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I realized I had crossed some sort of threshold when, in the course of a wide-ranging conversation in the California sunshine, Myrna asked, "So how do you keep your homemade gefilte fish from falling apart? I stopped making mine when it kept turning into fish soup!"
How on earth did I get here? I, a 30-year-old Protestant man from rural Indiana, was now talking up the finer points of gefilte fish with a woman more than twice my age who lived in California but sounded like Brooklyn.
|Matthew, left, is about to cut a piece of the red velvet cake and Michael, right, has a piece on his plate.
One doesn't really run into Jewish folks too often growing up in rural Indiana; one certainly doesn't get an idea of the ins and outs of Jewish culture or food--at least not knowingly. I grew up in the land of fried chicken, frozen bagels and dishes like cheese ball, biscuits and gravy and assorted casseroles made with cream soup from a can. A favorite was something called vegetable medley with carrots, green beans, onions, a touch of sugar and tapioca. It's a perfect accompaniment to the salty ham we had on Christmas. We participated in innumerable church pitch-ins (pot-lucks for those who grew up outside of east central Indiana) with tables full of Jell-O salads (with cottage cheese and without), potato salads, ham, deviled eggs and other Midwestern staples. They were wonderful, I tell you. Delightful.
It wasn't until college that I first met honest-to-goodness Jews. But even after four years of friendship, my understanding of the Jewish culture and holidays was limited to the big crackers served in the dining halls during Passover and the open-fronted shack erected on the lawn near the student center. I was still a goy through and through.
That all changed when I met Michael. Early on Michael and I went through some of the inherent challenges of any Protestant Jewish collision, mostly related to holiday traditions. Frankly, it can be difficult for me to access Jewish services because of all the Hebrew. I've felt most connected when I'm making chopped liver with his mom or asking her advice about food. While I appreciate the traditions, I have also struck out on my own. I use whipped egg whites in my matzah balls; Michael's mother Arlene doesn't (Streit's from a box, but I didn't tell you that) and neither did Grandma Hilda (who apparently stuffed hers with cinnamon to make dense delayed explosions). And Arlene doesn't pass judgment--well, not about the matzah balls, at least. I kid. I kid.
For Michael, and I'm pretty sure he's not alone here, being Jewish is as much cultural as it is religious. This is apparent when we get together with his parents. While they aren't deeply religious, they also are definitely not rural Indiana. You can see this in virtually every meal his mother serves when she keeps trying get us to eat more. And more. "Have more brisket!" she exclaims. "More bagels and lox? Chopped liver? Sable? Rugelach? How about just a half? Oh this other half looks so lonely." Oy. Those things were new to me when I met Michael's folks at Thanksgiving one year. But I was game for them all and his mother was impressed. When Michael spoke to her later in the week after my first visit to his parents I received her highest praise, "He's a good eater." So I wasn't Jewish or a woman, but I was a good eater. Hallelujah!
Strong cultural and regional associations are hallmarks of Michael's Judaism. Just as we had ham baked in beer with cloves and pineapple for holidays, Michael's family had brisket served with tsimmes and noodle kugel. We ate deviled eggs; they ate chopped liver made with schmaltz. He likes tongue sandwiches; I'd rather not go there. And neither would my dad's wife. She looked on with horror when I ordered the chopped liver sandwich and Michael ordered the tongue at Shapiro's Deli in Carmel, Ind., but what can you do?
Michael will forgive me for making my famous bacon-wrapped pork loin with blue cheese sauce (how many rules does that break?) on Friday, but there's no way I'll be serving that on Passover. Not in a million years. Nor would I want to. And though we may not be mindful of the dietary restrictions when we sit down on Friday night or on holidays to light the candles and say the prayers, we're connected to his traditions. The Jewish holidays--especially Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur--are times to reflect and to feel connected to the past and to his family. And they're taken seriously. Michael can remember his grandfather (much of whose family perished in the Holocaust) making homemade horseradish on the roof of his Brooklyn apartment building. Grandpa Max's blintzes were famous!
Holidays are a time for us to appreciate and remember the sacrifices of the past and plan for a better tomorrow, so around the holidays I make chopped liver like his mother. How chopped liver helps us plan for a better tomorrow, I'm not sure. But it does. I make gefilte fish like they did in the old country using a recipe that Michael clipped from the newspaper. The matzah brie recipe is from Great Aunt Pearl's Jewish cookbook, wrapped in silver paper with her favorite pages marked. This cookbook, I might add, has cocktail recipes. Cocktails! No religiously affiliated cookbook I knew about ever had cocktail recipes in it. Another plus for Aunt Pearl! The brisket? It's my own recipe. Instead of tsimmes I make sweet potato casserole with candied pecans on top. Our table reflects Michael's family's past and its present, an appreciation for where his people have been and a reflection of where we, as a family, are now--constantly changing yet remembering and honoring the past with a little Indiana flair.
And what exactly is the secret to my gefilte? As I told Myrna, the trick is to pour the stock carefully down the side of the pot. It works every time.