A NOTE FROM BOBBIE LEWIS: In the mid-1970s, it seemed like everyone had a big glass jar of brandied fruit on their kitchen counter. It looked so pretty: yellow pineapple chunks, orange peach slices, maraschino cherries. And it tasted so good as a topping for pound cake or ice cream!
We got a “starter” cup from a friend. We added fruit and sugar, waited a week or so for it to ferment, then dug in. We needed to “feed” it every couple of weeks with more sugar and fruit. The idea was that when the jar was full, we’d give some to a friend so they could start their own pretty glass jar full of brandied fruit. This was the pyramid scheme of desserts. It didn’t take long to run out of friends—because all the friends we’d already given it to now had growing quantities of brandied fruit that they needed to foist onto their own friends! And there’s only so much boozy pound cake and ice cream one can eat.
After about six months, we euthanized our brandied fruit by eating it all up. I thought of those happy days when I read this lovely essay by guest blogger Eli Finkelman, who last instructed us about making pickles. He is a rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer as well as a cook, brewer, vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his home.
By Louis “Eli” Finkelman
He loved the United States of America. After all, he had come here as a teenager, alone in a strange land, and had found opportunities to raise the money to bring just about his whole birth family to America. He worked hard and planned efficiently, so that after his brothers and sisters came here, he continued to bring other relatives. He had to. His people had no future in Europe.
He took one job after another here, whatever people would pay him to do. At one point he even had a little kosher butcher shop, but he had little aptitude for butchery. His wife saw him try to handle a meat knife and after that would not let him cut the meat. Eventually he earned enough to move his young family from Harlem. He bought a new house in the farmland of the Bronx. He immediately arranged to join the other homeowners in buying land for a synagogue.
Summer in a tent city
Soon he could afford to take his family to the tent cities of Orchard Beach for their summer vacations. The tent cities divided by ethnic group. He could have chosen to live in a Jewish “neighborhood,” but he preferred an integrated one so that his children would see that non-Jews in America were decent people, and the non-Jews would see that the Jews were good neighbors, dependable people. He saved enough money to buy some rental property elsewhere in the Bronx, but even before the official start of the Depression, he earned very little. His tenants could not always afford to pay their rent. He would sometimes take his precocious middle daughter to ask for the rent. If his tenants could not pay, they would not take out their frustration against a little girl. He believed in observing American law scrupulously, both because he was an honest, law-abiding man, and because he owed a great debt to America, the land that had allowed him to rescue his family. One American law, though, he could not take seriously. Prohibition made no sense to him. He planted grapevines in the backyard in the Bronx, so he could have homemade wine for Kiddush: a glass of wine should always accompany the prayers that introduce festive meals. Even the law of Prohibition allowed a person to make sacramental wine at home.
A still in the basement
Not quite as legal, he had a still in the basement, for making overripe fruit into brandy. He knew someone who had a fruit store, so there was always a source of fruit. After synagogue every Saturday morning, and every festival morning, he would invite the people from the synagogue over to his house to share huge pieces of cake or great oblong fruit pies, and one small shot of brandy each. He understood that in America there were men who drank the rent money, who came home drunk and beat their wives, or who got drunk and did not come home at all. But he could not understand how those poor women would be helped by a law that prevented the folks who visited his home in the Bronx from having their one shot each of fruit brandy. The still lasted longer than Prohibition. He lived to see the beginning of World War II, and the beginning of the realization of his worst fears about what Europe meant for Jews. He would read the newspapers, in those days, and say one bitter word: “Civilization.” After he died, his youngest son took the still apart and got rid of all those copper pipes. So I never saw the still; I saw only the ceramic crocks that once held homemade wine and brandy, made by my grandfather, Elias Hirsch Lang, who died before I was born. I know these stories because I heard them, more or less in these words, from my mother, the precocious little girl who tried to collect rent in the Bronx.
An elixir called Rumtopf
The following recipe is for an elixir the Germans call Rumtopf. They use layers of fruit as they come into season, so they get a mixed fruit liquor as a result. The Joy of Cooking calls it Tutti-Frutti Cockaigne, the name for an imaginary country where people have enough to eat. (It is also the name of the authors’ country home; they append the word to their favorite recipes.) I like the single fruit model. The alcohol and sugar should keep the mixture fresh indefinitely. Make it now, and sometime in the winter, open up the crock and enjoy a taste of summer! (For more about spiked fruit, see this terrific article from the New York Times.)