Valentine’s Day the Old-Fashioned Way

On Valentine’s Day in fifth grade, we remember sitting at our desks anxiously awaiting the distribution of cards from a shoebox wrapped in red foil. We could count on getting valentines from our girlfriends. Maybe a handmade one with stickers and a doily. Maybe one with a Pixy Stix taped to the envelope. But, oh, the embarrassment if our pile of valentines looked skimpy.

We know a man who, decades later, is still grateful that his cousin Shelly was in his class, because that meant he could count on receiving at least one card.

In our teen years, we yearned to celebrate Valentine’s Day with a boyfriend, not with our classmates. Wouldn’t it be nice to exchange gifts and write romantic notes to each other?

Happily, we fished our wish. We’ve each had a partner for 30-plus years of Valentine’s Days. So over the years, we’ve been there and done that. How can we make Valentine’s Day 2018 special? Should we drag our honey to the craft beer brewery for the organic, foraged farm-to-table food pairings? Do we want to get bundled up with heavy coats, hats and gloves and go ice skating? Force him to go to the local “paint and sip” storefront so we can create a masterpiece together?

Wegmans market is really ready for the big day!

 

What we’d really like to do is snuggle up together on the sofa with Netflix and a good bottle of wine.

While we’re long past the days of exchanging valentines, we still appreciate snail-mail cards from our husbands. That’s because we’re old. We still use the U.S. Postal Service. A few weeks ago, when we went to the drugstore to buy a card, we glanced down the aisle and noticed that every single person browsing the card racks was a senior citizen. But if only old fogies send paper cards, what do the young people do on Valentine’s Day . . . besides the obvious?

They send e-cards. We’re tempted; we especially like the e-greeting with the doggie gondolier singing “That’s Amore.” But an e-card would arrive on our beloved’s computer screen alongside work emails and Groupon offers for a buy-one-get-one-free car wash.

Who wants their message of true love sandwiched between a “reminder about the meeting Thursday” and “did you finish the contract for Steven?” And to our generation, e-cards just seem too easy. Too disposable. You can’t put them in a drawer to look at later and remind yourself how much you’re loved.

If we send an e-card, it would be even harder to ignore our mothers’ voices, which we hear in our heads: “You couldn’t go to the store and buy a $3.99 card? You don’t know how to put a stamp on it and mail it?”

We could post our romantic sentiments on Facebook, but then our 284 “friends” would know that our husbands’ nicknames are Snookums and Snuggle Bunny. Our kids would cringe and unfriend us. And we’d never get rid of the targeted ads for Snuggie blankets and rabbit hutches.

A few years ago, the venerable candy maker Necco started printing two new phrases on its ubiquitous candy conversation hearts: “Tweet me” and “Text me.” But if we’ve learned anything from the world’s most infamous tweeter-in-chief, it’s that Twitter is not the ideal way to communicate. Serious feelings, important thoughts and tender emotions do not lend themselves to limited character counts and unfortunate autocorrects. “I glove you!”

After considering the alternatives, we’re sticking with the tried and true – old-fashioned paper greeting cards – even though they require a little more effort. We will stand in that aisle with the seniors, reading and rejecting cards until we find the one that says it just right. We’ve always been partial to the ones with cartoon animal couples – the bunnies eating dinner, the squirrels driving a car.

Then we’ll each whip up a heart-shaped chocolate cake and present the card to the guy we’ve been married to for decades. We’d both be happy to see him bring home flowers. And we are hoping our hubbies bring us one of those big hearts filled with chocolate. So we don’t have to buy it for ourselves. 

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Thanks For Not Sharing: The Social Media Dilemma

The 24-hour news cycle doesn’t refer just to CNN and Fox News. It means that thanks to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, we are constantly informed about the breaking news in the lives of our many online acquaintances.

Social media is how we know that a college friend’s daughter is expecting her first child. What we don’t know is what we’re supposed to do about it. We haven’t seen our college friend, now Facebook friend, in 20 years. Now that we know her good news, is “liking” her post with a heart a good enough response?

zofran-script.jpegIn the old days, we’d get such news from a phone call, a birth announcement or an invitation to the bridal shower that came in the mail. That would tell us that we were in the inner circle. And because we were raised right, we’d send a greeting card with a personal note, buy a gift or make a return phone call to offer our congratulations.

When a work friend whom we see regularly told us that her daughter had a baby, we sent the new mother a hand-knit baby sweater. We were impressed to receive an old-school paper thank you note two weeks later. The sleep-deprived young woman had taken time to handwrite a note, look up our address, buy a stamp and walk to the mailbox.

This moved her to the top of our list of people who have manners and class. We always send snail-mail thank you notes, and we taught our children to do the same. So you understand that we’re perplexed by this new world of social announcements on social media — and the pictures that go with them.

Young couples hire photographers to document every moment of their marriage proposal, and when she says yes to the ring, they post their professional pictures on Instagram.

Back in the day, we just ran to the phone to share the news with our family and waved our ring finger around. We didn’t have a camera with us, so by today’s standards we have no proof that it actually happened.

Maybe that’s why so many people now announce their child’s impending birth with a naked pregnant belly photo on Instagram. News flash: What works for Beyonce doesn’t work for most people. We remember wearing loose maternity dresses that looked like tents. If we took a picture of our huge eight-month belly, it would stay buried in a pack of photos.

When we were growing up, our families guarded their privacy. Parents kept quiet about divorces, illnesses and why Uncle Mike didn’t drive a Cadillac anymore. They told the grown-ups who needed to know; everyone else was out of the loop.

These days, so many people live their lives online, sharing every detail with anyone who is their “friend.” When we read our newsfeed, we learn that so-and-so is having a hernia operation, our next-door neighbor is looking for a good gynecologist, and Michelle is hoping to connect with a “new opportunity in nursing.”

With daily updates and apps that prompt us to share “What’s on your mind?” it’s harder to be private, even when it comes to death. Before Facebook, we wouldn’t know about an acquaintance’s mother’s death, unless we read the obituaries. Now, we’ll definitely know because we see it on Facebook.

In the old days, if you were close, the sad news warranted a phone call, even if it was in the middle of the night. It meant you were considered an important part of their lives. You would go to the funeral or, at the least, deliver food or send flowers.

Screen Shot 2018-01-10 at 4.40.27 PM

Want to express sympathy? Facebook offers up these pictures. Is that Bambi? If so, we know why she’s sad.

The expectations were clear. But now, when we read the news on Facebook, we’re in limbo. What, if anything, is expected of us? An appearance? A handwritten note? A donation? What would Dear Abby tell us to do?

 

And what would she say about birthdays? When we sign onto Facebook and see that 80 people wished our friend a happy birthday yesterday but we neglected to, should we post a belated wish and stand out as the clueless friend who is a day late or just let it go?

If we were good friends and paying attention, we could have sent an e-card that plays a tune with a dancing teddy bear. We could have sent chocolate-covered strawberries from an online candy store. We could have even bought a paper birthday card and mailed it.

But we didn’t do any of that. Thanks, Facebook. Now we’re just feeling guilty.

This essay originally appeared in the Chestnut Hill Local on Dec. 29, 2017.

 

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Matzah Ball Maven, M.D.

This article originally appeared in the Forward on Jan. 3, 2018.

Like matzah balls, bagels used to be plain — or sesame if you were lucky. There were no pumpkin, jalapeño or asiago-cheese bagels on which to shmear your cream cheese.

Now, it’s the matzah ball’s turn to diversify, and Dr. Susan Sandler, a creative kosher cook unnamed-1-1515008308-e1515619408136.jpgin suburban Philadelphia, is doing her part: She’s doctoring up matzah balls — and the soup they float in.

Why matzah balls? “Because they are the Jewish white bread; they taste like nothing,” said Sandler. They’re a blank canvas for her experimentation, and she’s having a lot of fun in the process.

It started when Sandler, the medical director at a retirement community, was shopping for chicken soup ingredients and came across a package of quail eggs. “They were so tiny and cute. I thought to myself: What if a matzah ball hatched a quail egg? I hard-boiled the quail eggs, peeled off the shells, and formed a matzah ball around each one. I was beside myself with how amusing this would be.”

Sandler served them and to her surprise her dinner guests didn’t notice the hidden eggs. “They cut into their matzah balls and just kept talking,” she said.

She was disappointed but undeterred. “I was hooked on the idea that you could change a familiar food and make it yummy, surprising and even a little funny.

Not long after, her matzah balls escaped the confines of chicken soup. She paired curried matzo balls with carrot ginger soup. Her smoked matzah balls kept company with a rich vegetable soup. Both recipes got good reviews.

dsc-0134-1515008758.jpgFor her son’s 29th birthday dinner, she dreamed up roasted red pepper soup with parmesan basil matzah balls swimming in it. “Max loves traditional Jewish food, but he’s a vegetarian now and no longer eats chicken soup. So I came up with this recipe, and it was a big hit.” Get the recipe here.

Her breakfast haroset matzah balls weren’t as successful. She served the warm orbs of matzah meal, milk, raisins, walnuts, cinnamon and sugar atop yogurt and sliced bananas. Her tasters were unenthusiastic about the competing warm and cool temperatures and the consistency of the dish.

“You have to be willing to make a mistake and say, “That’s not working out. Next time I do it I’m going to do it differently,” Sandler said.

Sandler isn’t the first to tinker with matzah balls. At Cheu Noodle Bar in Philadelphia, chef Ben Puchowitz has gotten attention for his brisket matzah ball ramen. Lots of recipes online suggest adding spices to liven up the classic version. But it’s hard to imagine that another home cook could be as enthusiastic and playful in her pursuit of matzah ball perfection.

“Great spices are everything,” Sandler said. Luckily, she has access to some of the best in the world. Her oldest sister lives in Israel, and each time she visits she stocks up on spices at Jerusalem’s open-air Mahane Yehuda Market or at the Hadar Mall in Talpiot.

Closer to home, she sought out La Boite, a Manhattan spice store that makes special blends for chef Michael Solomonov’s Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia. At La Boite, Sandler bought zaatar, a Middle-eastern spice blend; and mousa, a combination of onions, saffron and parsley that she uses for grilling fish and vegetables.

Sandler’s kitchen experimentation has raised a number of questions, some as weighty as a densely packed matzah ball.

In fact, that’s the first question: Floaters or sinkers? In this heated culinary controversy, Sandler chooses the sinkers — heavy and dense. “I want to cut into a matzah ball and find something inside. If it’s light, it disintegrates when you cut into it. All the pieces end up floating in your soup, and you don’t get a matzah ball, you get matzah fragments.” Plus, a dense ball is better for her concoctions.

Is it kosher to fiddle with a traditional matzah ball? “Matzah balls should never be dairy; they go in chicken soup,” said Sandler, who keeps a kosher home. The thought of a dairy matzah ball was odd to her at first. “But when I made the parmesan cheese matzah balls I was smiling because I knew they weren’t going in chicken soup. They’d be delicious in roasted red pepper soup.”

root-vegetable-soup-w-lamb-mint-matzah-balls-1515008862If dairy matzah balls made her think twice, no wonder she worried that her lamb mint matzah balls, destined for Persian sabzi soup, crossed the line. “When I started making the lamb ones, I felt guilty about it,” she mused. “Why is this not a meatball?” Get the recipe here.

Sandler’s son Sam cautioned her about her mish-mash of cuisines and the slippery slope of cultural appropriation. “He explained, for example, that while a hamantaschen filled with marmalade could be acceptable, one filled with chopped up Christmas candy canes was not,” Sandler said.

Sometimes Sandler wonders what her beloved grandmother, a good cook in her own right, would have said about her newfangled recipes. “Would she tell me that a matzah  ball isn’t supposed to have stuff in it? Would she love it or think it’s a travesty?”

But she knows that her grandmother would have loved her chicken soup. “My matzah ball spirit guide has led me to making better chicken soup,” Sandler joked.

These days, long-simmered bone broth is touted for its medicinal benefits, but Sandler isn’t surprised. She worked for years as a physician in family practice, and both she — and the grandmothers she treated — were believers in the healing properties of chicken soup.

“I’ve started to make my chicken soup in a crock pot overnight,” she said. “The broth is much more flavorful that way, but the whole house smells like chicken soup. I can’t even sleep. It’s the wrong smell for the middle of the night. I could sleep through the smell of pancakes maybe (yeast and maple syrup), but I can’t sleep through chicken soup.”

Sandler easily admits that she doesn’t make all her soups start from scratch. She’ll add spices and diced vegetables to a store-bought boxed soup to give it a homemade taste. Soup is merely the liquid bath for her matzah balls, now that they’ve gone from sidekick to superstar. To save time, she sometimes uses a low-sodium matzah ball mix as a start.

Looking ahead, she thinking about a Mexican salsa soup with spicy cornmeal matzah balls for Cinco de Mayo and a chilled strawberry soup with minty matzah balls for summer.

And then? If Sandler can potchke with matzah balls, what Jewish food is next?

“I had been thinking about kreplach,” Sandler confided. “People have been putting weird things like brisket in dumplings for a long time. But when they came up with edamame kreplach, I decided that the lowly matzah ball had more room for growth.”

Gefilte fish has crossed her mind, too. “They put fish balls in Vietnamese pho soup. How is that different from a gefilte fish ball?” she asked. “I would take some gefilte fish and mix in shredded seaweed, because fish like to be with seaweed, right? And I put them in fish chowder, miso soup or pho.”

Sandler has even considered serving a platter of matzah balls without any soup, but rejected that idea. “I asked myself, Why do I serve soup at all? It’s the same reason I serve dessert and coffee. I’m just trying to make the meal last longer so my friends and family will linger at the table and talk.”

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We Don’t Resolve, We Evolve

This essay was first published on WHYY.org on Jan. 13, 2018.

We know the new year has arrived because we can’t avoid the ads for gym memberships and Weight Watchers.

But we will not be making resolutions. This is not an article about how we’re going to use an Instapot to prepare healthy dinners and donate any clothes that don’t “spark joy.”

We don’t do New Year’s resolutions because we’ve been there – and not done that.

Our commitment to have smoothies instead of cereal for breakfast lasted just one week. We’re not donating those sparkly blouses because we might wear them again.

bigstock-New-Year-s-Resolutions-148821038-768x576We’ve realized that over the years our commitments have not been spurred by the calendar. Indeed, there is nothing compelling about January 1 to make us take on new projects – like a diet. Why would we pass on that gooey cheesecake dessert just because it’s January 4th?

Many of our commitments have come about circumstantially. By that we mean: We had kids, they had interests, and we jumped right in.

We agreed to stand on the banks of the Schuylkill from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. and put out the granola bars and Gatorade when it was our turn. We bonded with the other high school parents in the crew tent. We watched the boats row by and asked, “Is that him?”

Not only did we pledge to drive to choir practice three times a week, but we also volunteered to write the organization’s newsletter, plan the fundraiser and host visiting choir boys.

We spent hours and hours with the other parents, chatting, commiserating, and trading phone numbers to set up carpools. The shared purpose and camaraderie kept us committed and involved. We were a close-knit group – until the kids moved on to the next activity. Most of these fellow parents and circumstantial “friends” faded away.

We are grateful for the few friendships that lasted, the parents with whom we had more in common than the carpool schedule, the neighborhood playground and the high school orchestra.

When our children were growing up, we also pursued interests of our own. Wouldn’t it be fun to dance like Fred and Ginger? To take a pottery class at the local art center? To learn to play bridge?

Medal Ball June 2011 west coast swing – Version 2For five years, Joyce took ballroom dancing lessons twice a week. For a 90-second tango “showcase,” she bought a slinky, sequined red dress and a matching red tie for her husband and dance partner, Ted, but like that Instapot, they were only used once. She spent countless hours with fellow dancers and shared strong bonds, but when she went to the dance reunion last year, only four other people showed up.

We’ve relished our craft classes – photo collaging, pottery throwing, glass blowing, card making – and we have met cool, artistic, inspiring people. The box of wooden stamps and handmade pulpy paper stowed away in a desk drawer are reminders of those artistic years.

It’s easy to recognize a passing phase in a toddler’s life because kids grow and change so quickly: The phase when our preschooler thought “poop” was the funniest word. The month Ellen’s son cried at the babysitter before he learned that “mommy always comes back.” When our daughters were immersed in the drama of middle school, we remember consoling them: Those mean girls won’t be in your life forever.

But “phase” doesn’t seem like the right word for our bursts of intense interest because when we’re in the midst of them, we don’t think they will ever end. And we don’t want them to.

We prefer to think of them like the chapters of a book we love. We get engrossed and engaged and attached to the characters. We can’t wait to read more. When we come to the end, we’re a little bit sad. But we know another book will capture our attention before too long.

That’s where we are right now, waiting for what’s next. We try to stay upbeat. We know that something new will pique our interest in 2018. After all, there are still plenty of vacations to take and countries to visit. Books we haven’t read and restaurants to try. Volunteer projects that could use our help and children who still need our advice, nagging and occasional check.ph

But you can be sure that we won’t be resolving to whiten our teeth with activated charcoal toothpaste or join a pickleball league.

 

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Should We Stay or Should We Go?

This originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday, December 24, 2017

In our young married days, both of us were city folks. We weren’t being trendy; we just chose affordable row homes as our first real nests. It was the early 1980s, and our Philadelphia neighborhoods — Graduate Hospital for one of us, Fairmount for the other — were up and coming.

When we lived in the city, we loved walking to work and being regulars at the corner bar and grill. We had a parking sticker, not a dedicated space, and we soon became expert at parallel parking on narrow streets and remembering where we last parked the car. Our older neighbors, who sat on their stoops for hours, would greet us and let us know that our husband just got home or had already walked the dog.

Joyce and Ted on their stoop at 2417 Meredith Street in 1984.

We both enjoyed city life enough to stay put when we had our first child, but we were less than thrilled to push a stroller through trash, broken bottles, and hypodermic needles to get to a city playground that had a baby swing. It was daunting to carry a toddler up and down the steep stairways in our trinity houses.

Michael Scolnic, age 2, on the steps of his city house 1711 Rodman Street.

When our second children were on the way — before our city neighborhoods had time to gentrify — we up and went to the suburbs. It was an easy decision, and we had a deadline looming. We bought houses close to the neighborhoods where we grew up, and we’ve been happy here for more than 25 years.

So have our kids, who range in age from 22 to 32. They all live in big cities — Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Denver — where they willingly sacrifice square footage for fun. They can walk out their front door to the newest sushi bar, coffee shop, or craft-beer brewery. And when they come home for a visit, they ask us how we can live in a place where the restaurant delivery service stops at midnight.

When we visit them, we get a glimpse of the lives we used to live — and not just because the table in their hallway and their set of dishes look awfully familiar. City life may be cramped, but it’s exciting.

Maybe it’s time to move back.

We did a little apartment-looking, but what we saw was marketed to millennials who haven’t accrued a lifetime of possessions. Apparently the younger generation is happy to live in 700 square feet if there is a terrace with fire pits on the roof. They love common areas (we called them lobbies) where you can play pool, have a coffee, or work on your laptop in the company of your neighbors. We’d rather sit on our own sofa in our pajamas, in privacy, thank you.

We might be too old for Fishtown, but we’re just the right age for the 55-plus communities to which some of our friends are moving. While we do fit the criteria, we’re not sure we would fit in with anything else. Living with our peers — no toddlers, no younger neighbors — sounds like college all over again but with a different set of drugs. In college, neither of us joined a sorority. We prided ourselves on being independent, and we still like to think we are. In fact, when we’re on a cruise and they announce the next group activity,  we sometimes feel like jumping overboard.

When it comes to vacations, we’re definitely still city folks. We’d rather explore Barcelona than lie on a beach in Barbados. We love the open-air market, not the high-end suburban mall that pops up on TripAdvisor. But do we want to live in a city full time?

Perhaps we could take a short-term rental to see if we like the building and the neighborhood. Or we could spend one weekend a month in a Philadelphia hotel to see if the thrill of the city wears off.

Should we stay or should we go? This time around, there’s no easy answer, and we’re not yet ready to take the plunge.

Word Mavens Note:  

Our editor at the Inquirer, Kevin Ferris, accepted a buy-out offer and left the paper this week. We like Kevin very much; he’s a skillful and gentle editor and was always a pleasure to work for. He told us that he was saving this essay to print in his last Sunday edition – and we feel honored. We will miss him!

And second, we got many emails this week from happy Philadelphians who made the transition from suburbs to downtown and wanted to tell us how great their apartment building is! An old friend’s mom called to tell us how they love living at the Murano with the Trader Joe’s on the first floor. A widow found love and a spacious three-bedroom at the Philadelphian. Another reader adores Washington Square. And City Councilman Allan  Domb, the big macher of Center City real estate, left us a message and his personal cell phone number offering to help us find an apartment.  Thank you all. We’re still mulling the possibilities.

 

 

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Halfway Through Hanukkah

Like most Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is the story of a bad king who tried to get rid of the Jews but failed. Who was that king again? Antiochus or Ahasuerus? When our kids were little, we knew the answer right away because we had been reading Hanukkah stories to them at bedtime for two weeks. (Spoiler alert: The bad king in the Hanukkah story was Antiochus, the king who loved all things Greek.)

Back in the day, we did our best to make Hanukkah exciting with decorations, menorah-shaped cookies, and lots of latkes. We’d light the candles every night in multiple menorot.

Now our kids are grown and don’t live at home, which means we light candles with our husbands in the kitchen. It’s way less exciting, and a little bit sad. We miss the kids.

JEWISH CALENDAR DRIFT

The Jewish calendar moves Hanukkah around, which gives us permission to do the same. When our kids were in college, we timed our celebrations for winter break. Now we celebrate when we can entice them to come home. But no matter when our party is, we always light the Hanukkah candles on the correct day. This means that some years we kindle the eight lights twice.

Joyce’s son, Ben, was visiting from Denver last week, which is why she had her family Hanukkah party this past Friday night – four nights before the official start of the holiday. The Eisenbergs and their friends improvised with the menorah lighting. There were seven guests; each lit one candle and then they lit the eighth one all together.

The menorah (or hanukkiah, the Hebrew word for a menorah with nine spots, used just for Hanukkah) and the candles that go in it – are central to all Hanukkah celebrations. So managing the candle supply is crucial. When you save your tchotchkes and menorahs from year to year, your supplies are often incomplete. “We miss a night of candlelighting some years, so we have a few extra candles, a lot of partially filled candle boxes,” explained a friend who is an empty-nester. This year she is combining the leftovers and making a candle mishmash – different brands and various colors all happily sharing spots on the menorah.

We save candles from year to year too, but that doesn’t always work out – especially when you keep your Hanukkah box in the attic all summer long. The candles tend to melt into one big lump.

That’s why we both like to buy a brand new box each year. Joyce stocked up at Bed Bath & Beyond, and it was a good thing because she was able to give a box to Ben, saving him from searching the Rocky Mountains for Judaica supplies.

Ellen ordered many boxes of Safed Candles online to support the Israeli economy. When she mailed a box of Hanukkah presents to  her daughter, Jessie, in Boston, she included a box of the candles. Jessie was happy to report that she regifted the candles to her friend Martine, who found herself candle-challenged and had to light two Yankee candles in jars on the first night. “I knew you would say that it’s a mitzvah to pass Hanukkah candles along to a friend in need,” Jessie said.

LOVE OF LATKES

Then there is the latke, the beloved potato pancake of Hanukkah. Latkes are our favorite part of the holiday. When the kids were little, we would make them from scratch at least once. But for eight nights? We would alternate with a box mix or frozen latkes from Trader Joe’s.

But now that we’re not cranking out platters of latkes every night, we want them to be awesome. That’s why Joyce decided to follow a recipe by Mimi Sheraton, the former New York Times restaurant critic. She grated the potatoes and onions by hand, beat egg whites into stiff peaks, and drained the potatoes and added the remaining thick potato starch into the mixture. The latkes were delicious – and worth the effort.

Ellen is waiting to grate and fry until Dec. 27, when her boys will be home.

Latkes from Mamaleh’s Deli, Cambridge.  They come with both applesauce and sour cream.

LET THERE BE GIFTS

When the kids were little, we usually gave them eight nights of presents. It was easy to purchase the things they wanted because they were very specific – and in line with child-size wishes: princess dolls, LEGO castles, and the latest video game. We remember giving the kids books one night, clothes another, so there weren’t quite so many toys.

Now that they’re grown, our kids like to do the choosing. They have their own tastes; they know what they like. Sometimes they ask if they can sign into our Amazon Prime account for a necessary purchase. Then we just get the confirming email that “your desk-top succulent garden is on the way.”

One of us has even resorted to sending private Facebook messages to their child’s roommate/friends asking what they could use. Is anything missing from their kitchen? Do they have a favorite coffee shop? Does he look like he could use a new sweater?  

Ellen fills the child void by being the “nice old lady next door” to two little neighbor boys. They come in her house to do art projects, have a snack outside of allowed snack hours, and play with her grown kids’ “vintage” (another word for old and dusty) toys. The little boys especially love Michael and Andy Scolnic’s 20-year-old collection of Star Wars figures, purchased in the ’80s and ’90s when the movies first came out. Ellen was thrilled to see an ad advertising a new crop of action figures because there is a new Star Wars movie (The Last Jedi) coming out this month. So she went and bought some current action figures for the little boys.

We don’t know if it’s just us, but we’ve never had the responsibility that some families have of buying gifts for the whole extended grown-up family. If we have a Hanukkah party, we trade gifts in person with our sisters, nieces and cousins. If we miss a year, we vow to get together next year. We don’t mail gifts to grown-ups. Many of our non-Jewish friends have already shopped and shipped a full load Christmas gifts around the country to their whole mishpachah. But then again, Christmas does not drift on the calendar like our holidays do.

So while there’s still four official days left of Hanukkah – and a whole winter break to enjoy latkes and play dreidel – let us wish you a happy, healthy Hanukkah 2017.

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South Philly’s Hippest Bakery Has a Yiddish Name

Opening a Jewish bakery with a Yiddish name in an Italian neighborhood sounds crazy, but it didn’t take long before Essen had a line of regular customers lining up for its fresh-baked challah on Fridays.

Tova du Plessis opened Essen, which means “to eat,” in South Philadelphia in April 2016 after stints as a pastry chef at some of this city’s top restaurants.

She set up shop on East Passyunk Avenue, a once-blue collar stretch that has undergone a food renaissance in recent years. These days, you can find Filipino, Nordic and French restaurants from top chefs alongside old-school red-sauce eateries like Marra’s, which has been in business since the 1930s. Intimate and cozy — there are just three small tables inside — Essen brings a Jewish, Eastern European accent to the avenue.

Essen means “to eat” in Yiddish. (Ellen Scolnic)

Jewish foods are having something of a renaissance across the United States, particularly in Philadelphia. Eateries from Zak the Baker in Miami to Shelsky’s of Brooklyn to Wexler’s Deli in Los Angeles are turning out fresh, modern takes on Jewish classics, with everything from pickles to gefilte fish receiving the “artisanal” treatment.

Here in the City of Brotherly Love, Michael Solomonov, the inventive chef behind Zahav, the Israeli restaurant often credited for popularizing Sephardic-style food in America, and Abe Fisher, a restaurant focusing on Ashkenazi food (among others), is something of a celebrity, having been awarded the foodie equivalent of an Oscar.

As for Essen in East Passyunk, “It was an odd location for a Jewish bakery, but I live nearby and I was excited to be a part of the neighborhood scene,” du Plessis told JTA. Many of her customers, she added, aren’t Jewish.

Among them is Cathy Frisoli, a lifelong resident of South Philly.

“I only knew about babka from ‘Seinfeld’ — the episode where he has to have a chocolate one,” she said. “So the morning of my husband’s birthday, I woke up early and went to Essen to get a babka before they sold out. I took it to our family celebration and all the aunts and uncles really loved it. For us it was a nice change from cannolis. Now I buy Essen’s babka all the time.”

Essen’s famous babka

Du Plessis, 32, grew up in a kosher home in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she enjoyed helping her mother make traditional Askenazi foods like gefilte fish, potato kugel and chicken soup every week for Shabbat. Her mother always put her in charge of dessert.

“She made it my job,” du Plessis said, noting that now, as a professional baker, “I look back and realize that she nurtured that.”

Du Plessis moved to the United States for college, earned a degree in biology from the University of Houston and was on the path to becoming a doctor. Baking was just a hobby until she spent a few days in Paris and found herself walking into every bakery she passed.

“I visited two or three bakeries every day,” she said. “I never had pastries like that in my life. I was drawn to the desserts.”

So du Plessis switched gears and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Northern California’s Napa Valley to pursue a degree in baking and pastry arts. 

“It takes a different kind of person to be on the baking and pastry side,” she said. “It’s much more exact than the culinary arts.”

It was there that du Plessis first met Solomonov.

“His food was phenomenal and I was intrigued by Zahav,” she said. “I was amazed that there was an Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia – not kosher and not marketed just to the Jewish community – that was doing so well.”

Solomonov invited du Plessis to intern at Zahav, where she worked as a line cook, and later hired her to open a kosher restaurant, Citron and Rose, in the Philadelphia suburbs (it has since closed).

“I was excited about the project,” she said. “We were reviving Old World cuisine but making it modern. Michael inspires me,” she added. “He’s embracing his heritage and not really feeling embarrassed by it. Kugel and chopped liver aren’t high end, but foods with that much memory attached to them are special – and you can put your modern stamp on it.”

Similarly, now in her own kitchen, du Plessis enjoys tinkering with recipes, especially those for bread. “You can make little tweaks in the mixing, proofing, shaping and baking and come out with a very different product,” she said. “Every culture has its bread. There’s Indian naan and Middle Eastern pita. For Jews it’s challah.”

The challah of du Plessis’ childhood, however, was big, round and filled with raisins, which she didn’t like. She remembers being annoyed at having to pick each one out, so it’s no surprise that she has updated her mother’s recipe.

“I spent a lot of time working on it to get it where I wanted,” she said. “At Essen, I actually use honey in my challah, which gives it a way better flavor.”

The challah at Essen comes in several varieties. (Ellen Scolnic)

Du Plessis also makes more savory varieties: one crusted with poppy, sesame and pumpkin seeds, and another topped with zaatar, a blend of Middle Eastern spices and salt.

Whether sweet or salty, du Plessis emphasizes that Jewish food connects Jews to their traditions. “Food has an emotional component,” she said. “It plays a huge role in keeping people engaged and involved, and helps us retain our Jewish identity.”

Seeing as she owns a heimische bakery that turns out treats like danish and rugelach, it’s probably no surprise that du Plessis’ most beloved Jewish foods are the desserts of her childhood. Her mother only baked babka for special occasions — du Plessis makes it every day in her bakery. Her chocolate halva babka has earned the highest praise; it’s a delicious example of how she has updated a classic.

Of course, with training anchored in French technique, du Plessis couldn’t have a bakery that did not sell croissants. Along with the traditional version, she makes one spiced with zaatar.

“I wanted the bakery to represent me – of course it has to have a Jewish slant – and to make products I really love,” she said. “I’m not a purist; I’m not trying to make old Jewish recipes. I see them more as inspiration, as a jumping-off point.”

 

We’re happy to share this story  we wrote about Tova du Plessis, the owner and baker at Essen  Bakery. It was published 10/27 by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the syndicate that provides copy for Jewish newspapers nationwide. So hopefully, Tova will be getting some phone orders from across the country! 


 

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