Some folks are born with the balabusta gene and others are not. It’s that simple. If you didn’t happen to grow up where the term balabusta was freely thrown about, let me try to define it for you. I say “try” because Yiddish is a language that requires paragraphs of explanation for one tiny word. Nu, let’s give it a go.
In the glossary of my first cookbook I define a balabusta as the perfect homemaker. She cooks, she cleans, she bakes, she owns the best spice rack. And she does it all with grace, donating her spare time to local charities.
My grandparents were blessed with the balabusta gene (like most everyone from the old country), which comes along with natural cooking instincts that sense exactly what’s needed to make a dish sing. Yet, like twins, it skipped a generation or two and I was born clearly defective in this area. As my grandfather would say to anyone that would listen, “she’s no balabusta.”
For most of my life, it didn’t matter. As far as my mother was concerned, I was destined to become the first Jewish woman president of the United States, and I would have a squad of chefs preparing my state dinners anyway. My dad would kinda show me on the sly how to scramble an egg and how to turn on a stove, skills he deemed useful in emergencies. (That and how to replace a carburetor.) But the lessons (both kitchen and car) didn’t take.
I did my best to learn once it became important to me. That’s code for “I got married and Hubby asked me ‘what’s for supper?’” Funny, he never mentioned he’d be expecting dinner on our dates.
He was in for some inedible awakenings. But I saw how important it was to him, so it became important to me. I was gonna become the balabusta of the century, come hell or high water.
So I experimented and Hubby choked down every morsel. After a couple of years I had this thing under my belt (and on my hips). At last, I crowned myself a “Balabusta” (well no one else was gonna make me kitchen royalty).
But neither Hubby nor I was ready for the sudden emergence of Extreme Balabusta. I’m sure it was the result of one of those hormonal domestic frenzies; it happened just before I had a baby. Like a culinary Madame Curie, I spent ten straight hours making 60 quarts of chicken soup and froze them in individual 2-quart containers. Then I made 120 carrot muffins and froze them in bags of 8-10. Next I produced 4 challah kugels, and a huge brisket (frozen in 3 separate portions), and 90 meatballs (frozen 10 to a container), and 10 pounds of mashed potatoes (also portioned and frozen). We’re talkin’ really hormonal. My mother-in-law looked on in disbelief as I had humongous pots (almost as big as my humongous belly) bubbling on all 5 burners. There was 12-quart vat in which I was mixing my muffin batter, and enough ground beef to compete with Kosher Castle (that’s the Jewish Burger King).
So I had a freezer full of homemade goodies that lasted well into the year. But by the time the baby was three months old, I had to reactivate that balabusta mechanism which had gone dormant. I actually had to cook dinner.
And as Yogi Berra famously said, “It was déjà vu all over again.” I discovered that I had not endowed myself with a genuine balabusta gene; I had simply copied it by artificial means. I had to drag myself back into that kitchen, with Hubby prodding me along as my ever-hopeful cheerleader.
It was time to start over.
In my late teens, when the Air Supply song “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All,” was popular, I developed an allergy to wheat flour and white flour. Although it’s not as restrictive as a gluten allergy, it gave me a legitimate reason to pass on most of the foods that define us culturally. Matzo, matzo balls, latkes, challah, kugel and bagels were all out. My sisters joked that I got to “eat food out of nothing at all.”
As a result of my allergy, I’d spend most of the Jewish holidays as a young adult sitting around lightheaded, thinking about Farrah Fawcett in her red bathing suit, and wondering what the big deal was about Jewish food. My aunt Ernestine tried making me a charoset birthday cake with parsley icing one year, but it just made me feel more strange around my friends.
And so, I got to suffer through the dark ages in terms of gluten-free products. From the Middle Ages when everything had the consistency of corrugated fiberboard to today when everything tastes like a synthetic rubber automobile floor mat combined with a Ralph Lauren pillow case. (Actually, today, most if not all GF products, actually taste like the odd assortment of things in the discount bin at Urban Outfitters.)
All of this got me thinking about a theme snack for my future book club appearances. Since I’m southerner and I’m Jewish and I’m wheat-free, I’ve decided that the preferred food for my book club should be wheat-free vegetarian matzo ball soup and sweet tea. To help you host wheat-free authors like myself, here are the recipes for both the soup and the tea.
Slash’s Special BohoXO Wheat-Free Vegetarian Matzo Ball Soup
2 boxes of organic vegetarian stock (or make your own)
2 cups of water
3 stalks celery (finely chopped)
2 TB of salt (more to taste)
1 cup parsley
2 cups crushed up rice crackers
1/2 cup crushed up rye crackers
2 TB wheat free tamari
¼ cup of water
2 eggs or egg substitute
1/8 cup of rice flour
1/8 cup potato flour or other wheat-free flour
Bring stock to a rolling boil for fifteen minutes and then lower to medium heat.Combine all matzo ball ingredients in a bowl except the flour and stir well until it becomes a glob-like mass. Add flours and stir until the balls become a bit dryer. From the mass, form into testicular-sized balls (or golf-sized balls) and drop them gently into the broth. Your little globlets will be done in about 30-40 minutes. Don’t stir them too much or they will break apart and disintegrate into nothingness. Serve in costume, preferably with a lot of hot, barefoot Jewish friends around.
Slash’s Special BohoXO Southern Sweet Tea
2 cups of white sugar
1 Lipton Tea Bag
1 ice cube
1 large glass
Fill a a large glass with white sugar. Place an ice cube on top of the sugar. Place the glass in a warm room without an air conditioner for 10 minutes or until the ice cube melts. Put a Lipton tea bag between your teeth. Swigging the whole concoction down. Enjoy!
Last year in Berkeley, Rae and I attended the Deli Summit to discuss the direction of Jewish food and deli culture, and since then we’ve been working on a way to continue the conversation. On October 12th we’ll be hosting a Shabbat dinner for the NYC Wine and Food Festival and we’ve invited friends from around the country to join us in preparing an epic nine-course meal. It only seems fitting since the Shabbat table and my Nana Lee’s kitchen are my very first memories of food and cooking—Me, sitting on the counter, her, presiding over the stove like any great chef. That sense of time, place, and ritual gave meaning to my family’s week as the Shabbat table has for so many Jews, both secular and religious. It is a place to ask questions, to air grievances, to express gratitude, and sometimes, to simply close the week at peace with a warm bowl of chicken soup. I hope this Friday’s opportunity to gather around our Shabbat table will bring to light the potential for Jewish cooking as food that we eat during special occasions and everyday at home. Similarly, we wish to inspire those attending to question the core of Jewish foodways and to strengthen their commitment to its survival.
The next day, on Saturday October 13th, along with Tablet Magazine and ABC Home we’re presenting the Future of Jewish Food, a tasting and talk with the country’s foremost practitioners, thinkers and critics. From 5:30 – 9 PM at the ABC Home Mezzanine we’ll bring together Gail Simmons, Mitchell Davis, Jordana Rothman and Josh Ozersky for a panel moderated by Joan Nathan about Jewish food in the home and then we’ll have a second panel with the deli men from Wise Sons (SF), Kenny & Zuke’s (PDX), Saul’s (Berkeley), and Mile End moderated by David Sax. Unlike the night before where the food will do the talking, this discussion is an amazing gathering of some of the finest practitioners of Jewish cooking — people who have committed themselves to examining and celebrating our rich culinary history while simultaneously innovating and moving forward the conversation about its future. With a variety of opinions and perspectives, I’m expecting a very lively conversation.
After all the eating and talking there will be more eating with a tasting of house made pastrami and smoked meat from each of the delis plus a book signing with all of the panelists.