The food we eat right now

September 30, 2011

Jacob made his own breakfast Thursday morning. He makes quinoa pasta for himself most mornings, but because we were hanging around the house waiting to go to services, he got a little more elaborate.

“Can I fry some tofu?” he asked with his head in the fridge. I get this extra-firm tofu we crumble and pan-fry.

“Sure,” I said.

He pulled green onion and sweet peppers out of the bin and shoyu out of the door. “Wait, how about the cabbage pickle? Can I fry that?” he asked.

“I’d fry the other stuff and then put the pickle on at the end,” I said. It’s the cabbage, onion, ginger and chile pickle I made for the banh mi the other day.

He cut up the vegetables and put it all in the hot frying pan with some shoyu. The green onion smelled great.

“Wait! The nori!” he yelled. He got out a sheet of nori and lined his dish with it. When the tofu was cooked he put it on top of the nori sheet and sprinkled the cabbage on top.

Jacob's Rosh Hashana breakfast

Jacob's Rosh Hashana breakfast

He made this beautiful breakfast with stuff he scrounged out of the refrigerator. He had to peel some gross parts off the week-old green onion and he had to remember that we had nori sheets in the snack cupboard. I knew that all these ingredients were in the house, but I didn’t imagine making this breakfast with them. He took what was available to him and cooked something with it.

We are people who live in this place, and this is the food we eat right now.

On TV, Rick Bayless is doing a whole season of Mexico One Plate at a Time from Baja California. The rest of Mexico is tropical, he explains, but Baja has a Mediterranean climate. It’s dry in the summer and wet in the winter. He stood on a hill with olive groves and lamb flocks and gestured. For a moment he talked about how this isn’t what you really expect from Mexican food, but then he dove in and cooked with the chefs of Baja, lamb with smoky salsas, chard and kale in a taco with queso fresco, more lamb with lemon thyme. The chefs were all committed to the products of their region, including the local wine. I could feel from them (much more than a lot of fine-dining chefs) that the food they made was part of their identity. They embodied my sentence: We are people who live in this place, and this is the food we eat right now.

I think that Rick Bayless felt that he had to address the question of these Mediterranean products and their place in Mexican cooking. He did it only briefly, I imagine, because he did not want to belabor the point that it’s not what we, as non-Mexicans, expect cooking from Mexico to be, based as it is on olive oil and wine and thyme and lamb. Those are products we identify more with southern Europe, but the people in Baja have probably had access to them just as long as the Italians have had access to tomatoes.

This morning, Jacob was working with ingredients that were right in front of him, just like those fine-dining chefs in Baja on Rick Bayless’s TV show.

I was talking to a colleague earlier this week and she asked me what I was cooking for Rosh Hashana. I hadn’t given it much thought back on Tuesday. “I’m more thinking about the music,” I told her. She said that for her family, it’s all about the food. Her parents are from Mexico and their parents were from Poland and Hungary. They eat gefilte fish with a sauce from Verracruz, tamales made with chicken fat instead of lard, tortilla chips with gribenes. “We are the people who live in this place,” the recipes seem to say, “and this is the food we eat right now.”

I didn’t really get around to thinking about making Rosh Hashana dinner until, I guess, Wednesday. Split pea soup, I figured, and didn’t get any further.

I didn’t even know that there was a big holiday meal on Rosh Hashana until I was in my 20s and I got invited to someone else’s. There is, it turns out, a huge tradition of big holiday meals on the night of erev Rosh Hashana. We never had them growing up. I guess it was because my mother was singing in the choir so she didn’t feel like making a big meal. We didn’t have an extended family around us to go to, so my dad and my brother and I ate a big snack and my mom got an early ride from a friend. We went to synagogue and I sat next to my dad and held his hand sometimes. His hand is square, like the shoulders of his suit jacket. That is what I remember about the High Holy Days, not a meal.

So when I am planning my own Rosh Hashana dinner I don’t have any preconceived ideas about what we should or shouldn’t eat except, of course, for the round challah. Come to think of it, I started making round braided challa for that first Rosh Hashana dinner I was invited to in my 20s.

I went to the grocery store on Thursday morning with not much of a plan. When I got there, I saw end-of-season Roma tomatoes on sale; they reminded me of a big beautiful picture of roasted tomatoes in my new cookbook, so they went on the menu. Clean new crop apples, of course, to dip in honey and then more to bake because Ruth asked for apple sauce. She loves pomegranates, also newly in season, and when I was putting together the apples and honey plate I pulled in the Asian pears from Roberto’s tree across the street. Every single piece of produce in that meal was grown in California. We are the people who live in this place, my Rosh Hashana dinner said, and this is what we eat right now.

The first family dinner of 5772

The first family dinner of 5772

Even when I am cooking Indian food, I am thinking as much about the Indian grocery where I get my spices as I am about India. I’ve never been to India but I go to Vik’s all the time. I don’t think I would cook nearly as much Indian food if I didn’t have Vik’s so close. I can go over there on my bike after work on the spur of the moment. I get to live in a neighborhood next to another neighborhood where a lot of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent set up their stores. It’s the same as my young colleague’s mother with her gefilte fish and chicken fat tamales. And speaking of tamales, I am quite sure I would never have tried nixtamalization if I didn’t have Mi Terra right here, selling dried untreated field corn less than a mile from my house. I am just cooking what is available to me on my bicycle.

We are the people who live in this place, and this is the food we eat right now.

Song up in his head

May 26, 2009

In the car on the way to my parents’ today I was listening to my iPod (because I was driving. The person who is driving gets to plug their iPod in the stereo.) I wanted to hear my new music, “Song up in Her Head” by Sara Jarosz. It’s bluegrass-influenced singer-songwriter stuff. I was pointing out to B the things that are markers of bluegrass: the mandolin and banjo, the open-chord harmonies, the twang in the vocals, the use of minors.

“Can we listen to Rock of Ages?” B and R asked.

“Let me listen to the rest of this album and then we can,” I said.

By “Rock of Ages” they meant the Gillian Welch song recorded by The Duhks. I’ve had it on my iPod for a long time and the kids can sing along with it. I don’t quite know why they are attracted to it, but they are. When Sarah Jarosz was over, E put Rock of Ages on and we sang along to it:

Round, round I wanna go round
Wanna see the rock of ages
Till my body gives out
Gonna read the gospel pages

We’ve never talked about these lyrics before, but I felt compelled to explain that the theology in this song isn’t our theology. I talked about the gospels, what they are. I explained that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the evangelists who wrote the gospels. I explained the Moses verse:

Moses heard a voice
Called him up the mountain
40 days had set
When Moses come a shoutin’

And that that is the story that we tell in the Torah, the mountain and the 40 days, I told them. But at the end, we say that Moses gave us the Torah, the books of the law. That’s what is important to us as Jews, the books and the laws. In this Protestant Christian song, Moses shouts. Shouting, which is testifying faith, is important to the Christian denomination this song belongs to.

I told them that “Rock of Ages,” is a metaphor for God that we use in Judaism as well as being used in Christianity. We sing a Chanuka song, “Rock of Ages let our song praise your saving power,” or Ma’oz Tzur. “Tzur” is the rock,” I said. “We sing ‘Tzur Yisrael, kuma b’ezrat Yisrael,” after Mi Chamocha when we stand for the Amida,” I said. “‘Rock of Israel, rise up,’ and we rise up. I think of that rock, meaning the strength and stability of a rock, the way your school is built on the bedrock so it will stand up in an earthquake. When we use the metaphor of rock for God, that’s the kind of rock I think of.”

We got to my parents’ house. We ate lunch, played ping-pong, went to my aunt’s house to swim, eat dinner with my cousins, let R blow out some birthday candles. My aunts gets B to play the clarinet for her. We came back to my parent’s house, shower and get ready for bed.

“I still have that song in my head,” B said to me as he was sitting on the couch, about to turn on the TV.

“Which song?” I asked. I thought it would be the minuet he played for my aunt. He’s been practicing that one pretty intensely for the past few days.

“Tzur Yisrael, kuma b’ezrat Yisrael,” he sang. I was so happy, so gratified, that he had gone through that whole big day – and my theology lesson had stuck with him. Specifically, they had stuck with him through the familiar melody. I could make that point about rock and theological metaphor and it wasn’t just abstract. He could pin it on something he knew intimately because he has been sitting next to me as I sang it week after week after week.

When I wanted to have children, one of the biggest thing I wanted to do with them is sing. I sang a lot of American folk songs and nursery rhymes to B, but the songs I really wanted to give him were liturgical. There are hundreds of songs based on psalms and liturgy that swirl around in my head. I love them and I want to give them to my children. Here he was, in his shorty pajamas, letting me know that he’s been listening all along and that he has the Hebrew and the melody swirling around in his head, too.

Who you marry

May 20, 2009

O, the teenager across the street, is going to be in Fiddler on the Roof so we’ve been listening to it in the car. When I first put it on I explained to Jacob, “This story is about how the modern world reached into the small villages in Eastern Europe where the Jews lived. The world was changing, in a transition to modernity. These villages were just about the last places in Europe that were coming into contact with new technologies and new ideas about how people lived their lives.”

“Like who you could marry?” he asked.

“Well, yes,” I said. I thought he was thinking about me and Ellen getting married. “But mostly ideas about how people lived their lives – what kinds of jobs they could do and where they could live.” Then I started describing the story and I realized that the whole play is about who you can and can’t marry. The marriages that Tevye’s three oldest daughters make are the way the play illustrates the changes in the world.

Who you think is available to you to marry is incredibly telling. It mirrors the boundaries of your life.

Nor Do Fools Understand

July 15, 2007

I was waiting at the stop sign in a posture I know better than kneading bread or nursing a baby: one foot on the asphalt, one foot on the bike pedal, leaning out over the handlebars to get a better view of the traffic around the van parked at the curb. Crossing Alcatraz Avenue at rush hour is always dicey. The drivers think they are so clever to avoid the traffic on Ashby, so they go as fast as they can. I know they are not looking out for me trying to get across on my bike. I muttered under my breath:

The ignorant do not know
nor do fools understand

That the wicked may spring up as the grass
and evildoers may flourish

Yet they are doomed to destruction,
while you, God, are exalted forever.

I wasn’t thinking about anything but the traffic, there on the corner of Alcatraz and California. I wasn’t thinking about Psalm 92 or any of the other Psalms that are in the liturgy to get us ready for the Shabbat evening service. My brain just drew an invisible line between the fools in their cars flying down Alcatraz who did not understand that I was trying to get across – and the fools of the Psalm who only see the momentary flourishing of the wicked and not the ultimate triumph of God.

It’s been a really long time. This kind of thing – the everyday occurrence that finds a parallel in a little piece of liturgy – used to happen to me more than once a day. It stopped somewhere in there, six or eight weeks ago, perhaps. I wasn’t too concerned because this has happened other times in my life. My interior monologue of liturgy has faded and then come back. More broadly, in the past I have felt disconnected from my Jewish life and then the connection has strengthened again. Now, I don’t really feel that the moment with Psalm 92 is a signal that I am getting re-connected. It was just my brain in fallback mode: when at all possible, connect to liturgy. I’m going to have to work to get back with my Jewish self. I’ve been skipping shul a lot lately, sometimes for good reasons (we were out of town) and sometimes for made up reasons. I think it’s been a month since I’ve been.

This isn’t a chicken-and-egg thing. It’s not a mystery to me about which comes first, Jewish connection or showing up at synagogue. I know that I have to show up at shul to get myself going Jewishly again. I’ve been developing my spiritual self consciously for more than 20 years, so I know how I operate. The spiritual craving doesn’t drive me to observance. The observance leads me toward spiritual fulfillment.

On my own, I am not articulate about my own emotions, desires, changes, questions. I rely on the words people wrote in past years – past centuries and millennia, often – to understand how I feel about the most important and essential parts of my life. I can only write about my family, my children, my relationship, my home because I see them in the context of sacred texts.

When I connected Psalm 92 to how I felt about the cross traffic on Alcatraz Avenue, it made me feel settled and affirmed. I felt as if I was not out on the street all on my own, feeling ignored by the cars. The Psalmist, too, had felt ignored by the prevailing culture and needed to remind himself that there was something else important. Of course, the Psalmist didn’t know anything about cars and bicycles or the way our mid-20th-century suburban expansion was built around the automobile according to the vision of Frank Lloyd Wright. I’m not saying he did. I am saying that something about the essence of his feeling as he wrote verses 7-9 is the same as the essence of my feeling on my bicycle.

When I recite the prayer about the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Jacob and Rebbecca and Rachel and Leah – I think of my grandmothers, Ruth and Sarah, and the prayer means more to me because it is their God and their example that led me to my recitation. When I lean over to whisper to Jacob in shul I think of Maimonides, who wanted to instruct his own son in Jewish law and not leave the teaching to others. When Tom says that he thinks they should cancel the Tour de France not just for this year but for many years until the riders who have known the culture of doping have retired, my immediate association is with the Israelites who were slaves in Egypt. God forced them to wander for 40 years in the desert until all of the people who had known slavery had died out. God felt that they would never know how to govern themselves as free people in their own land and only a new generation of people who had never been slaves would be allowed in the promised land.

The redactors of the Torah knew nothing of blood doping, just as Maimonides wouldn’t understand having a child by anonymous donor insemination. That’s always been all right with me, because I didn’t believe that the things I felt were unique, just the circumstances. The Psalmist felt isolation just like me. Maimonides’s paternal obligation was the same as mine. I spend a lot of time thinking about the interior lives of people who lived hundreds and thousands of years ago. Occasionally I feel the way I felt this morning as the airplane pulled in to the gate. Everyone turned on their phones and began texting. I pulled myself out of the newspaper and my neck muscles stiffened up and began choking me. This work anxiety I feel, I can find no mention of it anywhere in the sacred texts I look to to understand my life.

People in other eras had stress and anxiety. They were afraid they couldn’t feed their children. Maimonides fled his beloved Spain because he feared persecution by the Roman Catholic Church. I think of the long journey he and his family went on in search of refuge and they tried living in other countries before the settled in Egypt. The stress of that must have been incredible, to flee your home in fear and set up households in other cities only to have to leave them in fear as well. But I can’t find anything in his teaching that speaks to the way I am feeling about work right now.

“It’s a new paradigm,” is something people write all the time about the 21st century. At our company, the managementspeak is, “It’s a new media environment.” When I took this new job they assumed that I would carry my cell phone all the time, check my email constantly in the evening and on the weekend. I tried to explain that I don’t answer the phone from Friday evening to Saturday evening. They could not understand what I was saying. “But we can still get in touch with you, right?” they asked, and I choked again. I’m looking for it everywhere, the Psalm, the prayer, the text that will explain my anxiety, connect it with some redactor or rabbi who can give me a context. I don’t know where it is.