Friday, January 4, 2008

A very belated but much beloved Christmas post

December 25th, 2007

By the time I got around to posting this, “yesterday” had become last week… Time has done its usual thing … Not to mention the very rare occurrence –- in my life at least – of a lack of Internet connection…

[Yesterday] was Christmas. No surprises there? Of course there were so many. It was a Jewish yet traditional, gluten-free, dairy-free, deliciously gluttonous, fun Christmas.

I didn't grow up with Christmas. Well, really I did, but only because that time of year comes along when unless you move to a galaxy far far away, you can’t help but be aware of it. Growing up, I remember being aware that Christmas, like uncircumcised penises, was something "they" did; those hordes of strangers, the goyim who lived around us with whom we had little or no contact. In my life, there was my father’s cleaning lady, the women who worked behind the counter of the bakery by our school, the ladies who made our sandwiches – “smos” with cheese or chicken curry – and those mysterious blond, blue-eyed boys with whom I made eye contact from time to time but I couldn’t bring myself to speak to.

Like my relationships with the people who celebrated the birth of Jesus, the holiday itself seemed unnecessarily superficial. Other than presents, I had never heard of any traditions or rituals associated with Christmas. The Jewish holidays, in contrast, were weighed down enormously by “have tos” and “musts” and “shoulds”, commandeered by guilt and fear. While we had to listen to the same stories year in year out about persecution and impossible miracles with the little Davids (the Jews) beating the Goliaths of this world (everyone else), Christmas, seemed to encompass only purchasing gifts, wrapping them up and putting them prettily under a tree, where they were to be opened at a specific time on a specific morning.

Though I felt slightly condescending about Christmas and it’s flimsy celebratory customs, I was also slightly jealous: of the fun of having a real-life tree in the house, of decorating it, of waking up early and running to see what had been left under it for me, of eating milk and cookies like on TV, of the millions of fairy lights, and the fat man with the big white beard and the belly laugh to whom children were allowed to tell all their secrets – and who, it seemed, forgave them all their tantrums and lies.

Though I had been told early on that there was no such thing as Santa Claus, I wanted very much to believe, if not in Saint Nick himself, in someone who cared enough to listen to the dreams and overlook the failings of a child.
But as I grew older and more ensconced in what it meant to be part of a minority, instead of enjoying someone else’s holiday,

I became slightly condescending towards it – as if their rituals were worth less than mine. Christmas was a commercial holiday, another reason to shop, an excuse to send well-wishing cards out to people with whom I might otherwise have lost contact years before; it was definitely nothing I was planning to take any more seriously than that. I enjoyed the sales just like anyone else did, and the meals at friends’ houses. But there was no way anything about Christmas could even remotely begin to compare with the heroism of the Macabeans of Hannukah, or the freed slaves of Passover.

In contrast, to those miraculous tales, Christmas was about… was Christmas really about anything? Nobody around me ever seemed to talk about the historical aspect of it, or even be interested in anything other than presents.

We, the Jews, read the Hagadah at Passover. For Hannukah, we spin the draidle, we sing the songs, remembering, reminding, teaching the events that brought us here. Succoth is about the forty years spent in the desert.

Where was that kind of thing at Christmas?

(I have to admit that not only do I no longer really celebrate any of the Jewish holidays, the reason I have chosen not to is because of having been forced, as a child, to sit through them for years and years, with little choice or recourse)

OK, if I'm completely honest, part of why I haven't liked Christmas in the past few years is that I've had children on the brain -- mine. And how can the Jewish holidays, with their sob stories and long-winded meals, compare Christmas and its empty, commercial but incredibly satisfying present-giving tradition?

I’ve started asserting more and more vocally in the past few years, since I’ve been with D and as I’ve become more familiar with Christmas, that holidays should be about tradition -- and masses of presents have nothing to do with tradition. (Not to mention the mountains of waste that gets generated each year, between the incredibly ecologically unfriendly wrapping paper and the hordes of unwanted, discarded gifts that only bring our world and humanity closer than it already is to ceasing to exist.)

Then again, if I force my children to celebrate the Jewish holidays in the same way I was, they'll definitely choose Christmas any day! I know I would.

Which, in the end, really, if I am completely honest… is what this is about… Am I the only half of a mixed-background couple who feels the pressure to compete with my partner’s heritage? Am I the only Jew who, while planning to raise a family with someone of another culture, can’t help but want my children to choose mine, if for no other reason than people, my ancestors were sent to the gas chamber for being Jews, and I can’t ignore that, or turn my back on them………… Is it guilt? Or is it a sense of belonging? Or do I just have too much time on my hands? Or possibly an unhealthy sense of competition?
Who cares? Why do I care? What is it that I’m so strongly caring about?

When I was a child, the holidays meant being forced to dress up in uncomfortable, expensive clothes, to look “nice,” to pretend everything was wonderful, or would be because we were going to repent, to bow our heads in front of the lord who had saved us, or who was going to.

On Yom Kippur, we had to fast from sunset to sunset in order to erase the sins of the past year -- as if I had done so much wrong to begin with -- a tradition my mother condoned and my father absolutely abhorred. My mother would drag us to synagogue. The women would sit with their prayer books open jabbering away about "have you heard..."; while my mother – ever the outsider – would silently recite poetry to herself. Us kids would sit around outside, in the courtyard, looking at who was wearing what and generally preparing to become like our mothers who were doing the same indoors.

After making my escape, I would stop off at my father's who some years – depending on how Jewish he felt that day or week – would force me to eat. Those years, I returned to synagogue, filled with dread that someone would smell the cold cuts on me as they compared notes about how hungry they were and how bad their breath was; not to mention how terrified I was of being struck down by a God who, horrified that I had ignored his decree, would condemn me to a brutal and painful death.
I’m sure it’s not hard to imagine how much I was dreading my hypothetical, future children having to choose between loads of presents (seriously, you should see the suitcases D’s mother prepares for our niece. It’s a year-long extravaganza), turkey and carols; and fasting from sunset to sunset or worse: eating Matza (unleavened bread) for a week – for the sake of tradition.
This year, however, something changed. Firstly, I didn't feel that aforementioned competition. Instead, maybe because D and I had Christmas at our house, we created our own, new traditions. We mixed the old with the new, the historical with the practical with an added twist of Judaism thrown in for flavor. Yesterday, Christmas was transformed from "his" to "ours", from "theirs" to include me -- the lapsed, lost Jew who nevertheless loves her traditions.

Then, of course, there’s the food…

D really wanted to cook a goose. A really lovely bird, I must say (as I sit here, at 2 a.m. digesting another pig-out on some of the ever-so-juicy leftovers). The main thing I have learned about The Goose, is that it is conducive to the creation of wonderful memories in a way that the usually way too dry turkey is not.

For starters, geese are massive birds. Ours weighed an impressive 9 pounds and could only barely squeeze diagonally into the top shelf of our refrigerator. Secondly, before putting the bird into the oven, you absolutely have to prick the skin about a million times. This is to allow the fat to flow out from under the skin and into the pan over which you will perch the bird on a grill rack. Each one of us took a pairing knife and got to work, pushing the blade through whilst making sure not to pierce too deeply. There was, for me, an intense feeling of satisfaction each time the knife pierced through with the ease and feel of soft butter: what this meant was that I had found and hit yet more fat. As D and I did this, we listened to his mother’s ongoing monologue punctuated with a few grunts and un huhs from his father - we'd installed his parents on chairs in our tiny kitchen so we could chat as we prepared the meal (the living room is all the way down the hall and conversation is pretty impossible between the two rooms). We speared the bird with gusto as his Mum chatted away.

An added bonus, which I just recently learned on one of those pre-Christmas “turkey or goose?” specials, is that goose fat is full of the fashionable, much coveted Omega 3s... I’ve been using that as my latest excuse for eating and eating and eating.
In any case, the goose starts to sizzle from the moment it goes into the oven – a delicious but quite nerve-racking sound, at least for me, as I associate it with the deep-fried foods that rarely, if ever, make it into my repertoire. But this was different: there was no deep-frying going on, at least not in the traditional sense! The fat poured out of our carefully made holes and down into the pan.

Then, about halfway through the three-hour cooking process, D and I spooned the fat out of the bottom of the pan -- a large mason jar's worth! The bird crackled away, as we flapped around looking for every dishtowel and oven mitt we could find to avoid burning ourselves. It was, probably carcinogenic, possibly the most fattening escapade ever attempted but, if nothing else, it was really really fun.

But it was so much more than that. Somehow, between the spitting grease, the discussions about drug addiction and the realization that my hypothetical, future children would be right to prefer Christmas, there was also a pervading feeling of togetherness, of calm and joy -- a rarity in both our families. And only then, after the bird had at least an hour to go, when it was warming up slowly to the 180 degrees it was supposed to reach inside, did we open presents. Hordes of them. And we had wine and champagne, and then desert.

Here’s how I made sure that, for once, I could eat everything (or 90%) of what was served:
Most importantly was the “fuck it” element -- I consciously made three exceptions to my usual rules:

1. I ate potatoes*

2. I mixed proteins and carbs -- usually prohibitive to my digestion and while I did have a couple of very uncomfortable hours, I must admit, all in all, it was a fraction of what it usually is (I attribute that to a significant lowering of the usual stress levels)

3. I did eat some fruit (more about that in a mo')

But in addition to those three, there were a few minor changes that I have to say were fantastic:
- We used olive oil instead of butter, on everything, for everything.
- Instead of regular flour for the gravy, we used buckwheat flour
- We didn't coat the potatoes with anything but goose fat and some herbs

The goose was simply seasoned with salt and pepper.

The brussels sprouts were done with pancetta, chestnuts and ginger.

I also made a kind of apple sauce myself and cooked it well in the hopes that it would work for me. It did and it didn’t: other than the usual itching under my neck, it was wonderful.

Here's my question about that:
I’ve been told that that “rash”, that itching is my body getting rid of toxins in my system. When did stewed fruit become toxins?
These days, however, I don't feel like dwelling on that... That will be for another, less happy day.

So my usual no sauce policy was put aside for the special occasion -- and that in itself was cause for celebration!

In addition, it was a really good metaphor for the day: instead of being dry and polite in an attempt to keep the emotions in check, as is usually the case (not that I am ever successful at this), Christmas became, for the first time, about being together and milking every second. It was a day of loving family togetherness, a day of appreciating each other and open discussion mixed with contented watching of Christmas television while simply enjoying each others’ proximity -- gloopy and soothing, the day covered us with warmth, like sauce.

And here are both of the ones I made:

"Apple" "Sauce" (amazingly delicious with goose and gravy! But also a good desert if you don't eat gluten or refined sugar or dairy) - serves 4 with loads left over.
- 2 pink lady apples
- 1 small granny smith
- 2 pears
- 1 container of blueberries
- a few fresh mint leaves
- 2 cloves
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 3 or 4 allspice
- sweetener (agave, honey, maple syrup) - I used honey only because I took the wrong jar, I meant to use agave
- splash of heavy red wine (I used Pomerol)
- lemon juice

Cover the blueberries with water and cook with the cinnamon stick on a low heat. (The water should comfortably cover the blueberries, but be careful: don't put too much – this should be sauce, not juice).

Cut up the apples and pears and toss in a bowl with lemon juice.
Once the blueberries are cooked, add the apples and pears along with the rest of the ingredients except the wine. The water does not have to cover all of the fruit at this point, but there should be enough to keep it all moist.

Let simmer on very low heat until the fruit is soft.

Turn off the heat, pour in the wine and then let it all sit for a while, while you get other things ready. (I waited about an hour or so.)

When ready to, turn the heat back on, and bring it to a simmer for a good few minutes.

Once most of the water has evaporated, remove the allspice, cinnamon (all the hard bits, basically) and bung the rest into the blender until it achieves the desired consistency. You can also mash the fruit of you prefer it chunkier, less consistent.

Because I wanted the sauce to be creamy I blended it until it was perfectly smooth.

Cover the giblets with water. Bring to a boil and then simmer the giblets from the bird for up to an hour.

Strain the liquid into a pot.

Discard the giblets, etc. and return just the liquid to the stove.

Add thickener, a spoonful at a time. Make sure to whisk as you do this to avoid (or minimize) lumps). I used buckwheat flour because it is gluten free. (the flour can make it more bland, so watch out to not put too much of it at a time. I did – it made emergency doctoring necessary and seasoning more tricky)

After whisking, run the mixture through a sieve to get rid of any lumps.

Season with salt, pepper and any other spice of choice (fresh thyme, rosemary, etc.)

As the concoction simmers on a very low heat, sautee an onion (I used a tablespoon of the simmering liquid to do this along with a dabble of goose fat we’d spooned out of the pan in the oven). Once golden, add that to the simmering mixture

If desired, add chicken stock (I used home made stock cubes)
(I would have added a bit of red wine if I'd had some as well, but the lovely Pomerol was long gone, and D’s parents aren’t drinkers, so we stopped at one bottle of vino)

In the mean time… it’s 2008. It’s taken me 2 weeks to finish this post. And now it’s time for a new one.

Happy ’08.

* re: potatoes… After this Christmas, I have come to the conclusion that you haven’t lived until you’ve had goose fat roasted potatoes. I usually avoid them as I really don’t particularly like either the texture or the taste. But 2ml of hot goose fat in a pan with some fresh rosemary, and a pinch of salt, and they are just divine.

1 comment:

donna quixote said...

I love this blog. A fantastic combination of your quirky peronsality and great healthy receipes. I can't wait to try them!
ciara in Buenos Aires