsp. Salt

¾ cup Vegetable oil

Optional: Flavoring, Ground nuts, cinnamon and sugar

Whisk eggs until light, whisk in sugar, oil, and flavoring, if desired. (I used about 1 tsp vanilla extract and ½ tsp. almond extract). Stir in flour, baking powder, salt, and nuts. I used about ¼ cup finely ground walnuts and almonds. Drop spoonfuls of dough onto parchment paper lined cookie sheets. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Bake at 350° for about 10 minutes.

 

Passover: The Next Generation, or Why I Cook for Over a Week for a Night of Celebration

Yesterday morning, my husband and I drove a through pouring rain on flooded highways to get to a grocery store that sells Passover supplies. Our local ShopRite’s supply of Passover stocks consists of one baker’s rack tucked in a corner—like a shy and unwanted guest at a party. Over its sparsely stocked shelves there hangs a banner proudly declaring “Passover Foods.”

         I do not come from a religious family. When I was in elementary school, my mom would say, “You can stay home today—it’s a Jewish holiday.” True story. That was the entire explanation. On Hanukkah, we would light the candles and get presents. I had no idea why, but I certainly didn’t question getting presents. On Passover, my mom made her wonderful chicken soup with her amazing, feather-light knaidlach (matzah balls). We ate matzah at that meal, but I seriously did not know that during Passover—for the entire week–we are not supposed to eat any products with leavening. As a teen, we sometimes celebrated Passover with our relatives. The food was great—my mom and my aunts were all great cooks. These were my father’s sisters, who despite my parents’ divorce, were still my mom’s friends. But the Seder part with my uncles droning on and on endlessly in Hebrew and English, following the standard Conservative Jewish Haggadah that everyone used in those days, was one big snoozeville. My younger sister and I had no idea what they were talking about, and what’s more, we really didn’t care. Because. It. Was. Boring. Oh yes, then there was that Manischewitz wine—if you’ve never had it, and trust me, you don’t want it, tastes something like very sweet cough syrup.

         When my husband and I had children, I thought there must be some middle ground—something between no idea what this holiday means and mindless ritual. My husband is not Jewish, but he is happy to go along with whatever I celebrate—especially if it involves food. And of course, food is the main thing. So I started doing research, and I learned the significance of the major Jewish holidays. I am not religious, but I feel bound to my religion and thousands of years of oppression. I celebrate Passover for those who over centuries have been persecuted and killed for wanting and trying to do so.

         The word Seder means order, and there is a sequence to the pre-dinner rituals—the dipping of greens, the eating of charoset, etc. Part of the Seder involves telling the Passover story—the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. When our girls were little, they would put on a puppet show with their friends to tell the story. As they got older, they no longer wanted to do that, so I wrote a play. Everyone at the table read a part. They were humorous little skits—often filled with musical theatre references and in-jokes to current TV shows. I also wrote our own family Haggadah—because really, who doesn’t? At some point, I decided our daughters, brilliant, talented writers, should take over as playwrights. (You can read Younger Daughter’s version of this event in her blog.)

         This year our older daughter and her fiancée will not be with us for our Passover Seder—which in our crazy way will not actually take place on the traditional first or second night of Passover, but rather toward the end of Passover on a Saturday night. This is the first year I will not have both my girls here as we celebrate, although we hope to Skype them in. (I’m hopeful, but I’m picturing it like one of those video conferences where inevitably someone’s audio or video doesn’t work.) I will spend the next two weeks cooking because it is an unwritten rule that there must be enough food to feed two or three times the number of invited guests. I’ll be making both vegetable and chicken broth with what I hope are the feather-light knaidlach I learned to make from my mother, along with an assortment of meat and vegetable dishes, along with the matzah, charoset, and gefilte fish. There will be good wine and flourless chocolate cake and cheesecake with a macaroon crust made by my daughter. (There will also be stewed dried fruit because my mother reminds us all every year, “Matzah makes you constipated.”) There will be missing those who are not with us. There will be laughter with those who are here. Why do I do this? Because despite the labor involved, holidays give us a chance to put aside our other work (in my case, to quite literally clear the work from the table) and take stock of what’s important–and any chance to share food and wine with family and friends is a joy and a privilege. To my family and friends, I love you all so much!