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I got a call tonight that just crumbled me.  Our friend, Reinhard was on the line, from his lovely home near Reno, NV, to tell me that his beloved wife, Margarethe, had died in October after battling cancer for more than a year.  He’d received our ‘seasonal’ card – the one we never manage to get out before Christmas – and wanted to let me know the news.  I was crushed as I heard his voice, struggling not to break, as he told me of the passing of his wife of more than fifty years.

Reinhard and Margarethe were once strangers in this country.  They had met at a tuberculosis sanitorium in Germany; he from the former East Germany – as a youth he had been forced into the Hitler Youth movement – and she from the Black Forest.  She had tales of going outside with her mother to bury the dead English soldiers on their property; stories of what the second world war was like as a child and youth – a terrible time.  Together they had decided to make a new life in America.  Reinhard was a chemist and worked for Dow and other large chemical companies; Margarethe was a bookeeper and met my mother at the real estate agency they both worked at.  The social connections grew;  my father – son of two Orthodox Jewish immigrants – quickly developed a close friendship with Reinhard and Margarethe.

christmas-candlesAs a child and a teen, I found them fascinating.  Margarethe taught me how to make gooseberry and currant jam and homemade spaetzle; Reinhard taught me how to decorate a Christmas tree with real candles, which they carefully lit.  And then I would listen to my father and both of them sing “Stille Nacht” in German, as the tree sparkled with magic.  We’d sit down to a supper of homemade baked beans (New York-style, as my mother made them) and German sausages and later, enjoy shots of homemade bootleg brandy (made by my mother’s uncle in a copper still during prohibition) to chase the food down.

When I married, I introduced my husband and my children to our friends, and some years ago, we took my mother on her final airplane trip, out to Nevada for a lovely German Thanksgiving in the mountains.  It was smashing.

And now, Margarethe is gone, leaving me with these memories and all of us with the footprint of her life, well-lived, in America.  Reinhard and Margarethe came to this country for a better life – in search of stability, democracy, opportunity.  They received it, were sponsored into American citizenship by my parents, and have loved and supported this country.  Their story, of course, is one that has been – and hopefully will be – repeated, over and over again.  I say this, while knowing that the new American President is busy building a wall that we are all going to pay for – not just in money but in so many other devastating ways.

Margarethe lived a life of love, of generosity, of friendship.  She embodied the warmth that one hopes will come of any friendship.  She shared generously of her life, her culture, her perspectives which enriched my own.  I loved her.  Tonight I just might pour a small glass of some clear liqueur and raise it to her memory, and to Reinhard, her beloved husband.  Downstairs in my pantry there is still a jar of Kiwi and orange jam that Margarethe made…a jar I had been holding on to, waiting for some really special occasion.  Maybe that time is here.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll open it up, and remember her sparkling smile, her warmth, her friendship – the second mother I always adored.  It’s a legacy that will live on in blessed memory.

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One of my earliest childhood memories is of being in the kitchen with my mother in Akron, Ohio and watching her make Christmas cookies.  I would push my nose up to the edge of the counter, or stand at the kitchen table, and watcher her roll out dough, pressing cookie cutters into the lightly anise-scented mixture.  She’d make little bon bons with all kinds of treasures inside.  Her favorites were maraschino cherries, baked and then dipped in cherry-flavored pink icing with sprinkles.  But there were also butterscotch-walnuts, raisin-chocolates, coconut-white chocolate, and other treats buried in the cookies.  She made nut puffs, thumbprints with jam or almond-accented frosting in the center, a cinnamon-walnut twist called a Sweet Marie, a little mini-fruitcake called Lizzies, several types of bar cookies – some with icing and some just baked with all kinds of delicious things in the middle.

Frequently there would be ten or twelve kinds of cookies.  In later years Mom made Heavenly Hash, fudge, or other chocolate delicacies to add to the cookies.  Many of them would appear at her holiday parties, and people went crazy over the cookie displays.  It was the hit of every event, and I wanted to get involved. As I got older, I was finally allowed to participate,  so I learned how to craft the cookies, and then, I started looking for others to add to the collection.  As a teen I found a meringe/mini-chocolate chip puff, a mini-tart filled with frangipane and fruit, and a chocolate-marzipan pretzel.  I disliked fruitcake, but my friend Margy had a fabulous Christmas Cake recipe that translated well into mini-cakes, baked in colorful Christmas papers, so they joined the cookie party, too.

As an adult I acquired a delectable pecan tartlet recipe, learned how to make truffles and French-style chocolate bark (thank you, Ina), and a white chocolate-peppermint bark.  I dipped dried mango, apricots, and ginger in dark chocolate.  I made little chocolate-cranberry wreaths and holly leaves.  I froze the cookies, in covered, air-tight packages, and they kept for a year, so that I could stockpile one type for a second year, and each year have to make only half the number of cookies.

And so it has gone, through the years.  I’ve tried to involve my daughters in the tradition as well, and have acquired enough of a reputation that my best friend from college, Connie, who lives in Montana, waits for my large Christmas box to arrive.  There will be other gifts in it, but Connie and John – for decades – have waited for the cookies.  They tell me that when the box arrives, it is opened and immediately devoured, down to the crumbs – mostly in one fell swoop.  It’s a lot to live up to — but I’m delighted that they enjoy my homemade gift so much.

This year, not only because money’s tight but also because I love to make homemade gifts, many of my friends and family members will be getting the fruits of my labor, made with my hands and my heart.  The cookies, the blackberry-rosemary vinegar I put up as the summer ended, the pickles and cranberry conserve, along with the wooden crafted items Ben makes during the holiday season — these are the gifts we love to give.

I hope that you’re taking some time to let your hands and your spirit bring hand-crafted items to life in this holiday season.  And in case you are looking for a new cookie recipe, here’s one of my favorites, given to me when I was working in Connecticut in professional theatre, by our production manager and his wife.  Enjoy!

Pecan Tartlets with Cream Cheese Crust
Makes 4 dozen
350 F oven
Note:  you will need mini-cupcake/muffin tins.

For the Dough:
2-3 oz. pkgs. cream cheese
2 sticks butter
2 c. flour
Mix with pastry blender or electric mixer.  Chill for 1 hour.

For the Filling:
3 eggs, beaten
2 C. brown sugar
3 T. melted butter
2 T. vanilla extract
pinch of salt

1/2 c. raisins
1/2 c. roughly-chopped pecans
Mix the eggs, butter, brown sugar, salt, and vanilla together.

To make tartlets:
Spray mini-muffin tins with non-stick cooking spray.  Roll a small ball of dough and place in tin.  Fill each tin similarly (you should get about 4 dozen).  Lightly push dough into the tin, including sides of each tin.  Drop a few raisins and a few pieces of nut in each tin.  Scoop the wet filling in (I use a Tablespoon measure to do this).  Finish with another nut piece on top.  Bake at 350 for about 25 minutes.  Let the tartlets set for at least ten minutes before gently loosening the edges.  Lift out and finish cooling on a rack before you pack them or serve them.

Enjoy!

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I recently read an article in the Boston Globe about retro food.  Now, my friends know that I am a foodie, and in fact, I have held on to a number of my mother’s ‘classic’ cookbooks from the 1960’s and 70’s which are, in today’s culinary world, interesting relics.  A number of them were written by Marian Burros and Lois Levine, and they have ‘clever’ names, like “Come for Cocktails, Stay for Supper,” and “Freeze with Ease.”  Some of the beauties that I found in my mother’s recipe collection from the same period are just as appealing (or icky):  “Thora’s Hamburger Casserole,” “Raisin m-m-m-Mumbles,” and “Bebe’s Dish,” for instance.

The cover of "Freeze with Ease"

"Freeze with Ease"

Although I am not a “Mad Men” or “Pan Am” TV fan, I do laughingly and lovingly remember those days when Mom would entertain, which formed the basis of my interest in food and party-giving.  She owned a copper chafing dish (which I now have) and it often was set up in the dining room of our house in Akron, Ohio, with Beef Stroganoff in it, or perhaps Seafood Maryland.  In fact, I still use these recipes and they are terrific – but very typical of the time.  Noodles or rice accompanied the main dish, perhaps a green salad, and usually, a jello salad as well.  And this is where my connection to the past kicks in.

Barely a holiday goes by that doesn’t feature Aunt Estelle’s jello salad.  It’s made with raspberry jello, frozen, thawed strawberries, pineapple, chopped nuts, sour cream, layered and molded, and it’s pretty darned delicious.  That seafood recipe I mentioned is one of the best I’ve ever prepared for large parties, and I think of Mom every time I make it.  And Mom’s Olive-stuffed Cheese Puffs are one tasty little appetizer.

The cover of "Come for Cocktails, Stay for Supper"

"Come for Cocktails, Stay for Supper" is another classic cookbook.

Better still are the memories I have from being a little girl on election night, when Mom and Dad held their election return parties.  I remember, most of all, the party for the 1960 election.  Although I had been sent to bed, I crept out to watch the adults with their highballs in a haze of cigarette, cigar, and pipe smoke, cussing out Nixon and cheering for JFK.  Because exit polls weren’t a regular occurrance and the television stations didn’t predict winners much in advance of completed vote counts — and all the ballots had to be counted by hand — it took a long, long time for the process to unfold, and everyone who attended these parties settled in for a long night.  The major food item was Mom’s Sandwich Loaf, which was really special:  white bread, unsliced and trimmed of crusts, then sliced long-ways into a number of thin layers.  The first would be laid down and spread with ham salad.  The next held cream cheese with chopped olives and pimentos. The next was tuna salad, and the last was egg salad.  A final bread layer went on top, and the entire loaf was then ‘frosted’ with whipped cream cheese and decorated with sliced gherkins and olives.  The loaf would be hauled out around 10 PM, sliced, and served with potato chips, to be followed by brownies for dessert.

I love this retro treat (and so do some of my friends) but my husband and children think of it as a heart attack in a dish and an abomination.  I guess there’s no accounting for taste, but for me, it takes me right back to my childhood and the ‘good old days’ of  “Mad Men” food. Times have surely changed, though.  A few years ago, in a desperate and hilarious attempt to get rid of the glut of hard liquor we found in our house (the result of having cleaned out my mother’s liquor supply – twice – when we moved her) we decided to throw a New Year’s Eve “Come as Your Parents” party.  We set up an elaborate bar with recipes for highballs, a table with ribbon-festooned bottles of cordials (the rule was:  you come to the party, you leave with a bottle – no exceptions), lots of retro food and Doris Day music.

Folks showed up with narrow ties, pearls and cardigans.  They gamely mixed drinks, and then timidly asked, “Can we have some wine now?”  They begged not to take the creme de menthe and the absinthe home with them.  But they snarfed the meatballs in grape jelly/chili sauce, the pigs in a blanket, and yes, the sandwich loaf.  The next day, Ben and I greeted the new year by pouring many bottles of unclaimed cordials down the drain.

The old days weren’t necessarily better, but they did offer us an interesting perspective on entertaining – one that makes for a pretty amusing party theme today.  So next time you’re looking for some really different food and a party theme that’s off the beaten track, let me know — I’ll loan you Mom’s cookbooks and hand you a few more bottles of bright green cordial, and you’ll be all set!

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I have just finished today’s cook-a-thon in preparation for tomorrow’s celebration.  I’ve made stuffed garnet yams with pecan streusel, mashed potatoes that can be baked off in the oven, prepped the green beans, baked a gorgeous pumpkin roulade with ginger mascarpone buttercream.  I’ve chopped the leeks, mushrooms, and celery for dressing, made an apple crumb pie (and bought another gorgeous pecan chocolate chip one from our school’s fund raising activities), made my cranberry conserve and Mama Stamberg’s cranberry relish.  My niece and daughter are bringing other things, and I have a pretty short punch list of things to do tomorrow, so I’m in pretty good shape for the holiday.

The holiday?  I know that the original holiday was one of thanks for being saved from near-starvation (thank you, native American people).  In a show Ben and I are doing with our Revels Repertory Company, Ben says, “From pestillence, fire, flood and sword, we have been spared by Thy decree.  And now with humble hearts, oh Lord, we come to pay our thanks to thee.”  That sense of gratitude is what moved this country to declare a day of thanks-giving.  And so why has it become a holiday that is all about food – much of it bought, not prepared by our hands – and shopping?

Whatever happened to gathering around a roaring fire, telling stories with members of your clan who you haven’t seen in months or more, listening to lovely music, maybe taking a walk if the weather’s good?  I can not say that all my Thanksgiving holidays were like this.  For many years we celebrated at my aunt and uncle’s home in Newburgh, NY (or at my cousin’s in Rochester, NY, or at my parents’ home in Hamden, CT).  The den in each of those homes would get blue with cigar smoke, as the men puffed away, drank bourbon, and watched college football, while the women sat in the living room, drank cocktails, noshed, and caught up on all the family news.  Many years, my cousin and I ended up making most of the dinner as the cocktailing went on a little too long.  And yet, we would gather at the table, champagne would be poured, my uncle would carve, and we — descendants of poor Russian immigrants — would indeed count our blessings.

But now it is different, and not just because my aunt and uncle and parents are gone and I am the mom-in-charge.  At the risk of being branded “Mrs. Crankypants,” I have been so bombarded with Black Friday ads that I could gag.  I don’t need a large screen TV, thank you, nor a cashmere sweater.  And they aren’t on the list of anyone else I’m buying for this year.  And when I see that lunatic woman from Target gibbering about how she hasn’t slept in days because she’s so excited about the Christmas sales, I nearly run screaming from the room.  So even though you want me to get out of bed at 4 AM, I can assure you that I’ll be sleeping in on Friday.

Where did this madness come from?  I certainly support the idea of stimulating the sluggish US economy (not to mention, the crippled world economy).  I feel, however, like the traditional Thanksgiving holiday got turned, somewhere along the way, into a gluttonous pig-out followed by a massive shopping trip.  And I’m not sure how all of that happened, really.

Some of it has evolved, I fear, from people not knowing how to cook any more.  Things get bought, pre-packaged, rather than made; I’m not kidding when I write on my catering business’s Facebook page that I’ve gotten lots of questions about how to make gravy, not to mention how to make good mashed potatoes from ‘scratch.’  I was fortunate to learn this stuff from my grandmother and my mother (and then to have perfected it through opening a catering business).  I’ve made sure my children know how to cook, and I wish more of us did – both because it’s better for us and because it would cost us less money.

And what about the zombie-like commitment to shopping and running to the mall in a state of stressed exhaustion immediately after Thanksgiving dinner is concluded?  My friends, John and Connie, will be out skiing near their home in the mountains of Montana.  I hope that our friends, Margarethe and Reinhard, will be doing the same near Reno, NV, where they have a lovely home.  While my funky knee will probably suggest that a walk isn’t in my Thanksgiving plans, I do expect a soak in the hot tub will be.  We will be spending time with our relatives and friends, and visiting Ben’s parents the next day.  I expect that none of us will watch a single football game on TV, nor, I expect, will anyone in the family have an argument with another guest at our table. We may even go see Kermit and friends over the weekend, and we’ll all be singing “The Rainbow Connection” when we do.

Sounds pretty sappy and boring, you’re saying?  Maybe so — but I’ll take it over the madness at the mall, any day.  I’m taking back my Thanksgiving — and if you want to join me, I’ve got enough leftovers to go around!

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Here it is Thanksgiving time, when everyone’s got a recipe for the perfect turkey or how to make a pumpkin pie your family will remember.  I have been cooking Thanksgiving dinners for years, and I’ve got those tricks down.  And while I’m going to try something different for one of my desserts this year (a pumpkin roulade with ginger butter cream, thank you, Ina Garten) I am a nut (no pun intended) for cranberries.

I don’t know how it started, but I dream of ways to use the garnet-colored gems, one of the chief exports of Massachusetts.  I am so crazy about them that I’ve visited Cranberry World (run by Ocean Spray) and last year, dragged Ben to a cranberry festival in Onset (just off Cape Cod) so that we could watch cranberries being harvested.  I make cranberry vinegar, I make muffins and breads and cakes and salads with cranberries, put it in stuffing if I don’t have to deal with picky eaters, and more.

Next time you drive by a cranberry bog, remember to say a silent thank you to the cranberry farmers who worked hard to get those little beauties on to your table.  They’re nature’s perfect little package of deliciousness and are packed with vitamin C, and they form a most versatile component for your holiday cooking.  I love Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish (and I’ll be making some tonight, most likely) – a real gift to those of us from Jewish heritage who think that horseradish improves everything, and merging it with cranberries is a totally cool idea.

But — just in time for the holidays — I also make my own cranberry conserve, which I developed after fiddling around with ‘typical’ holiday flavors.  So here’s my little Thanksgiving gift to you:  a recipe for knock-their-socks off cranberry conserve, sure to make your holiday table a little cheerier.  Enjoy!

Cranberry Conserve

1 large package fresh cranberries
1/2 C. dried cranberries
1/2 C. fresh-squeezed orange juice
1 C. brown sugar
1/2 c. white sugar
1 peeled, diced tart apple
1 large grapefruit, peeled, seeded, diced (membranes removed)
zest of 1 orange
1/2 c. dried currants
1/2 c. chopped walnuts
2 sticks cinnamon
1 tsp. dried ground cloves

Cook cranberries over medium heat with orange juice and sugars, covered, until they start to pop.  Add remaining ingredients, and cook for another 20 mins. over low heat, stirring about every five minutes.  Add
1/2 c. port
Stir and continue to cook for another 20 minutes.
Adjust spices and cool.  Remove stick cinnamon.  Enjoy!

 

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I just heard about a new show that’s debuting on the Food Network called “Pioneer Woman.”  In it, an Oklahoma home schooler and rancher shows you how to make chicken fried steak with white gravy and mashed potatoes with cream cheese and butter, while herding kids and cows.

It should have been me on the screen.  For years, Ben has jokingly referred to me as Pioneer Woman, particularly while we go camping.  I love to go hunting for stuff that’s edible in the area where we camp, and frequently come back with treasures:  wild blueberries, raspberries, wild garlic, and more (we will not mention the time that I found poison ivy berries and thought them a delicious edible, and chastened, was sent to the stream to scrub my hands with sand!).

There’s something just restorative about being in a raspberry field (from which I just returned, with nearly two pounds of gorgeous, organic raspberries).  Later today, these berries will be turned into jam, which we – and my catering clients – will feast on all fall and winter and spring.  Tomorrow I’ll probably be back in the field for more, which I’ll turn into a crisp, or mix with gooseberries, currants, and blueberries to make four-berry preserves.

Doing all this reminds me of the years when we walked my grandparents’ farm, picking wild strawberries or potatoes, as we ran after the horse-drawn plow…or days spent near Glacier Park with my friend, Connie, harvesting huckleberries or picking cherries from trees growing on the Flathead Reservation.  It’s an incomparable delight – the combination of being in nature, harvesting the goodness that the sun, wind, rain, and soil provide, and knowing that we can provide for ourselves and our families with what we harvest.

And my pioneering adventures in campgrounds have brought other memories to mind.  I like to jokingly say that I won my husband’s heart on a camping trip.  It was our first together, and I was not about to settle for beans and franks (although we like them) or something out of a can.  I produced appetizers, chicken with a peach-sauternes sauce, rice pilaf, a hot veg, salad, and some dessert I can’t recall.  Ben, and our daughter Emily, were snowed.  On another trip I made a complete lobster dinner at the camp site, and then followed it the next morning by providing blueberry pancakes (picked in Acadia Park) and sausage to the family, all during a driving rainstorm.  And I loved doing it.

I travel with a camping kit that I wish was stored in a chuck-box…but I make do with a couple of stackable totes, and bring a complete array of spices in small containers, olive oil, worcestershire, and all the condiments you’d need to produce really good camping food.  And it all comes out hot at the same time – four or five dishes.

I know all this started when I was a tiny girl visiting my mother’s Uncle Arthur and Aunt Laura, on their farm.  The low blueberry bushes kept me busy and fishing for sunfish and catfish in the pond did as well.  So even though my mother would have none of camping (“too low class,” she sniffed), I come by this yearning for the preparation of food in an outdoor setting honestly.

Yep, I’m the real Pioneer Woman, at least in our family.  And as for that new TV show — well, it should have been me.

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Last night we drove in from nearly a week on the Ile d’Orleans, a lovely island in the St. Lawrence River opposite Quebec City.  This was the fourth time we had been on the island, the last time four years ago when – very suddenly — we found ourselves not going to Star Island and determined to spend a week somewhere that would be interesting, relaxing, and in sight of water.  Last time, we stayed in an apartment rented by a lovely Quebec couple, Lyse and Gus Droin, but the other times we’ve come, we’ve camped, and we love it.

So we made another camping reservation with Camping Orleans, acquired roof racks for the Prius to save on gas, pulled out our gas lantern and cooking stove, and packed off.  We knew that it was likely to be the last big family vacation with Abby before she graduates from high school next year, and we wanted to make it a good one.

It was.  My family laughs at me for turning rhapsodic after we cross the Canadian border and locate ourselves in some charming area – usually, either Quebec or the Maritimes.  I love the absence of obnoxious billboards, the politeness, the signs in French first and then English (or only French), the charming villages, and — on Ile d’Orleans — the simply remarkable produce that is there for the asking. My foodie friends will start nodding their heads and perhaps, drooling, as I continue.

Ile d’Orleans is known as the garden of Quebec, for good reason.  The island’s rich soil and temperate climate support farming on most of the island.  Here, strawberries aren’t just around for a few weeks, nor do they have hollow white cores.  They grow, sweet and delicious and juicy, all summer long, joined by blueberries and raspberries and currants.  So literally, every 50 yards or so, another stand has the signs up:  “Fraises.”  “Framboises.”  “Bleuets.”  Our objective is to buy early and often, and eat these goodies all the time, accompanied in the evening by chocolate from the St. Petronille township’s Choclaterie de l’Isle d’Orleans,which is also terrific.  We found potatoes, squash, tomatoes, corn, beans, lettuce, garlic, leeks, onions, kale, all along the roadside at small stands, all over the island.  And we delighted in these goodies.

But there was more:  fabulous homemade breads and pastries, freshly butchered lamb and duck and foie gras and bacon, really fresh eggs, pates, and of course, maple syrup.  We also enjoyed Charlevoix cheese — a kind of cross between camembert and brie — and another — the first cheese made in North America — from Les Fromages de l’Isle d’Orleans, which you could wash down, if you wished, with biere d’epinette (spruce beer, and no thanks, I passed on that one).  We also returned home with samples of the other alcoholic beverages made on the island:  award-winning rose wine, along with Kir (an aperitif), ice cider, and ice wine from the Vignoble Isle de Bacchus, one of many vineyards and orchards on the island.

Lest you think we came home having gained tons of weight on the trip, we did not.  There are beautiful paths for bicycling and walking, swimming to enjoy, and walks to Montmorency Falls and through the Centre-Ville of Quebec, not far away.  For those who treasure locally-sourced food and want to see local farming endure and prosper, Ile d’Orleans is worth a visit.  For those who are fans of North American history and want to visit the site where battles on the Plains of Abraham were planned from across the St. Lawrence, this is your island.  If you love to paint or draw and want beautiful sights to inspire you, from nearly any direction, come to this place and be inspired. And for those who wish they were in France but just can’t make it but want the charm and the language close at hand, drive north for a day, and it’s yours.

I love coming home, but there are so many reasons to fall in love with our neighbor country to the north.  Life is slower there, and hard, but — I dearly hope — rewarding.  While we love using our high school and college French — and you really do need it on the Ile d’Orleans, along with a French-English dictionary — for the most part, people are very patient as you work to explain, en francais, what it is you’re wanting to do or buy.

I’ve just come home again, but long to return.  And, as the official Quebec motto says, “Je me souviens.”

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For years I have had this cookbook idea which revolves around Thanksgiving.  In my mind, I always called it “Up From the Melting Pot,” and it would focus on the mix of cultural influences that converge around the one holiday which (it seems to me) almost everyone who lives in the United States celebrates in some way, no matter their culture or religion or country of origin.

But my friend, Sofia, convinced me that the ‘melting pot’ analogy isn’t quite right…this is not a process of assimilation, where you throw everything in the pot, boil it down and get some new unified (and perhaps, bland) soup or stew.  The idea here is not to lose one’s cultural heritage in favor of another, but rather to celebrate it, layered on top of this American holiday involving gratitude to native people for help with the harvest, of setting food in store for the coming winter.

So perhaps a “horn of plenty” analogy is better…where all those interesting flavors get put into a container and then celebrated, one by one and all together.  Whatever the best reference is, I find Thanksgiving to be an interesting holiday.  It really is a food-focused occasion…mostly, people come together, sometimes traveling over long distances, to reunite, share experiences, hopefully not argue, and…eat!

I started to realize that this might be interesting when I talked to friends who, low and behold, had entirely different Thanksgiving traditions from mine.  If we were spending the holiday with my mother’s family, we would drive to the family farm in Cuddebackville, NY and Gram, along with my Aunt Edith and my mother, would set a table with most of the foods you’d think of as Norman Rockwell ‘traditional’:  turkey with herb/white bread stuffing and gravy, corn (probably frozen from the summer harvest), mashed potatoes, yeast rolls, cranberry sauce, and maybe a green bean and mushroom soup casserole.  For a while, I went on a turkey strike, and my aunt got a Muscovy Duck which was roasted and stuffed and which I found delicious.  This meal would be followed by pies, including pumpkin, apple, and mincemeat (sometimes including deer meat in the mince, prepared by great-Aunt Addie!)  My father and grandfather and uncle would sit in the living room smoking pipes and cigars and cigarettes while watching football, my cousins and I would play with dolls in another room, and I suspect the women were left to mop up the feast.

Later we started celebrating Thanksgiving with my father’s side of the family.  We’d go to Newburgh, NY, or fly to Rochester where my cousin, Ellen, lived.  I’d be given champagne or wine with dinner (even when 13 or 14), and the appetizers, consumed as the women sat in the living room and the men sat in the den watching football, included my Aunt Estelle’s chopped liver, herring in cream sauce, meatballs, and clam dip.  The turkey was sometimes stuffed with a matzoh dressing, and there were always candied sweet potatoes as well.  Afterward we’d exchange presents — “Jewish Christmas,” my cousin dubbed it — and I remember it as a great, festive time.

Didn’t everyone have chopped liver for appetizers?  No?  My friend, Connie, a vegetarian of over 30 years, often enjoys baked stuffed Acorn Squash or sometimes, cheese fondue for Thanksgiving.  My friends Zoe and Lisa, who are raising three foster children, are making a Mexican stuffing for their turkey, one that the children were accustomed to having when they lived in Los Angeles.  Most versions include pork, tomatoes, chiles, pecans, and cornbread.  My friends Janice and Mike, who are African American, always serve ham in addition to turkey, along with macaroni and cheese, collards, and corn bread. Canadian friends include gougeres (a cheese puff) and an apple-carrot casserole.  And Latin American influences suggest a Mofongo stuffing (with fried plantains) goes well with the traditional turkey.

The common denominator, it seems to me, is gathering around the table, whether large or small, to celebrate.  My family’s dinner this year — which brings together members of my husband’s and my family — will include both ham and turkey, cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes, twice-baked sweet potatoes, broccoli, creamed onions, cranberry conserve, yeast rolls, raisin-squash bread, and a green salad.  For dessert, my niece will bring her fudge pie and perhaps a caramel pie (a southern favorite); there will also be an apple pie and my own favorite, a whole sugar pumpkin baked with bread pudding inside. And oh yes, there may be some of my other seasonal favorite on the dinner table:  Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish, which is NPR reporter Susan Stamberg’s legendary cranberry-with-horseradish mix that does indeed look like Pepto Bismol, but carries a wicked kick along with sweet and tart flavors.  There will definitely be leftovers for all (since eating a turkey sandwich before bed is practically mandatory behavior) and we’ll be playing board games and probably enjoying a first fire of the fall in our fireplace.

Any way you slice it, the holiday’s one for coming together.  And in case you’re looking for a new, fun cranberry recipe, try melding 16 oz. of cranberries, 1/2 c. white sugar, 1/2 c. brown sugar, 1/2 c. of currants, 1 small diced granny smith apple, 1/2 a sectioned grapefruit, 1/2 c. port wine, 1/2 c. orange juice, 1 tsp. orange zest, 1 tsp. cinnamon plus 2 sticks cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. ground cloves, a shake of nutmeg, and 1/2 tsp. ground ginger.  Simmer for 30-45 minutes, remove cinnamon sticks, and enjoy one of the most delicious cranberry conserves ever.  And to all – good wishes for a holiday filled with not too much excess, but boundless amounts of family and togetherness!

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This weekend marks the holiest time in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, when, after being called to atone for their short-comings for the year and make amends toward those they may have wronged, the year is closed and a new page in the Book of Life turns.  The time is spent in prayer and contemplation and fasting, and then, as the Shofar blows and more prayers are said, we are called to begin again…in love.

I was raised a Unitarian Universalist, but my father was raised as an Orthodox Jew by his Russian immigrant parents.  He was the one child, of six that Isadore and Tillie Weiner had, who married outside the faith, to a Protestant woman, Vera Racine.  Of all the children the six brothers and sisters had from their marriages (8) I am the one who was not raised a Jew.  My parents came to Unitarian Universalism together (they were the people whose faces appeared in national ads for UUism some years ago, saying, “We were looking for a church for the wedding.  We found a religion.”)

I love my faith tradition, and one of the things I treasure is that it allows me to bring my family and my cultural and religious history into my own faith practices.

Last weekend and this week I’ve been particularly fortunate, because several of my cousins (two of whom are Rabbis) have gathered, and I’ve had the time to be with them and celebrate our family cultural life.  That is a life that, last Sunday, included going to my own Unitarian Universalist church ingathering service, where the beginnings of the year were lifted up.  Our minister spoke of the end of Ramadan, the beginning of the new year (Rosh Hashanah), the start of a new ministry at our church, commencement of a new school year, all co-mingled, like the water we poured into one common bowl marking remembrance of our summer’s journeys.

I went home to host a brunch for my cousins of kugel, eggs, bagels and lox and whitefish, with family stories being told and re-told…a celebration of how our family of poor people, who came in search of a better life, made their way in this country and an indication that we, their children, still carry their stories and lives with us.  And at another family meal I made my Aunt Estelle’s brisket and we ate challah and honey — another family favorite — to remind us of our traditions and of the sweetness in life that we all wish for one another.

On the teak china deck in our dining room sit two photos that I look at every day:  one of my grandmother, Tillie Rosen, with her father, a Rabbi, taken (we believe) on her sixteenth birthday.  The photo was made in Russia, probably just before she boarded a ship to New York to start a new life and her arranged marriage to my grandfather.  In another small frame sits a photo of Tillie, a little older, with her husband, Isadore Weiner, a memento of their wedding day, around 1896, in New York.  I have only one other photo of Tillie – from the mid-1940’s — taken at the opening of her son Morris’ haberdashery in Newburgh, NY.  Literally nothing else of the life of my grandparents exists in my home but this…but the stories do live on.

It was my father who made these people — who died before I was born — live for me.  They were uneducated, but very, very smart, and full of wisdom.  My father’s favorite story was of his sister, Freda’s engagement party.  My father was a young boy when Freda became engaged.  His parents scraped together enough money to have a little celebration of the engagement (to Arnold Rosenberg) and my father was sent off from the family tenement with a dollar to procure a jar of mustard for cold cuts.  Arriving at the store he found gallon jars of Gulden’s mustard in the window…costing $1 each.  He bought one and returned home.  He remembers being ridiculed:  “You dummy!  Why’d you get such a big jar of mustard!  You wasted that money!  Take it back!”  He also recalled his father sternly asking him:  “Did you pay for the mustard?”  “Yes,” my father answered.  “He paid for it – we keep it!”, his father replied.  And so the maxim was passed on to me:  “You make a deal, you keep the deal…no matter what.”

Many people have cultural lives more blended than mine.  Our new minister, for instance, is half-Palestinian, half-American, raised in French-speaking Canada, with a partner who is a South African Jew.  It is this cultural richness that bubbles up from the melting pot that is America, and that makes us so blessed to be able to honor and celebrate our many traditions, and to learn the many lessons passed on from other faiths and other countries.

In these next days, as I take time to consider what the year ended has been like and to reach out to those to whom I need to make amends, I will be nurtured by the diversity of traditions present in my life, the ones that I bring to my family’s life as I pass on the stories and the celebrations.  May we all be so renewed for the coming year.

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Labor Day is the ‘unofficial’ end of summer, but of course, summer continues for some weeks – thank goodness!  I am, among other things, a caterer, and as the end of summer approaches, I am filled with ideas for what to do with the goods of the garden which continue to come in, in abundance.  I learned so much about cooking from the garden from my grandmother, Norma Racine, and a number of the recipes I use were hers, dating back 100 years or more.  There’s also one real prize-winner from the other side of the family that’s great for the High Holy Days coming right up…thank you, Estelle Weiner, of blessed memory.

So here are some suggestions for what to do if you’ve got too many of a few of those great things:

ZUCCHINI:
– Zucchini Relish –  delicious, tangy and sweet, very easy to make with a food processor
– Zucchini Bread and Butter Pickles – just like grandma used to make but with zucchini instead of cukes
– Zucchini Cinnamon Brownies – just fantastic, moist and delicious, even better with a few butterscotch chips thrown in
– Zucchini Bread – spicy and chewy and a welcome change from banana bread but made as a loaf
– Zucchini Pancakes – tiny little fritters, turning what can be a bland vegetable into a delicious accompaniment for your dinner
– Zucchanoes – scooped out zucchini ‘boats’ stuffed with chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers, bread crumbs, olive oil, cheese and spices, then baked
– Zucchini/pear soup – delicious cold or hot, and all-vegetarian
– Zucchini parmesan – just like eggplant, but made with thin-sliced zucchini (which I grill rather than bread and fry)
– Zucchini/potato/dill/shallot soup – almost like a vichysoise, and again, good hot or cold

CUCUMBERS:
– Cold cream of cucumber soup with fresh dill – our family’s favorite summer soup, just wonderful served with crusty bread, cheese, and a salad
– Cucumbers sliced with fresh dill and yogurt dressing
– Cucumber/radish dip –  shredded cukes and radishes with a little onion, whizzed up with a mixture of cream cheese, sour cream and a little mayo, spices.  creamy and crunchy at the same time
– Bread and Butter Pickles – Gram’s original recipe, easy when you have a mandoline or food processor handy
– Dill Pickles – Great way to use just a few extra cukes, because you can make them up several jars at a time.  Add a little alum to the brine mix to help the cukes stay crisp

TOMATOES:
– Country salad:  tomatoes (cherry/grape are the best) sliced in half with diced red onion, cucumber and green pepper chunks, and a lime/olive oil dressing
– Corn, tomato, red onion salad, jazzed up with some fresh jalapenos and a citrus dressing
– Chili Sauce –  Gram’s recipe, email me for copies:  tomatoes, peppers, onions, vinegar, mustard seed, celery seed, sugar, and a little more – fantastic with pork or chicken or baked beans
– Homemade tomato soup, to which I add some half and half to ‘lighten’ it up
– Shaker chowder, with corn, tomatoes, carrots, celery, onion, and cream
– Tomato Quiche and/or tomato pie – made with ricotta or cheddar or a mix of cheeses, sliced tomatoes on top, fresh herbs, and just delicious.
– Aunt Estelle’s Brisket –  perfect for your Rosh Hashanah dinner, and sooo easy to make.  It’s got essentially five ingredients:  brisket, onions, tomatoes, worcestershire sauce, and oil (plus salt and pepper).  How easy can it get?

EGGPLANT:
– Baba Ganoush, with roasted eggplant mixed with tahini, lemon juice, olive oil, and spices – a to-die-for appetizer
– Eggplant Parmesan –  one of Carmela Soprano’s faves, and mine too:  I slice and grill the eggplant, rather than fry it.
– Moussaka –  from a recipe I learned while living in Greece, made with ground lamb, tomatoes, onions, and a bechamel sauce on top (but NO potatoes!!!!)
– Ratatouille –  the classic French vegetable stew which will use up those other things in the garden as well:  tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, onions, zucchini and summer squash, cooked slowly with red wine, spices, bay leaf, and just wonderful with a baguette and butter and a salad.  If you need meat with it, add some grilled chicken sausages and you’re all set!

Many of these things will also use some of the herbs you’ve been growing all summer.  Right now I’ve got African Blue Basil, Italian Basil, Pineapple Sage, Garlic Chives, conventional Chive, Rosemary, Tarragon, Italian Parsley, Dill, Cilantro, Borrage, Lovage, and Shallots in my garden.  Use ’em in these dishes to pump up the flavors!  And if these ideas appeal to you and you just don’t have the wherewithal to make them yourself, let’s talk:  I might be able to make your culinary dreams come true!

That’s my end-of-summer food reverie.  Happy cooking!

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