We just wrote a cookbook filled with recipes, stories and ideas from our restaurants.
When we opened Mile End Delicatessen in January of 2010, we had little sense of how our style of Jewish comfort food from scratch would resonate. The decision to open a 430 square foot deli on a side street in Brooklyn was a gamble for a couple of twentysomethings with no industry experience. With all of the other operational elements outside of our comfort zone, the food was the intensely personal and familiar constant.
If we didn’t foresee how deep the love of liver ran prior to opening, we soon found out. The warm memories and harsh critiques were aplenty from our Jewish and non-Jewish customers alike. We didn’t put chicken soup on the menu for the first few months for fear of treading on Bubbie’s sacred tablespace.
With nearly 3 years of slinging smoked meat sandwiches behind, us we recognized that we had hundreds of recipes and countless more stories about where they come from, how we use them and why we love them. The hope is that we summarized generations of tradition and years of kitchen experience into a handy and timeless guide to cooking Jewish comfort food. Obviously that’s a tall order, and only time will tell if the recipes and techniques are adopted and utilized by our peers and progenitors.
The process of putting together a cookbook is a trying one. Of course conceiving of a format that’s friendly to casual and advanced cooks alike, while scaling down recipes usually made by the boat load, is challenging, but even more so was striking the balance between reverence for history and tradition, personal anecdote and modern relevance.
In all truth, it took us a couple strikes to finally hit the look, feel and focus that we were going for. In fact, much fell into place once we agreed that it should be called ‘The Mile End Cookbook‘. For months we attempted to come up with an alternative name that would be descriptive to browsers unfamiliar with our brand, one that wasn’t as regional or restaurant specific. We loved the humor in ‘A Nice Jewish Cookbook’ and felt like ‘Schmaltz’ really represented our approach to cooking, but after literally hundreds of attempts on the title and cover design we finally concluded that we should roll with our namesake.
I was reading a book about Spinoza this evening and had a thought about my significant other and baking soda. You see, he stashes boxes of baking soda everywhere, in the refrigerator, in the cat’s kitty litter, in the bathroom cabinet, plus, stored in the ordinary place for baking soda, next to the baking powder on the shelf with the flour and sugar, waiting until they are called upon to replenish others.
Why, does he do this, I ask, not to be critical or to suggest some other methodology, only to be curious. Why does one household require so many identical boxes of baking soda?
He looks at me and says, “They are cheap enough. And I need them.”
We are long past any friction regarding wayward toothpaste caps or discussions about which way the toilet paper is supposed to roll. In no way, do I wish to cause a brou-ha-ha about baking soda. But maybe, if I were to be totally honest, maybe I had other motives.
I think the ghost of his mother lives here. I know that sounds very B movie-ish, but I don’t consider it a bad thing, I simply recognize her presence. We are living in his mother’s house, a lovely woman whom I met twice before she passed away. I have been given clearance to do what I will with rearranging and redecorating, but it takes time for me to settle into a place.
I see his mother in the curtains neatly piled on closet shelves for different times of the year, an array of colors to allow her and the house to change with the seasons. I recognize her practicality in the kitchen with the coffee and measuring cups within easy reach. I see her understated love of nature with pictures she has placed on her walls, scenes of flowers and birds. Mostly, I understand the choices of a woman who once she had the option to build her own house, decided on the best she could afford, thick rugs, lots of storage space, and a garden filled with the iris and zinnia.
The logical systems she organized during her lifetime are still in place, including her appreciation of baking soda that has been passed along to her son.
I also see a small gift that I gave her in the front of a display cabinet that contains her prized doll collection, and I thank her for everything she had put into place to help us to build our lives together.
We start now.
As I write this post in August, I’m aware that the High Holy days are approaching. I recall the teachings of the rabbis at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, California where I’ve been a member. I’m wondering about that “still small voice“ that resides somewhere inside me. Where is it, maybe hiding in my throat, balanced on my vocal chords and waiting to speak, embedded in an artery at some juncture between my heart and my foot, or in both places?
I know. Not likely.
The thing I loved about living in the in Bay Area all these years with its confabulation of marvelous music (Yoshi’s in Oakland for superb jazz), techies galore (try Tech Liminal for expert help in getting your WordPress on), food (wonderful restaurants everywhere and note to reader, I miss baguettes slathered in creamy butter), museums (Jewish Museum,Oakland Art Murmur for a museum of the streets), incredible vistas (drive along Highway 1 to Bolinas), and a list that could fill up the remainder of this blog post, is also the thing that wore me out. With the constant availability of physical and intellectual riches and feeling like I could never miss an event, I found it difficult to know my own priorities. I guess I had a classic case of burn out.
The Bay Area with its swirling diversity of all things made possible, also made it difficult to hear my still small voice, especially at a time when my muse was advising me to dig into new territory. With a greater maturity that age and experience brings, I felt ready to begin that exploration, much like the way Rabbi Isaac Luria and his followers advised that a person only study Kabbalah after developing some serious life chops.
Can I hear my voice more clearly in Monroe, Louisiana where my own true love resides, where I enjoy daily bike rides around Bayou Bartholomew and watching the neighborhood kids stride across the bayou ditch, hunters in search of small prey?
I’m told that to skin a squirrel, you must nail its head to a tree, slit it up and down its middle and pull off its fur.
There’s something reassuring about the specificity of those directions.
I received a postcard today from a K. Satterfield in Berkeley, California with a picture of an elk cut and pasted from what looks like a magazine with a hand-written entry, “How long did he stand alone on Pike’s Road, due center, branched horns curling north?” I’m not sure I know the answer to the question, but I did wonder about it, admiring the red and yellow triangles pasted on the back of the card. K. Satterfield took care in sending this message, part of a weekly exchange amongst a list of poets.
The elk stands poised on the center of the highway. The edges of either lane appear hem-stitched in white. The road is empty. Not a car in sight. Why is the elk on Pike’s Road and what is it waiting for?
I am also waiting. Rain is coming from the northeast, rolling slowly into the parish. Birds hearing the same thing, call out to each other, anticipating a downpour as the skies begin to light. And crackle. The storm cannot be far away. It gets humid just when everything should be cooling down. The sky is dark and ponderous. Cars make their way to work. It’s Friday and everything can use a good soaking after a week’s worth of triple digits. One yellow leaf floats to the ground, then another. A breeze lifts the fronds of the ferns on the porch; mailboxes stand at attention. The Southern Oak across the street stretches its limbs. Suddenly everything gets quiet. Leaves rustle. Thunder marches closer. Lightning streaks the sky. Cassie, the cat, jumps into a rocking chair and sits next to me on the porch. Then she decides to stalk the marigolds and chews a blade of grass. I have been sitting here for more than an hour and I’m growing impatient. I hear signs and sounds of rain, but Mother Nature doesn’t deliver.
Isn’t that the way it is, the long wait for some new creative force that comes out of nowhere but was always there in the first place?
The elk and I are kin.
This evening I attended services at Temple B’nai Israel in Monroe, Louisiana. The rabbi noted that the birthday of Edna Ferber, author and writer of “Showboat,” had just passed. Her motto, he said, was “seize the day.” Somewhere between waiting and seizing, that’s where I must go.
“And you shall lay down, and no man shall terrify you….” Whenever I stand up in shul on Shabbat and recite those words from the prayer for peace, I am transported back in time to 1998, and across many miles to Laramie, Wyoming.
It was October, and I was all set to travel out west as the keynote speaker for Gay Awareness Week at the University of Wyoming. My bags were packed, and my speech was written. “Heather’s Mommy Speaks Out: Homophobia, Censorship, and Family Values” focused on the difficulties I had in getting my book Heather Has Two Mommies published, and how important it is for every child to see a family like his or hers reflected in a piece of literature. As a Jew growing up in the 1950’s, I knew what it was like to read books about children trimming the Christmas tree and looking for the Easter bunny. Books like Sammy Spider’s First Hanukkah and A Mezuzah on the Door had not yet been written. Growing up without seeing a family like mine in a book or movie or on a TV show made me feel like I didn’t belong. There was no place for me.
As a child, I couldn’t articulate my need to see someone like myself reflected back at me by the culture at large, let alone do something about it. As an adult, I could write books for children whose families were considered “different” so that they did not feel so alone.
But two days before I was to step on the plane, Jim Osborn, the head of the University of Wyoming’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Student Group called. He told me his friend Matthew Shepard, who was also a member of the LGBT group, had been kidnapped, robbed, beaten mercilessly, tied to a fence, and left to die. He was discovered 18 hours later by a biker, and was now in the hospital, in a coma. Jim knew that Matt being attacked right before Gay Awareness Week started was not a coincidence. “I would understand it if you wanted to cancel your appearance,” Jim said to me.
The words that flashed through my mind were: If I am not for myself, who am I? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? Jim seemed to think that any speech I could give would have a healing effect on his community. As a Jew, I take the job of tikkun olam very very seriously. So I told Jim that I had every intention of being there.
A few days later, as I gave my speech, my eyes kept wandering to an empty seat in the front row of the auditorium. I pictured Matthew Shepard sitting there. I had seen his picture in the newspaper. I knew he had been on the planning committee for Gay Awareness Week. I knew he had planned on being at my presentation. Instead he had died that very morning, killed by two men who hated him merely because he was gay.
I have always felt that the pen is mightier than the sword. And so I wrote an essay called “Imagine“ in honor of Matthew Shepard and have read it aloud to start off every college presentation I have given since my trip to Laramie. But I knew there was more that I could do. In the past few years, many young people who were bullied for being perceived as being gay had taken their own lives. How to stop the bullying and the suffering? What more could I do? As a published author, I had a voice that people listened to. With this gift comes an obligation. Tikkun Olam. The responsibility of repairing the world.
On the tenth anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder, members of the Tectonic Theatre project, who had gone out to Laramie right after Matt’s murder to conduct interviews to create their theatre piece, The Laramie Project, returned to interview the people of Laramie once more. On the eleventh anniversary of Matt’s death, I attended a performance of The Laramie Project—Ten Years Later: An Epilogue. That night I couldn’t sleep. The words of my mentor, Grace Paley, echoed through my mind: Write what you know you don’t know about what you know. I knew a lot about what had happened to Matthew Shepard. I also knew there was a lot that I didn’t know. And so I picked up my pen. Immediately, a thought entered my brain: use your imagination to create fictional monologues from the silent witnesses of the crime, like the fence, the moon, the wind, and the stars. That’s crazy, I thought to myself. But then I remembered the words of another of my mentors, Allen Ginsberg: first thought, best thought. And with that in mind, I let the words flow out of my pen.
I knew that I would never know what happened to Matt that night. He wasn’t around to tell me. And the two men who killed him have recounted the events in ways that contradicted each other. Even if I could speak to them, I could not rely upon them to tell the truth. And so, I called upon the silent witnesses of the hate crime to tell me what they knew: the truck Matt was kidnapped in, the fence he was tied to, the moon that looked down upon him, the deer that kept him company all through the night. I trusted my imagination to create these fictitious monologues, to tell me what I knew I didn’t know. I wrote 67 poems that explore the impact of Matt’s murder, but when I came to the end of the narrative, I felt something was missing. The book was intended for a teen audience, too young to remember Matt Shepard. How to end such a book without devastating my young readers?
I knew the only way to find out how to end the book was to return to Laramie. Jim Osborn took me around town, to the bar from which Matt was abducted, to the courthouse where his murderers stood trial, and finally to the site where Matt had been beaten and abandoned. I stood at the fence, and hoping G-d would understand, counted the ground, the sky, the wind, two hawks that flew overhead, a pile of snow, several tufts of grass, and myself as a minyan in order to say Kaddish for Matthew Shepard. I placed a stone from my own garden on the fence to show that someone had been there and that Matt had not been forgotten. I sang “Oseh Shalom” with tears streaming down my cheeks, and when I got on the plane to return home, the last poem of the book came to me. Of course the book had to end with a prayer. A prayer for a better world. For all of us.
The land was sold and a new fence now stands
about fifty yards away. People still come to pay
their respects. - Jim Osborn, friend of Matthew Shepard
I walk to the fence with beauty before me
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
I walk to the fence with beauty behind me
I walk to the fence with beauty above me
Om Mani Padme Hum
I walk to the fence with beauty below me
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit
I reach the fence surrounded by beauty
wail of wind, cry of hawk
I leave the fence surrounded by beauty
sigh of sagebrush, hush of stone
OCTOBER MOURNING: A SONG FOR MATTHEW SHEPARD. Copyright © 2012 by Lesléa Newman.
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
I’m in the process of relocating to Monroe, Louisiana from Oakland, California. Love is the reason and answer.
Most of my friends who live in California where I’ve resided for the past 20 or so years can only relate to New Orleans—thank you Gulf Oil Spill, Hurricane Katrina, and also Louis Armstrong.
I wonder to myself, “Can I move to the south from Oakland, California, a city that is smack dab in the middle of the flourishing Bay Area where almost anything is possible to a place where there are no direct flights from or to anywhere and frankly, where I feel like I’m a converso amid blocks and blocks of Baptist churches, where I’m always sweating in 95 degree plus summer heat?”
Okay. You got the drift. So back in the Bay, I was working in high-tech. A specialized niche as a writer. Now what, I ask myself, recently returned from a writing workshop in Istanbul where I attended Shabbos services at an Orthodox Sephardic synagogue, Neve Shalom. The synagogue was bombed twice, the last time being on November 15, 2003. The bombing turned the synagogue into ruins and killed many people. Since then, the building has been restored. Security is tight. I had to submit a copy of my passport several days in advance to be admitted.
The once active community surrounding the synagogue, located near the Galata Tower in the Beyoglu District of Istanbul, has dispersed. Services are held only on Shabbat mornings, special holidays, or occasionally rented out for weddings.
Mel Kenne, a poet and expatriate who translates many outstanding Turkish poets and who lives near the Galata Tower, told me that he often hears Jewish neighbors speaking Spanish. So it seems that all congregants living in the area have not completely moved away.
When I left the synagogue after Kiddush, an accordion player stepped out on the cobblestone streets and started to play Tumbalalaika, a well-loved Ashkenazi tune. Istanbul is a mélange of languages, cultures, and civilizations. When I was there, I wrote a poem entitled, “Faith Has No Name.”
So what am I going to do in Monroe? I don’t want to be a cashier or a security guard, job posts that frequently appear on indeed.com. There’s a different economic basis here, a back and forth between environmental cleanup and ongoing pollution thanks to companies like Dow Chemical, Georgia Pacific, and refineries that form the underpinnings of Baton Rouge. Maybe after years of being a single mom and raising a family, I could dedicate myself to writing full time…I mull the thought over and it mulls well.