My year of eating heavy Eastern European food copiously

May 3, 2010 at 12:03 AM 6 comments


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For twenty-one years, my bona fides as a responsible adult have been practically impeccable. What could tip me back into a life of decadence?

When he was twenty-one, Michael Henchard got plastered and sold his wife and baby to a sailor at a fair. The next morning when he was sober, Henchard realized what he had done and swore off all strong liquors for the next twenty-one years. Then he reverted to his drunken ways.

You’re probably sifting through current events to see where this story fits in with the recent ones about the investment bank that bet against its clients; the prime minister who badmouthed one of his constituents; a federal government that dragged its feet in the face of yet another environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

This story actually made the news in 1886. It is the premise for a novel by Thomas Hardy called The Mayor of Casterbridge. I’m thinking about the Hardy novel now because of the many recent books in which writers decide that they are going to do something for, say, a year, and when the year is over, they can resume the conventional life they temporarily gave up.

Peter Mayle started the trend with A Year in Provence. More recent time-bound books include Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life; Julie Powell’s My Year of Cooking Dangerously, and William Alexander’s 52 Loaves. You can’t tell by the title of Mayle’s book, but it too involves eating, beginning with a six-course lunch and pink champagne in January and ending in December with gigot and marc.

Maybe I spend too much time on the New Jersey Turnpike, but it occurred to me while driving home from my parents’ house in the southern part of the state that I might have a “year-of” book in me too. It’s called My Year of Eating Heavy Eastern European Cooking Copiously, or less flippantly, My Sabbath Year At Table. My book would differ from its forebears in one particular: I would write about a regular weekly occurrence, not about an atypical dining experiment that would end on the last day of the year. Moreover, my focus would be on two things: the characters I eat with on Friday night or Saturday afternoon, and what it takes to prepare the two meals for the weekly day of rest.

My father the !Kung hunter-gatherer

My parents start shopping for the Sabbath on Wednesday. Now that my father is up and about after a winter spent convalescing from a fractured kneecap, he drives to Produce Junction in Mount Laurel for his vegetable rations. My mother rides shotgun and prays that my father’s eighty-five-year-old vision and reflexes do not cause an accident. At the bulk produce outlet, they are expert at buying asparagus, turnips, mushrooms, lemons, potatoes and scallions. If I plan on joining them for the meals, they also will pick up red leaf lettuce instead of iceberg, mangoes and “that black vegetable,” which they can never remember is called “avocado.”

The trip to the kosher butcher on Route 70 is a brief stopover because they have called in their meat order by Tuesday.

My parents’ foraging for foodstuffs inside the gargantuan South Jersey ShopRite would excite any anthropologist interested in studying hominid food-gathering on the basis of age, gender, religion, ethnicity and nationality. I have never seen anybody shop the way my parents do.

My father parks the car as close to the store as possible because my has mother sciatic pain in her legs.

My father pulls a cart the size of a Mini Cooper out of the shopping cart train outside the automatic doors. My mother argues with him that he is overdoing it and if he’s not careful, he will get a heart attack. The argument keeps them both in fighting trim.

Inside the store, they compare the vegetable prices to those at Produce Junction. Occasionally, they’ll find prices at ShopRite that even Produce Junction cannot beat. Strawberries in season, for example.

“Nothing to do about it now,” they say like Jeremiah in Lamentations.

After the financial analysis of vegetables and fruit ends, my mother takes charge of the shopping cart and my father embarks on a hunt that rivals the food-gathering efforts of the southern African Bushmen. He might begin with the pharmacy, where he renews his prescriptions and my mother’s for the fifteen-odd medications between them. Then he roves. He is the one responsible for finding the sale on bread (Pechter’s is his favorite because it will outlive all organic life after a nuclear war), orange juice (from oranges, not concentrate), milk (whole for him, skim for me) and Stella D’Oro Anisette Toast. My father’s homing intelligence aids in his locating my mother, who can be found in the aisles looking for cleansers, detergents and aluminum foil that she can buy with her double-coupons.

The time spent in different store aisles is nearly the only time these days that my mother and father are not together.

Salad as rich as steak

I’m not much of a group person, so Saturday lunches with my parents account for much of my socializing. When the guests trickle in after the synagogue service, I preoccupy myself with making the salad. The more ingredients, the longer it takes for me to produce this extravaganza that my father says costs more than steak. Cubing and dicing suit me fine because I am much too awkward to engage in chitchat. Serving the salad after the bread, turnip-egg salad and soup courses also gives me something to do other than talk.

The liberal-conservative divide used to be a nightmare when Dr. Shulman* was alive. Dr. Shulman, an internist, would not scruple to call you an idiot if you questioned the existence of God; if you doubted the literal divinity of the Torah; if you thought evolution made sense; if you were a registered Democrat; if you took Lipitor®, which was designed to destroy your liver cells, instead of the homeopathic remedies he recommended. Occasionally, a guest as grinding as Dr. Shulman will join us for lunch — nature abhors a vacuum — and I spend as much time as possible making and serving salad.

The rest of the table, though, is a mash-up of complicated feelings that traipse and flop all along the political and cultural continuum.

The subject of Al Jazeera came up. I braved a comment about several AJ features I had seen on a BBC TV program that comes on weeknights after the Tavis Smiley Show. Its predictable anti-Israel perspective notwithstanding, AJ puts together riveting cultural material about the Arab and Moslem world. When an episode is engaging, as the one about Turkish soap operas was, I am sad, very sad, that Moslems and Jews are eternal enemies.

Arkady Kochanov, a portly computer programmer and one-time refusenik, looked me in the eye and said, “The Arabic culture is a great culture.” Arkady is so staunch in his religious observance that he acknowledges only Judaism as a valid area of study. He is the last person from whom I would expect to hear an endorsement of anything Arabic.

Albert Brand, a chemical engineer for thirty-five years until he retired, talked about the polychlorinated biphenyls that were once considered acceptable in the manufacture of coolants, and the chlorofluoromethane that made Freon a culprit in the destruction of the ozone layer. Once an engineer, always an engineer: Albert uses the full names of these chemicals, not the abbreviations. He and Viktor, Arkady’s twenty-nine-year-old son, had a conversation about water pressure (I think) that lost Arkady’s wife, Larissa, and me. The two of us talked about the concert seasons at Carnegie Hall and the Kimmel Center in Philly.

Everybody at lunch agreed that the the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig was an environmental disaster, but nobody, not even Albert, could say what the long-range effects of the spill would be.

“It’s not good,” Albert said.

We all nodded. Even my father, who measures all disasters against the grand disaster of the Holocaust, said the explosion and spill were terrible. My mother probably would have agreed, but even with her hearing aid, she has a hard time making out the voices in a conversation.

Finally, Steven Konwiser, a sixtyish seller of fire extinguishers, initiated a discussion about healthcare reform that I expected would send the entire table up in flames. He said he had no idea what Obama’s healthcare legislation would yield, but the current state of affairs, where people couldn’t afford to see a doctor, had to change.

I have no idea what Arkady and Larissa really thought. As vehement anti-communists, they hate everything to the left of the Republican Party. But they were thoughtful when Steven said he wanted to provide some kind of healthcare plan to his two employees, but he couldn’t afford it.

Everybody at that Sabbath meal — from pro-Obama Viktor Kochanov to his Glenn Beck fan-parents — agreed that in the U.S., healthcare insurance was available to the very poor, the wealthy and people who work for companies or organizations that provide insurance plans.

Nobody came to blows. Nobody called anybody else an idiot. I could stop serving salad and enjoy the rest of the meal.

As wonderful as Ed Grimley’s Christmas

I’ll tell you something that would have Dr. Shulman screaming for my excommunication: Sometimes I believe in God, sometimes I don’t. I have no ambivalence, though, about the Sabbath. For me it is as wonderful as Christmas is to Martin Short’s Ed Grimley. Without it, my world would be smaller. My affection for people would be hemmed in by suspicion and doubt.

As for writing 52 Sabbaths — I’m not sure I can really do that. The Sabbath has been a day of surprising confidences from burdened friends. The day is a way into the lives of the most discrete people when they think nobody is paying attention to them.

Now and then I wonder if I am fated to be a Michael Henchard, who for twenty-one years paid out his contrition in the coin of abstinence — and then ran back to his old decadent ways. No Sabbath table except my parents’ ever permits complete freedom of expression. Other tables have restrictions on controversial topics. Some permit only one discussion, usually about the food (“Too dry? Too spicy? Too cooked out?” etc.) The worst are the Sabbath tables where the men talk about synagogue politics and the women take refuge in the kitchen appliances they want to buy.

And I think to myself, “How close to the surface is the life that I once lived and pushed away!”

* All names in this blog post, except those of public personalities, have been fictionalized.

Photo is provided courtesy of elanaspantry.com.

See also: Why eat food that makes you sick? Levana Kirschenbaum talks about In Short Order, a cookbook that offers an alternative way of eating to the sugar-, salt- and fat-rich foods of all too many North American diets. Take a look too at Levana cooks dairy-free! BOOK, KINDLE

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Entry filed under: Family, Judaism, Religion. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

My handyman, the thief My ever-new and unknowable mother

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Elaine Bloom  |  May 3, 2010 at 12:09 PM

    I bet you could write a terrifc book on 52 Sabbaths. I would love to read it. It should be your parent’s Sabbaths now, maybe going to some different communities to experience their Sabbaths. Maybe some interesting Sabbaths from the past.

    Sabbath customs, food, etc. I think it could be terrific.

    Reply
  • 2. Sara Bennett  |  May 3, 2010 at 12:14 PM

    Reminds me of Friday night dinners at my grandparents when I was young.

    Reply
  • 3. Urban Renaissance  |  May 3, 2010 at 1:44 PM

    What an insightful observation, that one can only truly express oneself at one’s parents’ Sabbath table.

    My parents’ Sabbath table was the place where I was introduced to existentialism and to Marxism. We didn’t spend much time on the parasha; there were too many other interesting topics to discuss. Though my parents’ broadness of mind only went so far, and I remember the great big fight of my junior year, when I announced my intention to take a course in the philosophy of religion.

    Other people’s Sabbath tables remain minefields, where I must carefully take stock of the religious and political leanings of the hosts and guests, as well as their tolerance for deviation from their norms, before I open my mouth. I am hampered, too, by my total disregard for shopping of any sort, whether high fashion or appliances.

    Not to mention that it is considered rude to show that one knows more than a man on a topic which is considered to be in his field of expertise. Which includes the entire Talmud, of course.

    No wonder I often wind up tongue-tied at these meals. Several times, a well-meaning hostess has seated me next to an eligible man, who afterward reported to her (causing her to feel obliged to report to me) that I had nothing of interest to say.

    Indeed.

    Reply
    • 4. modestine  |  May 3, 2010 at 1:50 PM

      My experience at most Shabbat tables is much like yours (except I don’t know anything about the Talmud and can only speak about it in ignorance). This is why my parents’ Shabbat table is so nice. I have told my mother and father that the level of discussion at their table is higher than the Shabbat tables of much better educated people. Moreover, I never hear my parents say anything unkind about some of the truly odd (disturbed?) people they have hosted. The greatness of their Shabbat table brings home to me acutely the greatness of the eastern European civilization we lost in the 1930s and 1940s.

      Reply
  • 5. Pesha  |  May 4, 2010 at 12:37 PM

    You essay is a great advertisement for ‘Make Friday night family dinner night,’ esp. when it includes people from all different walks of like and when no topic is censorable.

    Reply
  • 6. Brother Sol  |  May 10, 2010 at 2:05 AM

    If one of Al Jazeera subjects was about the consumption of our mother’s delicious sponge cake concoction at the Shabbat table, I guarantee Christians, Moslems and Jews would forever be at peace with one another!

    Reply

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