The First Night of Hanukkah

Monday Morning Musings:

“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”

–Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

“How far that little candle throws his beams!

So shines a good deed in a naughty world.”

–William Shakespeare, Portia, The Merchant of Venice (Act 5, Scene 1)

Season of miracles, season of light

A single candle glows bright

It’s the first night of Hanukkah.

 

I think of a candle shining in a window

And of the light traveling out into space.

The light of stars takes billions of years to reach us,

Traveling at 186,000 miles per second

But still I wonder if someone out there

Out there

Somewhere

Might see it.

 

 

As I fry latkes—

Lots and lots of latkes—

I listen to a Hanukkah CD.*

I listen to it every year,

But this year

I really listen

As the young girl asks her Uncle Joe

If miracles really happen?

He says it was a miracle when someone

Who was very sick got well

Or if a long war ends.

The child then says,

“What if there were no more wars.”

And Uncle Joe

Replies, “Yes, that would be a miracle.”

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Two pans; one spatula

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Season of violence, season of fear

A single candle brings cheer

It’s the first night of Hanukkah.

 

 

Rituals of thousands of years

The miracle of the oil

Burning for eight nights.

And we celebrate with latkes

And other delights.

Though of course

Long ago,

In lands torn by war,

As they were then

And are now,

There were no potatoes

Or candles packaged

Neatly in box.

 

But Hanukkah reminds us

Of rededication

And hope.

So at the darkest time of the year

We light a candle.

And then we light

Some more.

We celebrate

With family and friends

We eat too much

And we drink some wine.

We talk.

We laugh.

We sing and dance.

And rejoice–

Because in the face of darkness

We need to find the light.

 

And it doesn’t even matter

That my house and clothing

Smell of oil.

Because we have love

And laughter

And good food to eat.

Season of brightness, season of yearning

Lighting the candles till all of them are burning,

It’s the eight nights of Hanukkah.

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*A Child’s Hanukkah, The Jewish Wedding Band

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

The Deliciousness of Life

Monday Morning Musings:

“Sitting down to dinner, at any age, should be an invitation to the fabulous banquet that is life. The most important lesson we learn at the table is that great awards await those who take chances. Do we really want to be telling our children ‘Just eat your nice chicken nuggets?’ It make so much more sense to say, ‘Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious.’”

–Ruth Reichl, “Teach Your Children Well,” Gourmet Magazine, March 2007

The sunrise was spectacular this morning. I looked up from my seat at the kitchen table, coffee and newspaper in front of me, cat purring on my lap, and took in its beauty. Even if I had the photographic skills to capture it, it would have been difficult to do so—in seconds the sky went from shades of violet to deep flamingo pink to orange and then to apricot. If I could taste this sunrise, it would have been a rainbow sorbet, a swirl of sweetness melting on my tongue and then gone.

“When I come in here, it’s like I’m surrounded in sweetness. Sweetness and love,” my niece said to me on Saturday night. It was the night of our family holiday dinner (the weekend in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, close enough). Her words filled me with sweetness, too.

My summer was busy—much of it wonderfully so—after all, our younger daughter was married and we gained a fantastic son-in-law—but still, it was busy. I had a very large test-writing assignment to complete, which I finally did this past Wednesday. My husband and I went to the movies to celebrate and saw Learning to Drive, a sweet and sometimes funny movie that gently reminds its viewers of some important life lessons, such as always wearing seat belts, checking your road rage, and being aware of what’s going on around you, both on the road and in your life. Now it seems the summer is over. As summer turns to fall, and the summer sky grows lighter a bit later each day, I have some time to reflect. And cook, of course.

Those who say “food is just fuel” are missing something. Food is not simply fuel, and sitting around a table with family and friends is one of the great joys in life. On Friday, a dear friend, who I have not seen all summer, came by, bearing sushi—actually complete lunches for both of us of miso soup, salad, and sushi (shrimp tempura and sweet potato rolls). I was preparing for the next night’s dinner, but took a nice, long lunch break. We sat at my kitchen table and caught up. How lovely to have friends like that!

Our Saturday night dinner was relaxed. I had done most of the cooking before that day—so much so that I said to my husband early Saturday afternoon that I felt like I had forgotten to do something. After slicing the meat in the morning, I went to the gym, and then after lunch I even had time for a brief rest. He told me that it was just that I had done it so many times, that I had it all under control. He had done much of the cleaning, however, which always helps.

So after our guests arrived, we toasted the new year, 5776, and dipped apples in honey and ate challah. (I baked 8 over the course of the week because, oh my God, what if there isn’t enough? Do you remember that time we bought a new freezer simply because I needed it to freeze Rosh Hashanah challahs?) It is traditional to eat lots of sweet foods for Rosh Hashanah. We had yellow split pea-pumpkin soup; it is slightly sweet and spiced with cinnamon, ginger, and pepper. Life needs a bit of spice, too, right? The gold color symbolizes wealth and prosperity.

Yellow Split Pea-Pumpkin Soup

Yellow Split Pea-Pumpkin Soup

Our younger daughter brought this delicious salad with a maple balsamic dressing.

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We had noodle kugel. That’s kugel, not Kegel.

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For the meat-eaters, there was brisket

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And turkey. Because (see above) we might not have enough.

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My husband is eating lots of leftovers this week.

We drank wine. We talked, and then it was time for coffee and dessert.

Apple Cake (It is much better than it looks in photo!)

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Baklava

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And brownies. . .because. . .well, you know, chocolate, and with a hint of sea salt because. . .well, you know, chocolate and salt.

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The next day, my husband and I, along with our younger daughter and son-in-law went to the Heritage Wine Festival, a two-day event in Mullica Hill, NJ. My son-in-law has earned huge points for offering to be our designated driver. We were pleased to see some wineries there that we never visited before. My husband and I ended up buying a bottle of Rossa della Valle from Hopewell Valley Vineyards, a Chambourcin-Cabarnet blend. Our daughter bought the same, plus a bottle of their chocolate port. We also bought a port, Vat 19 Port from Unionville Vineyards. We’re thinking we’ll open that at Thanksgiving, when our older daughter and her wife will also be here.

We brought food—challah, anyone? I have a couple in my freezer. We tasted, we sat, ate, walked around and enjoyed the beautiful weather. It was a beautiful September day. We shed the sweatshirts we wore earlier and basked in the sun. Daughter and I were thrilled to find a farm stand amidst the vendor booths. We split a basket of peppers and each of us bought lovely, ripe Jersey peaches. It was a perfect sweet ending for a weekend of sweetness and love, a weekend of celebrating family and friends, and the joy of conversation around food and wine. Wishing all of you joy, peace, and many opportunities to taste the deliciousness of life.

Heritage Wine Festival, Sunday, September 20, 2015

Heritage Wine Festival,
Sunday, September 20, 2015

“So sweet it seems with thee to walk,

And once again to woo thee mine—

It seems in after-dinner talk

Across the walnuts and the wine.”

–Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

“The Miller’ Daughter”

Sweetness

Monday Morning Musings:

“I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

–James Baldwin

 

Today is Rosh Hashanah,

the start of the High Holy Days.

We say “Shanah Tova,”

and wish people a sweet year.

The weekend began with

the anniversary of 9/11.

Never forget.

As if we could.

Then caring for our grandpets.

Doggy kisses

and kitty purrs.

A party.

People with different jobs,

beliefs

interests,

drinking and

playing volleyball.

No, not me.

I’ll just watch.

Having fun.

Enjoying

the beautiful evening.

Meanwhile—

The man with the hair

whips up hate.

Throughout history

demagogues have appeared.

He is merely the latest.

A little man

for all his wealth.

Seeking to rise by

finding a scapegoat–

as all demagogues do.

It is nothing new.

It’s their fault,

they declare.

You don’t have money,

goods,

or

power–

It’s because of them.

Migrants, Jews,

Women.

People with black skin,

or yellow skin.

Educated people.

Illiterate people.

Gay.

Trans.

It doesn’t matter.

They are Others,

not one of us.

Nativists, Know Nothings, and Exclusion Acts—

We don’t want your kind.

“Give me your tired, your poor.”

Lady Liberty cries,

But not too tired, not too poor.

the followers yell.

We don’t want people who

look different.

And

none of that foreign talk here.

Speak English.

Wave a flag,

like a true patriot.

A clerk in Kentucky claims religious freedom by

denying others their rights.

Doesn’t she know that liberty

is inclusive,

not exclusive?

Hate does not win.

Hate brings more hate.

Hate combusts and burns

like the brushfires out west,

consuming everything it touches.

Love,

Compassion,

Empathy,

Education

tame the flames,

to a warm glow,

enough to sit around,

enough to bake bread.

I baked challahs yesterday.

The kitchen smells

Of bread and memories.

And love, too.

“Bread and roses.”

Fuel for body

and soul.

Dip the apple in the honey.

Taste its sweetness.

It is everywhere.

Look.

It is all around you.

Can you see the sweetness

of life?

Stop.

Just look.

Do you see it?

Can you look past the hate?

Can you see how beautiful

Our Earth is?

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Wishing all of you peace and a sweet new year!

©Merril D. Smith

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead–And So Are Many Others: Memorial Day

Monday Morning Musings

“Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time ago”

–Pete Seeger, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”

(For a history of the song, see this article.)

Today is Memorial Day. In the US, this is a holiday that pays tribute to the millions of service men and women who have died in the nation’s wars. (For details see the Congressional Research Services, American War and Military Operations Casualties: List and Statistics and Department of Veterans Affairs, “America’s Wars,”).

The history of Memorial Day is disputed. It was first known as “Decoration Day,” a day to decorate the graves of Civil War soldiers and mourn their loss. Most histories give former US Civil War General John A. Logan the credit for declaring May 30, 1868 Decoration Day. The date was chosen deliberately because no battle was fought on that date. It is now the last Monday in May. Michael W. Twitty’s insightful Guardian article, however, argues that “the first people who used ritual to honor this country’s war dead were the formerly enslaved black community of Charleston, South Carolina in May 1865 – with a tribute to the fallen dead and to the gift of freedom.” This is a fascinating brief article that explores West African mourning customs that continued in the traditions of the Gullah people of Charleston.

The Library of Congress blog has Memorial Day images from various eras, as Decoration Day became Memorial Day.

Yesterday my husband and I attended a performance of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead . (Wilma Theater in Philadelphia.) The play is an absurdist piece that owes much to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It is both funny and tragic. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters in Hamlet. Imagine an episode of Star Trek from the viewpoint of two “Red Shirts,” the characters who appear in an episode and always die, most of the time without realizing what is going on or that they were merely cogs to Stoppard says, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the most expendable people of all time. Their very facelessness makes them dramatic; the fact that they die without ever really understanding why they lived makes them somehow cosmic.” They are so faceless and ordinary, that it is a running joke throughout the play that no one knows which is Guildenstern and which is Rosencrantz–even they get confused. Guildenstern (I think) says in his final moment, “There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said—no. But somehow we missed it.”

Although it was a coincidence that we saw this play on Memorial Day weekend, this idea of ordinary citizens caught up in events beyond their control is at the heart of every war ever. Was there a moment that they, or someone, could have said, “no?”

Although I want to honor the men and women who have served the country, I do not want to glorify war. In any war, good people—and bad people–on both sides die. It seems to me the best way to honor those who have fought for freedom is to honor that freedom by learning about history, voting, and working for equality. After the American Revolution, when it became clear that the Articles of Confederation were ineffective, representatives from the states met and hammered out what became the US Constitution. A Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments, was added to enumerate explicitly such freedoms as freedom of speech and religion, the right to a speedy trial, the right to trial by a jury, and prohibitions against quartering of soldiers in private homes in times of peace, against unlawful search and seizures, and against being compelled to testify against oneself. Over time, many more amendments have been added to clarify law, begin and end practices (that whole Prohibition debacle), and attempt to right injustice and bring equality (the abolition of slavery, the right of black men to vote, the right of women to vote). The loss of lives on a battlefield and the wounds of body and soul do not mean anything, if people do not continue to work for justice and equality in peacetime.

I know it is not appropriate to say “Happy Memorial Day,” especially to a veteran. There is nothing happy about it. At the same time, I do not think it’s wrong to celebrate life on this day, whether it’s getting together with family, going to the beach, or seeing a play. Perhaps I–or you–might pause to think, “Some people died to protect our freedom to do these things.” Maybe someday there will be peace on earth; maybe someday the Star Trek red shirts will not die. Maybe someone–maybe everyone–will just say no, and war will become ancient history that children will learn about in school. I can dream.

After theater wine and cheese.

After theater wine and cheese, Tria Cafe, Philadelphia.

Mother’s Day: Celebrating as a Mother and as a Daughter

 I had eight birds hatcht in one nest,

Four cocks were there, and Hens the rest.

I nurst them up with pain and care,

No cost nor labour did I spare

Till a the last they felt their wing,

Mounted the Trees and learned to sing.

–Anne Bradstreet (ca. 1612-1672), “In Reference to Her Children, 23 June 1659,” Full text here.

 Monday Morning Musings

Yesterday was Mother’s Day, at least here in the US. The holiday began as efforts to help poor mothers, fight injustice, and oppose war. Anna Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia fought to bring sanitation facilities and clean water to people in parts of Appalachia. In 1858, she organized Mother’s Work Days. After the Civil War she gathered mothers and soldiers from both sides of the conflict in a Mother’s Friendship Day. Her daughter–also Anna–wanted to continue her mother’s fight. After Anna Jarvis, the mother, died in 1905, her daughter wanted to organize a Mother’s Day celebration to honor all mothers and the sacrifices they make for their children. She lobbied politicians and wrote letters to newspapers, and finally President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation in 1914 that established the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. Jarvis became outraged by the flowers, candy, and greeting card commercialism that the holiday assumed. She ultimately disowned the holiday entirely. (Historian Ruth Rosen discusses the activism and antiwar origins of the Mother’s Day here.)

I certainly understand those who decry the artificiality and commercialism of the holiday. At the same time, I like it. I recently thought about my very first mother’s day as a mother. On my way to my mother’s, my husband and I stopped at a friend’s house to show off our new daughter, who was about 3 months old. I, of course, was madly in love with my little girl, and I thought she was the most beautiful creature in existence, bald head and all. Our friend’s mother, made a big fuss, told me to sit down and waited on me. She said to me, “This is your first mother’s day, and you should feel special.” All these years later, I still remember that. And I did feel special.

Over the past few years, our mother’s day tradition has been to gather at my sister’s house. We have brunch or lunch, and then take my mom clothes shopping. Last Mother’s Day, she wanted to buy an outfit to wear for my older daughter’s wedding; this year, she wanted to buy an outfit to wear for my younger’s daughter wedding. It is a bit of an ordeal to take my mom shopping—she can’t move or see very well—but with four of us, my younger daughter, my sister-niece, and my sister—we got the job done. We had to help dress her in the dressing room, which actually led to many laughs. When I think about it, it seems only fair that we help her dress. After all, how many times did she do it for all of us? Happily, she did find an outfit to wear.

My mom and me. I'm about 3 years old.

My mom and me. I’m about 3 years old.

Before we left for the mall, my sister and sister-in-law fortified us with pasta, salad, and bread—all delicious. My sister-in-law, “the men,” and children remained behind at the house. After we returned from our long shopping expedition, we had dessert—a chocolate extravaganza. Did you doubt this? I get my love of chocolate from my mom—so I baked a flourless chocolate cake topped with chocolate glaze and sea salt and my Mandelbrot cookies, which are called “Mommy Cookies” at my house. (I have several posts dedicated to this, my favorite cookie. Just do a search.) I kind of had to bake those, didn’t I? My sister added 2 boxes of chocolate to the dessert feast, just in case we didn’t have enough. We sat outside on my sister and sister-in-law’s deck and enjoyed the warm weather and evening breeze.

During dessert we attempted to FaceTime chat with my older daughter, but it didn’t work too well. Still, I did get to talk to her a bit. My younger daughter made me a wonderful Super Momma card that made me feel special—and some baking pans. Chocolate and baking genes run through the generations in my family!

When my mom is no longer with us, Mother’s Day will certainly be different. My siblings and I will no longer have a reason to get together for it, just as we no longer get together on Father’s Day. Although we might grumble about taking my mom shopping, I will miss that tradition and the crazy dressing room antics.

Mothers and Daughters

Mothers and Daughters

A Passover Legacy

Monday Morning Musings

Passover begins next weekend. I like to imagine people all over the world gathering together over tables filled with food and wine to share the story of how the ancient Jews escaped from slavery in Egypt. In the United States, “the peculiar institution” of slavery threatened our nation and nearly destroyed it during the Civil War. Its legacy still affects our laws and culture. In the twenty-first century, slavery and human trafficking still exist throughout the world. So the Passover story about escaping oppression is still relevant today.

My grandparents were immigrants to the United States. They all sought a better life here than they had in Tsarist Russia, just before WWI. I don’t know if they thought about this when they celebrated Passover. Both of my grandmothers died when I was only a toddler. I never thought to ask my grandfathers when they were alive.

I am not religious, but I love the traditions of Passover. I “keep Passover” to an extant—not eating bread or leavened products during the period and even foregoing my usual morning oatmeal—but there are “forbidden” foods in my house that my husband eats. For me, the keeping of Passover is an homage to those throughout history who have not been able to celebrate the holiday. For those who strictly observe Passover, forbidden foods must be removed from the house (or at least the kitchen) before Passover. Referred to as chametz, the forbidden items include grains and grain products made from wheat, barley, oats, rye, and spelt. Leavening products, such as yeast, are also prohibited. In essence, anything that might sprout is not allowed. (Matzah is generally made from wheat, but its preparation is closely supervised and must be done within 18 minutes.) Since even a trace of these grains are not supposed to touch other foods and mistakenly ingested, the kitchen, dishes, utensils, and pots and pans are supposed to be thoroughly cleaned and scoured.

Nineteenth-century cookbook author Esther Levy briefly explained the preparation for Passover in her 1871 cookbook, Jewish Cookery Book. Esther Jacobs Levy was an English woman who lived in Philadelphia at the time she published this book. It was the first Jewish cookbook published in the United States. In the introduction, she wrote:

            In preparing for the Passover, which generally commences in the middle of spring and lasts eight days, every particle of leaven must be out of the house by ten o’clock of the preceding morning. On the same day, 14th of Nisan, or on the previous eve, the house must be thoroughly cleaned from dirt, and everything must be in perfect order.

With what pleasurable emotions a Jewish woman must anticipate the time when she will see everything looking so brilliantly clean, and mostly new. Indeed, we should all be delighted, when we reflect that so much cleanliness is a preparation for becomingly celebrating our wonderful deliverance from bondage.

–Esther Levy, Jewish Cookery Book (Philadelphia: W.S. Turner, 1871): 8-9.

Levy goes on to describe the traditional Seder foods that are set before “the master of the house.” (This is the nineteenth-century, after all. Levy also assumes her readers have servants.) After Passover is over, she cautions that all crockery, utensils, and pans have to be scoured and put away to be used the next Passover.

Levy’s book does not contain too many specific Passover recipes. There is “Matzo Cleis Soup” (For Passover). The recipe describes how to make balls from matzo that is softened and mixed with fried onions, eggs, parsley, and dropped into soup. The soup is not specified. She also included a recipe for “Matzas Charlotte”, a type of matzah pudding type dish that is said to be for “supper.” It includes raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, and custard made from a quart of milk and seven eggs. Sounds good to me!

Passover has been celebrated all over the world in all types of conditions: in war and peace, in cities and on farms, in prisons and in ghettoes. Recently, I came across this article on how US troops celebrating Passover during WWII. Take a look—it includes photos and menus.

I don’t remember much about Passover from my childhood. I recall some long and boring Seders with relatives droning on in Hebrew, which I could not understand, and probably most of the people there could not actually translate. There was no discussion, no jokes, and no singing. I did not understand the significance of the celebration. My mom’s chicken soup and knaidlach (matzah balls) were always spectacular. I think that’s why I never cared about the rest of the meal. I could simply eat the soup. The meal always ended with a dried fruit “compote,” bland sponge or angel food cakes, and canned macaroons. Oh yes, there was also the horrible Manischewitz wine. For the longest time, I thought all wine was like that, and I couldn’t imagine why anyone liked wine.

How things change! And not just the wine, which I’m sure will be delicious, although I don’t know yet what we will be drinking.

When I became a mom and we began to host Passover dinners, I wanted our daughters to understand what we were celebrating and why. When they were young, my daughters and their friends put on puppet shows during the Seder to explain the Passover story. As they got older, the children’s puppet shows were replaced with a Passover play with everyone sitting around the table and reading their lines. There’s a new play every year with sometimes crazy themes or settings and lots of bad puns.

My family loves our traditions–so I’ll be making brisket (now called “roast beet” from my young grandniece’s pronunciation several years ago) in the same way I’ve made it for years. I’ll cook chicken soup with knaidlach the way my mom always made them. (The secret to light, floating matzah balls is to separate the eggs and not to add fat to the mixture. I believe my mother learned this from her mother-in-law, my grandmother.) I drop the balls in boiling water and then add them to the soup–because in addition to chicken soup, I also have a pot of vegetarian broth. I’ve already made that and frozen it. My house may not be scoured and spotless, but I’m top of the food preparation.

Simmering Vegetable Broth

Simmering Vegetable Broth

What has changed over the years at our family Seders are the actual Seders, which have become more elaborate in a crazy, totally irreverent way. True believers would not approve, but we enjoy our crazy Passover play. I used to write the plays, but now our daughters write them. I have no idea what they’re planning for this year, but I do appreciate that they agreed to write it again. Shout out to you, girls! One daughter and her fiancé will be at dinner. I hope our other daughter and wife will join us for the play via SKYPE. Oh, the wonders of modern technology!

Another change over the years is our desserts. In the past I tried cakes made with matzah meal (sorry, they always taste like matzah to me) or potato starch, but now there are truly wonderful dessert recipes—cakes and cookies you would eat the rest of the year. So I’ve been testing some. You know, in the interest of our Passover guests. My husband has reluctantly agreed to taste them. “If I must,” he says, as he takes another cookie.

I could eat flourless chocolate cake anytime. OK. I have. Don’t judge me. What’s wrong with breakfast chocolate?

This is my go-to recipe. I bake it at 325 degrees.

I also tried this one. Instead of cayenne pepper, I used ginger (not that I mind cayenne pepper, but chocolate and ginger is amazing). I garnished it with a chocolate glaze made by melting dark chocolate chips and studded it with candied ginger. YUM!

I tried these cookies from Jew Wanna Eat. I added ½ a bag of mini-chocolate chips, which I highly recommend you do, as well. Chocolate and coffee. Do I have to explain?

Coffee Meringues with Chocolate Chips

Coffee Meringues with Chocolate Chips

On Saturday night, technically the second Seder, I’ll sit at my table with my family and friends. We’ll be a group of old and young, gay and straight, Jews and non-Jews. The food will be important, of course. We’ll eat matzah, the unleavened bread, symbolic of the hurried flight of the Jews from Egypt. We’ll eat the matzah balls, the recipe a legacy from my grandmother. We will be following ancient rituals of dipping greens in salt water and of saying “Dayenu” as we recall the plagues. We will drink wine–4 cups are supposed to be consumed during the Seder.  We will be connected to the ghosts of our ancestors, and I will remember those who are no longer at our Passover table. More importantly, we’ll combine old traditions with new twists and combine ancient rituals with new innovations. I hope my daughters will remember these dinners. I hope my young great niece and nephews will, too. In time, I hope they will create their own traditions. This is the true legacy of Passover–friends and family gathering to break bread (which we do quite literally at the Seder), to share stories, to remember the past, and to create new memories.

A Stab at Pie, or Life’s Constants

Monday Morning Musings

Saturday was Pi Day, Sunday was the Ides of March, and tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day. What do these things have in common? Through food and art, my husband and I paid homage—of a sort–to all of them this weekend.

Confession: math was almost my least favorite subject in school. I can’t remember numbers, and I tend to skip over the graphs, charts, and number parts of any article I read. But I do know that Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. (Gosh, I hope that’s right.) It’s a constant—that is, it’s fixed and doesn’t change, the opposite of variable. (In case anyone is interested, my favorite episode of the TV series Lost was the episode called “The Constant,” in which we learn that Penny is Desmond’s constant throughout time—and a constant is apparently necessary when time traveling.) Pi is also an infinite number 3.1415. . . .

Here in the US, March 14 is sometimes written as 3/14 (month, day). With the year added, it becomes 3/14/15, so this year Pi Day was extra special.

Pi Day was not a thing when I was growing up. I don’t remember anyone mentioning it or celebrating it, so I decided to look into when Pi Day started.

It turns out that although pi has been know for thousands of years, Pi Day was not invented until 1988 when physicist Larry Shaw of San Francisco’s Exploratorium created it. I found several great articles about Pi Day. This one by astronomer Phil Plait for Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog is a wonderful post of Pi facts, including some myth-busting information. OK, it’s possible I skipped some of the real math in it, but it was still interesting.

Danica McKellar’s Youtube video on pi and Pi Day is also great fun.

So I was going to bake pies on Friday for Pi Eve for my husband, the high school math teacher—because math and pie. If we can have Pi Day, then why not Pi Day Eve? However, it turned out my husband had a school event that night, so I didn’t bake a pie then. We also had plans on Saturday. One of these plans was to see a performance of Macbeth at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia. (If you’re in the area, it was an exciting and well-staged production, a display of sight and sound. Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth was particularly good.) Modern western theater had its inception in the dramatic works of the ancient Greeks, who as I mentioned above, also most likely first calculated pi. And pies were eaten in the time William Shakespeare. So pi is linked to Shakespeare through pie. Or pi is linked to theater. Either way. Are you following me? Anyway, the pies of Shakespeare’s time were often meat pies. Sometimes the pie crusts, called coffins, were merely shells to hold the meat fillings.* William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, set in eleventh-century Scotland, and he also wrote the play, Julius Caesar, which includes the soothsayer’s line “Beware the ides of March.” Both plays involve tyrants, nation building, and stabbings. Lots of stabbing, lots of blood, and death. Well, they’re tragedies, after all. (See ancient Greek drama.) Pies appear in Hamlet and gruesomely in Titus Andronicus, and Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost at a banquet, which may or may not have featured pies.

On Sunday, the Ides of March, we went out again. This time, to see the movie, ’71, about an English soldier who gets left behind during a skirmish in Belfast in 1971. It was an intense movie, heart-pounding intense, but very good. As my husband and I agreed, the action took place in Belfast at a particular time and place, and that situation was unique. Nonetheless, many of the themes were universal and could apply to wartime settings during any period in history. As it is set in Northern Ireland, I told my husband it was our St. Patrick movie, albeit a grim one. There was a stabbing in the movie, too.

In ancient Greece, ancient Rome, eleventh-century Scotland, and 1970s Belfast, people celebrated and ate, as do we. It is a constant. As living beings, we must eat to live. Sometimes we eat pie. As humans we are also compelled to create works of art to express our emotions in music, dance, poetry, drama, and visual art. We also have the physical brains and the imagination to make abstract leaps, to think about math and science.

I baked my Pi Day pie (Apple-Cranberry Crumb Pie) on Sunday the 15th of March, the Ides of March. At dinner we had zucchini, which I had “spiralized”. The ancient Romans would not have zucchini or tomatoes, but they did have olive oil and garlic. (Top it with slivered Parmesan.) And zucchini is green, so there you go. Pi Day, Ides of March, and St. Patrick’s Day—connected through history, food, and art.

Spiralized Zucchini sauteed with garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes

Spiralized Zucchini sauteed with garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes

Perhaps my reasoning is circular, but it ends in pie. Sometimes we all need a bit of sweetness in our lives. That’s a constant. Enjoy!

Apple-Cranberry Crumb Pie

Apple-Cranberry Crumb Pie

Apple-Cranberry Crumb Pie

Crust:

I used Mark Bittman’s “Sweet Piecrust” (from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian). Here’s a simplified version:

1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. (about 5 oz.)

½ tsp. salt

1 tsp. sugar

8 Tbsp. butter, cut into about 8 pieces

3 Tbsp ice water, plus more if necessary (I always need a bit more).

Combine dry ingredients in food processor, pulse once or twice to mix. Add butter and process just until the butter is mixed into the dry ingredients. It should look like cornmeal. Bittman says about 10 seconds. I usually pulse it off and on. I keep the mixture in the food processor and add the water. Process only until the mixture begins to come together. Form into a ball and wrap in plastic. Chill the dough for at least 30 minutes. It can be made several days in advance or frozen.

Roll and press into pie pan. I just now noticed he says to refrigerate the piecrust for about an hour before filling. Ooops. Well, I’ve never done that, and it seems to be fine.

Filling:

Apples: I used 4 large apples and 1 smaller one, peeled and sliced thinly. My food processor blade worked well for this.

¾ cup, more less to taste, dried cranberries

¼ cup light brown sugar

1 tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. nutmeg

¼ tsp. ginger

2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

Butter to dot top (I’m not sure if this is necessary or not. The recipe I looked at used 4 Tbsp. I used about 11/2. I think you can eliminate it, if you want to reduce the fat a bit.)

Crumb Topping:

¾ cup flour

½ cup brown sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

5 Tbsp. butter

½ cup ground nuts (I planned to use walnuts, but I already had almonds ground. Yup, that’s how I do things.)

Combine filling ingredients together in a large bowl. My apples were very bland, adjust spices and sugar to your own tastes and needs. You should have enough to mound into a pie plate.

Combine crumb topping ingredients. I used my fingers to blend the butter in. Cover top of pie with the topping.

Bake at 350° for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. If the top gets too brown, cover it loosely with foil. The pie should be bubbling when it’s ready.

*For a history of pie, see Janet Clarkson, Pie: A Global History(London: Reakton Books, 2009).

I also discuss pie in my History of American Cooking (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013).

Purim, Savory and Sweet

The rain has finally turned to snow here in south Jersey. My husband’s school is closed, and we won’t be going anywhere, so it’s a good thing our house is stocked with Hamantaschen, the triangular cookies traditionally made for Purim. And wine! The cookies are named for Haman, the villain of the Biblical Book of Esther. I always thought it was odd that cookies were named for him. Shouldn’t cookies be named for Esther instead? Well, no one asked me. Purim is normally celebrated with the reading of the story, in which Esther saves the Jews of Persia, noisemakers are used to drown out the name of Haman, people dress in costumes, and there are celebrations with lots of food—and lots of drinking, too!

I just found this quick cheat sheet on Purim. I Google so you don’t have to! (And yes, Google is now a verb.)

When I was growing up, we didn’t celebrate Purim. My mom sometimes bought Hamantaschen. They were never that exciting to me, and as a child I was not thrilled by the traditional poppy seed filling. Now, Hamantaschen recipes are all over the Internet. (Really, just Google it. I’ll let you do it this time.) Fillings are only limited by imagination–and good taste, or what you think tastes good.

So this year I made chocolate Hamantaschen filled with chocolate chip cookie dough, and some filled with Nutella. If you have to ask why, these are not the cookies for you. I followed this recipe, using Special Dark cocoa and butter in the chocolate chip dough. (Actually, my sister found the recipe, so I could make the cookies for her.)

Chocolate Hamantaschen with Chocolate chip filling and Nutella filling

Chocolate Hamantaschen with Chocolate chip filling and Nutella filling

Then I made more traditional Hamantaschen, which I filled with a variety of flavors: some of the leftover chocolate chip dough—because you can never have too much chocolate, Nutella—because chocolate and hazelnut—and then I made a new flavor for this year. It’s what I like to think of as Sephardic meets Ashkenazi in one delightful cookie. The filling is Clementine-Almond.

Here’s what I did. I was inventing it as I went along, so no measurements. There’s a surprise, right?

Clementine-Almond Filling

Boil Clementines (I used 3) for about 1 hour, or until soft. I removed the stems. Drain, and chop the entire fruit, peels and all, in a food processor until it’s like a sauce. Return to pot, and add some sugar. I didn’t want it to be too sweet, but I also didn’t want it too bitter, so you just have to taste it. Cook until sugar is dissolved and the mixture seems thick enough to use as a filling. I then added about a teaspoon of honey, which made it perfect, and finely ground roasted almonds.

Clementine-Almond Filling

Clementine-Almond Filling

An assortment of Hamantaschen

An assortment of Hamantaschen

With some many hours wasted spent in baking (did I mention I went to the gym first where I thought about this filling the entire time?), I decided I might as well continue instead of actually doing any work. So, I thought, what about a savory Hamantaschen for dinner? I am brilliant. I adapted some recipes for mushroom turnovers and made Mushroom Hamantaschen. Dinner and dessert Hamantaschen. YES!

Jewish holidays tend to be reminders of sorrow and joy in life, the bitter and the sweet–so I think I’ve got it covered.

Mushroom Hamantaschen

Dough: Mix 8 oz. cream cheese, 1 cup butter, and 1 ½ cups of flour together. Add a pinch of salt, if using unsalted butter. Chill dough.

Filling: Finely chop 1 onion, about ¾ lb. of mushrooms (your choice). I used some baby bellas. Cook in oil for a few minutes until softened. Add salt, pepper, and ground thyme to taste. Sprinkle with a tsp or two of flour, and stir in ¼ cup of sour cream.

Roll out dough and cut into rounds. Put a spoonful of mushroom filling on each round and shape into triangles. Bake on parchment lined baking sheet at 350° for about 15 minutes.

Mushroom Hamentaschen

Mushroom Hamantaschen

So what’s today’s work-avoiding project? I think a pot of yellow split pea-pumpkin soup sounds perfect. With Hamantaschen. And wine, of course.

****Sorry about the quality of the photos–this is why I don’t actually write a food blog!

Love and Marriage: Ringing Out the Year with Love and Traditions

Tevye: “Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play?”

Golde: “I don’t remember growing older. When did they?”

In August, my older daughter got married. It was a wonderful celebration of love and joy as family and friends enveloped the two glowing brides in a bubble of warm wishes, while sharks and other aquatic life looked on–since the ceremony and reception took place at an aquarium. In October, my sister and her long-time partner married. It was also a love-filled, joyous event. The brides barely managed to get through their vows without crying as family and friends encircled them on the ballroom floor. The reception included some wild and crazy dancing. Yes, some of it was mine.

A few years ago, I never would have thought my older daughter or my younger sister would be able to marry. That they can is wonderful, and yet, completely natural—because why shouldn’t they be able to legally marry the people they love?

Amidst the grays of December and the brightness of seasonal festivities, our family experienced another outpouring of love marked with tears, laughter, and a sparkling token of promise and affection.

On Christmas Eve, my younger daughter’s boyfriend proposed to her. She struggled to say “yes” through her tears of joy. As we later heard about and saw in a video, these two trained actors could barely form words. My husband and I and a few other family members knew the proposal was coming that day, but my daughter did not. After the proposal, which took place in a favorite restaurant, the happy couple returned to my niece’s house, where they had had brunch with our family earlier in the day. My daughter didn’t know all of us would still be there. (We watched Fiddler on the Roof, the obvious choice for a Christmas Eve movie, while we waited for them to return.) When she and her now fiancé walked in the door, we yelled “surprise,” –my mother still not realizing what had happened–and there were many tears of joy shed—followed by a smiles, laughter, and a toast to the newly engaged couple.

In the weeks leading up to the proposal, I had been referring to my niece, other daughter, her wife, and I as “the yentas,” as we struggled not to ask details or give advice to my daughter’s boyfriend. So, of course, I had to write a silly parody skit of Fiddler on the Roof as an engagement gift. It was titled, “A Kitten on the Roof.” (I mean, of course it was, what else would I call it?)

I won’t share it here, since it is filled with family jokes that would not make much sense to people outside of our family, but here is the beginning:

“A kitten on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But you might say that we’re all kittens on the roof, trying to keep our balance with a bit of hissing and clawing. Sometimes life is crazy weird, but at other times it’s all cuddles and purrs.”

My younger daughter and her fiancé were both theatre majors in college, and they performed in some plays together there. With their theatre backgrounds in mind, this is the coda to my silly skit:

This is the end of Part I. This play runs in many acts over many, many years. Be prepared. There will be laughter and tears. Props will appear and disappear. Settings and lighting will change. Cues will be missed. Actors will come and go, but the characters, Sheryl and Eric, remain constant—at least to each other.

So, as you can tell, my holiday season was wonderful! I am so happy for my daughter and her fiancé. I know 2014 was not a good year for many people. I have friends who have lost loved ones. I know horrible things have happened in the world. But for me, 2014 is the year of love and marriage. And there will be another wedding soon.

* * * * *

Wishing all of you a very happy new year filled with cuddles and purrs and very few occasions for hisses and claws. I wish you long life and happiness. I wish all of you the ability to take joy in old traditions and/or the ability to create new ones. I wish for you to receive at least one good surprise in 2015. I wish all of you the presence of people who love you. Wishing all good things for all of us in 2015!

To us and our good fortune

Be happy be healthy, long life!
And if our good fortune never comes

Here’s to whatever comes,
Drink l’chaim, to life!

–“To Life” From Fiddler on the Roof

IMG_1586

My husband and I at our older daughter’s wedding at Adventure Aquarium, Camden, NJ.