Friday, May 15, 2009

Gastronomic Judaism

Our family sailed through the 1950s and 1960s on the wave of convenience foods and fads, but my mother insisted on tradition when the holidays rolled around. Saturday through Thursday we dined on meat loaf, skirt steaks, chicken, and occasional TV dinners. Vegetables came from the can--usually peas and carrots--and we had a slice of melon before the meal in the summertime.

Fridays, in some bizarre reflection of old world culture, mom celebrated "dairy day". I thought only Catholics celebrated that. For us, it meant frozen fishsticks from the box, tuna casserole, or the occasional fillet. I hated Fridays. Sundays, however, we went out to eat somewhere to give mom a break, usually Chinese or Italian food.

Some nights, when the Dodgers were in San Francisco and the game was on the tube, we had pizza or hamburgers or TV dinners in the den and watched the battle in black and white. I tasted my first beer then, when dad offered a sip off of his can of Busch. My parents drank so infrequently it was a treat. Later, it made me confused to think that alcoholism was considered predetermined by your genes since I could count on one hand the number of times I witnessed my parents drunk.

Whatever we ate, my favorite portion was the largest piece of anything. I was a preemie, a scrawny kid that the nurse held in one hand, and so my mother made sure I never went wanting. I usually ended up with whatever she hadn't finished slid over from her plate.

Into her 80s, my mother still cooks spreads for the holidays, getting down the fancy plates and silverware, the goblets and glassware, and the crystal salt and pepper shakers. She opens up the dining room table, adding the extra boards that lengthen it for family, putting down the pads and white linen.

The Jewish holidays are spaced throughout the year, matching up with the seasonal holidays celebrated by gnostic tribal traditions before the formalized Judaic-Christian feasts of spring, fall, and winter. And each arrives with its special symbolic foods and wine. On Passover, the table opened out to seat uncles and aunts and cousins, sometimes a distant relative who strayed to the West Coast. By turns we had Sol and Fay, Shirley and Mort and Naomi, Bobbie and Les, and Jerry and Beth, and when it was a large crowd, my brother and sister and I were banished to a folding bridge table reserved for kids.

My father issued the faith wear, yarmulkes for all who would take them, then he'd sit at the head of the table and work his way through the seder book, taking as long as possible to march through the prayers until my mother scowled and went into the kitchen to bring out bowls of chicken matzoh-ball soup, announcing that the prayers were over.

We ate chopped chicken livers on matzoh, gefilte fish with horseradish, soup with matzoh dumplings, beef brisket, potato latkes with sour cream, asparagus, pickles, olives, and more matzoh, followed by coffee and kosher pastries and cookies that, frankly, tasted like cardboard.

On holidays where we could eat leavened flour, Mom and I would usually drive over to the bakery by Dales to pick up a challah or rye bread. We ate chopped liver on rye with mustard or ketchup. I am decidedly a ketchup guy. And I never refer to it by its gentile spelling, catsup. (Oddly enough, the word originates as ke-tsiap, a Chinese word for fish sauce.) On rare occasions, a relative would mail out a sleeve of Nathan's hot dogs from Coney Island and I'd slather it with ketchup, much to the dismay of my mother, who is a mustard gal.

Whenever I go home, even if it's between holidays, my mother always has some frozen brisket for me to take back on the airplane. When I was in college, I'd go home for holiday meals and drive back with a care package of kosher food and freshly folded laundry. One thanksgiving, I stopped along the long, lonely stretch of Interstate 5 to pick up a hitcher, a scraggly fellow who hadn't eaten in a while. When he got out near San Jose, I gave him a box of matzoh, a glass jar of gefilte fish, and a bottle of borscht (red Russian juice with slivers of beets). I wonder if he left it on the side of the road.

In the mid 1980s, when I was teaching at the University of Illinois, I was invited to a Thanksgiving pot luck and decided to try my hand at baking a challah. It's a braided loaf of egg bread with raisins, onions, and seeds, coated with yolk and baked until the outside has a golden, crispy crust. It's easy to make and it confers great honor on you since it looks like a labor of love. And it should be.

After the first success, it became my dish of choice for pot lucks. For one thing, it was always larger than the turkey, and therefore drew great and astonished praise. And, best of all, there was always enough for everyone. For days, I'd make french toast from the leftovers. I borrowed the recipe from an Eastern European cookbook, sometimes using poppy seeds instead of sesame.

Here's how you do it:

  • 2 teaspoons (or packets) of instant yeast
  • 3 1/2 cups of pre-sifted, unbleached all-purpose flour (or substitute one cup of whole wheat)
  • 1/4 cup very warm water
  • 4 large eggs, plus 3 for the batter, one for coating the risen loaf before baking
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup softened honey
  • one onion, chopped, two cups of raisins (optional)
  • sesame or poppy seeds
Mix the yeast, honey, and warm water in a bowl and let it rise for 15 minutes.

In a separate bowl, add oil, beaten eggs, yeast mixture, salt, and that order. Mix thoroughly, adding onions and raisins (optional). Form a large ball of dough (if too dry, add a little water); coat the ball with oil and let it rise under a warm cloth for half an hour.

Punch it down, and let it rise again, with a freshly warmed cloth for another hour and a half in a warm place.

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and coat it with oil. Divide the dough into one long strip and two shorter strips and let each rise for another 15 minutes.

Lay the long strip in the center, attach the two shorter strips at one end and knead the end into a single piece. Braid the shorter strips around the large center piece and knead the opposite end when done. Paint the top with beaten egg yolk and dot with seeds of your choice.

Put the loaf into a preheated 325°F oven and bake for 25-30 minutes. It's done when a toothpick pressed into the center of the loaf comes out clean. Let it cool on a rack before slicing. You can easily cover it in plastic wrap to schlep it elsewhere. Smile when people worship you. Tear off pieces and butter liberally.

Repeat as necessary.


tangobaby said...

Gabby, you are the MAN.

Now we get a RECIPE?!

Not that I'm going to make it (it's me, not you... I'm sure your recipe is lovely) but wow, I am totally giggling.

And also laughing about the slice of melon and the folding bridge table. Is there some sort of Jewish Family Guide that our parents received? I'm a few years younger than you so how come we have the same family memories?

ps. That Streitz honey cake (the mix you get for Passover) totally tastes like balsa wood. My mom loves it. I don't get that one at all.

Starlene said...

Oh man, I am drooling now. My grandma (stepdad's mom) started sending us packages of blintzes, matzoh, and rugalas and bagels from the Jewish deli when we moved away from New Jersey but you can't send soup, and she made awesome matzoh ball soup. I miss it. And I haven't had any Challah bread in I don't know how long. Now that I'm being reborn as a more rebellious version of Donna Reed, maybe I'll try my hand at your recipe. A recipe passed on is somehow always better than a recipe found on : )

A Cuban In London said...

Really, man, that build-up towards the recipe was great to read. You had the privilege of family dinners. People just don't do that anymore, do they? Many thanks for another fabulous tale.

Greetings from London.