Earlier this week, Levana Kirschenbaum blogged about domestic disputes and gourmet food and Spanish chocolate-chip cookies. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.
As a language enthusiast I have often deplored the fact that languages, against all wishes, are not contagious or transmissible by any means. In the absence of some reliable formal base, except for some language geniuses there is rarely ever a way to just “pick up” a language, in the streets as it were, and I have often noted with some dismay that Arabic and French, in which I conduct many conversations with my relatives in my husband and children’s presence, remain hopelessly impenetrable to them.
When I arrived in New York almost forty years ago, I settled in Washington Heights. To my mother’s question, “Are you at least learning a little English?” I remember replying, without any sarcasm, “Non, Maman. In New York no one speaks English. They only speak Spanish, and I am not learning that either!” Almost nothing has changed in the Heights!
In my long years as a restaurateur and caterer, there was no missing the fact that an overwhelming majority of kitchen employees speak Spanish, and Spanish only. We would step up the body language in creative and often comical ways to communicate our wishes to our crew. But sometimes even that proved not to be enough. Like the day Delfina, a shy new girl, started working with us, moving very slowly. I asked Flora, who worked with me both in my kitchen and at my house, and who was somewhat bilingual, to interpret for me. “Explain to Delfina,” I started, “the importance of working as a team, at a brisk pace, so no one is forced to pick up the slack, etc….”
The bewildering translation of my little speech was a brutal jab in poor Delfina’s ribs, and a single word delivered in a bark: “Avanza!”
That was the day I decided to register for a ten-hour basic Spanish course, just so I could give my own orders in my own kitchen in my own personal style, thank you very much! Oh I wasn’t terribly ambitious, and to this day I serve all my Spanish verbs totally un-declined: Nature, as we say in French. I remember our lovely and very pregnant Spanish teacher, Martha, ecstatically pointing to her belly for a virtual introduction to named and unborn baby Maya, still in her maternal wrappings. On the last Spanish class day, I brought a homemade apple cake (which I had smugly labeled “Torta de Manzana”) and a taping of the wonderful Hebrew lullaby song “Maya,” which we played over our farewell breakfast. We watched Profesora Martha go to pieces. I asked her jokingly why Flora (better known as “Foya” to my tiny son Yakov who was crazy about her: I can still see him rolling up her shirt sleeve to plant wet kisses on a choice plump spot on her arm) always said “Djako, careful when you open the yar of pickles!”
Why couldn’t Yakov just open the jar of pickles? Or why she always said to little Bella before she left for school, “Bellita mi amor, habe a good tine!” why not just have a good time? That made Martha burst out laughing through her joyful tears. Flora and I were quite a team, at work and at home. One day when the hot water supply was cut off for boiler repairs, she urged me “Oy Labana, Dio Mio, don’t inbent no more new dishes today cuz we don’t got no hot water no more!!! Claro patrona?”
Here is my Flora-inspired recipe for black bean soup.
Quick Black Bean Chocolate Soup Recipe
1/3 cup olive oil
1 large onion, quartered
4 large cloves garlic
4 ribs celery, peeled and cut in thirds
1 large red pepper, seeded and quartered
1 bunch flat parsley, stems and all
1/2 small bunch cilantro, stems cut off
6 cups good quality canned black beans (2 large cans), drained and rinsed
1/2 cup tomato paste
2 cups dry red wine
3 tablespoons bottled hot sauce
6 bay leaves, or 1 teaspoon ground
3 quarts (12 cups) water
2/3 cup grated semisweet chocolate or chocolate chips
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon oregano
Heat the oil in a heavy pot. Make the sofrito: In a food processor, coarsely grind the onion, garlic, celery, pepper, parsley and cilantro. Add ground mixture to the hot oil, and sauté until translucent. Add the beans, tomato paste, wine, hot sauce, bay leaves and water, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and cook 30 minutes. Add the chocolate, cumin and oregano and cook for 15 minutes more. Adjust texture and seasonings. Serve hot. Makes a dozen servings.
Lévana Kirschenbaum has been blogging for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council. Her most recent book, The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen: Glorious Meals Pure and Simple, will be available later this month.
We all think of cookies as a short-lived and vaguely illicit pleasure. Except I honestly don’t think, and you can ask anyone, there’s a cookie in the world more worshipped and more baked than my smart little chocolate chip cookie. I will attempt to give you an idea just how much mileage it gets.
The first time my daughter Bella went away to summer camp, I asked her what she would like me to bring her on visiting day, and she said with great glee: duh, chocolate chip cookies, mom, what else? For her and her bunkmates. And, lots of them for the long hot summer ahead.
I made a gigantic batch, filled an oversized canister with (four hundred!) chocolate chip cookies and brought it along to camp. Bella called me the very next day, gushing: “Wow, thank you so much, Mommy. Everyone loved your cookies. Even the driver had some. They are all gone. The whole entire camp agrees: Your cookies rule!” My daughter couldn’t have known that, right there and then, she had become inadvertently responsible for something very important in my summer life: The abolition of the care package custom. They’ll all eat my cookies when they come home, period!
A couple years after this delicious fiasco, at a particularly painful period marked by multiple terror attacks in Israel (the year following the fateful events of 9/11), my children and I and a few dear friends put our heads together to come up with the best possible community fund-raiser project that would benefit the terror victims. The emerging idea was to do something fun. Something that could be an antidote to the prevailing somber mood, and would bring people of all ages and all walks of life together. There was no hesitation: Make a million cookies and sell them online, was the unanimous answer. As soon as the idea took shape, we all got cracking. I asked the administrator of the JCC Manhattan if she would let us bake in their kitchen, and I always remember her answer with a chuckle: “The Million Cookie Project! I don’t know what I was smoking when I agreed to this, but I know it will be lots of fun.” It took us a couple months to put everything in place: A giant mixer, mountains of ingredients, the perfect design for the cookie boxes, staffers in charge of scheduling the volunteer baking shifts, trucks for transport. The most wonderful- and wonderfully chaotic – summer followed, with busses full of camp children pouring into the kitchen for the morning shift, then other kids coming for the afternoon shift, followed by the dizzyingly cosmopolitan, multilingual and multi-denominational evening crowds: these included TV and newspaper crews, celebrities, aspiring actors, illustrators, story tellers. “We’re baking cookies to raise a lot of dough!” read one headline. “Your cookies are weapons of mass destruction!” said one volunteer. “You mean weapons of mass construction” replied another, pointing to her ample hips. Little Tzipporah, now a beautiful young lady, refused to go to day camp, preferring to spend her mornings with me and other big people, and sat precariously perched on a high stool, straining to apply the hot seal on the little blue cookie boxes before she dropped them into cartons. We all baked, schmoozed, packaged, sealed, transported, filled orders and loaded trucks till we dropped. And dropped we finally did, at the end of that summer, with a little over a million chocolate chip cookies baked and sold, and all proceeds sent to Israel. This is why I am forever known as the cookie lady.
Just this year, a health site (www.HealthCastle.com) approached me to ask permission to use my chocolate chip cookie recipe, which would face off against a couple hundred other recipes: The goal was to try all recipes in a test kitchen over the course of three months, and determine which recipe tasted best within the most wholesome guidelines: Mine won!
I do have one bittersweet memory, just one, associated with my cookies: One very rainy day during summer camp in the mountains, Esther, who ran the camp, asked if I would mind spending the afternoon making cookies with the children. I arrived to find a hundred kids jumping up and down with excitement. Everything was laid out impeccably on a giant kitchen table, we just needed to make the batter, then shape and bake the cookies. With all the little helping hands we had, we made hundreds of cookies in no time, and they kept coming out of the oven, fast and furious. It’s all the kids could do to keep their hands from getting scorched while the cookies were cooling off. Wow, they would exclaim, delighted, each time a tray was pulled out of the oven: they rose like crazy! The children were right, I thought, puzzled: they look like cookies on steroids! One of the children spit out the cookie she had just tasted …. and made a disgusted face, causing total consternation. We soon found out why. While making the cookies, we ran short just half a cup sugar, and one of the girls ran to a kitchen cabinet and took out …. sea salt she found in a little sugar bowl, and measured half a cup into the batter. We had to throw all of them out; the children were inconsolable (and Esther’s mother, a Holocaust survivor, cried at the thought of throwing away food, no matter how flawed….), until the next day when we started a whole new giant batch. “We’re baking cookies again?” Esther asked with a wink. “Sure! With or without salt?”
My Famous Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe
2 eggs (if you can’t have eggs: 2 tablespoons flax meal mixed with 1/3 cup warm water)
½ cup sugar
1 cup packed brown sugar or Sucanat
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2½ cups flour: all-purpose, whole wheat pastry, spelt (gluten-free—any GF flour, such as brown rice flour)
¾ teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups semisweet chocolate chips, best quality
½ chopped nuts, optional
Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Cream the eggs and sugars in a food processor or with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the oil and vanilla and mix in thoroughly. Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt and pulse (or mix at low speed) until just combined. Fold in the chips and nuts (if using) by hand. Drop the cookies in heaping teaspoonfuls onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, 1 inch apart.
Bake 10 minutes. The cookies will firm up as they cool, so do not be tempted to bake them longer, or they will harden. Bake only one tray at a time. Store at room temperature in tin boxes. Separate each layer of cookies with foil or wax paper so they don’t stick together. Makes about 4 dozen.
Lévana Kirschenbaum‘s most recent book, The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen: Glorious Meals Pure and Simple, will be available later this month.
Levana Kirschenbaum is the author of the forthcoming book The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen: Glorious Meals Pure and Simple (June 22nd). She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.
I came home late one recent evening, and found my husband uncharacteristically agitated. “I just put out a fire!” he said, panting. “I have no idea how it started, I just wanted to microwave some dinner and put it in a foil container to warm, and flames started leaping out!”
Now please don’t find me too biased: I ask you, how are un-domesticated husbands, who almost never prepare or even warm up their food, who almost always wait for their wives to tell them what dinner consists of, supposed to know that foil is the microwave’s nemesis? I looked all over the lethal appliance to see if the manufacturer had included some warning, but no, not a word about the hazards of using foil. Shame on you, I thought indignantly, you should learn from a sign I recently saw on an ad for bulletproof jackets: “Guaranteed or your money back,” or the warning sign on coffee cups that became ubiquitous after an infamous lawsuit: “Caution: Hot beverages are hot!”
On another occasion when my husband received a friend after I had gone to bed, he asked at the top of his voice, from one end of the house to the other: “Levana, do we have any glasses?” To be sure, I did think of a few answers to this, this… how should I put it politely, obtuse question. Examples:
a) “Of course we do, just look in the kitchen;”
b) “We don’t, but you promised we would go and buy ourselves a dozen when our twentieth anniversary rolls around;” or c) “We used to, but we smashed all of them during our arguments and we have none left.”
But of course I thought none of the above answers would reflect well on my husband, who was trying after all to be a good late-night host, and all of them would make me sound like a shrill and sarcastic matron. So instead I jumped out of bed and got into some decent clothing. I walked drowsily past the bewildered guest toward a kitchen cupboard and took out the glasses. In the interest of thoroughness, I should add I had also thought – very briefly – of saying, “of course we have glasses: Open the cabinet in the back of the kitchen, look on the second shelf, etc…” but I dismissed that option almost as soon as it crossed my mind, the reason being, I can hardly remember a time I sent my husband to the kitchen to fetch something with any luck. He would always say, “I looked high and low and didn’t find it,” and if I would find it and wave it a few inches from his face, he would say with amazement, “wow! So where was it?” But he would almost always quickly add, “well, what do you expect, you didn’t tell me to look on that shelf!”
Other times, when he is more inclined to be conscientious, he would just repeat every line after me, as if by rote, with the expressionless tone of someone memorizing some essential lines he would need on an impending trip to a foreign country. “Open the door of the cabinet on top of the refrigerator….. Open the door of the cabinet on top of…” Oh, never mind… never mind, I’m coming.
I can’t remember how the lines got so rigidly drawn between my share of the household tasks and his. I remember a lovely handmade gift a good friend brought us, which we still enjoy: two coffee mugs aptly marked “You the man!” and “You go girl!” For the most part we both got used to our respective roles and even acquit ourselves of our tasks quite honorably, but sometimes it gets a little frustrating, like in this scenario which has a way of recurring occasionally: One Shabbos day when we walked the few short blocks from synagogue towards home, a shy elderly man I had invited to join us for lunch walked with my husband, while I chatted away with some friends a few paces behind them. When we got to the lobby of our building, I asked my husband where the old man was, and he answered “Oh! So that’s it! No wonder I kept telling him ‘Good Shabbos’ and he just stood there! Then he just went away! I didn’t know you had invited him!”
When I reached forty, I thought I should celebrate this major milestone by conquering my fear of driving. Perennial city mouse that I am, I proved a mediocre student, and passed by a hair on my third try. Then I had the uninspired idea of asking my husband, a wonderful driver, to help me boost my nonexistent skills. And here I should warn you: Even if the dynamics of your marriage are made in heaven, please go to any length not to make a co-pilot out of your husband. Those rare times I diffidently clambered behind the wheel were the first times he started putting on a safety belt and urged me to put on mine, sitting the way we sit in a rollercoaster, muttering between his teeth “oy-oy-oy!” My daughter, who was in the car on one of those nerve-racking trips when my husband was screaming “You are breaking the transmission!” told me she prayed it wouldn’t be cause for divorce. My driving career was blighted after a dozen spins at the most. You might say mass transportation got me back in marital business.
So all this begs the question: What would my husband say about my Venus habits? Until he does, let me give you some clues and leave it at that: When my PC breaks down or even stalls, I just sit and cry, and I don’t think there is a technical support operator from Los Angeles or China or Bengladesh who doesn’t try to duck when he gets my desperate call. I do speak several languages but can never make out any technical instructions. I cook, sew, bead, knit, write, conduct classes, run the house, give lectures and go places, but can never orient myself: a street or a building approached from a new angle becomes totally unfamiliar. I have never ever mailed a bill to any service, balanced a checkbook or packed for a trip. I leave it all to my husband, a model of timeliness, industriousness, thoughtfulness and fitness. And he confidently – I almost said conveniently – leaves everything else to me: our meals, our social agenda, our trips’ itinerary, the management of our house.
Luckily we love a lot of the same things: food (and you know I feed him well), movies, music, books, friends, and places. We share a blind devotion to our children and a fanatical excitement for everything they and their own children do. So yes, it’s a real and working partnership. So what if after all these years, he still does the Jackie Mason thing each time we go to a restaurant, points randomly to an item on the menu and asks: “Levana, do I like this?”? Don’t I still ask him which way to turn each time we visit one of our children in mazelike Washington Heights where they have been living for years? See? We are a team!
I almost forgot something that could have made me feel bitter about having cooked up a storm all these years, resorting to the whole gamut of bribes and incentives to feed everyone healthy meals, while my husband’s best and only culinary performance is make coffee. One morning ages ago, dropping off my children at the school bus stop, I slipped on some chicken fat a nearby greasy spoon joint had disposed of carelessly. I cursed at the slobs, then made all pressing arrangements. I asked my husband to be home early and feed them a decent dinner, while I went with a good friend to the emergency room. It was almost midnight when I got back home, groggy from pain killers, with a bloated foot tightly wrapped in a voluminous bandage, and on crutches. The children waited up for me, I thought lovingly, they want to know how I am doing.
But somehow that question didn’t come up, or at least not right away. They were giggling delightedly, and my oldest son said: “Wow, Mommy, you’ll never believe this: Tati makes the most awesome hot dogs!”