It’s a fun life being a foodie and a Jew. Granted, aside from Yom Kippur, when we fast and pray for atonement, every other holiday requires a ridiculous amount of food as an accompaniment. Sukkot, the holiday currently being celebrated, is no exception. During Sukkot (which falls five days after the oh so somber Yom Kippur and lasts for 8 days) it is traditional to eat foods that reflect the autumn harvest. For us Floridians autumn means the humidity is down to an 80% instead of 100% and temperatures dip into the high eighties, if we are lucky. But still, autumn.
Sukkot is downright a festival of the outdoors. Sukkah’s, or temporary huts, are built and decorated with all sorts of fruits and foliage. Not only do we celebrate the harvest, but we also commemorate the 40 years of exile that Jews spent after leaving Egypt: two for the price of one.
Pay close attention to my words here: festival, celebrate, commemorate. This is all Jew-speak for EAT, EAT, and EAT.
Seriously, folks, the idea behind this holiday is to gather yourselves together, preferably with a whole bunch of other hungry people, ideally under one big Sukkah overlooking the stars and stuff your faces with lots of amazing food. One big happy Jewish outdoor potluck.
There is a tendency for stuffed foods (peppers, cabbage), possibly reflecting the cornucopia being celebrated, possibly for convenience sake (easy to travel from Sukkah to Sukkah), regardless, it is quite traditional to serve vegetables this way. Tsimmes, which is Yiddish for ‘to make a big fuss over’ is a popular Ashkenazi Jewish casserole served. Ashkenazi Jews find their roots in Eastern Europe. The tsimmes is always sweet and usually a combination of fruit, vegetables, and/or meat cooked together for a long time over a low flame. Honey or brown sugar play a crucial role as sweeteners and carrots and raisins tend to be a favorite addition.
Although I am a Sephardic Jew (whose origins trace themselves to Spain and the Middle East), I enjoy hopping over to the Ashkenazi palate and dabbling in these holiday favorites. Since I don’t have memories of grandmother’s Tsimmes and my wonderful aunts (both stellar chefs) filled our holiday tables with such Sephardic specialties as Braised Chicken with Honey and Tomatoes, Rice with Curry and Raisins, and Moroccan Carrot Salad, I resorted to Joan Nathan, America’s most reliable culinary expert on Jewish Cooking, for my Sukkot tsimmes this year. Instead of the popular carrot taking center stage, this dish is made with mashed sweet potatoes, heightened with pineapple, and, as an ode to Thanksgiving (which is soon approaching) the whole dish is topped with marshmallows and baked.
When I made it for my synagogue, I figured, what dish can go wrong with marshmallows? And I was right. Kids were drawn to it because of its gooey delight, and adults where dazzled by its sweet yet slightly tart taste. Either way, I came out a winner, adding one more satisfying dish under a Sukkah bursting with culinary celebration.
The first time I saw my rabbi dressed up as Buzz Lightyear I knew I was in the right place. Most adults stared uneasily, not sure what to make of this grown man bounding happily in a bright green and white suit, but I felt right at home. My children were with me at the time and quite naturally declared: “Look, there is rabbi Andrew!” just as they would if they’d seen him at Publix, the park, or up on the Bima. There was no mention of the outfit, I assume because he wore it quite well, quite naturally. I’d step out on a limb and confess he even seemed more comfortable in it than the stiff grown-up jackets he’d have to, on many occasions, wear. This was, after all, Purim, the Jewish holiday that, not only allows, but expects silliness to reign. So it seemed fitting that Ramat Shalom would have a real life Buzz Lightyear headed your way.
Sure, there’s the whole logical story behind it: Purim commemorates how Queen Esther and Mordechai saved the Jews from Haman, the evil minister of the Persian king. On this holiday, costumes are worn and the Megillah (the Book of Esther) is read to recount this tale of survival. Hamantaschen, (also called “Oznei Haman”, or Haman Ears in Hebrew) are the treat of choice. I nibble on my husband’s ear on ocassion, but it pales in comparison to this: tiny triangles of tender, buttery pastry curled up against a dollop of tangy apricot, hearty prunes, or, for the lucky ones, rich melted chocolate.
For my kids Purim is equally important in their repertoire of holidays. I assume they’d have to agree with Rabbi Andrew and say it’s because of the costumes- the opportunity to relive the splendor of Halloween, without having an ominous light to it. Catalogues of costumes are meticulously scanned by my daughter and of course, there will be the mandatory visit or two to the party store to scour through their costume section. It is much leaner than the selection they carry in October, but then again, so are the crowds of shoppers, so I don’t mind going several times to appease my kids.
They look at pictures of witches and fairies and superheroes and eagerly discuss amongst themselves what they are going to be. Then, they both turn to me and their eyes light up, two sets of beautiful almond eyes flanked by swooping long lashes lock on me and I know I am in trouble. Their eyes are pools of irresistible power and when they shine in the light just so, swirling in a sea of butterscotch and they blink blink blink those eyes are powerful weapons and I know, whatever it is they want, I know they will get. They know they’ve got me by the way my body just slows to a stop and I wait. Wait for it. Whatever it is. They smell victory. They are good at this, they know. Years of practice pays off. So they ask me, not if, but what I am going to dress up as? If I weren’t under their spell I’d try to tell them Purim is just for the kids to dress up, but I can’t say that, I won’t. After all, their rabbi knows it’s all about goofy fun and is headed to infinity and beyond, so why shouldn’t I?
I could say if I just look at the slope of her nose (ever so slight with a generous finish) I’d recognize that it is exactly like mine and unmistakably connect us but I know what you are thinking: there is so much more to a face, so many more crevices and cracks to throw you off course. You’d say the eyes, the chin, even the hair. And I’d agree, one cannot gage another by merely the slope of the nose but in this case it really is all it took.Because when she turned and I saw her profile, I saw myself in her; ten, maybe fifteen years earlier I was there, only with different colored hair and different colored eyes but still me and I knew right then and there, that even though we never crossed paths before, we were indeed sisters.
Of course, the story doesn’t start or end there.There are many hurdles and heartbreak and mending when one learns one’s father has led a double life and has a whole separate family as a result. It took years to get here and years I was grateful my mother was not alive to live this.But the slope of the nose is where we met and it was followed by the big-hearted smile and the prominent chin:all trademarks of my father’s Abbady genes I had thought for the most part of my life I carried alone only to quickly learn those traits where clearly molded on one of my half-sister’s face as well.
We met on a chilly foggy night in the Andean city of Quito, the remote spot my father had picked to form another life that on this memorable night merged with mine.There was too much past to clutter a future with these two young women, my two half-sisters I never knew about, and so it was time to move forward together.
And with the reliable mediator of food, we did.To begin with, there was the fact that I had landed on the equator, which opened up the door to plenty of exotic and delightful Amazonian fruit with equally strange names such as parcha, tomate de arbol, and naranjillo.There were many I had already encountered growing up in Venezuela such as maracuya (passion fruit) and mora (blackberry), all of which begged to be gobbled up with nothing but impulsiveness and greed.All my mother’s proper Philadelphia stock was put to shame as I dropped any social etiquette and lost myself in a world of sweetness and flowers and juice which I couldn’t fully experience without fingers, extra drool and a very drippy chin.To think Eden lost it all for a measly apple?Oh the damage that could have happened here!
We had the fortune of our visit coinciding with Semana Santa (Holy Week), which, in a country where Roman Catholicism reigns, is taken very seriously, right down to the food.Large makeshift shacks abound housing sweaty women stirring big pots of fanesca, a traditional hearty soup served during this meat-prohibited time consisting of beans and dried cod and garnished with eggs, fried plantains, heart of palm, and (if you’re fortunate) fried cheese empanadas.You can pick any crowded intersection in Quito, drag a dirty plastic chair up to the communal table and dig in alongside businessmen in grey Armani suits, families overflowing with children, or curious tourists like me.
There were other succulent flavors with the indelible stamp of Ecuador: Ceviche de Camaron, plump, marinated shrimp swimming in a bath of citrus, cilantro and red peppers or Encocado, which translates to “in coconut” and is the country’s trademark fish dish of sea bass bathed in fresh coconut sauce served alongside fried green plantains and a big mound of white rice. Salchipapas, the popular street food consisting of thick slices of fried hotdogs served on a bed of French fries and coated with your choice of pink, yellow or spicy aji sauce easily elevated frankfurters to a whole other level.
Of course, we ate our way through any awkwardness, quietly comparing notes of our parallel lives guided by the same patriarch and by the end of each meal we were fuller and better for it, one step closer to closing the enormous gap of secrecy and time that lay before us.And then we had our Passover dinner, the ultimate family meal for a group learning to be a family.There was laughter and prayers and countless glasses of sickly sweet wine, and then, alas, there was food, lots and lots of food.My sister and half-sisters where all there, the children ran around freely and my father, with his partner Lucia by his side, had a twinkle in his eye I hadn’t seen in years.And just as this strange trip began to settle into a faint sense of normalcy, something happened that seemed to seal the deal:
Dessert was served.
And not just any dessert.A delicious dessert. A wonderous dessert.A very Abbady dessert.Something I could see my aunt Miriam present in her cramped Jerusalem apartment along with a pot of Café Turki.After all, this was Crème Bavaria, an Israeli favorite.
The ethereal square of white gently drizzled with rich chocolate and dusted with a bit of chopped walnuts was placed before me.Lucia sat humbly next to my father, weathering the silence of a group of already tough critics.Her eyes jumped nervously between my sister and I and our families as she contended with the room’s silence.But the silence was soon broken by harmonious oohs and ahhs as, one by one, we all fell prey to the smooth and light creaminess of her Crème Bavaria, quickly and gently forgiving the misstep of using leavening during Passover as we bit into the rum-infused sponge cake resting on the bottom.
It was an instant of wonder and hope where I realized that as painful and real as many of the circumstances that created this group where, there was a chance that through such delicious moments, things could and should get better.My half-sister and I were sitting across each other.Half way through our dessert, among the buzz of contentment, our eyes met and we grinned the same grin.We were both blissfully stuffing ourselves with Crème Bavaria, making a start in the right direction guided by a happy, full stomach.
Some things have to be said without shame and straight out. This is one of them: I love oil. Not the kind that leaks out of my convertible 1970’s red Beetle, but the kind that sizzles, sputters and splashes all over my kitchen counter while feverishly altering some bland forgettable food into culinary ecstasy. Yes, I know it’s not politically correct to adore oil as I do, I realize the health implications, I know an embarrassing percentage of the American population is obese and we are all much more sedentary than we should be. Still, I can’t help myself. I merely try to use restraint, purchase plenty of carrots and celery, drive by the gym frequently, and wait with great anticipation for that fabulous moment when it will be acceptable,required;, to pull out my deep fryer: Hanukkah. Hanukkah, which begins next week, represents eight days of culinary glory where Jews are encouraged to eat foods cooked in oil, to represent the oil in the menorah that miraculously burned for eight nights instead of one during the battle between the Macabees and King Antiochus, many, many years ago.And so, with great pomp and circumstance, the deep fryer comes back out from its hiding place in the garage and stands proud and shiny on my kitchen counter where it will steal the show night after night with an assortment of fried goodies. During this time no health experts can give me or my conscience a hard time. Greasy foods become a prerequisite for my religion and my traditions and there’s no messing with that.
Autumn is supposed to mean change. Trees grow anemic as their leaves depart in brilliant colors, days get darker, and the general mood is meant to shift to cold.And in most of our cities, it does. Current temperatures read as such:New York City: 66 degreesBoston: 67 degreesSt. Paul: 63 degreesChicago: 65 degreesBut here in South Florida, the weathervane is buzzed from too much sun. While we did dip down to 88 degrees, the heat index bumped us up to a defiant 101 degrees. It seems that in the Sunshine State there are no signs of leaves falling or fireplaces crackling, and the only pumpkins we see are the ones rotting in the sun in the few undeveloped lots forgotten between rows and rows of strip malls.Heat index and all, I like what fall respresents and therefore trick myself into feeling the autumn cheer. And what better way to trick the mind than through food? Cooler days beg for heartier meals. The swift and simple summer dishes are replaced by a craving for something a little more substantial. Stews, soups, and anything swimming in lots of sauce always serve as nourishing, hearty fare.To welcome fall, even under current muggy Florida conditions, I like to make Brisket with Pomegranate Sauce. October is the season for the pomegranate, considered the current darling fruit of this country, not only for all its antioxidant properties, but more so for its tart and captivatingly rich flavor. Pomegranate has always had a tasty spot in my memory. I spent many a lazy afternoon under the pomegranate tree of my dear friend Raquel’s house in Venezuela, sharing secrets and munching away on endless amounts of bright red seeds that exploded with flavor. This dish serves as the perfect tango of tart and subtle, with an extra helping of sauce to go with it. Now this isn’t your two-second summer dish. Give this one the extra time it needs. Making it a day or two in advance always helps: the longer the meat sits, the tastier it gets. So, kick off your shoes, enjoy the cooler air (or a/c) and get started on your autumn cooking.