Posted by Rob Eshman
Beautiful and talented Dana Goodyear has a portrait of favorite living food writer Jonathan Gold in this week’s New Yorker. You know you’ve arrived when they write a profile of you in The Jewish Journal. I mean, The New Yorker.
Yes, I’ve made a subspecialty for 10 years now of telling the world what a remarkable service Gold does for food, for culture, for LA. Here’s what I wrote in 1999:
You could map the area of the average restaurant reviewer’s travels, and it would pretty much overlap with Visa’s preferred zip codes. Los Angeles is a city segregated by lack of good public transportation, by massive freeway systems, by staggering home prices, by race. We don’t live in one another’s neighborhoods. We don’t, usually, eat in one another’s restaurants. Gold drives across these boundaries like Il Postino peddling his bicycle from village cottage to hilltop villa. His reviews draw us Angelenos near in a way that a thousand flowery mayoral speeches on tolerance and diversity cannot. Anyone who’s heard Korean pop knows that music is not really the international language. A tour among the grasshopper vendors at a Bangkok market will convince you that food isn’t either. So what is? Appetite. We are all hungry for something, The Farm Dogs memorably sing, and why not take them literally. I wouldn’t eat the “particularly stinky fermented-shrimp sambal” at Sudi Mampir on a bet, but Gold seems to thrive on the stuff. And he describes the glee the Indonesian proprietors express when their loyal customers, longing for a taste of home, feel better after eating it.
We may not understand what our neighbors eat, but we understand their devotion to their grandmothers’ recipes, to the familiar smells, to a finally perfect slice of something eaten a thousand times before, as something very human. Without Gold, a little of the stitching has gone out of the LA fabric. Score one for the Forces That Pull Us Asunder. In the building where I work, the easiest way for me to start a conversation with the Phillipino consular officials, the Korean bankers, the Latino journalists, the black lawyers, is to ask them about the food I know they are hungry for. Without Gold, how will I know?
Goodyear writes a marvelous description of Gold—the woman began her career as a poet, after all. Though I’ve never met Jonathan Gold, I’ve seen him, and she writes what I saw: heavy set, shlumpy (my word, not hers), bright red hair longish and thinning—my meory is that if the cartoon shop guy in the Simpsons and Mario Batali had a son….
The piece made me think of that specialized class of heavyweight Jewish gourmand writers/personalities. I mean, very heavyweight. Jeffrey Steingarten, Andrew Zimmern—the host of that show on The Travel Channel—and the grandaddy in a trough of his own, A. J. Liebling. Liebling, the son of Jewish immigrants, became the finest food and sport writer of his time, spending most of his career at The New Yorker. He died in 1963 at the age of 59, having lived a life of wonderful excess.
I admire these men, but I’m incapable of emulating them. For one, I’m too vain. And I love food too much to have to blame it for killing me. I don’t have their talent for eating or for writing, but I look forward to every word they write and bite they take.
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October 30, 2009 | 4:00 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
In the wake of the Great Deli Cover of 2009, I had a lunch meeting at Pico Kosher deli, which I had reviewed in a blog post yesterday.
I met Rabbi Daniel Korobkin there for lunch Thursday. The rabbi was waiting for me by the deli counter when I arrived, dressed in a dark suit and a bright blue-patterned tie, on his cell phone—which had an electric blue cover. He’s a friendly man, with a kind and mild face and an engaging, wide ranging intellect: a degree in computer science from Johns Hopkins, rabbinical school, and now he’s working toward his PhD at UCLA in Medieval Jewish Philosophy. For that he’s been studying Arabic for three years, and he was able to read a sign across the street written in Farsi above a Persian rug store. Farsi, while not a Semitic language, is written in Arabic script.
“What’s it say?” I ask.
“Persian Rugs,” he translates.
Our conversation was wide ranging and off the record—just a chance for me to connect to the leader of a major school, Yavne, and congregation. I did swallow hard, though, when the rabbi told me he has 10 children, from 3 to 25. He himself is 45 years old.
We talked over chicken soup and matzo balls, a turkey pastrami sandwich (mine) and a PKD Special, pastrami, cole slaw and Russian dressing (his). PKD’s pastrami is not cut as thickly or as deftly as Langer’s, the top non-kosher pastrami in LA, or the world. But the sandwiches are high quality, the bread soft, and fresh, and the service swift.
It was the lunch rush, made somewhat busier by the fact that several people came by to say hello to the rabbi. That’s PKD—as much a good, solid deli as it is a place to feel part of the large, boisterous family that is LA Jewry….
October 27, 2009 | 7:03 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Last week The Jewish Journal featured an excerpt from David Sax’s new book, “Save the Deli.” Sax did a worldwide tour of delis, at great expense to his love life and his waistline, and at the end of it named L.A. “The Best Deli City in America.” For a Jewish paper in LA, that’s a pretty good lead—Jews take their food and their delis seriously.
When I got the advance copy of Sax’s book, I called the publisher and arranged for a reprint. They were stingy with the word count, because evidently this is a boom time for publishing, what with hundreds of thriving book review sections vying to give free publicity to every book out there, and the impossibility of going online and reading excerpts for free at amazon.com…. in any case, they held firm at 1500 words.
We chopped off the part of Sax’s LA chapter that dealt with L.A.‘s numerous family owned delis and retained a self-contained part that described Hollywood’s connection to the delicatessen—a section we assumed would have wider appeal. Dan Kacvinski ordered a pastrami sandwich from Langer’s, shot it like it was a supermodel, and we figured we had a winning cover package…until the letters came.
Instead of pleasing a hungry audience, we enraged our kosher readers. Not only did the excerpt fail to mention any kosher delis, we threw a full color photo of treif—non-kosher meat—right in their faces. Here was a kinder example of the outrage, this one from Rabbi Daniel Korobkin:
Reading your cover story on the great delis of Los Angeles only filled me
with sadness. Don’t get me wrong: I like a good pastrami on rye as much as
the next guy. But this article reminded me of the blatant and unabashed
post-modern and post-religious Judaism that is glorified these days by your
periodical. There wasn’t even an attempt to mask the fact that not a single
deli highlighted in your article is kosher. As a matter of fact, the word
“kosher” appears only once in the whole article – when referring to the old
New York delis that L.A. celebrities remember fondly when eating at their
chic treif delis of today.
There were two ironies in this article: One, that unbeknownst to your
author, one of the great delis of L.A. is a kosher deli on Pico Boulevard –
“Pico Kosher Deli,” in fact – a deli that I grew up with and which has only
gotten better with age.
The other is that your author attests that for Hollywood types, the
delicatessen offers a “dose of reality” to budding actors who are regularly
confronted with a “state of fakery, where everyone wears their masks.” Of
course, what he forgot to mention is that a non-kosher “kosher style” deli
is itself is a fakery of the old Kosher Delicatessen, the one that served
just as delectable pastrami, but from a cow that was ritually slaughtered
according to a thousands-year-old tradition, and which was then kashered
with the coarse kosher salt that the A-list would only recognize as the
stuff sprinkled on their pretzels in their sadly non-kosher counterfeits.
Maybe in his next edition of his book on great delis, your author might
recommend to all those seeking some dose of authenticity: order a side of
Judaism with that pastrami sandwich.
Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin
Hancock Park, Los Angeles
Several other letter writers mentioned Pico Kosher Deli as well. The fact is, Sax did neglect it. It’s not in his the excerpt we picked; it’s not at all in his book. I noticed he left it out, but didn’t think to add anything to the cover beyond the excerpt we had decided to run. The cover story wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive survey of L.A. delis—but that doesn’t lessen the slight to those Jews who observe the laws of kashrut, and who love Pico Kosher Deli.
Had he gone there, what would Sax have made of PKD, as its fans call it?
I’ve eaten there many times, at least a dozen over the years. PKD is a Pico-Robertson institution, and the only true kosher deli in all of Los Angeles. Since most of its clientele keeps kosher and wouldn’t eat anywhere else, there’s no point in comparing it to other delis in L.A. Taken on its own terms, it is quite good, if not without flaws.
The place is small, plain and cozy. It is located in a heavily Jewish neighborhood, and the kids and yeshiva students, the kipa-clad professionals and moms-in-wigs who frequent the place keep it bustling and familiar. A deli counter runs along one side, full of the familiar meats and salads. Tables take up the next room, and often you’ll need to wait amid the cacophany of phone orders, children’s screams, and loud, friendly hellos for a table to clear.
In the world of Jewish dining establishments, I find that because a place feels at home, the proprietors feel free to treat you as family would—that is, they may ignore you and let you fend for yourself. There’s never a warm greeting, a “great to see you”—because, hey, we see you all the time, and who are you anyway, the Pope? No—you’re just family.
I like that attitude. Then again, I lived in Israel and got very used to it. But for furst timers, PKD’s rough and tumble may not feel welcoming. Trust me, it is. Grab a seat before that mom with four kids leaps ahead of you in line, and don’t b shy about flagging down a waiter or busboy for the menu. In a big Jewish family, delicacy and shyness gets you bupkis. Which means nothing.
Kosher Jews will not eat milk and meat together. They will not cook it or serve it or even think of it together. So there are kosher meat restaurants, and kosher dairy restaurants. PKD is a meat restaurant. You go there for the pastrami and corned beef and chicken soup. There will be no bagels and cream cheese, because there will be no cream cheese. No blintzes, either. Asking for sour cream with your borscht is like asking an Italian waiter for parmesan on your seafood pasta. You won’t get it, and you’ll just show your ignorance.
PKD’s pastrami, served on very fresh rye bread, is a fine and generous sandwich. Kosher meats are soaked and salted—again, by Jewish law—so beef and lamb can be less juicy than non-kosher meat. But PKD’s sandwiches, when warm, are classic examples of Jewish deli. The pastrami has a peppery bite that obviates the need for the deli mustard. Here’s my take on the other PKD food I’ve tried:
Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls or Noodles: This is a very light gold broth, lightly fatty, tasting of carrot, onion and salt. It isn’t the best of your life, and far from the worst. I’ve stopped by PKD many a time to by a quart for a sick friend (or wife), and it always does the trick. The matzo balls are some of the best in town, really.
Knishes: heated in the microwave, they are merely fine. Yonah Schimmel’s in New York is the gold standard, substantial yet light—and these aen’t close. But slather on some of that mustard, close your eyes, and you can believe you’re in New York, if not on 132 E. Houston Street.
Turkey Sandwich: They have several varieties: turkey pastrami, smoked turkey, Mexican turkey—the last of which I haven’t tried. Of these all go for the pastrami. It has the most flavor, and if you top it with some cole slaw, you’ll almost feel you’re getting your cholesterol quotient for the day.
Hot Dogs: These are not Hebrew National, which are not kosher enough for PKD’s certification. They lack the garlic fatty spurt I remember in kosher dogs of yore, but maybe I’m mis-remembering. On a cool day, they are still a comforting bite.
Pickles: Yes, and they are fine. Homemade? I don’t think so. But perfectly adequate.
The Israeli food here—bourekas, hummous, Israeli salad—is forgettable, easily outdone by Haifa across the street and Nagila down the block. People love the roast chicken, and the stuffed cabbage, both of which come in huge portions. But on plate after plate what you see are those sandwiches, and by any measure, kosher or not, they are worth ordering.
As for the aforementioned service, you’ll acclimate. My advice in kosher restaurants is to engage the server, treat them like your sister or brother who was nice enough to get up from the table and bring you something from the fridge. Don’t expect them to bend over backwards—they’re family.
Visit Pico Kosher Deli by clicking here.
October 22, 2009 | 7:56 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Food crosses boundaries. We all have appetites, we all have a genetic compulsion to look at what’s on someone else’s plate, and most of us are willing to try anything once. One taste leads to another, and before you know it there is Peruvian sushi and lattes in Koreatown and boba in London. Food can be a fence between peoples—the laws of kashrut are a perfect example of that, keeping Jews away from others’ dinner tables—but it can also be a bridge: look at the way delis and bagels have introduced people to Jewish culture. What food can’t be is controlled. Cuisines are a living thing: changeable, malleable, constantly in flux. One year tomatoes are as much a part of Italian cuisine as poi, the next year—1492—to be exact, they will start to define Italian cuisine.
And so, food historians may one day look back on 2009 as a revolutionary year in American Jewish food. Why? A column we picked up from Mark Pearlman on JInsider provides a clue: Maneshewitz, the iconic Ashkenazic kosher food company, has been bought by Sephardic Jews. Alain Bankier and Paul Bensabat, along with a third financial partner, have taken over a holding company that includes Manischewitz, Rokeach, Goodman’s, Cohen’s, Ratner’s brands among others. These are the brands that have come to define kosher food in America: Ashkenazic—that is, with origins in the foods and cuisines of Eastern Europe—stodgy, bland, spiceless. For generations their products—borscht and gefilte fish in a jar, matzos in a box, frozen blintzes and knishes—have populated the shelves of supermarket kosher sections and sat on our holiday tables.
But guess what? These guys are Sephardic, with roots in North Africa. They can see far beyond the gefilte fish. They have no less a love for their Jewish heritage, but a much different experience of what that means, as Bensabat told Pearlman:
“Being Jewish is something very special, regardless of how religious you are. I am not Orthodox, but I am extremely proud of being Jewish and I have extremely strong feelings about being part of the community. My dad inspired me about the importance of being Jewish from the very beginning of my existence. I grew up in Casablanca in Morocco, so being a Jew in America I certainly appreciate the freedom and pride of
being Jewish without fear of consequence. Being Jewish is not just respecting the religion but also having the privilege of being part of The Chosen People, of an amazing community with a special bond and pact with God. We are unique and one-of-a kind and should always be proud to be Jewish.”
The new owners won’t change the surefire old favorites, but I assume they will expand the offerings to reflect their own beloved Sephardic Jewish foods, as well as foods that reflect Jewish tastes that have grown more international—Persian and Middle Eastern, for instance—and more demanding—for organic, humane and natural ingredients.
So think about Jewish food in America 20 years from now, after a couple of North African Jews have successfully reinvented what mass market kosher means. Jars of Moroccan boules de poissons, made from sustainably caught fish and spiced with red pepper and tumeric, on our Passover table; hamin—Sephardic cholent—made from organic, humanely raised beef cooking in the microwave, and matzo… well, matzo is matzo.
To read about the new Manischewitz, click here.
October 20, 2009 | 6:45 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
I’ve never been a sit-still meditator. I tried it once when I was 23 and living in San Francisco and trying things. One week I read Ram Dass and that weekend I decided, as generations of my ancestors did before me, to try Buddhism. I signed up for a meditation weekend at Tassajara in Green Gulch, just north of the city.
I hated everything about that weekend but the food. I had the Tassajara cook book, full of brown rice and sea weed and stir fries and tempeh—things that are time consuming to shop for and prepare—so I appreciated that the kitchen staff would be making those recipes for me. Buit in between meals I had to sit on the floor in a long airy conference room and meditate. Stay still. Cross my legs until they inevitably cramped or fell asleep.
A monk walked back and forth like a colonel in Stalag 17 and used a single strong finger to poke the place on my back that he wanted me to straighten. I spent every session trying to gauge by the sound of his barefoot steps how close he was to me and when the next finger poke would come. I decided that except for the food, I’m a lousy Buddhist.
And I still can’t meditate, not like that anyway.
I’m envious that my wife incorporates meditation into her daily routine. She holes up in her study, sits on the floor, and just…sits on the floor. I peak in sometimes and watch her, which seems pretty romantic to me. She wears sunglasses and a hoodie. I call it Unabomber Meditation. It clearly works for her.
My own meditation is this: I watch the goat and chickens.
This past July I rescued a pygmy goat from the same Huntington Park butcher store cum pet shop I rescued our chickens from. It’s a longer story, which I’ll get to, but one thing I’ve found is that a goat can be…entrancing.
Evidently I’m not alone. There’s a whole book, “The Year of the Goat,” that chronicles the adventures of a couple who left their home and set out on a year-long journey to document goat-raising in America. It is not sappy or farm-y or simply nostalgic: Margaret Hathaway and Karl Schatz are photo-journalists who clearly see a link between the health of “goat culture” in America and the health of the family farm, the environment and the food supply. (Schatz himself is a Time magazine photog who also authored, “A Culture Rekindled: Jewish Traditions Return To Russia.” In 1994 he traveled to Poland to document the creation of Warsaw’s first Jewish day school in 45 years.). Even if you haven’t fallen under the goat spell, you’ll like this book.
Anyway, last evening I got home from work as the sun was setting, went to the backyard, and just stared at the goat. This morning I took my cup of hot yerba mate out and sippd it while I, yes, stared at the goat. She crunches dry brown ficus leaves and berries. Nibbles the weeds. Tastes the bamboo. And I just watch her, like Walt Whitman lost in his cows, “I think I could turn and live with Animals...”
When darkness fell, I returned the goat—her name is Goldie Horn- to her fenced in yard and walked back inside. I was calm. I was centered. I had meditated.
October 19, 2009 | 4:42 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Last weekend I noticed that the pomegranates that I had been waiting all year to ripen were now overripe. Many had burst open, and birds and bugs were having their way with the bright red seeds. Two months ago I looked at the then-green fruit and thought, What’s taking you so long? They listened, my attention turned elsewhere, and now I’d missed the peak.
I grabbed our ladder, went out to the tree and began picking. When it was over, I had filled a bright red 19 gallon bucket with some 30-40 pounds of fruit. Another 20 pounds was split, infested, bird-eaten—lost and left to rot on the tree.
The plan was to make a pomegranate cordial as I had last year. I had just read a story about the Slow Food movement, and realized that while we all support the movement, we support it in hopes that we will be able to buy the products of Slow Food makers in our local stores. In other words, we want to buy Slow Food as fast and conveniently as we buy everything else. Do we actually want to make Slow Food? That’s a different story. That’s the difference between praying ourselves, and having our rabbi or minister pray for us. It’s the difference between doing penance and buying an indulgence.
But there’s another category of Slow Food that is of a different order than the fastidiously made, laboriously produced meats and cheeses and vinegars you find in high end stores. That’s the DIY Slow Food: made from produce or animals you raise yourself, then wrested into product by your own hands, on your own time. It’s Slow Food money can’t buy, and it delivers a hard, eternal truth about Slow Food. It takes time. It takes patience. It’s really slow,
Rob’s Pomegranate Cordial
Wash ripe pomegranates. Submerge in a large bowl or tub of water. Cut open and with your fingers pry out the seeds. They will fall to the bottom of the bucket while the pith will rise to the top.
Scoop off and discard pith, drain all the water, then re-rinse seeds, drain well..
Using your hands, squeeze the seeds to extract the juice. Strain through damp cheesecloth, squeezing well.
Make a simple syrup by boiling water and sugar 1:1. Let cool.
Fill a clean bottle half way with juice. Add 1/8-1/4 syrup and the rest vodka. Shake and taste. Add more juice, syrup or vodka to balance flavor. It should be sweet, tart and juicy with a slight alcohol kick.
Seal and refrigerate a few days to mellow the flavors. Serve in cordial glasses, well chilled, or mix with Prosecco, champagne or white wine.
By the time I had finished, it was dark and cold and I woke up the next day with a fever. I suffered for my craft.
Was it worth it? Served cold and straight up in small glasses, this cordial has a sweet, juicy tang, and delivers a warm and welcome buzz. My wife, who rarely drinks, threw down two glasses like a saloon cowboy. For all that effort, I made three bottles.
But it was worth it.
October 5, 2009 | 12:18 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
In her sermon on Friday night, Naomi talked about Sukkot. She said the rabbis called the holiday, “The time of our happiness,” and command us to be “only happy” during the seven days of the Festival.
“What does it mean to be ‘only happy’?” she asked. “How can one command happiness?”
The answer, of course, is eating in the sukkah. It’s pretty hard to be miserable when you’re sitting in a play house dining and drinking with friends.
We’ve had two dinners in ours so far, Saturday and Sunday night, and the novelty hasn’t worn off. Except for the fact that the weather in Venice plunged below 70 degrees and we had to fend off the bitter mid-60s chill, our sukkah meals proved that religion, like armies, march on their stomachs.
Saturday Night Sukkah Menu for 15
Prosecco and Pomegranate
Heirloom Tomato Salad with Burrata and Arugula
Wild Coho Salmon with Salsa Verde
Broccoli Sauteed with Garlic, Anchovy and Hot Pepper
Roasted New Potatoes
Pumpkin Chalah and Pumpkin Pie
Fresh Lemon Verbena Tea
Now, Sunday night was going to be a whole different menu, but I had a side of fish I hadn’t cooked, more tomatoes, more burrata and more pie. So:
Sunday Night Sukkah Menu for 18
Prosecco and Pomegranate
Heirloom Tomato Salad with Avocado and Basil
Wild Coho Salmon with Fig Vin Cotto
Rapini Sauteed with Garlic and Melted Burrata
Olive Oil and Potato Puree
Fig and Apple Crostata made and brought by a friend
Fresh Lemon Verbena Tea
At the end of the meals Naomi offered everyone a chance to shake the lulav an etrog. The lulav is a set of three branches—myrtle, willow and palm—bound together ina kind of woven palm sheath. The etrog is a kind of citrus fruit, an oblong lemon-looking thing with a pronounced stem and blossom bud at either end. The idea is you stand holding the two items together, say a blessing, then shake the branches until they make a rain-like sound, side to side, up down and behind you. It looks like a Jewish rain dance—and it just might have its origins in that kind of ritual. No one really knows how it developed, and it’s not as widely observed a ritual as, say, circumcision or eating lox or reading the Sunday New York Times. The kids liked doing it last night—I got a sense the adults were a bit self-conscious—or maybe I’m just speaking about this adult.
Naomi can do these things with meaning and abandon—ancient ancient acts that make me feel as if I might as well be shaking blowing a conch horn and howling at the moon. But I suppose that why we’re a good balance—she handles the arcane mysteries of our faith, and I serve it up hot and steamy and real.
It makes for a complete experience, I suppose. It makes us all want to linger a little longer in the sukkah, and even start talking about clearing out the table and spending the night inside it.
“Go for it,” a friend suggested. “What happens in the sukkah stays in the sukkah.”
Rapini Sauteed with Garlic and Melted Burrata
I copied this dish from a menu item at Luna Park on La Brea and Wilshire. If you want to get your kids to love dark, bitter green vegetables, this is the way.
1 pound rapini
2 balls burrata
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
½ c. good olive oil
¼ t. red chili flakes
salt and pepper
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Blanch the rapini until they are tender and still bight green, but softer than al dente. Remove and drain.
Heat the olive oil in a skillet. Add the garlic and cook over low heat until the slices are sweet and translucent. Add the red pepper flakes, then the rapini, and tos until well coated and heated through. Cut the burrata in quarters and place over the rapini. Let melt into the greens on their own, or place in a hot oven until just beginning to melt. Serve warm.
Tomorrow: “The Heresy of Pot Luck”
October 2, 2009 | 9:25 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Last year at this time we were sitting in our Sukkah with a few friends when one of them said, “Why isn’t Sukkot everyone’s holiday?”
I remember what we were eating (with commentary):
Venison Lasagne with Wild Mushrooms
(No cheese. Just layers of braised shredded venison and mushrooms and wine layered between thin sheets of pasta I made. I’d bought the venison from a kosher organic supplier in upstate New York. 10 pounds of meet came in freezer pack by Fed Ex. We could have gone to Luques for what that cost, but I have the terrible habit of blowing budgets when it comes to food. Like the poor who still donat to build cathedrals, I believe that what I give to the gods of food will somehow come back to me).
Cinderella Pumpkin Filled with Kale, Canellini, roasted garlic and Roasted Leeks
[beautiful and soupy.]
Roasted Chicken with Meyer Lemon, Garlic and Bay
[The lemon, garlic and bay from our garden].
Salad with Fennel and Pomegranates
[ditto the fennel and pomegranates—from the garden. It was a good year].
Great chunks of fine bittersweet chocolate, figs and fruit and nuts for dessert.
[As I get older, this is the dessert that makes me happiest. Straight chocolate. Seasonal fruit. Cashews and almonds. Hit the imported chocolate section at Gelsons and go for variety: it’s a dessert and a conversation piece. ]
“Why isn’t Sukkot for everyone?” GREAT question. It’s the ideal holiday. You eat outside. You don’t have to go to synagogue, or follow long liturgy. You eat and drink in ahut outside, like 11 year old boys playing secret clubhouse.
The first time my wife and I celebrated Sukkot together as a couple was also the first time I built my own sukkah. That was simply bad planning.
I believe that in the same way Victorian brides were taken aside and offered private instruction on conjugal relations prior to marriage, certain Jewish men should receive a few lessons on the varieties of concrete footing and the purpose of corner bracing.
I grew up in Encino in the Mad Men era—there were many two-car garages, but few sukkahs. Living in Israel, I began to enjoy the holiday for the first time. Jews are commanded to mark the Biblical wandering in the desert by building huts and spending quality time in them. A holiday that involved eating great food and wine outside with friends quickly became my favorite holiday. As for the hut itself, I assumed my Israeli friends did what we in Encino would have done—called a Latino contractor to raise the thing.
I tried to go simple and cheap for my first sukkah. I bought 2-inch PVC pipes and connectors, clipped some banana leaves from a house I drove by on Brooktree, and built what looked like a giant, hairy tinker toy. The weight of the leaves collapsed the whole contraption before I stepped foot in it.
I stepped up to two-by-fours and molded concrete footings, something I either remembered reading in an old copy of The Jewish Catalog, or saw on an episode of Gilligan’s Island. Either way, it was sturdy and sat six and a half people and a pot of homemade green corn tamales comfortably—until someone accidentally backed his chair into a post, and the whole structure slowly, inexorably collapsed to the ground.
Eventually I found a Lebanese Muslim man who sold booths to vendors at the local farmers market. I asked how much something like that would cost for home use.
“For Sukkot?” he asked.
We’ve had that sukkah for a decade now, and I can put it up in less than an hour, provided I control the stopwatch and define what “an hour” means.
The sukkah is swathed in white muslin on four sides and, as per Jewish law, has a roof through which you can see the stars and feel the raindrops.
And that sukkah has become a symbol, a microcosm, of everything I believe Judaism can be: open, appealing, joyous, inclusive.
And an endless parade of great meals.
All Sukkot I’ll post various Sukkot meals I’ve made, along with some recipes.
First, below is the Pumpkin Challah I created that first sukkot, and that I still make today.
Have a great holiday….
Meanwhile, what Burning man and Sukkot have in common: read here.
ROB’S PUMPKIN CHALLAH
2 packages active dry yeast (2 tablespoons)
1 cup lukewarm water
1 tablespoon plus 1/3 cup sugar
1 c. canned or fresh pumpkin puree
1 pinch saffron (optional)
1/2 cup vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the bowl
1 tablespoon salt
8 to 8 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Sesame seeds for sprinkling (optional)
1. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast, saffron and 1 tablespoon sugar in 1 3/4 cups lukewarm water.
2. Whisk the oil, 2 eggs, 1 c. mashed pumpkin, saffron, sugar and salt into yeast/water.
3. Gradually add flour, stirring with spoon or mixer paddle. When dough holds together, it is ready for kneading.
3. Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth, about 7-10 minutes. Clean out bowl and grease it, then return dough to bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, until almost doubled in size. Dough may also rise in an oven that has been warmed to 150 degrees then turned off. Punch down dough, cover and let rise again in a warm place for another half-hour.
4. Divide dough in two pieces Roll each into a 3” thick rope. Twist into a snail shape. Place loaves on a greased cookie sheet with at least 2 inches in between.
5. Beat remaining egg and brush it on loaves. Let rise another hour.
6. Preheat oven to 375 degrees and brush loaves again. Sprinkle bread with seeds, if using.
7. Bake in middle of oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until golden.