Sunday, December 14, 2008

Something For Everyone

I love Christmas, mostly, I think, because I didn’t grow up with it. I have no bad memories, no traumas of tedious neighbours with terrible carolling voices or trees catching fire. Christmas, for me, has no traditions that require upholding, no Things We Do despite the fact that everyone has outgrown them.

No, all of those sentiments in my life are reserved for the customs practiced by the “Chosen People,” of which I am one. The Jewish Holidays are numerous and filled to bursting with generations of baggage strapped to my back like the memory-mule I sometimes feel I am.

Passover, with the endless wait to eat cardboard-like “bread” (Matzo) and then, finally, the gritty dumplings in tasteless broth; Rosh Hashana with its fish-head staring at you to remind you to start the year at the front, not the back (as if we need reminding to start at the beginning!); Yom Kippur, the day we supposedly atone for our sins but which we instead spend dreaming of food.

For me, Christmas has none of that.

Though I did grow up in a Catholic country (Belgium), I was for the most part unaware of St Nick et al, other than the very basics that is - the white beard, etc. - which are hard to miss. I have no recollection of any of the things I have come to look forward to as a newly minted, Christmas-celebrating adult. Our little ten-block Jewish microcosm was instead inundated with potato pancakes, dreidels and songs about another miracle for the Jews (Superpower, 0, Poor Little Minority, 1 more). Hanukkah was better than Christmas, we were told each December, because at Hanukkah children received one present every night for eight days, while Christmas was only one.

Now that I have had a couple of decades to reflect on this, it has become apparent that, environmental and waste issues aside, while it is factually true that Hanukkah lasts longer, often one well-considered prezzie is so much more enjoyable than eight throwaway trinkets. D and I have been breaking our heads for weeks now about what to buy for our loved ones. The goal is quite straightforward: budget, appropriate, something they wouldn’t necessarily get for themselves but would like to if they had extra cash lying around. Because what’s the point of purchasing unwanted, superfluous crap? I have to admit, the whole process can a bit nerve-wracking.

A year ago, at the penultimate minute, it was decided that we would be hosting Christmas. The only thing we had done in advance was put up fairy lights (the English and their sparkly little bulbs - D goes mad for them). We ordered the very last goose the farmer had in stock, and bought our tree when there were only a few left. The ornaments came from the final reductions bowl at the tree place, fifty-cent snowmen scavenged and saved in the moments before Christmas truly descended and the country shut down.

D’s parents flew down to London. We cooked (of course), we stuffed stockings, we ate too much and drank great wine. We went to a musical on Boxing Day and made plans for how wonderful the coming year was going to be, how often we would be getting together - last year, a lot of our conversations were also focused on the wedding... At that point it still seemed miles away.

Now here we are again, the wedding has passed and we’re back to where we were at this time twelve months ago: preparing to stuff – birds, oversized socks, and ourselves – tear open gifts, profusely thank one another and revel in options like midnight mass and mulled wine.

For me, it’s all fun. None of it means much, no matter how hard I try to attach some kind of symbolism to it. It’s merely another excuse to all get together, whomever all is that day, week, occasion. But there are no potato latkes, no candles in our window – unless you count those horrible bloody fairy-lights. I am unfamiliar with the songs people sing, and, unlike in my heritage, there is no chocolate money to be made from spinning a four-sided-spinning-top. Christmas is completely void of history for me. Still, I go along with it; I allow myself to get swept up in the frenzy and the plans, the must-dos, must-haves, the must-remembers. It is all part of my life now; and what I have been too lazy to do in terms of my own heritage – celebrate the Jewish Holidays -- I instead do for my husband’s (how I love saying that word and mentally superimposing D’s head above it!).

Once upon a time, traditions, rituals, celebrations held much more meaning. Winter solstice marked the true beginning of hibernation season, while summer solstice indicated the time for crops and coming out of our caves had arrived. We lived by the seasons, and cornerstone moments were observed – the ascent into adulthood, the naming of newborns – by well-known, well-worn traditions, celebrations and rituals that marked a next phase or a big change. What have, too often, become little more than another excuse to spend money, were once filled with meanings that we have, by now, long-since forgotten.

While organizing the wedding, I came across so many of those: for example, the question of whether to splash out on a traditional wedding cake, is one that has caused many a tense moment between couples. Let’s, for now, forget that the mere mention of the word wedding is enough to add at least one zero to any price tag; how many of us actually know why a “REAL” wedding cake is tiered? Costing hundreds if not thousands, the difference between a regular cake and a wedding cake is usually little more than height-related. The reason, I discovered, is that way back when, the layering symbolized the happy couple’s wealth. Rich people would often have to climb ladders to get to the top of their cake, proof that they (or whomever had paid for the do) had no money concerns. A few years ago, a friend of mine on an extremely tight budget actually calculated that it would be at least one-third cheaper to purchase different sized cakes and stack them herself (not to mention that if you are the one making the icing, you’ll also be the one who gets to lick the bowl!). Relatively speaking, the wedding cake is often one of the major expenses. Still, so many couples go for it so they can be photographed slicing that first piece together, both newlywed hands on the same knife, feeding one another a misaimed glob, the icing deposited on their noses. While money may be a factor in the decision about whether the cake should have three tiers or seventeen, I’m pretty sure nobody thinks about it as an indication of prosperity anymore.

For the past four years, every September, I have announced that next year I will celebrate Rosh Hashana, I will fast for Yom Kippur. Every spring, I have regretted not having attended a Seder, dull as they can be. Hanukkah I can take or leave; it’s a children’s holiday and we don’t have any yet. Still, I remember the candles in the windowsills fondly, and hope to one day light my own, adding one every night, singing about the “big miracle that took place over there”, in Israel.

Instead, for the past four years, we have celebrated Christmas, and it has been a big deal. Every year has been different – we have been in Canada and Bristol, amidst snow-covered valleys and under pouring rain -- with a few, recurring threads reminding us that it’s Christmas again: a tree, lights, sales, presents, food, complaints about the cold, non-sarcastic mentions of Santa. Throughout December, we have agonized over what to get each member of the family, and which friends we should include on that list. We have sat in a hotel room watching D’s niece tearing open her two suitcases of prezzies, and woken up in my brother’s home to exchange gifts in our pyjamas. Last year, when I decided to start taking this crazy blogging adventure seriously, it was with a post about our first Christmas held at home.

But how do you create, recreate, instigate traditions?

D and I went through those questions before the wedding, and we continue to do so. There’s the Jewish customs versus the Scottish ones, the Latin and the English, the Shabbat dinners and the baptisms, the Hebrew songs and the eighties ballads. When discussing our options, we do our best to avoid the dramatic declarations -- “no child of mine…” or “not in my house!” D is better at holding back than I am. I blame the fear mentality of being born into a minority (and a historically persecuted one at that).

How do you create your own traditions when there are so many in existence already – some that you would like to incorporate, others that you would prefer to ignore? How do you decide which to keep and which to skip? How do you choose? How do you separate those you feel guilted into from those you actually desire?

D and I have learned that with us, it’s better to start small. He doesn’t like new things, and I’m obsessed with not getting stuck in old ones just because they’re old.

Food is a good middle ground for us: I cook, he critiques, I wash up, he dries. We take comfort in dishes that start out as meals and become symbols; new parts of the unspoken language two people create when they choose to mesh their lives; something for the two of us, and the new family we are creating. Sometimes it’s about giving in, other times we accept and support – with a look, an inside joke, dinner prepared just so.

Last Wednesday afternoon, the sound of his voice tipped me off about what I would be making that night.
“Sweet potato fries,” he sighed, when I handed him the plate, “I can’t think of anything I would rather put in my body right now.”
It had been a rough day amidst a cluster of especially taxing ones. The personal was heaped on to the professional, which was trying its damndest to stifle the inspirational. My baked sweet potato wedges, slow-roasted with fresh herbs offer more comfort than chocolate cake in these dark, wet months, and I have found myself making them more often than my ever-conscious calorie-counting self would normally permit. But right now, their benefits outweigh their status as high-starch - read: fattening and therefore better to avoid - vegetables. As roots, sweet potatoes ground us; their sweetness satisfies our cravings, and the warm, baked slices, are perfect to make us feel just a bit naughty, like children allowed French fries.
Sometimes there is nothing I can say to make things better. But it’s great to discover small gestures that can make a big difference, if only for the duration of dinner.

And then there are the accidental traditions, created like a great piece of improvisational theatre. A couple of Fridays ago, we were having some friends over for Shabbat dinner and I wanted them to get a proper taste of my food -- the kind that I eat -- which is so far removed from their customary fare. I made chickpea flatbreads. They came out wonderfully crunchy on the outside, warm and chewy in the centre, infused with rich, black olives, peppery fresh sage and pungent garlic. D pronounced them “Oh My God” delicious and I made sure there would be enough of them left over to really pamper him. Because he rarely indulges in pizza, I decided to recreate this favourite of his in my own, gluten-free way.

The thing about inventing new versions of beloved staples is that we have to accept that they will never be the same: different ingredients produce different results. With enough of an open mind, however, chickpea pizza night can be as delicious and feel as decadent as the versions we all grew up with.

OK, so it wasn’t exactly “Check the door, it’s dominoes!”, but judging from the silent man chewing next to me, shaking his head with his eyes closed, I think I did a decent job. I had mine, he had his – each pizza topped with ingredients as close to the ones we would have ordered. I would have wanted cheese and tomato; he loves pepperoni and cheese. Instead, he got Spanish chorizo and Camembert, I heaped thick fresh tomato with cashew "cheese" dill and lemon juice on one half, and chunky avocado on the other.

And so pizza night was born. For those days when we wish we didn’t have so many responsibilities on our shoulders, when we want to be more silly than adult, when things would be so much easier if they were about getting a bike for Christmas rather than mortgage payments.

Chickpea Flatbreads:

4 Finely chopped fresh sage leaves
10 Chilli black olives chopped into small pieces
+ 10 more olives, kept separate, chopped.
4 Cloves of fresh garlic minced

olive oil (1 – 2 tablespoons)

1 ½ cup chickpea flour
½ cup brown rice flour
salt to taste

The night before (if possible. This can also be done the same day, if time is short):
Mix the sage, olives and garlic. Immerse in barely enough olive oil to cover. Store overnight in a glass jar with a lid.

On the day itself:
Mix the flour in a large bowl.
Add salt to taste and enough water to start mixing it all together. Blend the olive, garlic, and sage into a paste and add to the flour along with the rest of the olives, chopped into little pieces. Keep adding water and kneading until you have a dough that doesn’t run or stick to your fingers.

Heat a pan until water spatters off the surface. (do not use oil)

I would recommend using a soup ladle to create more or less even shapes and sizes (I would like to stress the more or less part here).
After scooping one ladleful into the hot pan, flatten the batter to create even and thin bread.
Allow to cook until the mixture starts to dry up and the edges start to brown slightly (you can also test this by very carefully inserting a spatula underneath – it is starting to be ready once the bread does not fall apart and is easily flippable as one entity).
Flip the bread and cook on the other side. You will have to do this a few times until the outside is crunchy and lightly brown.

These breads become doughy and less pleasant when cold, so make sure to keep them warm in the oven until ready to serve.

Will keep in the fridge for a couple of days.

To make pizza with leftovers, layer the flatbreads with your choice of topping, and heat up in the oven as you would a pizza.

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