Gefilte Manifesto makes Ashkenazi foods cool

About five years ago I went to a program about sustainable food at Detroit’s Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue and met Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a young man visiting from New York who was about to open a company called the Gefilteria.

He and his partners, Liz Alpern and Jackie Lilinshtein, loved Ashkenazi cuisine – the foods invented, passed one and immortalized by the Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe.

In the last 50 years or so, Ashkenazi food has fallen out of favor. Too heavy, people say; too bland, too much fat, too much salt, not enough fresh produce.

Reclaiming gefilte fish

The Gefilteria aimed to reclaim gefilte fish and other typical Ashkenazi Jewish foods for the 21st century. As the founders explain on their website, “Jewish delis were closing. Our grandparents were getting too old to cook. Ashkenazi cuisine was perceived as a thing of the past, if perceived as a cuisine at all. We were friends in our 20s and we heard the call. It felt like something big was at stake. We came together with a fresh approach – to create a culinary laboratory where Ashkenazi stories and culinary wisdom from the Old World could be explored and brought into the New. So, we wrote a manifesto and launched The Gefilteria.”

The “Gefile Manifesto” tells what they’re about – and what they’re not. “Gefilte is not just about your bubbe. It is not about kitsch or a foodie revolution,” says the manifesto. “Gefilte is about serving a dish with pride, not simply out of deference to hollow convention. It is about taking food traditions seriously and reclaiming the glory of Ashkenazi food – what it has been and what it can be.”

The Wall Street Journal raved about the product: “Founders Elizabeth Alpern, Jackie Lilinshtein and Jeffrey Yoskowitz have crafted an elegant terrine-like gefilte from whitefish and pike, topped with a pale-pink layer of salmon and steelhead trout, and blast-frozen to preserve the dish’s delicate texture and flavor. It makes for an attractive and festive plate, all the more so garnished with Gefilteria’s own jewel-toned horseradish, in sweet beet and zesty carrot-citrus varieties.”

Fish and more

Once the trio mastered the art of gefilte fish, which they sold via local stores (you can buy a loaf of Gefilteria Gefilte as part of a “Jewish Food Essentials” gift package available at The Challah Connection), they branched out to pickles, horseradish relish, borscht, black-and-white cookies (a New York staple) and other foods. They’ve developed a thriving catering business and like doing pop-up dinners.

Now Yoskowitz and Alpern have collected 100 Ashkenazi recipes into a beautiful cookbook, The Gefilte Manifesto, named after their founding statement of purpose.

Interspersed with the recipes are short essays by Yoskowitz an Alpern explaining the background of the foods, giving some insight into the food based on their personal experience, or giving some family background about the recipe.

The book deftly combines the old and the new, relying on the Ashkenazi culinary traditions of seasonality and practicality even when introducing a recipe that would probably have shocked the authors’ shtetl forebears (roasted beet and dark chocolate ice cream, anyone?).

There’s a nice section about pickling, and along with the old-time “Classic Sour Dills”  there’s a trendy “Cardamom Pickled Grapes.” Right after the recipes for classic gefilte fish, there’s one for “Smoked Whitefish Gefilte Terrine.” There are instructions for pickling corned beef and pastrami at home. There’s a section on European Jewish breads, with a recipe for bagels and one for challah that includes illustrations showing how to braid the Sabbath loaves.

A recipe for the Jewish New Year

This week, we in the Jewish community are getting ready for Rosh Hashanah, which starts at sundown on Sunday, October 2.

It’s traditional to eat sweet foods as an indication of our wish for a sweet year to come, and to eat fall harvest foods, such as apples.

Here is a lovely recipe from The Gefilte Manifesto which they call “Ruth’s Apple Strudel.” Yoskowitz says it’s identical to the recipe he wrote down as a boy while trailing his grandmother, Ruth, in the kitchen.

To me it isn’t really a strudel, which I think of as very thin pastry spread with a filling, rolled up and baked, then cut into slices. This is more of a thin-crust, rectangular pie, but I know it’s a traditional Jewish dessert because my neighborhood bakery sells something similar. And it looks like a great recipe for the holiday!


Food innovation at Kalamazoo Valley college

.Today’s piece is by Kathy Jennings a freelance writer and editor who is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave, where this article originally appeared.

The innovation at Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Food Innovation Center is not about correctly calculating the size of the next best freezer waffle. To understand what kind of learning is going on here you have to imagine how most of us get our food today.

Think about big farms, big processing plants, and products that travel long distances, sometimes all the way around the globe.

“What we’re trying to do, is innovate within the space of local and regional food systems,” says Rachel Bair, director of Sustainable and Innovative Food Systems at the Food Innovation Center.

This innovation is the beginning of rebuilding Southwest Michigan’s local and regional food system, finding new ways to get food from farms to markets to consumers.

“A lot of the processing infrastructure from Southwest Michigan’s local and regional food system is still standing, but there’s not as much as there used to be,” Bair says. Instead, we now have global supply chains that can get us any kind of food we want, any time we want. “What we know is that’s not good for the Southwest Michigan economy,” Bair says. “A lot of money is leaving our state because of those global, international supply chains. It’s not necessarily good for our environment, either.”

That’s because of food miles. The farther a given food travels from where it’s grown to where it is ultimately purchased or consumed the less sustainable and the less environmentally sound that food is.

“What we want to do here at the Food Innovation Center is help to rebuild a local and regional food system that will support our local economy and help local food businesses grow, so that there are more jobs and better-paying jobs, and so that we have food security here in our region, so that there is fresh food available for everyone, and we have control of our food supply.”

A very big goal

“This is a long game. We’re playing a long game here,” Bair says.”I have no hesitation to talk in terms of five- to 10- year plans, because that’s how long this is going to take.”

And the work is still in its early days. “There are so many needs and opportunities in our food system, and we’re doing our best to respond as well as we can to build the networks and relationships that will help us all as a community move forward together,” Bair says.

The foundation underlying it all is sustainability.

“When students leave the program the goal is for them to have a firm understanding of sustainability. It’s the basis of everything we’re doing. It’s about limiting our draw on natural resources and ecosystems while increasing quality of life. That’s how we see sustainability.”

Two sustainable growing systems being explored are an indoor garden with very high-tech, intensive food production and hydroponic technologies that use very little water and lighting that requires little energy. For traditional organic gardening, there raised beds on the property.

Testing new systems

In a greenhouse, a number of new growing systems are going to be tested. HydroStackers are a vertically stacked system where the plants are planted in perlite, a volcanic rock that’s very porous. It holds liquid and it provides structure for the roots. The plants get all the water and nutrients they need dripped through the roots. “They grow a lot of plants in a very small area and because of the way they’re stacked. They’re really efficient to harvest.”

In an aquaponics system, they will be raising tilapia in tanks. The waste from the fish will be converted into a fertilizer that in turn feeds lettuce plants. “The cash crop in that system is actually the lettuce, not the fish,” Bair says. “But it’s a really interesting model of a closed loop system that mimics what really happens in nature.”

A Dutch bucket system is also planned. “You basically plant tomatoes in these increasingly small buckets, and then trellis them up to the ceiling of the greenhouse so that they’re growing on vines 10 feet high, and they’re irrigated and given nutrients. We’re getting ready to install that system. It’s pretty complicated to build.”

For those who want to learn about farming, there currently are two practicum classes – one in the winter and one in the summer. In the winter class time is spent in the greenhouse and grow room. In the summer, students are in the field on the campus and in the greenhouse. They also spend a third to half of their time in farm placements.

“We have partnerships with local farms and students who go in groups of three to eight. They went to the same farm week-to-week and worked there for two to three hours. It was a really great partnership with those farmers because they got some good, semi-trained, reliable help. And it was the students’ favorite part of the class. They really loved the experience.”

There are further plans to turn what is now lawn into another place to grow plants and produce. Those plans are moving slowly by design because the land is a brownfield and while it has been capped to contain contaminants any plans to raise plants on the property must be carefully considered.

“The whole site is covered with a barrier, and then a layer of clean fill, and then grass on top of that to keep it in place for now,” Bair says. “As we move forward, we will be looking at things we can plant in a way that’s healthy for our community. ways that we can grow food, and pollinator crops, and fertility crops (plants grown to be used as compost for fertilizer) in this soil. We don’t want to take any chances.”

Innovations in food distribution

Exploring innovations in the production piece of the food distribution system is an equal part of the work being done. The plan for the next five years or so is based on extensive market research to determine what is needed and what will be valuable to local businesses. “But that said, if five years from now, it turns out it’s not viable,” Bair says, “the facility is built so that we can retool and do something else.”

Till then, the school is proceeding with light processing. “What we will be doing is buying fresh whole produce from local farms and lightly processing it. So we’ll wash it, we’ll peel it, and chop it. We can get as far as freezing and making some sauces that can be frozen. And then we’ll take that fresh produce in this lightly processed form and sell it to our local institutions. So it goes to Bronson Hospital, our culinary school, and some of the other school systems, universities, and healthcare settings in the area.

“The idea there is that those institutions have huge purchasing power, and if they can direct that into the local food system, that’s a huge boon to local farmers and our economy in general.

“They’re also looking to provide more healthy food. Either they have a customer demand for it, or in the case of Bronson Hospital, they have the moral imperative for it. It helps their bottom line too. They see fewer readmissions when folks are eating healthier food. But they are also under budget constraints and labor constraints, so receiving the food from us in the lightly processed form that they’re used to getting it from their current distributor will make it easier for them to integrate local into their menu.”

What that means for farmers is the college will be working with growers who are successful at the direct market scale, who have a CSA, or have been selling at the farmers market and are looking to take the next step, into wholesale.

“That’s a really risky jump,” Bair says. “It’s planting two acres of basil and trusting that someone’s going to buy it. We can help them with that by being the person who’s willing to buy it. We’ll either find a customer for it fresh, or we’ll figure out a way to process and preserve it so we can sell it throughout the winter and extend the season.”

Eventually, about 1,000 students are expected to work and study on the Healthy Living Campus, of which the Innovation Center is a part. The Food Innovation Center opened in January 2016 for students in the Culinary Arts and Sustainable Food Systems and Sustainable Brewing programs. Classes included Food Safety Essentials, an introduction to Sustainable Food Systems. Bair works with two teammates, Russell Davis, who is developing a Food Hub for the region, and grower Ben Bylsma, who oversees the experimental plantings.

The innovative ways of growing plants, processing and distributing them are “the basis, the living laboratory, for our educational programs,” Bair says. “We have these businesses. They function. They’re open to the public essentially, but the students are active participants in running them, the primary participants in running them.”

Towards degree programs

Classes currently being offered are all part of the culinary program. Over the next three to four years, KVCC will be developing independent degree programs in both food production and food processing and distribution.

“We’re trying to look out into the future as much as we can as we envision these programs in food production and food processing so that we’re creating programs that are going to be relevant in ten years from now instead of five years ago,” Bair says. “And that’s pretty hard to do, so we’re really calling on industry to help inform that. We’re looking for folks in industry to tell us what they think their needs are going to be in the future.”

The school has been in close conversation with various businesses as it decides the types of programs to offer. “We have a great conversation going with folks in the retail sector right now, for example, about what the needs are in produce management. There is a huge increase in consumer demand for local produce and that requires a complete revision of the supply chain for produce. There’s not a lot of training for staff in those departments.”

The discussion has covered the kinds of skills retailers need for employees to have if they are going to increase the amount of local produce sold and what they might be able to pay an employee with those skills.

“We have to determine if it is going to be worth someone going through a two-year program or does it need to be a six-month academy that’s not for credit? We are looking at what kinds of training programs can we develop that give someone the skills that are going to benefit the industry and help land them in a good paying job because that’s really what we want to do.”

Further, the hope is that, especially for the culinary students, that they take away the concept of a commitment to local sourcing, and a new understanding of where food comes from and what it takes to get it to their restaurant’s delivery door. And that they use that knowledge as they plan their menus and plan their businesses, by including a garden out back where they grow their own herbs, for example.

Training a new generation

“We’re training this generation of farm-to-table chefs,” Bair says, “and we also have a certified dietary manager program as part of the culinary school, so there’s a real focus on training chefs for the institutional setting as well. They can take that farm to table mentality into the institutional setting and have even more impact because they’re really making the food choice for the people in a facility like a long-term care facility.”

Just how unique is the Food Innovation Center? KVCC believes it is the only program of its kind in the nation. “For a community college to get into this kind of agriculture is pretty unique, and especially the combination of the culinary school with this kind of programming, and then on top of that, the partnership with Bronson Hospital is a whole other layer of uniqueness. It’s incredibly exciting.”

Developing a program that could prove to be a national model is something that Bair has experienced before. She came to KVCC from the Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks program (described in Feed the Spirit June 8, 2015) that allows those who spend their SNAP Bridge Card dollars at the Farmers Market to receive an equal amount in food bucks. “I started that job in 2010 when it was a pilot in Detroit and I grew it to a statewide program. It was starting to be franchised nationally when I left that position in 2015 to come here.”

She also was coming home. Bair grew up in the Kalamazoo area, attended KAMSC and graduated from Portage Northern. Her family did not farm, but her parents always had a garden in the back yard.

Sustainability is something she grew up with, too. Her grandfather, Joe Chadderdon, was recognized with a Rachel Carson Award in 1983 for his work improving the quality of the wastewater treatment plant. (Chadderdon also is known as the author of the History of The Kalamazoo Vegetable Parchment Company and the City of Parchment.)

Her family has always been conscious of the need for sustainability. “So I just have a strong sense of environmentalism and sustainability and the importance of our role as stewards of this planet.”

Nobody knows for sure what the future of transportation systems or the political system will be– two reasons local food systems need to be rebuilt. “That kind of thinking is inherent in rebuilding local food systems. You do it so that  your own community and region is resilient if something happens to our transportation systems as we know it, or if something happens to our political systems as we know them.

Today’s recipe combines kale, which is plentiful now, and apples, which are just starting to become available. If you can’t easily find sumac, a Middle Eastern spice, you can leave it out without losing much. Ditto for the pomegranate seeds, though they do add a lot of nice color to the salad.


Where’s the beef? At Milt’s!

We recently spent a few days in Chicago, more to catch up with old friends than to see the sights. One couple suggested dinner at Milt’s Barbecue for the Perplexed, a kosher spot in the city’s Lakeview neighborhood, and it was a great choice.

First of all, the name intrigued us. Who is Milt? And why is his barbecue joint for the perplexed? The restaurant’s website provides interesting but frustrating information.

Who’s Uncle Milt?

“My Uncle Milt was priceless,” it says, under the heading “Who is Milt?”

“Everyone has, or knows, an Uncle Milt. He was the one who taught us how to play craps, taught us to drive at age 14, and took us to the track on Sundays. He was always eager to do the things your parents wouldn’t do, and oftentimes wouldn’t let you do either. Known to “stir the pot,” you could count on Uncle Milt to keep things interesting.

“The perfect day for him was spent out on the dock with us kids teaching his foolproof method for catching fish. (“Here, fishy, fishy!”)

“With endless stories of near successes and tales of his life’s adventures, Milt was unconventional, unabashed and an unbelievable uncle. With a heart the size of Texas and a personality to match, he was the Uncle who always had the time to hang out and make you feel like the coolest kid in the world.

“Thank you, Uncle Milt — this is for you!”

Whose Uncle Milt?

But the writer doesn’t say who he is, so I had no idea whose Uncle Milt was being described. And a web search produced no useful information.

Luckily the friendly folks at the Chicago Public Library came to my rescue, sending me links to three articles about Jeff Aeder, Milt’s founder.

The second part of the restaurant’s name, by the way, refers to one of the classics of Jewish philosophy, Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, written around 1190.

Aeder was quoted as saying he chose the name because “Maimonides emphasizes giving credence to all perspectives. He drew from Jewish, Islamic and ancient Greek philosophers to explain the Torah.”

And so Aeder uses his restaurant to provide a variety of perspectives by hosting a range of visitors who drop by to speak. Dennis Ross, the former envoy the the Middle East, has spoken there. So has Hillary Clinton, before her run for president.

So great food, a cute name and interesting speakers from time to time. But there’s more, and that’s what’s most impressive about Milt’s.

Owner Aeder is a real estate investor and a partner in Chicago’s JDI Realty, LLC. He opened Milt’s in 2013 as a way of giving back to the community. Each month he donates 100 percent of the restaurant’s profits to a local charity. Beneficiaries have included a local elementary school, a shelter for homeless women and a food pantry.

Back to the food. I ordered a “half slab” of beef ribs; the two ribs were so huge they looked like they came from a dinosaur. I gave about athird to my husband, ate my fill, and still took some home to the friend we were staying with. Paired with “brisket baked beans” — sweet and savory beans with chunks of brisket in the sauce — and vinegary coleslaw, it was a yummy dinner.

Another popular dish on the menu is braised short ribs. The recipe below is not from Milt’s, but it’s a great way to cook short ribs so they’re very tender and tasty. You can halve the recipe if you like. The recipe calls for boneless short ribs, but it works just as well if you have the bone-in type.




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.

That’s so cheese-y!

Editor’s Note: Today’s piece is by Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman, who has written in this space before about pickles, rumtopfcelery and gefilte fish. Eli is a rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer as well as a gardener, cook, home brewer and vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his Southfield, Michigan home. An expanded version of this article first appeared the Detroit Jewish News and it is reprinted with permission. (Part of the article dealt with making kosher cheese—a whole other dimension—and so the article bore the creative title “Jews for Cheeses.”)

Where does cheese come from?

The supermarket, obviously. It comes in neat plastic-wrapped packages.

David Barth of Oak Park, Mich. says he has “long had an interest in how people used to do things for themselves, things that we buy in a store. Once upon a time, people made them at home for themselves.”

When he retired after serving as in-house counsel for Consumers Energy for 33 years, he finally had the time to indulge that interest.

“My brother bought me a book of one-hour cheese recipes,”he says. “They all looked doable. I just followed the recipes and, with one exception, got what I wanted.

“The exception: I bought some goat’s milk for one recipe and then noticed that it was ultra-pasteurized goat’s milk. The chemistry is fascinating. You need the natural bacteria to help curdle the milk, as the experts warn, and ultra-pasteurized milk has no live bacteria.”

Ready in almost an hour!

Barth says that “one hour” in the book’s title amounts to a bit of gimmickry. Many of the recipes take a bit longer, but they are worth the effort. Guided by the book, Claudia Lucero’s One-Hour Cheese, Barth produced:

  • A very successful mozzarella. “I use it in all Italian recipes, like lasagna and pizza.”
  • A cheddar. “Not a true cheddar because it is not aged, but it tasted pretty much like cheddar you could buy in the store.”
  • A halloumi. “This was the one that did not turn out exactly right. I made it half from the ultra-pasteurized goat’s milk and half from cow’s milk. It was pretty good, but it did not have the texture of a halloumi.

  • A farmer cheese. “I recommend that anyone who wants to start with cheese-making start with farmer cheese. It is extremely easy; it takes 15 minutes and it’s perfect, crumbly and with just the right taste.”

Soft cheeses are easy

You make these soft cheeses by adding coagulating agents to milk. Add vinegar, lemon juice or the sap of fig trees, and the milk solids (curds) promptly separate from the liquid (whey). That, according to Barth, constitutes the most exciting moment in cheese making.

“Seeing it happen…seeing the liquid milk, and adding a coagulating agent, and watching it turn solid has an ‘Oh, look at that!’ factor. You might feel like this is produce you pay money for in the store. It needs an expert to make it. Seeing that you can do this at home is thrilling.”

(Note: This recipe features farmer cheese. It’s similar to cottage cheese but drier and denser. If you don’t want to make your own and can’t find it, you can substitute small-curd cottage cheese, but drain it first; wrap it in cheesecloth and squeeze to remove as much liquid as possible. If you do want to make it, here’s a recipe adapted from one I found online:  Pour a gallon of milk into a large pot, add a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil over medium heat. When it boils, turn off the heat and stir in the juice of one lemon. The milk will curdle within 5 to 10 minutes. Line a sieve or colander with a cheesecloth and pour the milk through the cloth. Gather the cloth around the curds and squeeze out as much liquid as you can. What remains in the cloth is farmer cheese. Wrap in plastic or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.)


A broccoli cheese salad for Shavuot

This week the Jewish community is getting ready for Shavuot, the “Feast of Weeks” because it takes place on the 50th day (a week of weeks) after Passover. On the Christian calendar, it often coincides with Pentecost.

The holiday has a double meaning. Primarily, it celebrates the giving the Torah, the central document of the Jewish faith, at Mount Sinai after the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. It marks the occasion where a wandering tribe became a nation governed by God’s commandments.

Shavuot is also the spring harvest festival, which is probably one reason it’s customary to read the Book of Ruth. This lovely story shows how Ruth, a Moabite, followed her mother-in-law Naomi to Israel after the death of Ruth’s husband, uttering the famous words, “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.

The story takes place at the time of the spring harvest, when Ruth goes out to the fields to glean; one of the Torah’s commandments was to leave the corners of the field uncut during the harvest, so that the poor people in the community could gather grain for themselves.

A good time to study Torah

Another tradition is to study Torah (the first five books of what’s commonly known as the Old Testament) all night. At my synagogue, they start around 9 p.m., with 40-minute to one-hour study sessions on a wide variety of subjects continuing through the night and ending with morning services at around 5:30 a.m. No one is obligated to stay all night, but a few hardy souls do so every year, fueled by ample refreshments and lots of fresh coffee.

The other big tradition is to eat dairy foods, but no one knows why. One scholar found the first letters of the four Hebrew words in Numbers 28:26, which describe sacrifices to be offered on Shavuot, spell mei halav (from milk). Others feel dairy foods symbolize the status of the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai: they were as innocent as infants, whose primary food is milk.

Eat cheesecake!

Yet another theory is that once the Israelites received the Torah, they realized they had to follow the laws of kashrut, which meant meat had to be prepared in certain ways before it could be eaten. Since this would take a bit of time, it was easier for the first meals to be dairy instead of meat.

Whatever the reason, it’s a good excuse to eat blintzes, cheesecake and other dairy-rich delights.

My friends and I have been celebrating the second day of Shavuot with a potluck picnic since our 30-something kids were toddlers. Today’s recipe is a great potluck dish. In fact, I first encountered it at a workplace potluck. Everyone was raving about it, but because the original recipe calls for bacon, which I don’t eat, I didn’t try it then.

I found this recipe, which I have altered a bit, on a site called BellaOnline. The original recipe calls for 4 slices of bacon, which we obviously don’t use in a kosher kitchen. It also calls for mozzarella cheese, which I found rather tasteless, so I substituted cheddar. And I use about half the amount of dressing called for in the original, which is plenty (my quantities are what I list here). If you’re concerned about the sugar, you can substitute Splenda, which I have done with no ill effect.




Celebrating 150 years: Three cheers for Vernors!

We had never heard of Vernors before we moved to Detroit in 1976. To me, “ginger ale” meant Frank’s Pale Dry Ginger Ale, a Philadelphia brand and a staple at the home of my grandparents. As a teen I also got to know Canada Dry, another ginger ale of the “pale dry” variety.

Detroiters are inordinately proud of Vernors, a locally born company that made nothing but ginger ale. The brand is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

Company lore says James Vernor, a clerk at a Detroit drugstore in the mid-1800s, experimented with flavors to duplicate a popular ginger beer imported from Ireland. When he was drafted to serve in the Civil War, he stored his syrup base in an oak barrel. When Vernor returned after years of service, he opened the keg and and discovered that aging in wood had changed the flavor of the syrup. He declared it to be “deliciously different,” which became the company’s slogan.

It’s a lovely legend, but the founder’s son, James Vernor, Jr., admitted that the formula wasn’t actually developed until later. A trademark application from 1911 says it was first sold in 1880.

That doesn’t  stop the company from declaring this to be its 150th anniversary, and who’s to quibble? Even 136 years is a long time to be making and selling the same food product.

Vernor opened a drugstore of his own on Detroit’s main drag, Woodward Avenue, and sold his ginger ale at the store’s soda fountain. Soon he started selling bottling franchises, with franchisees required to adhere strictly to the recipe. In 1896 he closed the drugstore to concentrate on the soda.

A Detroit staple

The company expanded during the Prohibition era, and James Vernor, Jr., who succeeded his father, built a large bottling plant and headquarters that took up a whole block of Woodward Avenue. The plant moved a few miles north in 1954 to a site that many of my Detroit friends remember touring as children.

Originally called Vernor’s, the soda lost its apostrophe in 1959. The Vernor family sold it in to an investment group in 1966. Subsequently owned by American Consumer Products, United Brands, A&W Beverages and Cadbury Schweppes, Vernors is now part of the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group. The flagship Detroit bottling plant was closed in 1985.

Is Vernors still aged for four years in oak casks? It’s doubtful, and Vernors has stopped making that claim, changing “barrel aged bold taste” for “authentic bold taste.” Purists says it’s not as good as the old stuff.

While Vernors is distributed nationally, Michigan accounts for 80 percent of sales.

Vernors is somewhat more strongly flavored than the pale dry type of ginger ale, and a little sweeter. Some of my friends remember being given warm Vernors to treat an upset stomach.

Woody the gnome

For many years starting in the early 1900s, Vernors had  a mascot: a gnome nicknamed Woody.  The gnome was dropped in 1987 but returned in 2002.

We actually have a tandem bicycle, bought via Craig’s List, that was produced as a marketing gimmick for Vernors; the green-and-gold painted frame includes a picture of Woody.

Vernors can be used in recipes, especially as an ingredient in glazes for meat, chicken or fish. You can use it in any cake recipe that calls for ginger ale.

A popular Detroit treat is the Boston cooler, made from Vernors blended with vanilla ice cream. No one knows why it’s called a Boston cooler. Some say it was invented on Boston Boulevard, a Detroit residential street. Others say the drink was around before Boston Boulevard was developed.

I just learned that some Detroit McDonald’s franchises are selling Boston coolers. Here’s the lowdown from Susan Selasky, the Detroit Free Press’s food writer.

Here’s a recipe I found online that sounds good; I haven’t had a chance to make it yet. It’s from a blog called My North. The photo is by Steve Wertz, via Flickr Creative Commons.