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Holiday Food

It happens every September: the holidays.

Yet, somehow preparation seems less this year, Rosh Hashanah always providing an opportunity to try out new recipes, but I’m feeling laid back and so in contemplating deserts, the end rather than the kickoff to the meal, I revert to a low fat chocolate cake. Truthfully, it is sweets more often than the savouries that entrap me. The Canadian Jewish News presents, as always, an tempting array of apple cakes in multiple ways so I decide to combine two recipes. But one delectable desert offering will never suffice as my eaters will groan, but actually anticipate at least a second or even a third. My friend a thespian from Stratford, a superlative chef once made a plum cake, explaining the purple- blue plums are only available at this time of year. So instead of the Silver Palates’ great apple pies, I take the road less travelled by and hope that doesn’t result in lesser taste: even though the firmness of peaches this year calls out for a home in a pie. I’m excited to see if Joe’s plum tart is as delicious as I remembered it to be. I do worry that freezing may play with the flavours, but I have no choice but to shuffle down to the basement where our discarded unit lives besides the Whirlpools. 

However my continuing motto is to have more than just one happy ending and so, if fruit is not to your taste, or if the result is less than anticipated, there’s that backup chocolate although I’m not sure how different kinds of sugar renders it “low fat” as decreed by its title. I seem to recall this recipe was also clipped from the newspaper when Mike Harris tightened and destroyed our economy . Something ironic like a play on Marie Antoinette’s Let them eat cake, I conjure. But I know at least that this concoction , in spite of its labelling , is tasty, tried and true.

The starters are typical for a traditional meal: gefelte fish, never a choice for my son in law. Maybe it is the naked look of poached palish yellowish fish that turns him off. And of course, the menu must contain chicken soup- which reminds me I need to make another set of matzoh balls as mine from the Lillian Kaplan recipe book were so light that I fear they will disintegrate into greyish globs in the soup. Maybe the peaks of the frothy egg whites painstakingly separated deserved more time at the mismatched prongs of the mixer.

 

Gefelte fish is the true challenge. Although I’ve attempted it for years now, it does not resemble my mother-in- law’s in spite of her bequeathing her recipe. I recall quizzing her about a stage in the process because I was afraid the balls would glom together as they cooked. Her response was“ You’ll see. They won’t.”
I do order the finest freshest chopped fish although she would always comment that the fish were kept really fresh in her family’s bathroom tub in Hamilton. My fish shop may wonder why I only appear at their store only once a year, but no matter, as the exorbitant cost results from hand chopping of several varieties of white fish and pickerel and a touch of salmon, bloodied heads and bones included in a separate plastic bag. But my issue revolves around the flavouring as I tend to go light on spice, afraid of overwhelming taste buds. When I first attempted it, I despised the smell. Over the years, I’ve learned to embrace the aroma, feeling it impregnates with the sweet smell of the fish gently poaching in the shallow pot for two or more hours. Although the smell is long gone by the time my guests come to the table, perhaps it is this imagined odour that causes my son- in- law’s lips to curl.

I am aware that the latest fashion is to purchase a gefelte fish loaf and cook it in the oven but, I am a hard- nosed purist, wanting to know exactly what is in the product. Except for my children’s insistence on Kraft Dinner, I have always cooked from scratch. I followed Adele Davis when they were young, so aware of preparing their baby food from vegetables and meats purchased only hours before to preserve their ingredients.

 And in truth, many of those loaves are delicious although none meets the standards of my mother-in- law’s fish, now passed away.Alough she does not people my thoughts on a regular basis, her ghost frequents on Rosh Hashanah. Similarly, it is Friday nights with which I associate my mother, jumping from the table to fetch and serve, her fricasse and simple roasted chicken the stars that teased our drooling mouths. Good on Friday, but so delicious on Saturday as the leftover carcass and potatoes allowed to deepen their flavours over night.How she completed an entire meal was astounding as the oven door never closed completely and she knew not to even try to bake as customers to our hi fidelity store, situated in front of our living quarters, would inevitably appear at the crucial time of removing the cake from the oven. But the memories, naturally, differ between my mother and my mother-in- law, my mother, a gentle hovering spirit surrounding the meal with her presence.

My chicken soup I admit is divine. A concoction of carrots, celery, onion, parsley and parsnips passed through cheesecloth is based somewhat on that supreme dowager of Jewish cooking Lillian Kaplan.For some reason she suggests adding and then removing an eggshell, which often I do, rosemary and tomato paste and accent, which I don’t. I make the soup the day before so all, well at least, most of the congealed fat, can be skimmed from the surface in a hard piece, where it has risen after a night in the downstairs refrigerator. Into fine teacup shaped soup bowls of the finest porcelain that once belonged to my mother’s mother, I will spoon a matzo ball, egg noodles, sliced carrots confiscated from the soup and possibly a chicken kreplach. One of my forever guests nibbles only at the kreplach, the one store bought commodity of the meal and apparently the only part of the meal she finds appealing. I note this but do not enquire why. But I notice her plate rearranged to suggest eating.

As we move to the main course, it is a beautiful turkey stuffed with a combo of freshly made cornbread and shitaki mushrooms. My mother combined rice and button mushrooms and it too was very pleasing , but my husband’s concoction from the Frog Cookbook is the best, a lovely combination of slight crunch from the cornbread and velvety smoothness from the mushrooms. Herbs of course are purchased fresh, not dispensed from a container or jar. I believe they enhance with their pungent flavours. I do a combination of cranberries and oranges for the sauce although again I note many eaters go for the canned variety. The Frog salad has also become a staple although the croutons, first cut then baked in the oven, then sautéed in loads of butter with fresh thyme, salt and pepper are only one of the several ingredients in this assemblage of romaine, artichoke hearts and cherry tomatoes. Often time I serve it in a bowl my aunt Marion once gifted me so her presence also hovers near.

Most Jewish people I know opt for brisket, but something about the stringiness of the meat puts me off. I’ve overheard people say that either marinating it or cooking it in Coca-Cola makes a fantastic dish although most prefer hours of slow cooking. I’m unaware of where my aversion to brisket is derived. I don’t recall my mother cooking or overcooking it. And even I have glimpsed its presence in the showcases of butcher shops,  where truly it looks quite nice and entreats me to give it a chance in my menu. I ignore its pleas.

In years passed, my son’s friends from Vancouver would also come to our house. One year I made as many pancakes as I could find recipes for: zucchini, potato, yams, whatever vegetable was available. We laughed at the mounds of colours, shapes and sizes that were continually pouring out of the kitchen. In other years, chicken wings, various kugels, raw Brussels sprout salads, chicken wings, carrot and raisin combos and an attempt at stuffed knishes: whatever caught my eye in a magazine or cook book. Now with the addition of Harvard beets, the dinner is scaled back to fish, soup, two kugels, salad, turkey, stuffing and the deserts.

Perhaps the original concept of the huge supper had to do with a long journey into a new year where one should be fortified for the trials of the excursion by food that would support long walks to the market, through the shetl and on to see the mischpuka. As well, I’m sure it was Jews who lauded the notion of brain food- schmaltz greasing the wheels of cognition. As well, Marc Chagall wife’, Bella’s memoir Burning Lights is never far from my thoughts as she described the family suppers that punctuated the seasons with family arriving in Vitebsk, Russia, with  pekalah of food on their backs, days of walking in order to join family in supper prayers for the new year.

So it is that I prepare for the supper, a gathering to herald a year that we all pray will be kind , peaceful and prosperous in many ways. Best of all is to have the family all together, though longing for my grandchildren in Philadelphia to be present at the ritual dinner, to be able to romp with their cousins, laugh at the misshapen matzoh balls, wrinkle their noses at gefelte fish, chomp done on turkey. Yet, I am blessed to be able to provide food, company and support to those who come, welcoming the others away to the entourage in my head : reminders of what is truly important in the times to come. 

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To Party

Even for the most droll of us, there is some kind of party that is doable. Whether a soirée, an all out crazy dance time, a choreographed family gathering or even a simple lunch, there is a way to interrupt the flow of one’s daily routines and break up our ongoing days. I am not a party person, but even as a girl who would imagine herself invisible as she blended into the wall, preferring not to engage in any chatter or move to the beat of the music,  I occasionally craved a party.  And sometimes, we do in deed, need to party.

However, what I have always enjoyed is party prep, either as guest or giver. As guest, finding the right outfit, how to self style could fill several hours with fascination, contemplating the location, time and tempo of the event. How to straighten bangs that curled at the first hint of moisture in the air? Jeans or bling? But  even better for me , is to be the arranger of events, deciding how to enliven the mood, enhance the celebration and make the honouree of the party really shine .

Although my husband who does not meet his milestone birthday till next Tuesday had insisted without pause he did not want a party, I felt a party was exactly what was necessary.Optimism peppered with my strict commands and outright threats, for last year’s family birthday dinner had erupted into a diatribe between sibs about the existence of aliens( no joke) that left his 69 th in angry ruins, I decided to persevere with plans. In deed, children were sworn to good behaviour, avoiding such contemptuous topics. So without his consent but their promises, it had to be a surprise.  

Over the years, I have been able to surprise him for his fiftieth and sixtieth birthdays. The former was a trip to Boston where the children carefully fashioned for him a tourist map of all the activities planned, from five star restaurants to baseball games to museum trips . The sixtieth as well included two ball games in Chicago, this time our children and their partners coming along for the weekend. Special hotels, meals, diversions were all carefully considered although the sixtieth also included a backyard party with our close friends who shouted “ surprise” on cue. 

But this birthday party was to be different and I tried very hard to meet the challenge. Because I am now in California during the winter, I had to plan a July birthday in December before I traveled. I decided a small family dinner was just the thing amidst his continual grumbling that he did not want anything, particularly when friends and family persisted with, “ You MUST have something.” I pretended to support his irreverent decision, even planning to be in North Carolina when the day arrived.( Who knew he would trip in Berlin and make that trip impossible?)
No matter, the date chosen for the surprise was a week earlierthan his  actual  birthdate.

Our family has a special relationship with On the Twenty where Jordan proposed to Gillian. In the sweetest of family lores, over a dinner date more than ten years ago, he produced his journal for her to peruse over dinner, romantically kept from their earliest meeting. On the last page, he had written as she read, “ Tonight I will ask Gill to marry me”. So the out of town -usually 1 ½ hours if the traffic is good was far enough away and the stunning spot at the Cave Springs Winery was lovingly imbued with our own family history. Besides that, Howard and I, ourselves, had experienced the quality of farm fresh and locally crafted artistry of their fare numerous times when we needed a special dinner.

Fortunately there was a private room that would accommodate our family and so I booked it. Yup , back in December. They described the room as The Wine Library , not Cellar so there would be light and seclusion from the rest of the restaurant’s lively kerfulle. Knowing the Shaw Festival nearby and summer visits to Niagara Falls would fill the hotels and B&Bs, I also reserved accommodations for the kids in Niagara on the Lake and at White Oaks, putting Howard and myself at the Inn on the Twenty. Even back in December, believe it or not, not one location could meet the needs of all four families. So I spread them them out through the sumptuous wine country. 

Later in March and May, I could finetune the party. As the photographer suggested a colour scheme, I chose white, figuring all male members including kidlets would wear white polo shirts, the gals left to their own choices, but also whites: these, by the way, included one stunning Grecian number, two summer tops, one embroidered, the other peekaboo and my fav Max Mara maxi linen. To ensure the look, back in the the spring, I had ordered the shirts and sent them to my daughter’s house. If they had arrived here at our house, I would have throw them in a cupboard and retrieved them the day before.  

Wise woman that she is, Ariel opened the packages to discover a collection of black tee shirts, tank tops and mini dresses. One might think an exchange no bigee, but after fighting with a phone representative for half an hour, I finally demanded the manager who calmly and simply allowed an exchange.

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For party favours, my preference is always chocolate. On line I could have Howard’s head inscribed on M&Ms, silver, pink and turquoise. Candy $6.98, mailing; $34.00. Gulp. Then came the great debate over the butt picture for the mini chocolates, both dark and milk chocolate. For really special events, I contact Simone Marie of Yorkville fame for her Belgian delights. On the wrappers she will provide your choice of photo and so there were three photos in the running: one official shot from Howard’s office; one with his back gazing out at the mountains at Joshua Tree ;and our fav of him in his Blue Jays shirt relaxing at The Tin Fish in San Diego. However the last also included a backdrop of another patron’s butt. Furiously back and forth, the children debated the pros and cons, the Joshua Tree could be any one in a park, the official one too stern, but what to do about the butt? In the end( ha), I could fortunately crop out the offending butt and we had ourselves a winner. 

Nervously I approached the day of the party, providing a ruse of wine tasting and a romantic weekend to entice my hubby to the spot. Although the newspapers promised a perfect sunny day, the rain thundered on the roof of our car and the traffic conspired to delay us. I worried that the children had not left in time, that accidents on the road would delay them. And what about our outside photo shot? Could a boardroom provide a dry albeit boring background?Would the drenching rain sour even the sweetest event? As I nervously picked the skin off my fingers as the car stopped in traffic, Howard casually marvelled at how his former partner had planned an outdoor wedding for his daughter on another vineyard several years ago. I recalled it had threatened rain that day but the sun had shone through with no need for the huge white umbrellas stored by the casks of wine. We had no umbrellas stored. But in spite of the favourable forecasts and even the radio’s assurance rain would end by 5!( our photographer arriving at 4), we were now caught in an annoying downpour. I frantically messaged the inn, the co- ordinator, Ariel, begging for another photo spot option. But only later did I realize I had no wifi and the cries for help failed. That worked to our benefit because the rain  eventually ceased and wound up bestowing interesting lighting in the garden dappled with hydrangeas, black- eye susans and lovely greenery. Post rain renaissance 

A public garden adjacent to our suite was to be the spot for the kidlets to cavort, and magically, thank you Weather Gods, it dried sufficiently for the grandkids to climb up and perch on the wooden bench. Even a pouting Remy was persuaded by a flower easily detached to contribute her two year old smile. Four month old Georgia only had to listen to the strains of Green Acres in order to burst into gurgling smiles.

And my curmudgeon husband , when our handsome soninlaw knocked at the door, was truly surprised. And somehow, too, Howard had chosen a white shirt for our outing so he even blended with the family colour scheme.

I knew what would please Howard was the presence of his guitar teacher Nick. Howard said that at first he didn’t recognize the long haired guy with the guitar who casually entered our dining room. Obviously not anticipating his Toronto teacher to be part of the celebration, Howard was again caught off guard. Jordan. Howard and Nick jammed on Howard’s latest hits that included Margaritaville ! Wonderfully Howard was the rockstar of the event, a command performance where his captive audience groved to his playing. Carter added his recorder to the mix to heighten the strings of Hallejuah. The kids danced, romped and even Aaron did a wild arm- flinging body swaying thing near the table, but all were engulfed in a fun evening, the delicious food enhancing the festivities.

A few people spoke, some did, some didn’t, but I contributed a brief speech, attached here:

In life, we are given gifts. I had no idea that my greatest gift would involve a guy in a funny flowered shirt on a blind date that has continued for 44 years of romance and adventure.

When you’re a kid, you take in a lot of information: on how the world works; who are the good guys and bad guys, what rings your chimes, how to live your life, and what you might want in the future. 

I was pretty ordinary, but had parents who loved and cared bout me. And I liked art- a lot. 

But when I met Howard suddenly my world came into focus. He made me feel I was special and smart and for the first time, I really believed in myself. As well, the values my parents had modelled became more real as I observed in him the integrity, honesty, intelligence and the strength to speak out. Even his admonishing an ancient lady who had skipped the line at Gryfes Bagels to get back in her place. 

Howard isn’t impressed by money or power and he is not judgmental.And he continues to teach and guide me every day. Ours is a give and take relationship. I’ve often repeated how before email technology , he made it a point to be home to have supper with the kids every night, returning to the office only after you guys were asleep in bed, sometimes midnight. He encouraged me and supported me to become a doctor of education, thus allowing for your truly wonderful dinners as the fighting family in the window of St. Hubert’s Monday nights when I was in class.

As a father, he has been exemplar, always there for you- whether calling with an attack of blindness from Albany; visiting for a weekend in London; or just hanging out at a Jays Game. Not to mention the family trips to Europe: of shivering in Brittany, eating pizza at Il Castillo in Montebuono and dumping scorpions out of our shoes, going down the wrong lane at Borghese Villa or blaming that poor Japanese tourist at Giverny.  

It is also true, life is no picnic, but dad is the cup full, not cup empty kind of guy. And win or lose, he soldiers on, putting life into context for me. 

So much goes into a relationship, the spaces between the pearls, as I said at Jordan’s wedding.But here on this magical night with my beautiful children, their spouses and  the grandchildren, I think we are all part of one another, and this spectacular man you call dad and I call Moo, I toast you as my heart my soul and my love. 

**********

Short and sweet. And he even cried as I did. Happy tears. There are those moments in life that we want to revisit and hold close. The night of the party and the next night the memory of the party and its preparation reverberated in my head. Truthfully I was delighted at the perfection of planning that brought together the family for the celebration of their father.He truly deserved every detail, every word.  A party to cherish.

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