Grandma’s Stove

Today’s piece is by Sharon Buttry, an ordained pastor in the American Baptist Church and licensed a social worker. She works as associate director of training and education at the International Hope Center based in Hamtramck, Michigan, and is active in civic affairs and interfaith work. Sharon is married to Dan Buttry, the international peacemaker who frequently contributes to Read the Spirit.

Sharon Buttry with her replica antique wood cook stove.

Sharon Buttry with her replica antique wood cook stove.

Every summer during my childhood my family traveled from central Ohio to southern Illinois to visit my grandparents. They lived in a sturdy old farmhouse up in Pancake Holler, one turn off the Mississippi river road between Pleasant Hill and Grafton.

I loved watching my Grandma Crader take biscuits, cherry pie, and roasted, stuffed chicken out of her old wood cook stove. She had a water pump in the kitchen too! The big silver handle on the pump required a strong arm to get a steady stream of water from the ground to the kettle. And that chicken–well, it was alive earlier that morning. And the cherries in the pie–they came from my favorite tree to climb, right outside the kitchen door.

My grandma knew how to do things that my mother also knows how to do, but no longer “has” to, being a modern woman with a modern kitchen.

Sharon's grandmother, NAME, in 1912 when she was 17.

Sharon’s grandmother, Cordelia Jane Crader, in 1912 when she was 17.

A connection to Grandma

One of my dreams came true this year, when I installed a wood cookstove in my Hamtramck, MI kitchen. My wood stove is my connection to my grandma and the pioneer strength and spirit I so admired in her.

We bought an old house in Hamtramck in 2008. It had a leaky roof and needed a lot of work. We put in our own sweat equity and the rest we contracted out with the vocational training program that is one component of the ministry where I serve part-time in Hamtramck.

We tore out some walls to expand the kitchen to make room for the Elmira wood cook stove I found on Craigslist. It was not an antique but a replica, so we could meet the fire code standards required by the city for installation.

We bought a load of antique salvage bricks in nearby Highland Park and my neighbor bought a diamond masonry saw blade from Arizona to slice the bricks into “tiles” to make a firewall behind the stove. My husband and I cruised around north Detroit looking for downed trees near curbs. We found and sawed enough wood for the winter. A neighbor took down an elm tree and offered us enough wood for a second winter.

Fire in the hole!

Cooking the old-fashioned way requires a supply of wood. (Photo by Priit Tammets via Flickr Creative Commons.)

Cooking the old-fashioned way requires a supply of wood. (Photo by Priit Tammets via Flickr Creative Commons.)

The stove and stack installation was done by Alpha and Omega (www.alphomegachimney.com). They are experts and I highly recommend them if you are installing any kind of fireplace or wood stove. The straight stack chimney they built created a strong draw for the firing up of my stove and looks very beautiful from the street.

A retired chimney sweep (another neighbor’s Dad) came for the first “fire up” and showed me how to build a slow but steady fire so I wouldn’t over-fire and damage my stove. The little thermometer on the oven crept up to 250 degrees after an hour and a half.

The Elmira stove is fabulous! Lighting a fire and getting it to draw up the chimney could not be easier.

Using it gives me a profound resurgence of respect for my grandmother and the tedious task of coaxing a stove up to baking temperatures. The fact is, I haven’t mastered it yet. I need “hotter’ wood than I currently have–like sugar maple, hickory or apple–to get my oven hot enough to bake bread, pies or cookies.

I remember now that besides giving birth at home and raising 12 children, my grandma worked as a seasonal worker in the apple orchards near the homestead. I am wondering now if she bartered for apple wood! So now I am back on Craigslist and putting the word out looking for free wood of these varieties.

Using a stove like a slow cooker

Sharon hopes to cook a complete Thanksgiving dinner on her wood stove. (Photo by Jypsygen via Flickr Creative Commons.)

Sharon hopes to cook a complete Thanksgiving dinner on her wood stove. (Photo by Jypsygen via Flickr Creative Commons.)

I currently use my wood stovetop for cooking evening meals that require skillets and covered saucepans. I installed a pot-filler water faucet next to the stoves so that as I get older I won’t have to carry heavy pans of water from the kitchen sink to the stove.

I capture the stovetop heat in large pans and in the tea kettle (see photo) that the editor of this blog kindly gave to me in exchange for a donation to WISDOM, a Detroit-area women’s interfaith organization. The kettle belonged to her grandmother, and I enjoy it so much! I use the hot water for cooking and for washing dishes and sometimes for a bath in my claw-foot tub after a long hard night of cooking!

Since I can get the oven up to only 250 degrees with my current woodstock, I treat my oven like a slow cooker, similar to a crock pot. I slow roasted a whole chicken as my first experiment. I marinated the chicken for two hours while I got my stove up to temperature. I also marinated small sweet peppers (red, yellow and orange) with lemon slices, using a quarter-cup of olive oil, a quarter cup of lemon juice and a little salt and pepper). I started the process so late in the day, I had to set my alarm for 2 a.m. to get the chicken out of the oven!

As time goes on, I hope to become maybe one-third as proficient as my grandmother in the art of wood stove cooking. If I get some red oak to use as fuel, I may even try to roast a small turkey for Thanksgiving. My son is bringing his fiancé over for the day. I wonder what she will think as I pull my slow-cooked squash and stuffing dishes out of the Elmira stove?

Meanwhile, here is Grandma Crader’s standard poultry stuffing “receipt.” (The photo is by Danny Howard via Flickr Creative Commons.)

Grape Leaves from My Garden

Grapevines shade my husband's garden swing.

Grapevines shade my husband’s garden swing.

My husband has a wooden swing in the backyard where he likes to hang out on summer afternoons, but it’s right in the sun and can get a little uncomfortable.

To provide some shade, he planted two grapevines next to the swing, one on each side, a couple of years ago, hoping they’d climb up over the swing. I have no idea what kind of grapes they are – one is white, and one is red.

Grapes on the vine!

Grapes on the vine!

Last year we even had two minuscule clusters of grapes, which the birds enjoyed. This year, we had enough to make a couple of pints of grape juice.

But I was also interested in the vines for grape leaves. Living in Detroit, with its large Greek, Chaldean and Arab populations, we’ve been enjoying stuffed grape leaves for decades. They’re often stuffed with lamb, but we eat vegetarian versions. I’ve never made them, but with lush grapevines growing right outside my kitchen window, I thought this was a great time to try.

Stuffed vegetables are popular for the seven-day Jewish festival of Sukkot, which we finished last week. Sukkot is partly a harvest festival, and stuffing freshly harvested veggies is a good way to celebrate. Long-time readers of this blog will remember my piece from two years ago about stuffed cabbage for Sukkot.

Everyone says it’s better to pick grape leaves in the spring, when they’re younger and more tender. But I found enough leaves on our vine that weren’t yet old and tough.

I’d been interested in trying my hand at stuffed grape leaves since last spring, when I participated in a program about food with Jewish and Chaldean (Iraqi Catholic) women. One of the Chaldean women told how almost every cook in her community keeps a large supply of grape leaves on hand.

The women frequently gather in groups to stuff grape leaves, she said, kind of like a Middle Eastern version of a quilting bee.

One family she knows almost got in trouble because of her grape leaves. The family had a house fire, and after the firemen took care of the emergency, they were about to arrest her; they had looked in her freezer, which was full of grape leaves, and thought she was growing marijuana illegally!

Thank you, Joan Nathan!

What convinced me to finally take action was this video and recipe from Joan Nathan, the doyenne of American Jewish cooking, which showed up in my Facebook feed. Her book, The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, is one of my all-time faves.

I followed her recipe and her directions, and the result was dee-lish! As she says, you don’t need to grow your own grapes or raid a neighbor’s vine; jarred grape leaves, available in any Middle Eastern or specialty grocery store, will do equally well.

These Armenian stuffed grape leaves are super-flavorful, with onions, tomatoes, currants and pine nuts, and a variety of seasonings including mint, dill, cinnamon, cardamom and allspice.

The filling isn’t hard to make; the only fiddly part of the recipe is actually stuffing and rolling the leaves, which was a little challenging to one used to making the much larger stuffed cabbage rolls.

I took them to a holiday lunch at a friend’s house and they were scarfed up in no time!

Joan suggests trying the same stuffing with chard leaves. We had some chard in our garden, so I made a few that way. The taste was great, but the chard leaves, which are long and thin, were actually harder to roll than the grape leaves.

If you make more than you can eat at once, you can freeze them. Put the extra rolls in a large bowl, drizzle with olive oil and toss gently to make sure all the rolls are lightly coated with oil, then place them in a plastic freezer bag. Defrost in the refrigerator and bring to room temperature before serving.

 

 

 

 

 

Modak for Ganesha Chaturdhi

An image of the Hindu diety Ganesha; photo via Wikimedia Commons

An image of the Hindu diety Ganesha; photo via Wikimedia Commons

Padma Kuppa

Padma Kuppa

I feel privileged to serve on the board of WISDOM, Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in Metro Detroit. My favorite thing about WISDOM is getting to know women from all kinds of faith backgrounds whom I would not otherwise meet, especially now that I’m retired and no longer meet diverse people through work. Today’s guest blogger is Padma Kuppa, an IT consultant in the Detroit metro area. who lives in suburban Detroit.

A stone statue of Ganesha from the Victoria and Albert Museum, photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A stone statue of Ganesha from the Victoria and Albert Museum, photo via Wikimedia Commons.

On the Hindu holiday of Ganesha Chaturdhi this year, I will be with my friend and executive eirector of the Hindu American Foundation, Suhag Shukla, doing something related to advocacy and interfaith.

It is the second time in five years that we will be together. In 2012 we were in Washington D.C., advocating against hate crimes and for human rights in the wake of the Wisconsin gurudwara massacre. It’s no surprise that I sometimes choose to promote interfaith understanding and social justice, and not to do the elaborate prayer rituals typical of such Hindu holy days. I tend to prefer the path of karma yoga, and being faithful through my actions and my activism; bhakti yoga and the devotion and ritual that it encompasses, have long been my mom’s realm.

Ganesha Chaturdhi, or Vinayaka Chaviti, the name variant that I am more familiar with because my mother tongue is Telugu, falls on September 17 this year. The holiday is typically honored with an elaborate prayer ritual at home and/or the temple. The holiday is marked in many different ways, across the many different linguistic and cultural groups that practice Hinduism. My mom always made a special food known as undrallu as part of the offering during worship; these various Indian-style dumplings known as modak are said to be Ganesha’s favorite.

God of Success

Ganesha (also spelled Ganesa and known as Ganapati, Vinayaka and Pillaiyar) is one Hindu way of viewing the Divine. He is known as the God of Success, Lord of Beginnings and the Remover of Obstacles. Because Hinduism teaches that all of nature is Divine, Hindus believe that God manifests in the various forms that are found in nature, including animals, rivers, mountains and earth.  So Ganesha is depicted with an elephant head, symbolizing wisdom, as elephants are recognized to be among the wisest of animals.

Stories are told generation to generation, not simply of how a young boy with a rotund belly acquired the elephant head, but as allegories; the meaning of the stories deepens as the devotee matures. Destruction of vanity, success in the face of adversity, filial duty, how the Divine is formless yet can have a form: all these themes are found in stories of Ganesha. The symbolism of what people simply see as “the elephant headed god” seems limitless, while the rich, underlying philosophy is approachable.

Modak may be steamed or, as shown here, fried. Photo by Swasthi.

Modak may be steamed or, as shown here, fried. Photo by Swasthi.

And because of all this, Ganesha is widely revered all over the cradle of Hinduism – India – and the among the Indian Hindu diaspora. Murtis (an image of the Divine which itself becomes divine) and images of Ganesha are found everywhere, in many different forms, and he is invoked before the undertaking of any task.

No place is Ganesha more widely celebrated than in the Indian city of Mumbai, where my WISDOM sister Anjali Vale hails from. The favorite dish of Ganesha takes on a different form in the Indian state of Maharashtra where she grew up. In fact, it  takes on different names across the Indian landscape: in Tamil Nadu, it’s kozhakkattai, in Karnataka, it’s modhaka, and in Andhra, it’s also called kudumu.

Sweet or savory, steamed or fried

Modak can be sweet or savoury, they can be steamed or fried, and the fillings can be traditional (like shredded coconut and jaggery) or innovative (like paneer, coriander and tomatoes). I had many opportunities to see the elaborate mandap – the altar setup and decorated for worship – at Anjali’s home during the 10 days each year when her family celebrated the holiday. But the best part was eating many of the wonderful modaka – filling my tummy to have a belly like Ganesha’s!

The recipe that follows is from a blog on healthy Indian recipes by Swasthi,a mother and homemaker who lives in Singapore. She says you can use store-bought rice flour, but it’s not nearly as good as rice flour you make yourself! Click here to see how to make your own.

Here are some links to for more information about Ganesha Chaturdhi and some recipes for the holiday:

16 recipes for Vinayaka Chaviti from Swasthi, including one for undrallu, the Andhra style steamed modak

NDTV’s Food site with 7 modak recipes

ssure cooker steam for 10 minutes; a small pressure pan will need only 6 minutes.

Aunt Frances on marketing and braised red cabbage

The author's great aunt, Frances Katz, at age 97 or 98 in front of a portrait of her at a younger age.

The author’s great aunt, Frances Katz, at age 95 ot 96 in front of a portrait of her at a younger age.

Nancy Schwartz

Nancy Schwartz

From the editor: Today’s guest blog is by Nancy Schwartz, a marketing pro who works with contagious passion and refreshing practicality to help nonprofit organizations connect with their people – donors, volunteers, and other key supporters – and inspire them to action. A renowned coach, speaker and consultant, Nancy also publishes the popular blog, Getting Attention.org. I relied on her expert advice many times when I was a nonprofit communicator and I continue to read her terrific blog.

I grew close to my wondrous Great Aunt Frances over the years I lived a few blocks from her in NYC.

Aunt Frances was a warm, loving, down-to-earth lady who’d had many life adventures and was a fantastic cook.

Her stories of life as a girl in the Bronx—where her mother stored the live fish, bought to make gefilte fish each Shabbat (the Jewish sabbath), in the bathtub overnight—were memorable. So were those she shared from her life as a young teen,, briefly-working young woman, and long-term mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. On top of that, she forced her delectable homemade cookies on me on every visit, as only a Jewish grandmother can. Who could resist?

Aunt Frances passed away at the age of 107½, and I’ll miss her greatly. But she’s left me – and so many others – with so much.

Relationships are the key

Relationships are the key to good marketing; photo by Itia4U via Flickr Creative Commons.

Relationships are the key to good marketing; photo by Itia4U via Flickr Creative Commons.

Here are three relationship-building skills I learned from Aunt Frances. You can use these to strengthen your congregation, non-profit organization or business.

1) As different as we are from one another, we also share a lot in common. Marketing success is about strong relationships, which grow from finding that commonality and nourishing it.

Aunt Frances had incredible people skills, which nurtured her huge network of friends and family. When I broke up with my long-time, live-in boyfriend years ago, she empathized as I expected. Then she launched into the story of her older sister Jean’s breakup experience, which motivated Jean to hitchhike cross-country (in the 1920s!) and, subsequently, to a career in hat design and a satisfying marriage!

She didn’t tell me there would be an upside to what felt like a disaster at the moment (I couldn’t have heard it right then) but she “got” what I was feeling, showed me the upside through this fantastic family story.

You share much with the other people in your organization. And you can, by bringing your full self (i.e. your humanity) to your organization, find that point of connection and nourish it. It’s the best way to grow a tight relationship with the people whose help you need to move your organization’s mission forward.

Keep it real

2) Stay real to keep connecting. Fake is always discovered, erodes trust and makes people flee…for good.

Aunt Frances turned down the typical old-lady role of super sweet, which would have sent me right out the door. Instead, she stayed who she was, authentic.

That meant, for example, that we had a special deal that we could complain to each other about things we felt shy complaining about to others. And that when one of us shared a personal challenge, the other frequently had one to share as well, so we felt like equals. And felt great trust.

Organizations, like individuals, have good and bad moments. Sharing those tough moments is a point of connection. If you make a mistake or error, share it (or some of it) rather than trying to hide it. Transparency builds trust. On the other hand, hiding or faking it never works, and when the truth surfaces, your supporters’ trust will be much weakened. Stay real!

Give your organization's people are reason to give to you. Photo by Carlos Ciudad via Flickr Creative Commons.

Give your organization’s people are reason to give to you. Photo by Carlos Ciudad via Flickr Creative Commons.

It’s better to give…

3) Giving, rather than taking, is what relationship building is all about. Make sure your people (supporters, colleagues, family and friends) feel like they’re the ones getting the most from your relationship.

When I spoke with Aunt Frances to wish her a happy 107th birthday, I told her how much our friendship and love has always meant to me, and thanked her for being such a wonderful light in my life – steady, bright and warm. Then she, amazed at my statement, told me how how silly I was, how she had always marveled at my loyalty and persistent friendship despite the difference in our ages, and thanked me.

We both felt we got the best deal from the relationship, that we got far more than we gave.

Later that day, as I was polishing an annual fund campaign for a client, I realized that’s exactly the feeling you want to inspire in your supporters – that they get a lot from supporting you, whether it be with time, effort and/or money. Like the satisfaction I feel after doing my monthly stint at the local food pantry, or my husband, Sean, and daughter, Charlotte, feel after their weekly shift at the youth garden, where they grow and harvest vegetables for another food bank. Sean loves my garden at home, as an observer. But the youth garden experience has spurred his interest in hands-on gardening and kick-started his skills. He can’t wait to go every week! That’s exactly the response you want to create for your supporters.

Giving, rather than taking, is what relationship building is all about. The more you give your people (in experience, satisfaction, appreciation, skills or otherwise), the more likely they are to feel like they’re getting the great deal and will be back for more.

Take it from Aunt Frances! I’ll never forget her.

Behind the kitchen door: sweet potato wontons

ROC waiter by Daniel Krieger Unless you’ve worked in a restaurant, or are really close to someone who has, you probably have no idea what goes on behind the kitchen door.

Serving, bussing tables, dishwashing—these are all physically demanding jobs but they can be rewarding if the restaurant treats its staff equitably. Unfortunately, too many don’t.

I had my eyes opened recently when I attended a program, sponsored by seven local Jewish organizations, at Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) Michigan.

ROC Michigan, along with 14 similar state organizations, is affiliated with ROC United. The first ROC, in New York, was started after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to provide support for restaurant workers who lost their jobs when the twin towers fell.

Food servers are often overworked and underpaid; photo by Laszlo Photography via Flickr Creative Commons.

Food servers are often overworked and underpaid; photo by Laszlo Photography via Flickr Creative Commons.

Guaranteed wage: $2.13

I knew that servers are paid below minimum wage, with the expectation that they will make it up in tips. But I had no idea the federally guaranteed “tipped wage” is only $2.13 an hour, an amount that hasn’t increased in 22 years! (In some states it is higher. Michigan’s tipped wage will rise to a whopping $3.10 this year.)

It is possible to make a decent living from tips, especially in higher-end restaurants. But I didn’t know that there are no laws guaranteeing tips, and that few restaurants even have policies about tips. Unscrupulous managers can easily skim their staff’s tips with impunity.

I didn’t realize that bussers can be paid the same “tipped wage” as servers but without the opportunity to get a fair share of the tips.

Nor was I aware that restaurant workers don’t have to be paid overtime, or that managers can make the staff stay on the premises but clock out when the restaurant is empty so that they don’t get paid for all the hours they’re on duty.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) advocates for food service workers.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) advocates for food service workers.

Like most minimum wage workers, most restaurant staff don’t get paid sick time.

Saru Jayaraman, one of the founders of ROC, has written a book on the difficulties of restaurant workers, Behind the Kitchen Door (Cornell University Press).

Generally, servers and bartenders make more than those who work “behind the kitchen door,” said Alicia Renee Farris, director of ROC Michigan. That’s why she’s developed an innovative training program to prepare adults for careers as bartenders and servers in nice restaurants.

For six of the 10 weeks of the course, the students work at Colors, a full-service restaurant run by ROC Michigan in downtown Detroit.

ROC Michigan says their raisons d’etre are organizing for workplace justice in restaurants, research and public policy advocacy, and “high road practices,” which means fair and sustainable work practices for restaurant staff. At Colors, for example, the wait staff are paid $10.10 an hour and all staff share the tips.

Some restaurants are doing away with tipping and paying all hourly staff a living wage. Photo by Jaco Kleijwegt via Flickr Creative Commons.

Some restaurants are doing away with tipping and paying all hourly staff a living wage. Photo by Jaco Kleijwegt via Flickr Creative Commons.

(Last Thursday I heard a piece on NPR’s “On Point” program about how the tipping economy is changing. Bob Donegan, the president of Ivar’s Seafood Restaurants in Seattle said his company increased its menu prices by 21 percent, asks that customers do not tip, and pays all hourly staff at least $15 an hour. It hasn’t hurt them; indeed the number of diners and the chain’s revenue have skyrocketed, but Donegan admitted that could be due to all the good publicity they’ve been getting!)

One of the speakers at our program, a graduate of the Colors training, had a few suggestions for diners. First, ask your server if he or she is happy with the job. If the waiter hesitates at all, you’ll know that working conditions there are not what they should be; you might want to avoid that restaurant in future.

He also suggested handing your server the tip personally, rather than putting it on your credit card, to ensure that the server receives the entire amount. If you want to put the tip on your card, he said, ask the server if he or she will get the full amount if you do so. Again, if you see any hesitation you can suspect some fishy business.

Colors provided program participants with a lovely vegetarian soul food luncheon, which included sweet potato wontons, one of their signature dishes. Chef Alex Amdemichael was kind enough to share the recipe. It’s great as an appetizer, a party food or even as a savory dessert.

 

Selling chametz and enjoying a pineapple kugel

 

Chametz, by Amber Harkins via Flickr Creative Commons

Chametz, by Amber Harkins via Flickr Creative Commons

I have a recurring Passover fantasy. One day, in the middle of the eight-day holiday, there will be a knock at my door. I’ll open it to a grizzled old man who will say, “Give me the chametz!”

Jews are forbidden to own chametz (rhymes with “DUMB bits” in Yiddish and “Rockettes” in Hebrew) during Passover, based on the Biblical commandment found in the Book of Exodus 12:15Seven days shall you eat flatbread. The very first day you shall expunge leaven from your houses, for whosoever eats leavened bread, that person shall be cut off from Israel from the first day to the seventh day. (The holiday is eight days everywhere except Israel.)

Five grains

Not all grains can be leavened, and so only certain grains are regarded as chametz. In Biblical times, chametz meant several varieties of wheat and barley. Later, the rabbis decided to include spelt, rye and oats. These five grains will rise when they come in contact with a leavening agent, such as yeast or baking powder, or even water, which often contains the spores of wild yeast.

Other grains, such as rice and corn, will rot, rather than rise, when they come in contact with water.Coincidentally, the grains regarded as chametz are those that contain gluten.

Some of the chametz my husband and I will sell before Passover

Some of the chametz my husband and will sell before Passover

Getting rid of chametz

In the weeks leading up to the holiday we clean and scrub, ridding our dwellings of every crumb of chametz. I described this in my Feed the Spirit Passover column last year. But what does not owning any chametz mean, practically speaking?

Well, starting about two months before the holiday we stop buying foods containing chametz except for the absolute necessities. We try to use up open packages of flour, bread, cookies, crackers and cereal that we have in our pantries, and throw out what we can’t eat. Some folks throw away all opened packages, even foods that would otherwise be acceptable for Passover. So it’s a balancing act of trying to eat up all the stuff you don’t want to keep over Passover while having enough food to take you right up to the start of the holiday.

But what to do with unopened and sealed packages of cereal, pasta and mixes that include any of the chametz grains in their ingredients? Or the very expensive stuff, like a half-bottle of single-malt Scotch, which is made from grain considered chametz and thus taboo for Passover? For many of us, especially those of us who regularly stock up when we have coupons or the stores have good sales, it would be financially difficult to throw everything away or even to donate it all to a food pantry.

The solution? Sell it!

The solution is to sell the chametz to a non-Jew. That way we can keep it in our homes, stashed away somewhere out of sight, but for the duration of the holiday, we don’t legally own it and we cannot use it.

Most congregational rabbis act as agents, selling the chametz on behalf of members. My rabbi does this, and also sells any chametz owned by the congregation itself – like the huge boxes of frozen cookies we use for our post-Sabbath-service receptions. He sells it all to our non-Jewish custodian.

Supermarkets in Israel block off their chametz products during Passover. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Supermarkets in Israel block off their chametz products during Passover. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

In Israel, since 1997 a Muslim Israeli, Jaaber Hussein, has been buying chametz owned by the government and state institutions – prisons, hospitals, the armed forces – in a deal brokered by the chief rabbis. The sale has an estimated value of $150 million. Hussein, who works at a Jerusalem hotel, gives the government representative a check for NIS 100,000 (about $25,500) as payment for the chametz.

After the holiday, the rabbis buy the chametz back.

Some people of means have been known to “sell” their entire house for the duration of Passover. Then they simply lock the door and decamp to a kosher-for-Passover resort or cruise ship without even having to do the insane cleanup.

Legally binding

The document for selling chametz is legally binding, which is why I started wondering what would happen if someone actually tried to enforce it.

My rabbi, Bob Gamer, says he’s never heard of a buyer actually trying to lay claim to purchased chametz, as in my fantasy.

“If they did they would have to arrange a time to come and get it and then pay the fair market value of whatever they take,” he said. “If you have an $80 bottle of Scotch, then they have to pay the balance. The contract is a down payment, with the remainder due if the person collects the items.”

Some organizations will handle the proxy sale online. Here’s a link to one of them.

Here’s a nice, easy Passover recipe for pineapple kugel (pudding) from my machatenista Joy Gardin – that’s a good Yiddish word for which there is no English equivalent; it means my child’s mother-in-law. You can serve it as a side dish or as a dessert, and it’s one of those Passover dishes that we like to say is “good enough to eat all year” because it doesn’t taste like matzoh. Because it contains no matzoh, it’s also a good dish for anyone avoiding gluten.

 

 

 

Searching for potato kugel

 

Potato kuge, photol by Rebecca Siegel via Flickr Creative Commons

Potato kugel, photol by Rebecca Siegel via Flickr Creative Commons

Today’s essay is by Avery Robinson, a former Detroiter who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. This article is reprinted from Tablet Magazine, at tabletmag.com, the online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture. 

This seemed like a good piece to follow the one about knishes, another traditional Jewish food.

I had to laugh when I read how his great grand-aunt Minnie’s recipe consisted of a list of six ingredients and no directions; she and everyone else she may have given the recipe to would have inherently known what to do with it. I was reminded of the time my mother, not a great cook, asked her mother-in-law for her noodle kugel recipe. My grandmother told her to use noodles, a grated apple, canned pineapple, sugar, salt…”Don’t you need eggs?” asked my mother. “Eggs?” said my grandmom. “Of course eggs!”

Kugel is my favorite food. My love for it has compelled me to host kugel-offs, spend countless hours looking for kugel recipes in culinary archives, write my graduate thesis on the pudding’s history in America, and generally, devote more time to this casserole than any millennial ought to. But for years when people have asked me about my kugel recipe, I demurred. “I don’t use recipes,” I said. “I cook by feeling, like our grandmothers did.”

But I was not happy about my answer. I was not happy with my kugel complacency. I craved some kind of ancestral culinary anchor—a family recipe.

I own scores of Jewish cookbooks. Across the 90 years of American Jewish cooking that they represent, there is an aggregate kugel content of more than 150 different recipes. Yet none of them evoked any personal connection or meaning. Even my mother’s delicious kugels—the sweet lukshen (noodle) kugel she serves on Shabbat, the potato kugelletes on Passover—lack the link I yearned for. My mother’s recipes were not ones handed down to her by her grandmother or mother. And that precise lineage was the ingredient missing in my kugel.

Photo by Vincci via Flickr Creative Comons

Photo by Vincci via Flickr Creative Comons

My introduction to potato kugel

I ate my first real potato kugel—the kind not wedged into muffin tins—when I was 18 and living in Israel. This same year I tasted my first savory noodle kugel. It blew my mind—I knew kugel as a sweet complement to a savory meal. But not as a Jewish replacement for roasted potatoes.

Then there were the Yerushalmi kugels—caramelized noodles flavored with black pepper. I never thought of kugel as such a dynamic canvas. Until then, I had no idea that unsweetened kugels existed. A new world was opening before me, and I wanted to learn all I could about this Ashkenazi [Eastern European Jewish] staple.

For the next seven years I tasted most every kugel I could find. Some were made with quinoa; another was cinnamon-free, but loaded with nutmeg (don’t try this at home); there was one bound by applesauce, gluten-free, and vegan; and increasingly more autumnal gourd-based kugels

I went out of my way for kugel. But I wasn’t just looking for greatness. I was also asking questions: Why use sweet potatoes and russets? What makes a spinach casserole a kugel? For four consecutive years during college at the Malka and Elimelech Kugelov Kugel-off—an annual event hosted by the Jewish culture club at the University of Michigan—my fellow eaters and I critiqued an average of 15 kugels year.

It was a long process, throughout which I made a lot of kugels of my own. But never with a recipe of my own.

Back to Mother Russia

In 2014, I joined an  organized trip to the Pale of Settlement to explore the origins of Ashkenazi foodways. Specifically, I went in search of my family’s heritage, to see where my family came from; I went to find my culinary birthright.

“Four hours by horse from Minsk,” jokes my father’s Cousin Lou about the distance to my family’s ancestral shtetl of Lekhovich, a Belarusian town 140 miles due south of Vilna.

In this picturesque town, surrounded by lush green fields, with an apple orchard a stone’s throw from the market square, there are few signs of a Jewish past: two monuments recognizing the Jewish victims of the Shoah, a department store in a former beis midrash [study hall], and a canning factory has replaced the Great Shul.

Though I found no answers there to my kugel queries—indeed, I didn’t find any dish there resembling a kugel—I did find them east of Bialystok in Krynki, a town where nine of out 10 people were Jews before the Holocaust.

In the middle of Krynki was a small restaurant serving made-to-order pierogen and other Polish staples, including babka ziemniaczana. This was not the layered chocolate or cinnamon confection you think of when you think of babka. This was a potato and onion pudding: a kugel.

It was a Jewish pudding unlike anything my family ever made—a savory outlier to the sweet lukshen I knew from my youth—complete with a latticework of sour cream as garnish. I couldn’t claim it as my family’s recipe—after all, my ancestors lived more than 80 miles away. But it was a delicious start to finding something I could eventually claim as my own.

Photo by Su-Lin via Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Su-Lin via Flickr Creative Commons

The search continues

We continued our journey north, having lunch in the town of Sejny, home to a yeshiva, the White Shul, and a Lithuanian restaurant serving kugelis, a potato kugel often made with bacon fat.

It smelled great and looked tempting, but as a kosher-observant person, I would not try it. I imagine it’s reminiscent of an equally inimitable schmaltzy kugel—made with rendered chicken or goose fat instead of the more contemporary butter, oils, and margarines—another delicacy I have never sampled because I was raised in a world of “lite” sweet kugels, a world that tried to eschew cholesterol.

I continued traveling in the region, and though I ate lot of pickles and smoked fish and fell in love with black bread, I found no more Jewish puddings. I was no closer to identifying a kugel of my own, much less identifying what I was going to do with rest of my life.

I admit I was lost. I had post-graduation angst. I was living at my parents’ house with no idea about my future. I was unemployed and didn’t know what else to explore.

A few weeks after my summer travels, I headed to New York to attend a workshop on contemporary Jewish food culture that included historical discussions, archival visits, cooking lessons, and encounters at eateries of all sorts.

First, though, participants had to introduce ourselves to one another. “Hi, I’m Avery Robinson from Detroit, Michigan. I just finished a master’s at the University of Michigan in Jewish American culinary history through the lens of kugel.”

An hour later, and 21 other much more impressive self-descriptions later, we ventured to our first meal. In a private room at Bar Bolonat, Sydney, another conference attendee, asked me if I am related to some other Detroit Robinsons. I am; they are my father’s aunt and uncle. Apparently, Sydney and I are cousins.

And, as you’d expect at a food conference, we started talking about family recipes.

Family recipes! My heart soared.

Minnie’s “Potato Pudding” recipe: 2-3 Tbs. fat, 6 potatoes, 1/4 cup matzoh meal, 1 egg, salt, pepper

Minnie’s “Potato Pudding” recipe: 2-3 Tbs. fat, 6 potatoes, 1/4 cup matzoh meal, 1 egg, salt, pepper

A family recipe at last

As far as I knew, there weren’t any. Sydney explained that her great-grandmother Minnie, a sister to my great-grandmother, was the cook in the family. Her recipes were central to her family’s identity. Lacto-fermented pickles, for example, were so important in my cousin Sydney’s life that she made batches of them as wedding favors for all of her wedding guests.

Now I have a lacto-fermented pickle recipe! And it’s from kin!

Later in the week, I learned that it wasn’t just pickles that survived the family’s migration to Detroit. Minnie had brought other recipes from Europe to Michigan with her.

Blintzes! A Pesach meringue! Mandelbrodt! And kugel!

Finally, a kugel recipe to call my own. Having read thousands of recipes for kugel, nothing has felt anywhere near as right as this one.

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 3:21 says, “Without bread, there is no Torah.” For my family, this is our bread, our Torah. Spending time in my family’s shtetl last summer was great—but discovering this trove of recipes was a much more tangible—and tasty—homecoming.

Minnie’s recipe for “Potato Pudding” is a work of utter simplicity, poverty, and secrets. Six ingredients are listed in four lines. If you didn’t know better, you might confuse it for instructions on latkes or roasted potatoes.

Minnie’s contemporaries would have known the potatoes were to be grated; there’d be no need to write that down. They’d have known everything went into a greased casserole dish and then into a 350- to 400-degree oven until it was done, an endpoint the cook would have to determine.

There’s no direction about salt or pepper or schmaltz, but for me, that’s not the point. This recipe—and the card it’s written out on—is a reminder of my family’s journey from Lekhovich to Detroit. Beyond my family recipe, it is my story.

The potato kugel recipe below comes from The Pleasures of Your Food Processor by Norene Gilletz. The photo is by Melissa Goodman via Flickr Creative Commons.