Chautauqua: Haven for Learning and Culture

My husband and I have become evangelists—for the Chautauqua Institution, a unique and wonderful community in the westernmost county of New York, between Buffalo and Erie, Pa.

It’s a combination of college campus, music festival, writers’ workshop,  arts enclave and summer resort, with a little more than a hint of the religious movement that gave it its start 143 years ago. One person we met called it “summer camp for the adult brain.”

And it’s nestled into a picturesque small town chock full of Victorian-era houses, gardens galore and quiet streets. Walking and biking are the primary means of transport (though shuttle buses are available).

Training for Sunday School teachers

Originally called the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly, the institution was created in 1874 as a two-week program for Methodist Sunday School teachers. The assembly took place following a revivalist “camp meeting” held annually on the shores of Lake Chautauqua. Founders John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller thought religion teachers needed more than revivalist spirit. They brought in speakers on a variety of academic subjects and provided music, art and physical education opportunities. It wasn’t long before the assembly totally eclipsed the revival meeting.

The Chautauqua idea caught on quickly, attracting the general public as well as religious educators. Soon there were numerous “daughter Chautauquas” and traveling Chautauquas throughout the country.

The founders’ vision still drives the institution, which now has a nine-week season every summer, from the end of June to the end of August.

Every week has a theme, and every weekday morning there is a lecture from a nationally known speaker on that theme. Every weekday afternoon there’s a lecture on a related theme in the “interfaith” lecture series. And every evening, six days of the week, there is fabulous entertainment: from the resident Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, from the music school’s orchestra, from the opera program or resident ballet company, or from top-notch visiting artists.

In between there are more lectures, book reviews, movies, discussion groups, recitals, art exhibits, nature walks and other activities – more than any one person can do.

For an additional fee there are three productions by the resident theater company and  a whole catalog of “special studies courses” on a wide variety of topics. There’s a golf course, tennis courts and indoor pool, and a lake with small beaches and boat docks. There are reasonably priced day camp programs for children from 3 to 16.

Religious life at Chautauqua

In deference to its history, Chautauqua provides many avenues for religious expression, including daily Protestant services with visiting clergy in the large amphitheater and a Sunday evening “sacred song service.”

Quite early in Chautauqua’s history, various Protestant denominations began operating guest houses so their congregants could stay at Chautauqua for a reasonable fee. Catholics and Jews weren’t particularly welcome in the early days, but now both groups have residences among the “denominational houses” on the grounds – and a Muslim house is in the discussion phase.

The newest of the denominational houses is the Everett Jewish Life Center, which opened in 2009. My husband and I started staying there for a week at a time in 2014. Last year we learned that they were looking for a new “host couple” and we jumped at the opportunity.

This year we spent 10 weeks at Chautauqua. Our duties included welcoming the guests to the Everett Center’s five guest rooms, shopping for food, preparing and cleaning up from breakfast, helping set up seats for the weekly films and speakers, and general trouble-shooting. Others handled the cleaning and maintenance and the programming.

In return, we got to enjoy almost everything Chautauqua had to offer. We heard incredible speakers, including Dahlia Lithwick, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Lewis Black, Jacques Pepin, E.J. Dionne, Bill Moyers and Stella Rimington, the former head of British intelligence and the model for Judi Dench’s “M”.

We saw fabulous entertainers, including Jay Leno, the Capitol Steps, Garrison Keillor, Sheryl Crow and the Beach Boys.

Visitors can stay at one of the 15 denominational houses with  guest rooms, the beautiful Victorian Athenaeum Hotel or at a rental house, apartment or room. There are also less expensive hotels and cabin communities a few miles away.

A word to the wise: The denominational houses get booked up fast! The Everett center has only a few openings left for 2018. The United Methodist House starts taking reservations October 1 and continues until the rooms are filled. The Catholic House has a lottery: get your application in between November 1 and November 30 and they’ll let you know soon afterwards if you’re “in.”

All of the denominational houses welcome people of all faiths, though some give preferences to church members; some allow you to become an official member of the tribe by paying a small membership fee.

Like any good evangelist, I’m willing to “testify” for Chautauqua! If you have any questions about the program or about the Everett Jewish Life Center, please contact me.

The recipe below is for one of the breakfast casseroles I served to our guests at the Everett center. I got it from It would be a great brunch or potluck dish. Be sure to plan ahead, because the recipe calls for the dish to sit overnight in the refrigerator. You can probably get by with letting it sit just a few hours, but I don’t recommend baking it right after you mix it up; the bread needs a chance to soak up the eggs and milk.


Bean soup from the Jews of Greece

I recently attended another program in the series “The Forgotten Jewish Refugees,” presented by our local Sephardic synagogue.

“Sephardic” usually refers to Jews who are descended from those who were kicked out of Spain and Portugal in the late 1400s. Many resettled in Northern Africa and the Middle East–but most of those areas already had Jewish communities dating from the time of the Romans. These are technically not Sephardic, but usually identify more with them than with the Ashkenazic Jews, descended from those who lived in Central and Eastern Europe.

The original Greek Jewish community is thought to have started in the first century BCE, when Jews were being taken to Rome as slaves after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Some of the ships ran aground. Some of the prisoners made it to shore and settled among the Greeks in the area that would become Ioannina. This is thought to be the oldest Jewish settlement in Europe.

These “Romaniote” Jews kept themselves separate from the “newcomers,” the Sephardic Jews who arrived from Spain after 1492. They spoke Yevanic, a form of Judeo-Greek, while the Sephardim spoke Ladino, a mixture of Hebrew and Spanish.

In the 12h century, traveler Benjamin of Tudela documented large Jewish communities in Corfu, Arta, Corinth, Thebes, Thessaloniki and other Greek towns.

By the early 20th century, about 40 percent of the population of Thessaloniki were Jews.

The Jewish population of Greece was savaged by the Holocaust; approximately 86 percent were slaughtered by the Italians and Germans. Today, only 4,000 to 6,000 Jews remain in Greece. Most of the others live in the U.S. or Israel.

As usual at these presentations, we were served a sample of several delectable Greek-Jewish foods. There were spinach and cheese burekas, salad with beets and feta cheese, baklava, sesame candy, and this delicious bean soup, called Fasolada.

As soon as I got home, I made a big pot. It’s easy to make, very tasty, and the perfect thing for a cold winter day.

I chopped the onion and grated the carrots in my food processor, and used bottled crushed garlic, making the prep very easy.

Cooking her way back to health

Jessica Fechtor was 28 and leading a wonderful life, married to a smart and charming man she met in college, living in Cambrige, Mass., on her way to earning a Ph.D. at Harvard.

Then, with no warning, an aneurysm burst in her brain as she worked out on a treadmill while she was at a conference in Vermont.

Fechtor has just published a wonderful book, Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me HomeDescribed as a memoir with recipes. it details her remarkable journey back to health, through the initial neurosurgery to repair the aneurysm, another surgery to battle a raging infection, a horrible reaction to medication and a long rehabilitation.

For 10 months, she lived without a piece of her skull, which had to be removed because of infection. The hockey helmet she wore for protection only partly hid the deformity. She lost the sight in one eye and her sense of smell (which happily she regained). Then she underwent a final surgery to repair a golf-ball-sized dent in her temple.

Learning to be a good guest

Jessica always loved to cook, but when she came home from the worst of her hospitalizations, she had to relinquish that pleasure to her friends and learn how to be a good guest in her own home.

“A good guest, we think, is an easy guest. A considerate one. She arrives on time with a bottle of wine or maybe a gift, some chocolate or homemade jam. She asks what she can do. She wants to help. She insists.

“What these best of intentions miss is the most basic thing of all: that a good guest allows herself to be hosted. That means saying, ‘yes, please,’ when your’re offered a cup of tea, instead of rushing to get it yourself. It means staying in your chair, enjoying good company and your first glass of wine while your host ladles soup into bowls. If your host wants to dress the salad herself and toss it the way she knows how, let her, because a host is delighted to serve. To allow her to take care of you is to allow your host her generosity. I’d always been too distracted by my own desire to be useful to understand this. I got it now.”

The early part of Jessica’s book alternates between chapters about her health crisis and recovery and chapters about how she met and married her husband, Eli. Later chapters describe her long rehabilitation. Each chapter concludes with a description of dish that is meaningful to her, along with a nice recipe. There’s baked ziti, kale and pomegranate salad, almond macaroons, apple pie, buttermilk biscuits, cherry clafoutis and more.

A food blog as therapy

As Jessica grew stronger after her first surgeries, she became restless. Not quite ready to return to her graduate studies in Jewish literature, she took the advice of a friend and started a food blog. She called it Sweet Amandine after her favorite almond cake. But in order to write about cooking, she had to cook.

“The kitchen became my arena for testing myself physically. I’d page through my cookbooks and stack of rumpled recipes in search of ones that felt safe….When the making and the eating were done, I’d sit down and write. Often, after a few minutes of staring at the screen, my eyes would begin to ache and my neck would tighten with nausea. I’d wish I could unscrew my head, so heavy and big, and just lay it down beside me for a while. Every few sentences of so, I would take a break. Sometimes, I would move to the sofa and close my eyes, string together the words for the next line in my mind, then make my way back to my desk and write some more. It might sound painfully slow, this limping, bit-by-bit way of writing, but as phrases became sentences became paragraphs, I felt like I was flying.”

Her anecdotes and reflections about food were ones she’d been sharing with friends and family for years, in letters or over the dinner table. Cooking, and writing about cooking, helped her begin to feel normal again.

“That cooking shifted my attention away from myself was a tremendous relief. In the kitchen, I got to care again about the small stuff that’s not supposed to get to you, but does when you’re normal and well. Now, when the biscuits burned, it was my privilege to care. The twinge of annoyance as I whisked them from the oven was proof I was getting better.”

Jessica and Eli now have two young daughters and live in San Francisco.

I found her story quite moving and look forward to trying some of her recipes, like this one for cream of asparagus soup. Jessica says the flavor improves after a night in the fridge, so make the soup in advance, and reheat it before adding the lemon juice.

Chard and Lentil Soup from MasterChef contestant Amanda Saab

The Detroit Free Press did a food story about the start of Ramadan a few weeks ago and featured home chef Amanda Saab, a former Detroit-area resident who now lives in Seattle where she’s a hospital social worker.

Amanda’s claim to fame is that she was (as of July 25 at least) a contestant on Fox TV’s cooking contest program, MasterChef.

Hosted by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, the show has contestants complete various cooking tasts each week, including “Mystery Box” challenges. The winner receives a cookbook deal, $250,000 and the title of Master Chef.

Amanda, 26, has been a “foodie” since the age of 5, when she stood on a step-stool to pass tools to her mother in the kitchen. For her 16th birthday she requested, and received, a KitchenAid stand mixer.

Amanda, of Lebanese heritage,  is also a fellow food blogger, who gave me permission to reprint one of her posts. So below is her description of meeting one of the Mystery Box challenges on MasterChef, which she posted on June 11.

Unfortunately, the MasterChef rules prohibit Amanda from sharing the corn cheesecake recipe she made for the show, so I’m offering her recipe for Swiss Chard and Lentil Soup, which she says is a favorite for breaking the daily fast during Ramadan.

Crabs and Corn! (from

If you missed last night episode of MasterChef, you can watch it here.

Mystery boxes are always a little nerve wrecking. You never know what is under there and you really want to impress the judges and win the advantage.

To my surprise and delight, I lifted the wooden box to find live crabs!

After Hussein and I moved to Seattle three years ago, we of course did some food exploring. One of my favorite spots was Pike’s Place Market. There you can find the freshest fruits, vegetables and of course seafood! We love crab, especially the Dungeness crab, so when I saw that under the Mystery Box, I knew exactly what to make!

I made Dungeness crab cakes with a mango and arugula salad and an avocado cream sauce, and it earned me a spot in the top three dishes of the night!

Beside me was Olivia, who made a beautiful crab Benedict, and Jesse, who made a crab dumpling soup with a crab, avocado and apple salad! Jesse came out on top and won a huge advantage!

Jesse was able to decide who would make a sweet or savory dish. He asked which basket I preferred (what a gentleman) and I said “sweet” and that is what I got.

A sweet using corn

Once we entered the pantry, we learned what the ingredient was: CORN! I would have never guessed that! How was I going to make a sweet corn dish?

Well, corn is naturally sweet, so in my mind including it in a dessert was not that far out. I also knew that Chef Christina Tosi has a corn cookie (amazing) and uses corn flakes in several of her desserts, including her famous cereal milk!

I decided to roast the corn and make a cheesecake! The kernels were little golden nuggets in the smooth creamy, cheese filling. The crust was made with crushed corn flakes and corn pops! I also popped some popcorn and made a popcorn ball with salted caramel. For garnish I pulled some sugar (I also added corn syrup to the mixture) and crushed some tortillas for a “dust” on the plate. I was very proud of this dish and wish you could have seen it.

I may just have to remake it for you all.

The youngest contestant, Justin, was sent home. He is an incredibly bright young man with an even brighter future ahead of him! He just graduated high school and is on his way to culinary school!

The two best dishes in the elimination challenge were by Shelly and Stephen who will act as team captains in LAS VEGAS!!!!

A global quest for the culture of—turnips

When it was her turn to host our regular canasta game, my friend Jan served a wonderful turnip and leek soup, the recipe for which I offer you this week.

There was something about being served turnips, in any form, that struck me as odd.

I love vegetables, but I have never cooked with turnips. I’ve hardly ever eaten a turnip, except when we visited a family in Scotland and were served a plate of “neeps and tatties”–turnips and potatoes mashed together.

It occurred to me that turnip is simply not a Jewish thing. My grandmothers didn’t cook with them. My friends–with notable adventurous exceptions like Jan–don’t serve them. I can’t recall being served turnips by a kosher caterer, even though kosher foodies have become much more adventurous in the past 10 years or so.

I went to my bookshelf, where I have eight specifically Jewish cookbooks, and looked for “turnip” in the indexes. One suggested adding a turnip to the broth when cooking chicken soup. That was it!

The only other mention of turnip in the Jewish books was a recipe for pickled turnip in a book of Syrian Jewish recipes called A Fistful of Lentils. Pickled turnips are ubiquitous in Middle Eastern cooking; you often see a piece of one, usually neon pink due to the beet juice it’s pickled in, used as a garnish in Middle Eastern restaurants. To me that hardly counts as an useful recipe. My daughter, who has some trendy, newer Jewish cookbooks, found all of one recipe, for turnip salad with sour cream – which doesn’t sound at all appealing to me.

So I thought I’d look up more information about these common but strange-to-me veggies.

Turnip? Rutabaga? Swede?

Alas I didn’t get any satisfactory answers as to why turnips are not a Jewish thing. They were known in the ancient Middle East, and they grow well in northern climes, where most of what we think of as “Jewish food” developed. They’re easy to grow and inexpensive, considered a staple, not a gourmet treat.

Wikipedia says there is evidence that the turnip was domesticated before the 15th century BCE, and was grown in India at this time for its oil-bearing seeds. It was well known in Hellenistic and Roman times.

Turnips are often confused with, and can usually be interchanged with, rutabagas, which are larger and have yellower flesh. Trust the British to confuse things. In the south of England, the larger, yellow vegetables are called swedes, possibly because they developed in Scandinavia as a cross between turnip and cabbage. But in Scotland, Ireland and northern England (and parts of Canada), the white root veggies are called swedes and the yellow ones are called turnips.

In Britain and Ireland, where pumpkins were unknown until a few hundred years ago, jack o’lanterns were made from turnips; at Halloween, the large turnips (what we in the U.S. would call rutabagas) would be hollowed out and carved with a face, then carried around with a candle inside. Fans of the wonderful PBS series Call the Midwife saw this on an episode a few weeks ago.

The greens are good too!

In the United States, turnips are harvested in the fall and can be stored over the winter. Turnip greens are harvested and eaten year round, often cooked with a ham hock or piece of fat pork meat; the juice produced in the stewing process is known as pot liquor.

Here are some other uses of turnip in various food cultures:

In Turkey, turnips are used to flavor şalgam, a juice made from purple carrots and spices served ice cold.

In Japan, pickled turnips are sometimes stir fried with salt or soy sauce. Turnip greens are included in the ritual of the Festival of Seven Herbs.

In the Tyrolean Alps of Austria, raw shredded turnip is served in a chilled remoulade as a winter salad.

Turnips are used in variety of dishes in the Punjab and Kashmir regions of India and Pakistan.

In Iran, boiled turnip-roots with salt are a common household remedy for cough and cold.

The turnip may be the only vegetable with its own historic marker. The plaque, on Main Road in Westport, Mass., celebrates the return of farmers Aiden and Elihu Macomber from the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition with seeds from a turnip exhibited there. The seeds did well, and “Macomber Turnips” are still grown in New England.

Chicken Soup Redux

Song and Spirit Institute for Peace is a marvelous organization based in Berkley, Mich., not far from my home. One of its founders and directors, Steve Klaper, is a neighbor. In a previous life, when I worked in corporate communications, he did a lot of graphic design work for me. Now Steve, a Jewish cantor, his wife, Mary Gilhouly, and co-founder Brother Al Mascia, a Franciscan friar, run an interfaith organization that offers not only religious (and inter-religious) services but also a wide variety of community services. Steve sent this piece out to his email list on March 31.

It began (like many scathingly brilliant ideas) as a short conversation in the hallway at Song and Spirit. Brother Al was carrying a large can of powdered chicken bouillon and stopped for a moment to talk about a new initiative he had in mind.

“Chicken soup for the hungry!” he said with great enthusiasm.

He continued, “A fellow I used to work with downtown found a recipe that uses canned chicken and chicken bouillon and we just have to add water, noodles and a little seasonings and we’re good to go.”

Hmmm… he’d lost us at “canned chicken’”…

“Don’t we have friends at area synagogues who might want to pitch in to make ‘real’ chicken soup? Who better to make chicken soup than our Jewish friends! All the Temples have such active Social Action committees and Teen Youth Groups – maybe they’d like to pitch in?”

Temples to the rescue

Within hours, we had firm commitments from two area temples with whom we had worked on many other projects. Both were delighted to find volunteers of all ages who wanted to participate in making homemade soups of all kinds to help their neighbors in need.

So nearly every week – for more than four months now – Song and Spirit picks up 5-gallon containers of hot, homemade soup made by volunteers at Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy and Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park. (A third temple is coming on board soon!)

Serving as the hands of God

Outreach Coordinator Greg Allen works tirelessly with Brother Al to deliver the huge, heavy pots to area shelters struggling to find enough to feed lunch to the many in our area who are in need.

And Greg never ceases to be amazed at the sincere gratitude of those he serves.

“You know,” he said after returning from a soup run on a frigid, winter afternoon, “all they had to offer for lunch today at the shelter was a single hotdog on a bun, and then we came in with five gallons of piping hot soup. Honestly, I don’t know who was more excited, the people who got to serve the soup or the people who got to eat it.”

He paused, thinking, “Then again, maybe it was ME!”

What’s so important about having an Outreach program at the Song and Spirit Institute for Peace? We allow everyday people the opportunity to act as the hands of God – and they become people who make a difference in the world.

From the editor:
This week’s recipe is something I call Cheater’s Chicken Soup, because you don’t start from scratch, which can be expensive. Making soup from powdered bouillon is disgusting (as Steve notes above). This is a cheap and easy way to get home-made flavor without sacrificing a chicken.

It’s not a normal recipe because you have to start by roasting a chicken, which you can enjoy for dinner. You’ll make the soup another day. So this is more of a method than a recipe – but it makes a great soup! One chicken carcass will make enough soup for two. Want more? Freeze the chicken carcass until you have a few of them; with three chicken carcasses, and three chickens’ worth of “juice,” you can make more than a half-gallon of soup!

Add some cooked egg noodles and maybe some of the carrot you cooked with the soup before serving.

Note: you can cook this soup a long time. Once I put it on the simmer burner at 6 p.m., planning to finish it at 9 when I returned from a meeting. Well, my husband and I both totally forgot about it until the next morning, so it had simmered more than 12 hours. No harm done – the soup was very flavorful!

Cure the winter blahs with chicken soup

In these gray and cold winter months, what could be better than a nice, hot bowl of chicken soup?

It’s guaranteed to warm you up, both physically and spiritually. It’s not for nothing that it’s called “Jewish penicillin” and that all those books full of pithy statements about positive living–and there are hundreds of them–are called Chicken Soup for the Soul.

Chicken soup really can help cure the common cold! Researchers have found that chicken soup reduces upper-respiratory inflammation, according to a study published in 2000 in the journal of the American College of Chest Physicians. Nasal inflammation is what causes stuffy head and runny nose.

The inflammation is caused by an increase in white blood cells that rush to the site of a viral infection and try, usually unsuccessfully, to kill off the virus. The Nebraska study found that fewer white blood cells were present in people who had eaten chicken soup. Another benefit: Just by being a hot liquid, chicken soup will loosen congestion and keep you hydrated.

Hold a chicken soup cook-off!

If you’re looking for a fun wintertime activity, consider a chicken soup cook-off. You can do this socially with a group of friends or co-workers–have everyone bring a different chicken soup to a potluck–or you can run a cook-off through your congregation or organization as a fundraiser.

Temple Shir Shalom in suburban Detroit recently held a Chicken Soup Cook-off as a charity benefit. They invited ordinary household cooks as well as restaurateurs and caterers to enter a  pot of their best chicken soup in one of three categories: chicken noodle soup, matzo ball soup and creative/contemporary chicken soup.

More than 500 people paid an entry fee to sample the soups and vote for a People’s Choice winner. A panel of professional foodies also named winners for each of the three categories in both a professional division and a home cooks division.

The judges rated the soups for taste, texture, flavor and overall impression.

Personally, the chicken soup I make most often is what I call “Cheater’s Chicken Soup” because it’s a free by-product when I cook chicken.

Make “Cheater’s Chicken Soup”

I often make roast chicken, using either whole or cut-up birds, for our Friday night Shabbat dinner. When the chicken comes out of the roasting pan, I pour off the “juice” and then deglaze the pan by adding a cup or so of water and swirling it around to loosen all the nice brown bits. This goes into the same container with the “juice.” If I’m not going to use it within a few days, I freeze it.

Whenever I make a whole roast chicken, I save and freeze the carcass.

When I have at least one carcass and a couple of chickens’ worth of “juice,” it’s time to make soup! I defrost the carcass and the chicken juice (scrape off any chicken fat that has risen to the surface) and put it all in a large soup pot.

I add a large, unpeeled onion cut in quarters (the onion peel helps give the soup a little color), a stalk of celery and a carrot cut in chunks, a half-dozen whole black peppercorns and a few teaspoons of dried dill (or fresh dill from my garden if it’s summertime).

I cook this covered for several hours, then cool and strain through cheesecloth, keeping the carrot chunks to serve with the soup. I add salt to taste when I reheat it. I confess I sometimes add a little powdered chicken stock if the soup tastes weak–but the result is way better than soup made entirely from powder.

I often add noodles or matzo balls before serving.

The Chicken Soup Cook-off winner!

Today’s recipe is a little more complex, but I’m sure the effort is worth it.

This recipe was the winner of the People’s Choice Award at the Temple Shir Shalom Chicken Soup Cook-off. It comes from Elwin Greenwald, who owns a wonderful take-out joint called Elwin & Co. in Berkley, Michigan.

It’s named for his grandmother. “My Bubbie Gratzielle left Poland for Sorrento. Italy, and brought her recipe with her to America!” he told the Detroit Free Press, which printed the recipe. The photo below, which appeared in the Free Press, is by Elwin Greenwald.