Monday, September 21, 2009
May I begin by wishing you a happy and sweet New Year. Every September, the elm tree across the street from my bedroom window begins to turn yellow in its highest branches and the green drains from its leaves and pours out its trunk. Fall comes to this river valley and with it brings sounds and feelings of great harvests, lonely, following moons, and canola fields being gathered up. All these are tremendous yellow visions will be seen across this vast country and indeed around the world. But what September also brings to mind is the beginning of the new lunar year, the start of the Jewish calendar, and of course, a whole new year of magnificent family feasts that seem to go on for days. Rosh Hashanah is Hebrew for "head of the year", a new beginning to coincide with the harvest and the moon. These thoughts of family, new clothes, and afternoon naps have remained just that while I was away at university. When you are a student, September will illicit thoughts of crisp leaves and chilly bike rides and new book smell. I am not a student anymore, and so was sad to find those feelings absent this fall. But I am home again, looking once more at the big elm tree out my bedroom window.
I grew up across the street from my grandparents, both at home and in synagogue. One set of grandparents lived literally across the street, and the other set went to the other synagogue around the corner from my family's. During Rosh Hashanah we go to synagogue, think about what it means to be Jewish, visit with friends who we haven't seen since last year at this time, and meditate on the things we have done in the past year that warrant forgiveness in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. With all of these important things, one might imagine the sort of hunger that begins to churn in one's stomach. Waking up early and getting dressed up is all well and good, but to then sit and stand and smile and visit for anywhere from 3 to six hours with your great-aunt's bridge friends and see people who picked on you when you were younger, of course takes a great deal of resilience and stamina. By the end of the synagogue service, all you can think of is your hunger, and the promise of your grandmother's table.
The Rosh Hashanah lunch is a joyful afternoon in my library of food memories. My grandmother's sweet peas are always in full bloom on her patio out the dining room window. To this day, the smell of them reminds me of this meal. Everyone slowly staggers their arrials from synagogue. My dad is always the first to get there, so naturally, he is the first to leave. Depending on if my grams puts lunch in the oven before she leaves, she often arrives for just a couple hours near the end or at the beginning. Cousins trickle in and go straight to the television. My eldest sister is always away, so we usually hear from her with a phone call sometime during the afternoon. This year my cousin is away on exchange for her Design program, so my aunt set up Skype in my grandpa's old office. Everyone is called and anywhere from twelve to twenty cousins, aunts, uncles, in-laws, and "aunts" sit down to a punny, gregarious, sun-drenched lunch together.
First, there is always a salad plate with gefilte fish, fuscia coloured horseradish, some cucumber and tomato slices. I don't know why the horseradish is bright pink. It certainly does not come that way from the plant. The plant is white and sort of like a cross between parsnip and ginger. Neither, having anything to do with bright pink. But there it is, that is the kind of thing one just comes to expect at Rosh Hashanah lunch. But this year, while helping my grams shop for the holy day, I saw the strangest thing. There was no pink horseradish, anywhere in the city. All the other Jewish grandmothers had beat mine to it and so she begrudgingly bought the white kind. I considered it a personal victory, but I kept this to myself.
The exquisite, golden braided bread that you often see and associate with Jewish food culture is called challah. It is three strands of egg loaf folded over each other and then brushed with egg wash before baking. It is a a bread that I have not yet built up the skills to make. I am lucky that my mom love sit so much, buying it for us for as long as I can remember. On Rosh Hashanah, because the day is so special, they take the dough and folt it into a big, domed circle. Often they will add raisins to the dough too, as a way of wishing you a sweet New Year. This is also why we eat apple slices dipped in honey.
After the challah bread, apples and honey, and strange gelatinous fish (that is actually quite delicious once or twice a year) comes my mom's chicken soup. My sisters, the older girl cousins, and I get up and serve the youngest kids and parents and grandparents. Chicken noodle soup is, without a doubt, one of the greatest healing potions ever concocted. As a cure for whatever ails you, I will stand by my mother's recipe for chicken soup until the day I die.
Once these preliminary courses are over, the real eating begins. Brisket, potatoes and gravy, mashed turnip, stewed sweet potatoes, overcooked broccoli, meatballs in tomato sauce, and usually some simple iceberg lettuce salad are always moving around the table, again and again. This year, in order to show off my culinary prowess, I offered to make a salad... which, of course knocked their socks off. The best part was surely the maple candied walnuts that I lovingly turned and baked for an hour that morning before synagogue. Once we cannot eat any more, dessert and tea are served. Many little cousins rush off to the tv room or to giggle and visit elsewhere, but us stalwart few stick around for the rainbow platter of fruit - melons, pineapple, grapes, strawberries, and if my mom is feeling creative, some nectarines, kiwis, or mango - as well as several cakes, squares, brownies and meringues. When the only way to move is to crawl or be rolled, my sisters and I place our orders with the aunts in the kitchen packaging up leftovers for each family, get our shoes and coats on, and go home. The rest of the holy day is kind of a haze of tv, snuggles, and lazy afternoon dozing.
When I finally come to after Rosh Hashanah is over (remember, the holy day lasts for two days and nights - that's two days of synagogue, lunches, and family), I look out my window and see a little more yellow in the tree outside my window, across the street. It's like a thermometer of the season, or a timer counting down until the next occasion to celebrate and eat together.