I believe in the urgency of breaking bread. To sit down with one another to eat, converse, argue, laugh, tease, learn and listen is, in these times, not just important, but critical. I call my weekly foodie bulletin board “Food Matters” not just because it’s about matters of food, but because food matters. I just can’t help but think that our president, had he dined better growing up (not ate more but better), would think twice, thrice or a thousand times before blowing a benign country to smithereens. I suspect he didn’t get enough vegetables. Or chicken soup.
Apologies to my Muslim friends and readers who might be smack dab in the middle of their month-long Ramadan fast at the moment. I feel your (hunger) pain. Nevertheless, my thoughts this week turn to chicken soup, pomegranates, kreplach and such, in conjunction with the beginning of the Jewish Sukkot, which started at sundown on the 15 of Tishri—Sept. 26 by my calendar.
When the shofar blows—a musical trumpet usually made from the horn of a kudu, ram, goat or sheep—it signals the end of the solemnity of Yom Kippur and the beginning of the celebration of the festival of Sukkot, also known as the Feast of the Tabernacles. Although there aren’t really specific foods traditionally associated with Sukkot, the weeklong harvest festival centers around fruits, vegetables and breaking bread.
I’m not Jewish. But during the years I lived in New York City, I was often “adopted” by my Jewish friends and their families for certain holidays, just as I was taken in for Thanksgiving by my WASPier colleagues. And Sukkot, in particular, holds a fond place in my heart and tends to issue forth cravings in my belly. Oh, kreplach, where art thou?
Without getting too bogged down in either history or theology, a sukkah—for which Sukkot is named—is essentially a hut and a portable place for worship: aka a tabernacle. It’s what Moses and the Israelites lived in during their 40 years of wandering before reaching the Promised Land. I missed that trek, so the first sukkah I ever sighted was not in the most obvious spot you’d probably think of: It was on the roof of an east side New York City apartment building.
I was invited for my first Sukkot by my friend David to his parents’ apartment. I wasn’t sure what to expect but was encouraged by my buddy’s most important entreaty: “Come hungry. My mom’s a great cook.” At that time, my knowledge of Jewish cuisine was limited pretty much to the B&H Dairy’s ethereal egg-challah bread, corned-beef sandwiches and matzo-ball soup at Sarge’s, and the lox at Zabar’s. Which, come to think of it, are pretty damned good places to start.
But back to the sukkah. “You’re not gonna believe this,” David said as he led me up the stairs to the rooftop of his parents’ apartment building, through a heavy door and out onto the tar beach. It appeared that every tenant had etched out his or her own small piece of rooftop real estate: There were lawn chairs beside potted plants, barbecue grills (illegal, I’m fairly certain, in New York City), a small shuffleboard court, herb gardens, a large water tank, of course, and, over in one corner near some air vents, a sukkah.
In honor of the Sukkot holiday’s historical and biblical significance, Jews are “commanded to dwell in temporary shelters, as our ancestors did in the wilderness.” Well, some folks take this command more seriously—and more literally—than others. David’s mom and pop were very literal folks. And so they built a rooftop sukkah every year in the middle of Manhattan. And not just some simple canvas sukkah. Nope, this baby was made, with historical accuracy, from corn stalks; bamboo reeds; and branches from fig, grape, and olive trees—decorated with dried squash and corn. Where they found most of this stuff in the middle of Manhattan, I’ll never know. But, through the years, I learned that they weren’t alone. All over New York City and in cities throughout the world, rooftop sukkahs are a staple of the Sukkot holiday. And so is good food.
I’d always had a fear of gefilte fish, and kreplach didn’t sound a whole lot better. But since that first Sukkot, I’ve been crazy about kreplach! It’s a traditional dish that the Ashkenazis typically serve on the last day of Sukkot: chicken soup with a kind of ravioli floating in it. It goes without saying that the dish begins with great chicken soup, or “golden yoich” as my friend’s mom called it, which is as essential to Jewish cuisine as pho is to Vietnamese. Needless to say, it doesn’t come from a can. As for the kreplach, it comes in different forms. It’s essentially ravioli pasta stuffed with cheese or meat, usually ground chicken or beef, or chicken liver. But David’s mom took kreplach to a new level, stuffing it with goose liver, which she’d float upon on that glistening, golden broth.
And since the Talmud decrees that for Sukkot “pomegranates and phials of wine should decorate the table,” along with kreplach, I was introduced to Manischewitz and a side dish of cauliflower with pomegranate seeds, doused in a heavy coating of vinegar, garlic and mayo.
Again, I’m not Jewish, so I won’t be building a sukkah. But you can damned sure bet I’ll be eating kreplach sometime this week, hopefully at a table decorated with pomegranates and plenty of wine. And, if a matzo ball happens to come my way, you can rest assured I’ll be all over it. In the meantime, I urge you to send chicken soup to the White House. It’s a place in need of some soulful cooking and maybe a different sort of sukkah.
As far as I’m aware, the only Jewish deli in the state is Kosher on the Go, located at 1575 S. 1100 East, and its phone is 463-1786. It has a limited offering of soups (including matzo ball), challah bread, kosher sandwiches and such. I’m pretty sure it is the only restaurant/deli in Salt Lake City with kosher certification, but I welcome info to the contrary.
• So, given the dearth of Jewish cuisine available for retail here, you might want to try your hand at cooking your own. George Greenstein’s new book can help. In the newly revised Secrets of a Jewish Baker: Recipes for 125 Breads From Around the World ($29.95), Greenstein shares his secrets for making pumpernickel bread, whole-grain challah and pretzels, bagels, rye bread and other breads from various ethnic traditions such as Irish soda bread, naan and focaccia. And, unlike too many modern bread-baking books, Greenstein, the longtime owner of The Cheesecake King bakery on Long Island, doesn’t expect you to go out and buy a professional baker’s oven before you begin. His recipes are virtually foolproof (trust me) and can be executed even by novice bakers like me with standard home kitchen equipment. OK, you might need to purchase a rolling pin. Greenstein really does know how to make rye bread sing, and his recipe for peach muffins with streusel topping might just change the way you go about breakfast.
• My favorite all-around Jewish cookbook is Claudia Roden’s wonderful The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York ($35). This incredibly well-researched book is not only filled with more than 800 Ashkenazi and Sephardi food recipes but is also packed with historical and cultural insight. It’s as enlightening and entertaining to read as it is practical to use in the kitchen. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever come across any cookbook that’s any better than this one. Give it to someone for Sukkot.
• Quote of the week: Worries go down better with soup. —Jewish proverb
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