Stairway To Leaven

Not so kosher for pesach, but then I’m pretty treyf. Having made yogurt recently, and then strained it to a Greekness, I had a nice little jar of whey to use for something. That something turned out to be raisin bread, and a good thing too.

Growing up, Passover was an important holiday on my Mom’s side of the family, but I confess that to me it was always an awkward ritual that dragged on interminably and just seemed like punishment, especially given the magnificent smells of my Grandmother’s roasting leg of lamb that wafted in from the kitchen like cruel incense while my tone-deaf and only half-literate in Hebrew family made an appalling hash of the high holiday. We had some Israeli friends who would dutifully join us most years, and I enjoyed watching them cringe as we massacred the songs and skipped wantonly through the Haggadah like drunken frogs and/or locusts. My Grandparents were great Jews, but were not at all religious, so my takeaway was that family and food matter a whole lot, but the intoning and dipping parsley in salt water not so much. I don’t think that it was a coincidence that Thanksgiving was the other main holiday we celebrated together: all the food, none of the tedium!

In retrospect, if I had gone to Hebrew school my life might well be richer now; it’s certainly richer because I learned French and Italian. I know my Grandfather would have been thrilled to see me learn it. He knew Polish, Yiddish, English, German, Latin, and some Greek, and my Grandmother (who never went to college) spoke German, French, Spanish, Latin, and English, did the Times Saturday crossword in pen, and could crush me in Scrabble (in her fourth language) until I was out of college. Languages are good things to know, and traditions are important if for no other reason than to teach children that holidays are about things other than thematic candy. But call me an atheist, I still don’t see a correlation between religious belief and morality in people or societies. I’m fine with my heathen-ness.

A lot of this grouchy attitude about holidays is surely due to the fact that these people who made me aren’t alive any more. I surely do not mean to impugn faith and belief (and I cop to the bad timing of posting baked goods on Passover). I feel strongly that rituals matter, I do. And I’m the first person to admit that what we perceive as reality is the tiniest sliver of something unknowably complex, and that there’s a governing lesson in the humility that comes with that knowledge. It’s just that the rituals I care most about center around gardening and baking and such, and seeing to it that my son–who is by any measure as sweet, smart and beautiful as any kid alive–understands how the seasons and the plants and the animals and the microbes work so that the wonder and awe of nature become the foundation for creating the pleasure of food, which is love and sharing in its most basic form. The day-to-day rituals of tending and nurturing the organisms that become our food (and the other organisms whom we love and want to feed) are the rites that speak most profoundly to me. Any night of the year can become sacred with some friends and a meal, whether humble or exquisite. The family I grew up with showed love with food and yelling (I know I’m not alone there; it’s why I felt so at home in Italy) and unconditional support for creativity in any form. That food and bullshit intolerance and freedom to create are quite literally the fuel for this here blog that you my small but loyal readers enjoy. And I mean to pass it on.

So right now some of my relatives are commemorating our ancient ancestors’ liberation from slavery. Hard to argue, right? What then are we to make of the fact that one of the two major political parties in the most powerful country on Earth is dedicated to reviving the agenda of the people who went to war so they could continue to own slaves? This profound disconnection between the moral map and terrain makes my head hurt, so I turn to the things where I actually have a shot at achieving the desired outcome. I used to joke that since Jewish weddings have too much food and nothing to drink and WASP weddings have too much to drink and no food that it was my solemn duty as a 50/50 mix to ensure that any event I threw would have too much of both. So far, so good. Here’s to the hybrids, mutts, and heretics who make this country so great. If more of us taught our kids to bake sourdough cinnamon raisin bread that substitutes homemade yogurt whey for water, we’d all be better off.

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  1. April 19

    Dude, you have been a machine in the kitchen lately.

  2. April 19

    Like you, I can find no correlation between religion/philosophy and goodness. They aren’t mutually exclusive but neither are they mutually assured. I also agree that feeding loved ones, be they family, friends, lovers, children, is a sacred act. Setting the table is my idea of a good ritual.

  3. April 19

    I love hearing about your family. And that bread came out great. So, for that matter, did the kid!

  4. April 20

    My upbringing sounds a lot like yours. Jewish mom from the Bronx, WASP dad turned student of French philosophy under Sartre and Marcel in Paris in the 50’s. Amazing food growing up, most of my family dead, save mon pere the Baguette Baker. One boy (smaller than yours) who has 2 words (Papa and Yum) I think the yum is for me. Can’t wait til he can get his hands into some sourdough and start kneading.
    Just a warning, if I’m ever in your neck of the woods, I’m coming to meet you. And I think you should be a millionaire by then, because this is by far the best blog I read.

  5. Peter
    April 20

    David: Spring has me excited.

    Zoomie: Agreed.

    Julia: He’s in this phase now where he has to make silly faces for the camera.

    Nicole: Yes, blogging is the path to riches. No doubt. I’ll come knocking next time I’m in Rome, so watch out.

  6. April 20

    Ah: pretty loaf; the more traif the bettah. (And I guess I am glad I was raised Irish catholic b/c we’ve got BOTH the food and the booze, at any and all occasions.) Happy holiday(s).

  7. April 21

    I was thinking of the torture of not having bread for a while when your bread looks as good as that, but I realized there are harder things – like Lent. I grew up Catholic and had to do deal with meatless Fridays and whatever Grandma felt was moral enough for me to eat. I’m cool heatheness (you are SO RIGHT on teh morality thing) but I do admire those bloggers I have been reading who are sticking very closely to Lent. I always tell my husband on Yom Kippur that it’s good to be a gentile, but then again, it’s not so great on Lent.

    Family holidays used to be big in my family, but in the past two years there has been drama and now suddenly there are no big family holidays anymore. My mother played the age card, said she’s too old to do holidays and went on vacation for the weekend. I get to catsit her cat and Easter will just be me and my husband at a hotel brunch. It makes me want to go back to cooking for 16 people again like I used to.

  8. April 21

    Love this post, your son is truly beautiful.

    In my family, the holidays have ALWAYS been about food and family time and not so much about the holiday, itself. We have always been a very tight-knit family, though each year makes me realize more and more how big a part my mom played in that, as we drift further and further from each other now that she is gone. (How’s that for a run on?)

    If you have a good, easy bread recipe for a beginner, I’d love to have it! This week I’m embarking on breadmaking and pasta making, but I really don’t know where to start when it comes to baking.

  9. Peter
    April 21

    El: A six pack and a potato, for example.

    Rachel: Lent, as with so many other Christian rituals, has antecedents going back millenia beforehand. It’s the leanest time of year (in the North, at least) when fall’s harvest is eaten and the new growth hasn’t come up. Paying reverent attention to these natural cycles is a good thing; I’ve been marveling gratefully at how amazing the earliest greens taste. I just don’t see the need to clutter it up with dogma. But that’s me.

    Mo: Ah, family drama. I wouldn’t know anything about that. The much-awaited bread page will be up next week, I promise, though the additional recipes might take a while longer.

  10. April 22

    Woo hoo! I’ll be waiting for it. Though it’ll have to be like “bread making for dummies” for me, I really have zero experience and have had such a hard time confronting even trying!

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