Tag Archives: food

Graphic Memoir: The Legacy of Harvey Pekar

JT Waldman co-authored and illustrated the new graphic novel Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me with writer and frequent David Letterman guest Harvey Pekar. Read more about their relationship here.

“It is true enough to say that he was the “poet laureate of Cleveland” or to describe his American Splendor as “Homeric”, but those descriptives are still inadequate. He was the perfect man for his times, straddling…everything: the underground comic revolution of the 60′s, the creation and transformation of the graphic novel, independent film, television, music (the classic jazz he championed relentlessly throughout his life).

He was famed as a “curmudgeon”, a “crank” and a “misanthrope” yet found beauty and heroism where few others even bothered to look. In a post-ironic and post-Seinfeldian universe he was the last romantic–his work sincere, heartfelt, alternately dead serious and wryly affectionate. The last man standing to wonder out loud, “what happened here?”

- Anthony Bourdain, July 13, 2010

Before Harvey Pekar self-published American Splendor in 1976, there were no publicly distributed memoir comic books. Sure, people doodled in their journals or sketchbooks, and some super-hero artists/writers included themselves in their fantastic stories, but before American Splendor, comix were synonymous with fiction and fantasy.

With Harvey Pekar’s writing, underground comix based on mundane personal realities began to flourish.  From travel journals, to anthologies about true porn, the “gonzo literary comic” style of graphic memoirs has become its own cottage industry in publishing.

Here’s a sampling of the wide range of comic book creators who make comic books about their private lives: Allison Bechdel, Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman, Josh Neufeld, Miriam Libicki, Miss Lasko Gross, Marjane Satrapi, Craig Thompson, Brian Fies, David B., Marisa Acocella Marchetto, Seth, Peter Kuper, David Small, and Guy Delisle, to name just a few.

This summer in Toronto, the Third Annual Graphic Medicine Conference will delve into the use of comix in health practices. This year, the highly focused confab will explore depictions of the Outsider or Other in the context of issues such as barriers to healthcare, the stigma of mental illness and disability, and the silent burden of caretaking.

Museums and galleries have also opened their doors to graphic memoirs. Last year, an exhibition entitled “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women” toured the United States.

Graphic memoirs predate blogs, tweets, and Facebook statuses, but the essence and basic components of both media are the same. Today, nearly everyone shares snippets of himself or herself, telling stories to the masses through blurbs and images in sequences. Entire markets are now built around this data.

In the mid-seventies, Harvey Pekar was doing all this before it was ubiquitous and commercialized. He shared his perspective regardless of the number of followers or friends in his circles. Harvey was an archivist and a storyteller at the same time. He was the Paul Revere of graphic memoirs presaging a literary long tail before it was even in sight. He demonstrated that everyone had a voice AND could find an audience. All they had to do was find a pen and start pondering on paper.

Posted on July 3, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Funny, You Don’t Book Jewish

Lois Leveen’s newest novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is now available.

There’s a novel I first read years ago that rang true in deep ways for me: Immigrant parents work hard, and, as a measure of success, move to the suburbs—where their older daughter thrives in school, while the younger daughter struggles socially, especially with her ethnic identity. Introduced to a charismatic, and most certainly unorthodox, rabbi, this younger daughter immerses herself in Jewish learning to steady her passage through the throes of adolescence. Her deepening involvement in the synagogue youth group imbues her with a sense of social justice, and greater confidence about who she is and what she wants. What could be a better example of Jewish-American literature?

Except, the novel in question, Mona in the Promised Land, is about a Chinese-American family. Its author, Gish Jen, is herself the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Jen grew up in Scarsdale, a community she portrays with an amazing mix of accuracy, acerbity, and affection in Mona. Raised in a similar suburban community and only thirteen or so years younger than Jen and her protagonist, I’ve joked that I don’t need to write a novel about my childhood, because Jen already did it for me.

Jen’s novel reminds us that “Jewish” is an identity that is less bound by race or culture than we might initially assume—Mona, after all, converts, making her no less Jewish than any other Jew, even as she integrates Chinese culture with her burgeoning religious identity. But does a book count as Jewish-American literature just because it features Jewish characters? Does it matter if its author (unlike her convert protagonist) isn’t Jewish?

Compare Mona in the Promised Land with The Secrets of Mary Bowser, a novel based on the true story of an African American slave. After being freed and educated in the North, Mary Bowser returned to the South and became a Union spy during the Civil War, by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. From the first page of this fictionalized telling of her story, Mary’s mother regularly converses with Jesus about Mary’s future. Although somewhat skeptical about her mother’s insistence that Jesus has a plan for her, Mary eagerly attends prayer meetings with her parents, and later, when she moves away from her family, seeks solace both at Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel, the founding African Methodist Episcopal church, and at a Quaker meeting. One particularly moving Baptist sermon motivates her to give up her own freedom and return to the South. Later, she articulates her horror at the war’s devastation by doubting whether her participation in such wide-scale violence could really be Jesus’ plan. Not a very Jewish story.

Unless you define the Jewishness of a novel by who wrote it: me.

There’s no doubt I’m a Jew. I’ve got the name, the nose, and the siddur presented to me by my childhood synagogue on the occasion of my bat mitzvah to prove it. I’ve even got a string of writing credits for Jewish publications, from Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal to The Jew and The Carrot, where I served as “the Shmethicist,” an ethical food advice columnist. Surely I’m a Jewish American writer. But does that mean my novel—about an African American raised as a Christian—is best understood as Jewish American literature?

Maybe it’s a sign of my Jewishness that I see the answer as, like so much in Judaism, a matter of textual explication. In creating the character of Mary’s mother, I invoked the Christian faith that sustained many enslaved blacks. But when I read the galleys of The Secrets of Mary Bowser I realized that, quite unconsciously, I also invoked my own Jewish sensibility. Mary’s trajectory is an exploration of what it means to be chosen, in ways that are directly related to my Jewish understanding of that concept as implying a responsibility to serve some greater good. Mary’s relinquishing of her own freedom to serve her community implies a belief in the individual’s responsibility to serve the community through tikkum olam. It places her in a tradition of chosen individuals that includes MosesDanielEsther—even the reluctant JonahThe Secrets of Mary Bowser is an adult novel, but it draws as much on the girl-heroes of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit or The Endless Steppe, the Jewish-themed books I devoured as a child, as it does on the slave narratives and historical accounts of American slavery I studied as an adult.

When I read from The Secrets of Mary Bowser at Oregon Jewish Voices, a program at the Oregon Jewish Museum, the poet Willa Schneberg compared the novel to Storytelling in Cambodia, her book about the Cambodian genocide. The comparison underscored that for both of us, being Jewish writers doesn’t mean writing only about Jewish experience. It means drawing on our Jewish experience to reflect on themes of injustice and social action in myriad contexts.

Read more about Lois Leveen here.

 

Posted on June 26, 2012

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Rising to the Top

Pnina Jacobson and Judy Kempler are the authors of One Egg Is A Fortune.

Food has always been central to Jewish life – it holds both biblical and historical significance and often reflects our Jewish heritage. One Egg Is A Fortune shows that food is a great equaliser and, while considered a “Jewish” cookbook, appeals to the broader community all over. That being said, with thousands of books published annually, it’s sometimes difficult to rise to the top. Wikipedia quotes that in 2009 the U.S. alone published 288,355 new titles and editions. There are also a prolific number of cookbooks published with the popularity of cooking TV shows.

Book competitions are a way to promote awareness and sales. As self-publishers we entered some international competitions to increase the potential for a successful product. And it worked! One Egg Is A Fortune has been recognised on the world stage. It has won 3 awards:

  • Winner at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in the Australia/Pacific fundraising category (Paris, March 2012)
  • A silver medal in the cookbook category in the “World’s Largest Book Awards Contest” for independent authors and publishers in the United States (May 2012)
  • An Indie Excellence Award also in the United States (May 2012)

To be among the multi-award Jewish cookbook winners, including Gil Marks, Claudia Roden, Joan Nathan, Ruth Reichl, Marlena Spieler and Faye Levy, is humbling.

Equally humbling: being acknowledged by our non-Jewish community. Irina Dunn, who runs the Australian Writers Network, wrote: “this is without doubt the most beautiful and original recipe book I have ever laid my eyes on…remarkable in its conception, perfect in its production, beautiful in its execution.”

Zechariah Mehler, a widely published food writer who specializes in kosher cuisine wrote: “A buffet of stories and recipes benefit elder care … one of the most innovative cookbooks to be released in the kosher world.”

We’ll leave you now with a summer recipe:

Watermelon Salad

1 medium seedless watermelon
1 small white onion, very finely sliced
1 tablespoon fresh mint, finely chopped

Remove the skin and any seeds from the watermelon and cut into 2cm cubes.

Toss watermelon and onion lightly together in a large bowl and chill well. Sprinkle with fresh mint before serving.

(Serves 8–10)

Posted on June 15, 2012

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Why Self-Publish?

Why self-publish? The mainstream publishing industry continues to be in a state of flux and when we began our cookbook many publishers were not taking on first-time, high-risk authors. There were small publishing houses willing to take us on, but the return was so minimal that the raison d’être, to raise funds for Jewish elder care, would not eventuate. Self-publishing was the best option to achieve our goal.

After all information gathering was complete, we changed our business plan and became publishers. To ensure credibility and success, and to produce the envisaged high-quality coffee-table cookbook, we employed professionals: a well-known editor, food photographer, food stylist, award-winning graphic designer, indexer, colour correction expert and lawyer. The next step was to produce the physical book. After printing in China, the books were shipped to warehouses in Sydney and Chicago. No easy feat for two women without sponsorship nor experience in the industry.

Our self-publishing route was an enormous task with a mixture of surprise, disappointment, joy and fun. We had our fair share of laughs, from dropping the angel cake onto the floor, with no spare, just before the final photograph to the insisting by one potential contributor on a recipe for lobster thermidor that we could, of course, not use.

After eleven years of determination, One Egg Is A Fortune is available worldwide. Even more importantly, we’ve already been able to make our first donation: to the Centre of Ageing in Sydney, Australia, a community group created to help Jewish seniors to stay in their own homes for as long as practicable.

Blazing Hot Wing Sauce with Beer

A recipe from my friend John Schlimm, author of The Ultimate Beer Lover’s Cookbook

Serves 6

SAUCE

1 packet Good Seasons Italian Dressing (powder)
½ cup margarine
2 cups Frank’s Red Hot Cayenne Pepper Sauce
6 tablespoons beer
12–24 chicken wings or drumettes

Preheat oven to 180°C.

Make sauce: Combine all sauce ingredients in a bowl, mix well and set aside (makes 2¼ cups).
Make chicken wings: Boil wings in a large pot until they rise to the surface. Drain, place the wings into a baking dish and pour over sauce. Bake for 45 minutes or until crispy.
Note: This sauce can also be used as a dipping sauce for chicken tenders.

Aussie-style Blazing Hot Wing Sauce with Beer

Serves 6

SAUCE
2 tablespoons McCormick Italian Seasoning Blend (dry)
½ cup margarine
1 cup white vinegar
1 cup water
2 teaspoons dried cayenne pepper
1 tablespoons hot pepper sauce (e.g. Tabasco)
6 tablespoons beer
12–24 chicken wings or drumettes

Preheat oven to 180°C.
Make sauce: Combine all ingredients in a bowl, mix well and set aside.
Make chicken wings: Prepare chicken wings as above.

Posted on June 13, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

One Egg Is A Fortune

One Egg Is A Fortune is a collection of recipes and stories from fifty prominent Jewish people from around the world. It was compiled by two Australian Jewish women.

one egg is a fortuneOur purpose in publishing this cookbook is to raise funds for Jewish elder care all over the world. It’s hard to imagine a time when our parents and friends grow old, but many of us will find we are called on to assist in their care. It’s then when you may see the perception of the Jewish community that the elderly don’t need assistance and but can support them. This perception is not true. They need help–our help. The aging community continues to grow and with this comes the need to identify physical, emotional and financial help and extra resources.

Judy Kempler was a carer for her late mother-in-law and found just this. Together with Pnina Jacobson, she resolved to make a difference, whether by providing home help, equipment, meals or other things to help people remain independent in their own home and perhaps in some way make life a little better. By inviting prominent people to contribute, all with a diverse range of backgrounds and professions from around the world, we are not only providing for interesting reading, but also reaching a much larger audience.

After centuries of unrest and persecution, the Jewish people have wandered and established themselves across all corners of the globe. Changes have been constant in Australia and with waves of migration, the foods of the new homes were adopted and fused with traditional Jewish cuisine. Australia is a relatively new country, just over 200 years old. Although the first Jewish settlers were convicts, larger numbers arrived in waves, from the gold rush days in search of a fortune to escaping persecution in Russia, the Nazis, to recently leaving South Africa because of apartheid. It isfascinating to see that each wave of Jewish people prepare the same traditional fare, centuries later., butwith perhaps some subtle differences. However, it is the non-traditional foods adopted from other local cultures combined with the availability of a variety of fresh produce all year round as part of the move to eat a “healthier” diet that may in fact over time change these traditional signature dishes. Will chopped liver and egg salad disappear?

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2009 the Jewish population was 13,421,000 worldwide – 5,275,000 in the United States; 107,500 in Australia. In the U.S. there are 157 Jewish Federations and over 300 communities with social, volunteer and educational programs and which raise largeamounts to provide assistance of all kinds. In Australia, the Jewish population is concentrated in the major cities with less and organisations.

The officially elected organisation representing the Australian Jewish community is the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, affiliated with the World Jewish Congress. The ECAJ deals with a wide range of issues including human rights, interfaith relations, refugees, education, Holocaust remembrance, anti-Semitism, Israel and the international community. In addition to ECAJ, each Australian state has many active synagogues, charitable, social and sporting groups.

We are fortunate to be living in better times and our communities have much longer and fuller lives. But with this come other implications about elder care requirements and these statistics highlight this. To entice you, we’d like to share a recipe from the book – from Australia comes a beautiful recipe for slip pancakes from artist Judy Cassab.

Csusztatott Palacsinta: Slip Pancake

Serves 8–10

vanilla sugar
vanilla bean
1 cup icing sugar or caster sugar
5 eggs, separated
50g unsalted butter, softened
50g caster sugar
50g plain flour
1 cup milk
extra butter or oil spray, for frying

Make vanilla sugar: Break vanilla pod into pieces, crush in a blender, stir through the sugar
and set aside.

Make slip pancake: Beat egg whites until stiff. In a separate bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, beat in egg yolks and add in flour and milk. Gently fold in egg whites. Heat a 20cm crepe pan until moderately hot and melt butter or spray with oil. Place a large soup ladle of pancake mixture into the pan and fry it only on one side. When set, slip it onto a 20cm ovenproof round plate. Sprinkle some vanilla sugar on top. Make the next pancake. Stack this over the first one and repeat the process until five thick pancakes have been cooked. Cut into slices like a torte. This can be served at once orprepared ahead of time and reheated for about 15 minutes in a hot oven.

Savoury alternative: To make as an entree, sprinkle each slip pancake layer withgrated cheese and finely sliced mushrooms.

Posted on June 12, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Bageling

Have you ever been ‘bageled’?

Bageling” is:

the conscious act – or speech – of a non-obviously looking Jewish individual to an obviously looking Jew intended to indicate that he or she is also Jewish; or, the conscious act of a non-Jew towards a Jew to indicate his or her affinity with the Jewish people.

An example of the former is when I was on the plane back from Denver and a bare-headed Jew came over to me and said Shalom. He was ‘bageling’ me. He was attempting to indicate with the word Shalom that he too is one of the tribe.

I am sure that many of us have been bageled before. Often all of us have been approached by individuals –Jewish and non-Jews- and befriended or just greeted in order to inform us that the person standing before us would like to connect with us.

In the latter case of a non-Jew, the act of being bageled can be as innocent as the non-Jew also saying Shalomor sometimes – as happened to me at the airport in Denver- much weightier and significant.

So sit back, relax and listen to one more tale of the ‘travels of Rabbi Eisenman’.

My least favorite part of flying is the security check point. Believe it or not- I enjoy the actual flight. After all, I have hours of uninterruptible time by myself; what could be better?

However, the security check point is always uncomfortable for me. I do my best to empty everything in my pockets, hoping that the metal detector alarm will not sound, as I do not want everyone seeing ‘the rabbi’ having to undergo the ‘wand’ treatment.

As I was approaching the security machine in Denver I was quite conscious of the fact that I was the most obviously looking Jew in the airport at the time. I emptied my pockets and waited for the guard on the other side of the metal detector to signal me to begin the shoe-less, belt-less, cell phone-less stroll through the metal detector doorway to the freedom of the plane.

The officer on the other side of the detector was big. He was about six feet three and trim, fit and very stern looking. As I waited to be instructed to begin my walk, I wondered silently if he was physically capable of smiling.

He slowly lifted his fingers ever so slightly and indicated that I was now to proceed through the invisible aura which sees all.

I walked through and looked up at my protector expecting and hoping for ‘the nod’ which would allow me to proceed without further delay.

However, it was not to be.

Officer Cheerful-face indicated that I must approach him.

I slowly neared my ‘defender of the homeland’ with both trepidation and nervousness.

“Will I be whisked off to Gitmo, never to be seen again?

Will I become the next poster child for the Agudah?

Will prayer rallies be held on my behalf?

Will the very same ‘please forward to everyone you know’ emails that I have preciously railed against now be splashed all over the virtual world for my quick and immediate release?

Will the young girls in Bais Ya’akovs all across the globe know my Hebrew name by heart as their pristine and sinless lips fervidly say Tehillim for my redemption?

Will I now write books from the inside of a prison cell in Guantanamo Bay?”

I was now face to face with the law.

He slowly looked me in the eye and then, in a move which no doubt would strike fear in the hearts of the mightiest of men, he motioned to me to come very, very close to him. He then began to look from side to side.

“What is going to happen to me now?

If the person who is supposed to be my protector is now making sure no one else is looking and that no one else can hear us, what is he planning to do?

Could it be that he is secretly related to a choleric and cross congregant who still bears a grudge against the rabbi for his not getting ‘Shlishi’ last Shabbos?

Could it be that he is really a secret admirer of Osama Bin Laden and he has mistaken me as a fellow Taliban?’

Finally, after his being convinced that no one else could hear us, he began his murmured divulgence:

“America must support Israel! The only hope for America is when we and Israel are totally in sync and when there is no difference between our interests and that of Israel. That is the only hope for our country. I just wanted you to know this!”

I nodded and, as quickly as my little legs could transport me, I proceeded to the plane.

Friends, I was just super bageled–with cream cheese and lox as well!

Posted on April 12, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Passover for Non-Bolivians (and a Recipe!)

By now, most people have heard of quinoa, the superfood. With plenty of fiber, protein and vitamins it sounds like a super idea. The problem arises when the time comes to actually prepare this somewhat unfamiliar item and poses a special problem during the upcoming holiday of Passover. Jewish people tend to favor foods from their particular part of the Diaspora during these eight days. And really, how many Jews are actually from Bolivia?  But never fear, we Jews are a glorious melting pot! We may have been kicked out of many places but we wind up taking the menus with us.

Quin-what?

I have recently traveled around the country to do cooking demonstrations in response to my new book, The No-Potato Passover, and I have found that people have a fear and mistrust of this simple Bolivian staple.

But what exactly is quinoa?

Is it a grain? A seed? A vegetable? Help!

Quinoa (pronounced “keen-whah”) is often mistaken for a grain, but it’s actually a seed — one that originated thousands of years ago in the Andes Mountains. Dubbed “the gold of the Incas,” it’s treasured because of it’s nutritive value. Quinoa actually has more protein than any other grain or seed and offers a complete protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids our bodies can’t make on their own. It’s also a great source of calcium and is high in lysine, the B vitamins and iron. To top it off, the seed is easy to digest and gluten free! If you are counting carbs or just want to eat healthier quinoa is your new best friend.

Why has this tiny seed brought forth such huge confusion?

For starters, misinformation, or don’t believe the bag!! Typically, the label will state to boil for 15 minutes. In my experience, quinoa is not ready for consumption before 20- 25 minutes of cooking time. Only when the seed “pops” and it is soft, is it ready to be eaten.
But it doesn’t taste like anything.
A-ha! That’s where you come in. The wonder of quinoa is that you can make it taste like anything you want. Think of the biblical mana that fell from heaven.
Do you like savory flavors? Reach for the pepper and garlic. Middle Eastern more your style? How about cumin and safron?  Use different colored vegetables and tangy fruit to add more texture and “zing” and soon you too will be singing the praises of quinoa. It will supply the wonderful canvas to bring out your inner culinary artist.
Mixed Berry Quinoa with Roasted Almonds



Ingredients:

• 1 cup red quinoa
• 1 cup slivered almonds
• 1 cup white quinoa
• 5-6 medium mushrooms, chopped
• 1 cup golden raisins
• 1 Vidalia onion, diced
• 1 cup Craisins
• 2 tbsp. canola oil
• salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

1. Cook quinoa according to package.
2. In a separate skillet, sauté onions in canola oil until golden brown.
3. Add chopped mushrooms and sauté for one minute.
4. Add raisins, craisins and almonds, and sauté for another minute.
5. When quinoa is ready, add to pan and mix with other ingredients.
6. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Recipe from The No Potato Passover (Brio Books; 2012 Hardcover $29.95)

Posted on April 4, 2012

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On Carrots and Fishes and Jewish Souls

I spent several years traveling the world, trying on different faiths, seeing which one fits. At the end of my journey, I found myself in Tzfat, in northern Israel, diving headfirst into my own faith. The ground I walked in Tzfat felt familiar and foreign at the same time.

One evening, I was invited by a family of Orthodox Jews for a Sabbath at their home. One of them, an impish young man named Asaf, listened intently to my tales of whirling with the dervishes, meditating with the Tibetans. Then he told me a story.

There was this Jew, Asaf said. We’ll call him Moshe. Moshe decided one day he wanted to become Catholic, so he walks to the local church and says, “Father, I’d like to be Catholic.”

“No problem,” says the priest. He sprinkles water over Moshe and says, three times, “You’re not Jewish, you’re Catholic.” He then sends Moshe on his way but with a warning. “We Catholics only eat fish on Fridays. Okay?”

Moshe assures him that is no problem. Except a few days later, on a Wednesday evening, Moshe develops a huge craving for fish. He can’t resist so he slips off to a local restaurant. There, the priest happens to see him tucking into a huge fillet of halibut.

“Moshe! What are you doing? I told you to only eat fish on Friday.”

Moshe, without missing a beat, says, “This isn’t a fish. It’s a carrot.”

“What are you talking about, Moshe? I can plainly see it’s a fish.”

“No, it isn’t. I sprinkled water on it and said, ‘You’re not a fish, you’re carrot, you’re not a fish you’re a carrot…’”

Everyone at the table smiles. Except me. What am I to make of the joke? Am I a fish and always will be? Or am I a carrot with fish tendencies? Or some sort of carrot-fish hybrid? The obvious moral of the story: Go forth and meditate with the Buddhists, do yoga with the Hindus, pray with the Muslims, but you’ll be back. You have a nefesh, a Jewish soul, and nothing you do will ever change that.

At first, I bristled at that notion. We are free—freer than ever before—to choose our own spiritual path, and many people (Jews and non-Jews alike) are doing just that. One out of three Americans will change their religious affiliation over the course of their lifetime. We are, increasingly, a nation of God hoppers.

Or are we? Do we ever fully change?

I don’t think so. We imbibe of the world’s wisdom traditions, from Buddhism to Shamanism, and benefit from them, but the “conversion” is never complete. We always retain, at the very least, our cultural identity—our fishiness—and that is okay. That is good. We need solid footing, or as Archimedes said many centuries ago: “Give me a place to stand and I shall move the world.”

Posted on February 6, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

From Scratch

One of my pet peeves is the veritable deluge of prepared foods and “meal assembly” emporia that has overtaken America and seem to be spreading like a stain across the rest of the world. Walk into any store selling food, and there they sit – ready-to-heat main courses and side of every imaginable ethnicity and ingredient, indistinguishable, or so the labels claim, from home-cooked (and, of course, priced at a hefty premium over the cost of the ingredients themselves). Nor is it only the mains and sides: to see how pervasive the ready-tos have become, take a walk down the aisles of any supermarket and keep mental notes of all the things you can eat right out of the container, or that pre-mix key ingredients (think cake mixes).

Even as recently as 20 years ago or so, an industrial food takeover on this scale was inconceivable, yet very much in the cards. I forget the context, but remember well reading an article in the ’90s that spoke about seasoning mixes that would enable butchers to reap higher profits from value-added, ready-to-cook steaks, roasts, and poultry. At around that same time, during my stint on Wall Street, I worked with the CEO of a company, now defunct, that pioneered treatments for cut fruits and vegetables that all but eliminated discoloration. One has only to look at the proliferation of pre-bagged cut produce to see how visionary the idea was.

What’s behind it? Obviously, from the food processors’ perspective, it’s about profits. Anything you do to an ingredient changes it from commodity to unique product, and in so doing, lowers its vulnerability to the pure-price nature of the commodity markets, taking it instead to a higher realm, where branding and marketing operate to keep prices and profits high. Never mind that the bulk of industrial food processing is based on water and sugar (including fructose sweeteners), the cheapest of additives that also offer processors the advantage of a cheap way to increase weight – both the product’s and the consumer’s (hah!).

There’s a second important financial consideration for the producers as well: labor. From-scratch food preparation requires skilled workers who can command premium wages. The workers needed to cook from mixes and industrial ready-to-heats can be had for minimum wage. Even better, machines don’t get sick or have hangovers, and a retailer can always be certain of having enough product because his distributors will have warehouses full. Once again, technology and industrial production trump competence and experience.

From the consumer’s point of view, those dishes represent savings of time and energy, but at the very dear cost of control and competence. The time issues are understandable. When I was growing up in the ’50s, moms and grandmas stayed at home and had time to shop and cook; today’s economically stressed world puts far more pressure on everyone to go out and find ways to earn money. The simple act of preparing and serving a meal has gone from pleasure to chore, and my grandmother’s pride in feeding her family as given way to a sigh of relief at not having to cook, without the guilt of having failed at this most basic of family responsibilities.

That guilt also is the driving rationale behind the “meal assembly” stores, where people can go to assemble a week’s worth of their own ready-to-heat dinners. Everything is there, pre-cooked and portion-controlled, ready to mix and match into microwaveable containers. It’s exactly the same mindset that built the cake-mix business and propelled bread machines into the appliance mainstream: here’s a way to produce a Rembrandt – or at least an acceptable reproduction – without having to learn how to paint, let alone draw.

At what cost? Monetary, certainly: the ready-tos are substantially more expensive than the sum cost of their ingredients. But more troubling, in my view, is the personal cost. I want to be able to control what goes into the things my family and friends eat. I don’t want chemical life-extenders, mold inhibitors or potentially hazardous additives (think potassium bromate) in my food. I want to decide how my food tastes, not some food chemist who’s motivated by corporate profitability targets and focus-group driven consensus. I want to know how to make the things that please my senses and those of the people I care about, so that I can encourage others to value their own competence.

My wife and I often engage in a revealing dialogue when we go food shopping together. She’ll see a ready-to that she finds appealing and say, “Ooh, let’s try that.” I’ll look at it and say, “Why? I can make it better and cheaper at home.” Sometimes we buy it, sometimes we don’t, and more often than not, when we do, it’s either too sweet, too salty, or both for our tastes (mine, certainly, since she has a far bigger sweet tooth than I). But at least we have the ability to make that choice and still have what we want.

Posted on December 30, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Sweet and Sour

In my grandparents’ homes, as in the shtetlach from whence they came, the food was sweet and sour – just as life itself was sweet and sour. For me, a grandchild of immigrants growing up between two worlds in 1950s America, sweet and sour came to symbolize both the contrasts and convergences of my multifaceted existence.

Sour was during the week. It was school and afternoon heder for me, jobs that took my father and grandfather away from before I woke up until after I had my supper; and for my mother and grandmothers, shopping, cleaning, child-rearing and all the other things stay-at-home wives did back then.

Sour was a pickle or sour tomato for a snack, a piece of sour rye bread slathered with schmaltz and topped with a slice of kosher pickle onion, a lunch of sour cream, farmer cheese and chopped radish, scallion and cucumber; or maybe a glass of ruby red borscht and sour cream, or shchav (sorrel soup) with a raw egg stirred in and chopped scallions on top. Sour was Grandma Annie stirring a spoonful of sour cream into a pot of warm milk, then pouring it into a tray full of patterned yortzeit glasses and leaving it to sour over the pilot light on her white enamel stove.

Sour was the taste of the shtetl, where a piece of sour black rye bread, a bowl of the fermented beet water called rosl and perhaps a dollop of sour cream was a day’s nourishment. After all, what could be cheaper, easier and more provident for the inevitable times of scarcity than a crock filled with sliced beets, left to ferment by the wild yeasts that fill the air? Sour was the sum of their existence.

Weekends were sweet, and so were our holidays. Sweet was the saucer of honey, the sweet-sticky teyglach and cloves-fragrant carrot tsimmes at Rosh Hashanah, and the sweet gefilte fish and oloptzes (stuffed cabbage), for Shabbes. The challah was sweet and pale yellow, with a shiny brown crust that crackled when Grandpa cut it; the prune and apricot compote was sweet (but with a touch of lemon, to remind us of the week past and the week yet to come). Sour held no place of honor at my grandma’s Shabbes table.

Sweet was spending Saturday and Sunday with my parents and extended family, cookies and rugelach from Grandma and Bubbie, cracking pecans and hazelnuts with my cousins after a big holiday meal, visits to the bakery with my father and bringing home cookies and pastries in white cardboard boxes tied with string striped like a barber pole. Sweet was going to the Saturday matinee (20 cents for a double feature, serial, newsreel and 5 color cartoons 5) with my best friend Richie and eating Black Crows, Jujubes and Sugar Daddy bars. Sweet was being allowed to stay up late so my brother and I could sit in front of the TV with our parents, watching Uncle Miltie, Sid Caesar, Groucho Marx and Dragnet.

As I grew older, my life grew sweeter, more American. Instead of a giant sour pickle bought for a nickel out of a barrel of brine, my afternoon snack morphed into a stack of cookies and a glass of milk. Living in the suburbs, away from my grandmothers, we succumbed to the enticements of the mainstream and there we chose to spend our lives, eating sweet and eschewing sour, except as an occasional culinary grace note. Weeks and weekends merged into unremitting sweetness.

Now, in my 60s, I’ve come back to sour with a deeper appreciation of both its taste and meaning. Still, there is one dish, one taste memory, that haunts me: my bubbie’s marnat – chilled sweet and sour whitefish, simmered slow and long with slices of carrot and onion in a peppery-vinegary-sugary marinade that congealed into an aspic and overwhelmed my taste buds even as the fish dissolved in my mouth. Whenever I went to see her in her Brooklyn brownstone, that was the dish I always asked her to make. And to this day, try as I might, I’ve never come close to duplicating it, perhaps because I will never truly know, as all my grandparents knew, the sorrows and joys of sweet-and sour.

Posted on December 28, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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