Strange rites of passage and no bullshit: Welcome, 2017!

Running toward a no-bullshit 2017!

2016 is in the rear-view mirror. Last night, we attended a New Year’s Eve party at a house we’ve been lucky enough to be invited to for the past several Dec. 31sts.  The host (a guy about my age) remarked that, “We’re old enough that the people who influenced us are starting to die off.”

William Christopher as “Father Mulcahy”

The observation was his response to my sharing that William Christopher, the actor who played Father Mulcahy on the sitcom “M.A.S.H.,” had joined David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Greg Lake, Keith Emerson, Pfife Dawg, Sharon Jones, Leon Russell and others in wherever it is we End Up after we’re Not Here. (I am not discounting that we simply become ash or worm fodder, but given that death remains a Great Mystery, remain open to any and all possibilities.)

Which is one reason (shoutout to Eddie Izzard), I baked and brought a cake to the party.

(“Cake or Death,” the video, starring Eddie Izzard. Embedding was an issue, so here’s a link.)

The others were:

  1. At last year’s party, I didn’t have a job. This year, I do. That alone is worth cake.
  2. My first run at this particular cake – four layers with lemon curd filling, covered in seven-minute icing – was a month ago for my book group. It turned out well, but I wanted to try it again with a few tweaks. (ie: Upping the tart factor to showcase the lemon and getting the icing to not be so runny. I succeeded with the former, not so much with the latter.)
  3. There’d be a guaranteed gluten-free dessert, which could be my little secret.
I need to figure out how to make the icing less runny.

The party seemed less crowded this year. One difference was the absence of vote trollers. Last year, going into an election season, there were a lot of “bright young things” (quotes intentional) sparkling up the front room, willingly engaging with anyone they considered worthy (each other) and pretty much ignoring the rest of us. I’m not entirely sad that the only bright young things there this year were the regular wonderful ones, and not just because (huzzah!) it meant more grilled tenderloin for the rest of us.

This  is from another party featuring tenderloin. I didn’t take any pictures last night.

Tenderloin and cake aside, it’s good to assess where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what’s happening around us at various points along the way.

Which, for those of us old enough to have children in their 20s, 30s and 40s (whether or not we actually do), might be causing a few … twinges.

In keeping with the food theme, here’s some “where we’ve been,” featuring adult children and elders.

Those children are adults, with all the responsibilities and privileges that word carries. And, at the same time, as Kevin wisely observes, the generation-up people we saw as heroes and role models – and some similarly-situated age peers – are dying within the time frame of a normal life span. (Some are at the younger end of that spectrum, but still within the boundaries of “normal.”)

Getting old enough to die at the point where no one is shocked at how “too young” you were is a strange rite of passage. I don’t spend a ton of time brooding about what that means, but I would be lying if I said I never thought about it at all.

Me (right), not brooding. And probably not acting my age, either. 

As what is shaping up to be a surreal and potentially interesting interval in the life the world as we know it, or to put it more succinctly, 2017, commences, I’m trying to keep an open mind about things.

One certainty that is becoming clearer is making the best use of the time I have in front of me. Part of that involves making more words, more cake, taking the best possible care I can of the people I love and of the world in which I live.

Regarding that last, loving the world in which I live means doing my bit to create the one I want to leave for everyone else. Seeing the world as it is and not as I want it to be isn’t easy. Talking honestly about it isn’t always politic. But unless you’re willing to look at – and call by name – what’s happening in front of you, you’ll never be able to change it.

So, 2017, here’s a toast. L’Chaim and no bullshit.

Birthdays, beehive building, and food porn: Just another week in Flyover Country

Things that got away from me last week – including blog posting – got a bit recaptured over the weekend, which consisted of phone call time with all my daughters and an afternoon hanging out with Mom. It also consisted of me not being my best self when I got home from Mom’s expecting to start building beehives and Sweetheart informed me that we didn’t have any of the right nails to put the boxes together.

I will skip over the part where I expressed my feelings about this discovery.

Enter Sweetheart Senior, my father-in-law.

SS and his wife invited us all to lunch today, to celebrate a couple of birthdays – our nephew B, who turned 9, and Sweetheart’s mother, P. Senior and P haven’t been married since Sweetheart and his siblings were kids. But Christmas and birthdays are communal affairs, with all the drama one would expect at an event where lovely people congregate. Or, to put it another way, none.

Birthday cakes
My nine-year-old nephew, his sister and my mother-in-law prepare for a candle blowout.

Sweetheart called his dad last night to ask if he had the right kind of nails and whether we could build the hives at their place before or after the party. He did, so this morning, while Sweetheart gathered up hive parts, I walked over to their house with the birdbath we’d gotten for P, and a bag with pignoli, caramelized beets with chèvre and serving pieces for both of them.

Pignoli – this recipe is from an America’s Test Kitchen cookbook and only has four ingredients. They were delicious!

After the party, I figured SS would set us up and Sweetheart and I would put the box and frames together. But then, Sweetheart and Senior got into it and were having a great time. So I did a little bit, but mostly hung out and took photos.

Beehive building
Nothing says “father and son bonding” like beehive building.

And speaking of photos, this past Thursday, the Large Midwestern Technical College where I work held its annual Five Star Event. The Five Star is the biggest scholarship fundraiser for the culinary, hospitality and baking programs.

People start lining up an hour before the 5:30 start time. The $45 ($55 at the door) gets you all the amazing food you can eat – in multiple areas at multiple stations – and a chance to buy raffle tickets, bid on silent auction items and participate in a “wine pull” – I don’t remember if it was three chances for $10 or something different, but you get the idea. Once you’ve bought in, you pick a cork from a barrel of them, and if there’s a number on the bottom, you get the bottle of wine to which the number corresponds.

Silent auction
Silent auction and wine pull zone. There were some great things to bid on, but we are really trying to keep acquisitions to a minimum.
Hard at work
Students in the Asian station, working to keep the tables stocked with tasty offerings.
Chef Kyle organized and supervised the Stuzzichini station – an Italian antipasto extravaganza featuring pesto potatoes, anchovies not from a can, roasted artichokes and the sweetest caramelized onions in the history of caramelized onions.
A food station at an event
A view of the Stuzzichini station, and happy attendees, filling their plates.

Mostly, it’s a great night for people watching and a great night to watch our students and their instructors strut their culinary stuff. There was a room filled with cakes that were too pretty to eat. They were baked and decorated by baking and pastry arts students, and auctioned off. I’m going to give their pictures the last word.

ballerina cake
An en pointe cake with a tutu of pink roses….

The work that went into this cake was probably way more work than a day at the beach!
The work that went into this cake was probably way more work than a day at the beach!
wedding cake
I seriously contemplated getting married again, just so I could have a cake like this at my wedding.
skull cake
The only things that could make this cake better would be if it were chocolate and gluten-free.

Heading out of Egypt from Flyover Country: A pre-seder post

I’m a little late on this week’s blog post because I’ve been too busy doing things and not busy enough writing about them.

Tonight, 12 people are going to sit down at my dinner table and take a trip from Flyover Country to Egypt. Then we will flee from slavery there.

I’ve been listening to music all day and cooking, and it has been paradise. Cooking is one of the most relaxing things in the world, and little makes me happier than the prospect of cooking for people I like. I will only cook for you if I like you. You can pay me to write for you, but you cannot pay me to cook for you.

Some things are not for sale.

In the “things for sale” department, however, my most recent Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle story is out in the world. It’s about Amanda Miryam-Khaye Seigel, who grew up in Madison and now lives in New York. She’s this delightful singer/songwriter in her 30s, and she sings in Yiddish. She has this pure soprano voice and the expressive range of a whole theater company. So even if you don’t know a single word of Yiddish, you still have a pretty good idea about what she’s singing. Hard-core Metallica or Nas fans might want to skip it, but if you like show tunes, this will be right up your musical alley.

Anyway, back in the “things not for sale” department, here is what my Seder crew will be tucking into so far: halved and roasted Brussels sprouts with some olive oil and Brady Street Sprinkle from The Spice House, carmelized beets tossed in some espresso vinaigrette from Oro, chicken soup with matzah balls, veggie soup with matzah balls (for the vegetarians) gefilte fish, prime rib (which, when I saw how much it cost, thought, “We are eating my children’s inheritance for Seder dinner!”), eggplant parmesan (for the vegetarians), potato kugel, green beans and a salad (made by my wonderful Milwaukee Mom and cousin Carol).

Dessert is pignolis, chocolates made by the culinary arts students at Large Midwestern Technical College – those students make the best-tasting homework ever – and fresh fruit.

Passover, pignoli & plagues
Pignoli, and a couple of plagues. The plagues will be around next year. The pignoli, not so much.

I’d like to stick around and tell you about Wednesday night, when my friend Rick, Sweetheart and I went to see Judith Claire Mitchell read from her amazing new book “A Reunion of Ghosts.” She read from the book, but she also gave us a look behind the curtain at the life of Fritz Haber, who synthesized chlorine gas, and his wife Clara, the first woman to get a Ph.D. in science in Germany. Her dreams of doing cutting-edge (or any) research got washed away when she married Fritz.

Anyway, it’s time to head back into the kitchen. Those apples and nuts are not going to turn into charoset on their own.

The Great Millennial Mashup Family Seder of 2012: A story of deliverance from slavery

Friday is the first night of Passover, one of the bigger holidays on the Jewish calendar. I’ve been hosting since before Mom moved to Milwaukee, but since she’s been here there’s no way I’d ever be able to think of not hosting.

This will be the first Seder in years I haven’t had at least one of my daughters here. But that doesn’t mean I won’t have a full table. There’ll be 11 of us, including three relatives (parent types) and friends who are part of a Seder community I’ve gathered over the years. There’ll be some new faces at the table, too.

I’ve got most of the menu planned, and will spend the next several nights cooking – chicken soup, pignolis and roasting a beet (to sub in for the shank bone on the Seder plate) and a hard-boiled egg. Thursday night I’ll do a bunch of heavy-duty other prep – the charoset (I make Ashkenazic, because I like it!) and whatever else I can get done.

I’ve also gathered up the Haggadadot (the books we need to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt) and my box of plagues, which I’ve been adding to from year to year. A big box of plastic spiders I found on a post-Halloween sale rack will be making their Seder debut this year.

Passover items
A few Passover things – matzah, matzah cover, a Haggadah and, of course, my Box o’ Plagues!

There have been a lot of memorable Seders in my life, but one stands out. I call it “The Ultimate Millennial Mashup Blended Family Seder.”

My children’s dad and I split when the girls were 2, 4 and 7. Not surprisingly, his family wasn’t overly thrilled with me after that. Two years later, Ex remarried Dee, a widow with three children. She was also not thrilled with me. We all had that in common, at least. I wasn’t thrilled with me either, though for very different reasons.

That was more or less how things stayed, until Ex died in October of 2006. Along with having to deal with being widowed a second time, Dee was dealing with her father’s final illness. So I took to calling my former father-in-law Sidney every week to let him know how his grandchildren were doing, and also to check on how he was doing. That detente led to a genuine friendship, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened in late winter of 2009.

“What are you doing for Seder?” he said.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “I guess I’m having one.”

“Invite me.”

I thought I’d misheard.


“Invite me.”

“Sidney, would you and Mrs. Sidney like to come to my house for Seder?” I said.

“We’d love to.”

I’d started the conversation in one universe and ended it in a parallel one, a universe in which my children’s grandfather and his wife of 30-plus years were driving 75 miles and making a hotel reservation to spend the holiday with the woman who’d divorced his son more than 20 years prior.

A few years later, the requests got even more surreal. By the time they stopped, my Seder table was 21 people strong and included my husband, my mother, my children, three of my cousins, Sidney and Mrs. Sidney, Ex’s sister and brother-in-law from Texas, my wife-in-law (if you have a better term for the woman who marries your ex-husband and makes him happier than you did, I’m all ears) and two of her three children, including one who flew in from Israel. There were also the three or four orphans my youngest brought home, along with a friend from synagogue who I was sure would never come back but has every year since.

The Passover Seder is a celebration of freedom. Once we were slaves in Egypt, and now we are free. The Mashup Seder celebrated deliverance from a different kind of slavery. At that seder, we moved from a past chained to feelings that had separated and diminished us into one where, together, we celebrated a shared present and a hopeful future.

Bonus Post: Book Group at the Landfill and gluten-free baking, the maiden voyage

So, last night was Book Group and my turn to host. Ever since my Facebook pal Chase recommended “The Orphan Master’s Son” and I read it, I had wanted to talk about it with other people.

I thought I’d have to wait until August, but then Gail went AWOL (she does tax prep and is probably buried until after April) and a slot opened up. I grabbed it because it was a great opportunity on two fronts. The first was no longer having to wait months and months to talk about the book. The second was getting Sweetheart to join Team Clean the Landfill We Call Home.

I adore Sweetheart and never want him to be upset. He works hard every day at a job that’s physically and mentally demanding. I haven’t yet figured out how to get him to see cleaning as a reward in itself and to take joy in the doing of the thing. I also haven’t been able to convince him of the extra joy in doing it together. But somehow, the prospect of having people over seems to work as a trigger for getting things done.

So, by the time Sally, Regina, Betsy, Karen, Ann, Krys, Tria & Pam showed up last night, the downstairs looked better than it has in ages. I spent the day in the kitchen, deep-cleaning the floor, the dog feeding/watering area, the corner where the recycling had piled up (sub-zero temperatures are not conducive to taking that stuff out), and a place near the basement stairs where store-able things had collected.

Then, I gave myself a big reward. I got out the brand-spanking new gluten-free cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen that Sara had told me about. I followed the directions to mix up a batch of all-purpose flour, and then I made a lemon pound cake.

lemon cake and "The Orphan Master's Son"
The lemon cake baked in the small loaf pan, and my copy of “The Orphan Master’s Son. I loaned it to Ann, and Krys brought it back. Book group books frequently visit multiple households before Book Group Night.

I made one small loaf pan. For the rest, I used individual flower-shaped cups,  except for three. Those were in the shapes of a scary skull and a grim ghost.  Edible flowers play a role in “The Orphan Master’s Son,” and I couldn’t find any in the store, so making flower-shaped cake was my compromise position. Also, it’s kind of grim, so the skull and ghost made sense. (There was a bat-shaped lemon cake too, which I made because Ann and I have a shared history involving bats, but that one was just to send home with her, not to serve.)

Canned peaches also play a prominent role in the book, as does ice cream. So I served cake with peaches and ice cream after the discussion. During the discussion, I served cheese and crackers. And it’s not Book Group unless we demolish at least a couple of bottles of wine. Some of us drink white and some of us drink red. Some of us (not me) stick to water.

Before we get into the book, there’s always talk about what’s going on in various lives. Regina was just back from Chile, and Karen had had surgery. So we talked about that, and about spring finally coming, and discussed some of what Regina had told us in detail about her travels via our book group’s listserv.

We were particularly interested in hearing more about the different levels of coffee shops, where scantily-clad women (depending on the level of coffee shop you are visiting) either simply serve you coffee, or serve you coffee dressed in even scantier attire, or are willing to expose various body parts.

After our “other things” yack, we got into talking about the book. Everyone agreed it was a tough read, but worthwhile. Karen made it through 50 pages before stopping, because she said it wasn’t a recovery book. No disagreement there. Betsy said it was a little too violent for her, so she stopped. But that’s fine – we’re like that. You don’t have to read the book to come to book group. You just have to be ready to either talk about it or listen to other people talk about it. Sally read it in three days. Krys and Regina both said their Sweethearts expressed versions of “You’re not really enjoying this book, are you?” watching the way they’d read for an hour and then walk away.

That was kind of the way I had to read it, too. We talked about various aspects  – the brutality of life in North Korea, the role of the individual, whether the main character had a sense of right and wrong and how, if at all, it affected his decisions. We also discussed the disconnect between and possible reasons for the unremitting descriptions of harsh reality in the beginning and the near-magical-realism toward the end.

Sally brought along her copy of the March issue of Vanity Fair, which has a big feature on Kim Jung Un. I raised my hand first, so it stayed at my house. When I’m done reading it, I’ll pass it on to Ann.

Forget the Patriots & Seahawks. Around here, winning means a working furnace and no pogroms

Saturday night, Sweetheart and I got ready to settle down on the couch for a night of hard-core TV watching. We’d done the grocery shopping, mom-visiting and dog-walking earlier in the day, because a snowstorm was in the weather forecast.

Mushroom pie  was in the oven, kale salad and a berry pie were in the fridge. I’d put on a warm sweatshirt, but I was still cold. As I was wrapping a blanket around myself, I had an “aha!” moment.

“Are you cold?”

“No,” Sweetheart said. “Why?”

“Because I am. It’s freezing in here!”

“Sweetheart got up and looked at the thermostat. It was 58. (That would be about 14 for you Celsius types.)

The realization he hadn’t heard the fan for awhile was followed by an inspection of the living room heat register. It was cold. Next up? He took a trip to the basement. Sure enough, the furnace was off. I called down the stairs and offered to come and help. (I wasn’t sure with what.) No need, he said.

Back upstairs, he went for his phone, checked his contact list and called Bob.

We haven’t talked to Bob in seven years, when the furnace in my former house died between our move and the house sale and the pipes froze. Bob had installed our current house’s furnace back when Sweetheart was married to Ex. After they were done being married and I was working on rehabbing my Abused Victorian, Sweetheart hooked me up with him – in a strictly business sense. Bob replaced the two 1959 dinosaur furnaces with the brand-new high-efficiency model that broke while under warranty.  (It had nothing to do with him – it was a faulty part inside the furnace. Bob also redid the ductwork and installed central air conditioning in my former house. He is all kinds of wonderful.)

Gene went back downstairs, this time with Bob on the other end of the phone. He walked outside. He went back downstairs. When he came back up, he was off the phone.

“Bob thinks it’s the igniter and he’s got one on his truck. He’ll be here tomorrow, mid-morning.”

We threw an extra blanket on the bed. Once the dog was settled for the night, I covered her with a blanket. She lifted her head and gave me one of those “Why are you punishing me?” looks, but she didn’t try to kick it off. (At 14+ years and after two ACL surgeries, her legs don’t work as well as they used to.)

The cat curled up on the bed with us. We slept. By morning, the temperature was down to 51F (10C). Outside, the snow was falling thick and fast and a strong north wind was blowing. Sweetheart’s strategy for warming the house was to set the oven on a clean cycle and build a fire – in the fireplace.

I made waffles and we huddled in the parlor, reading the Sunday papers in front of the fire. By the time Bob arrived at about 2 – the snow had slowed everyone down – we’d shoveled the driveway out so he’d be able to park easily. (It seemed the least we could do.) Twenty minutes later, he handed me the dead igniter.

A photo of the broken igniter, before its final burial
I’d already sung “Taps” and thrown the igniter into the wastebasket, but then I removed it from its burial place so I could take this picture.of its little corpse. That handsome bearded chap in the background is Bob.

The new one was already doing its work. We had a lovely chat about life, children, grandchildren (his) and furnace life spans. We did not talk about the Superbowl, because (with the exception of Green Bay in my case) Sweetheart and I are not football people.

By nightfall, the drive and walkways were snowed over again, but we were warm. And I was grateful for our good fortune, which included the broken igniter. I had a broken igniter because I have a furnace, and I have a furnace because I have a house, and that makes me lucky and blessed.

That was especially brought home by an e-mail my sister sent this morning to me and our cousin Cindy.

“I thought you might like to see this,” Debby wrote. “It’s a letter….written by our paternal great-grandfather, Moses-Mordechai Edelstein, in 1920, and was used by our grandfather as evidence for why he needed a passport. This preceded his and his siblings’ trip back to the Old Country in the early or mid-1920s, to bring the rest of the siblings back.”

I’m posting it here. It’s hard to read, but it was written after my great-grandparents and my Great-Aunt Miriam were run out of their village in Lithuania after a 1920 pogrom.

A 1920 letter from my great-grandfather, Moses Mordechai, in Lithuania, to his Waldman children in Boston.

The original letter is written in Yiddish. The translator typed the English version. I’d never seen it before today. I knew one thing about Moses Mordechai before the letter, which is that he was he was one smart and crafty fellow.

I say this because in my great-grandfather’s day, Jewish boys as young as eight were conscripted into the Czar’s army for decades of compulsory service. Those with physical deformities were exempted, so a lot of parents sacrificed a boy’s fingers or toes in order to preserve the rest of the boy.

Not so Moses Mordechai. He managed to keep each of his eight sons from being drafted without having to sacrifice a single body part. Only sons were not drafted. Which is why he and his wife gave their eight sons not just original first names, but last ones, too.