Louis ‘Eli’ Finkelman: ‘Tolerable Failure’

This column is by Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman, who has written in this space before about pickles, rumtopfcelerygefilte fish and home-made cheese. Eli is a rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer as well as a gardener, cook, home brewer and vintner. He calls this column …


Tolerable Failure

I went fishing with a friend many long years ago. We dragged fishing lures back and forth in the lake for a long while. No fish were damaged in the course of our time together. We would not bring home any fish to fry for our dinner.

My friend observed that he felt happy that he did not depend on catching fish to earn his living; he still could fall back on his regular job as a psychologist.

Decades later—this morning, actually—I went out to inspect my backyard vegetable garden.

It looked sad.

Most years, some insect or other bores into the base of the stem of the zucchini plants. The plants get weak, and then they shrivel up. By the time they die, though, we have usually eaten our own fill of zucchini, and often given away baskets of the stuff. By that time, we have long lost our enthusiasm for harvesting zucchini, and willingly say goodbye to the season.

This year, most of the zucchini plants have detached stems, and will shrivel after producing only a few fruits.

An animal of some sort has discovered my pepper plants. This animal takes one fastidious bite out of each fruit, and then deposits the remains on the ground between plants, or it chews the fruits thoroughly, spitting out small fragments in neat little piles. I do not know what kind of animal likes the peppers. I have seen rabbits and squirrels around the vegetable bed; I would not have seen other possible pepper-eaters, shy, nocturnal animals such as raccoons, opossums, skunks or even deer.

From the pepper plant’s point-of-view, this might have been a successful season. With the help of the neighborhood forager, each plant gets to scatter its seeds all across the vegetable bed. Or maybe the plants would do better to please their human gardener, so that I decide to put in peppers again next year.

My neighbor shot a rabbit last summer, and reverently buried its carcass in the vegetable garden that it loved to haunt. I do not plan to do that.

I think next year I will have to go back to planting hot peppers.

My tomato plants stand festooned with beautiful green fruits. As each fruit turns red, though, I see that about half of have blossom-end rot, a condition just as disgusting as its name. I suppose I could still salvage one bite from most of these tomatoes, but in practice I throw them into the compost bin.

A farmer would not tolerate that level of failure. If I depended on those plants for my living, I would have to test the soil to find out what nutrient my tomatoes need. Dilettante that I am, I found on the Internet that eggshells in the soil may serve to prevent blossom-end rot, so I just may bury some eggshells before next season.   A serious farmer would have to find the right poison to protect the zucchini plants. I do not want to spread poison in my garden, even to protect the zucchini plants, so I do not bother to find out what kind of poison would work.

The garden has produced some successes this year. I collected all the scallions my wife could use for cooking, and then gave away baskets and baskets of scallions. The currant bushes produced a fine crop of jewel-like sweet-and-sour fruits, which I enjoyed juicing with the wine press. I have harvested a good collection of garlic bulbs. The kale looks sturdy. Whether these successes count as adequate recompense for the hours of work in the garden, I do not know, but then, I enjoy working in the garden.

In sum, my garden has produced some food; it will not win any awards.

Looking at my partially ruined, perhaps-good-enough garden, I remember that I am a couple of years short of my seventieth birthday. Perhaps I have many active years left to live. Perhaps few. I can, with effort, remember endeavors that I have undertaken which bore fruit, and others which did not. I can wonder about projects in which I never did invest much effort, which, predictably, stayed at might-have-been. Some acquaintances have devoted their lives to accomplishing great things; I can look up at them with admiration. Some never had a chance. Others have made messes of their lives in one way or another.

What future I have, I cannot guess. I can feel thankful for the quiet life I have led, and the good-enough harvest it continues to bring in.

It does not need any awards.

Saloma Furlong’s Amish Sticky Buns as seen on PBS

A NOTE FROM FeedTheSpirit HOST BOBBIE LEWIS: I am traveling this week and am pleased to welcome Saloma Furlong to our online home for stories—and recipes—about faith, family traditions and good food. Stay tuned! I’ll be back soon with some special stories about foods for Christian and Jewish holidays. Here’s Saloma ….



At the end of my new book, Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds, I include some recipes from the Amish community where I grew up. Among them, “Mem’s White Bread” holds the deepest memories. When my older brother and sister started going to school and I was the oldest one still left at home, I would oftentimes make bread right alongside my mother, Mem. She would start first thing in the morning to make all of her loaves. When she reached the stage of turning out her dough for kneading on her breadboard, she would give me a blob of dough and let me knead it right next to her.

Of course, she often had to throw out the loaf I made because I was small and I sometimes would drop my dough on the floor while I was kneading it. It could get pretty dirty. But, sometimes, my bread would make it all the way through the process—I wouldn’t drop it—and then I’d be so proud to eat it!

When I did start going to school, I would come home on bread-baking day and I would tell her: “Oh, you made bread today without me!” So, Mem actually changed her schedule and made bread later in the day, when I was home from school.

When I was growing up, Mem was known as the best bread baker in our church district. I learned how to bake Mem‘s white bread, but it wasn’t until I was baking professionally that I wrote down the recipe. Here is the closest I have come to duplicating Mem‘s bread, including her way of teaching me what the temperature of the water or milk should be when adding the yeast.

She also would make cinnamon rolls from that white bread dough. I don’t have a written-down recipe for that, from her, but I did find a recipe for what I call the “Sticky Bun Stuff” in a Mennonite cookbook that seems to me a perfect way to recreate Mem’s sticky buns.

If you would like to learn more about my story, which was featured in two films about the Amish on the PBS network, please read my interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm.



Shirley Showalter’s famous family cookies: an unbroken chain

Hospitality is inextricably tied to food. We often measure the worth of a host’s welcome by the bounty of the table at which we are fed. I wrote these words, last week, in a column about the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot—and a yummy recipe for Trailside Oatmeal Cookies.

Today, we welcome Mennonite author Shirley Showalter with a column about another kind of cookie that may seem simple—but is also a tasty tradition that connects generations of women in her family. Shirley’s story also points out how these cookies were connection points with a larger world.



In my new memoir, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, one of the photos from the 1950s shows my sister Sue, my brother Henry and me at the roadside stand where we tried to sell our produce. When I look at that photo now, I smile because Henry is holding a bag of the family cookies over his shoulder. As children, we couldn’t travel all the way to a farmer’s market to sell our wares, so we tried it along the roadside.

I share about a dozen recipes at the end of my book, but the most important to me is the first one: my great-grandmother’s sugar cookie recipe that we still make from a 100-year-old notebook of family recipes. We always called them “Sugar Cakes.” If you get my book and look at the family chart in the opening pages, this recipe comes from the Barbara Hess (1866-1941) branch of my family tree.

Every week, through the generations, the women in my family would bake dozens and dozens of these cookies. They were simple, but were not found in most other cookbooks.

This has brought the women in my family together over a long, long period of time. My family always was part of the Lancaster Central Market, which is now the oldest continuously operated farmer’s market in the United States. Every Tuesday and Friday, they had a stand at the market and would bring in whatever produce and poultry they had prepared the day before—and, of course, baked goods, too. These cookies always were the featured item among the baked goods.

Many times as a girl, I helped to bake the cookies. My mother didn’t continue selling things at the market, but my grandmother did until her death in 1951.

This has brought the women in my family together over a long, long period of time. Recently, my daughter and I got together at my sister’s farm in Lancaster County and we made these cookies to serve guests at some of the book-launch events for Blush. I’ve now passed the recipe to my children, forming an unbroken chain of people who’ve made these cookies over more than a century.

Now, I’m passing this tradition along to readers, too.

Care to read more about Shirley Showalter?

You’re sure to enjoy our in-depth interview with Shirley about her life, her work as an author and her new book, Blush.

AND SPECIAL THANKS TODAY: Our Holidays and Festivals columnist Stephanie Fenton also is an accomplished food photographer. She carried out our Read The Spirit recipe testing, this week, and provided the photo that accompanies today’s recipe.