Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Passover Traditions - Foodways

Chag sameach, everyone! I just got back yesterday from a wonderful celebration of Passover with my immediately extended family. I would love to share all the traditions we have around the Seder, and all the levels and layers of meaning and symbol, but that would take hours. Maybe weeks. In fact, I'm sure it would make a lovely dissertation! So in lieu of a full guided tour, I'd like to share some of my family's traditional Passover foods.

Foodways provide a lot of insight into individual and group identity because food and the practices surrounding its preparation, presentation, and consumption comprise a vivid symbolic language that communicates and constructs identity.

Two of the Passover foods that are most special to me are Apple Cake and Knishes. For various reasons, I can no longer actually eat either of these, but they remain special to me because of the ways they are prepared, the stories surrounding them, and my own role in preparing and serving them.

Apple Cake
My cousin Alyssa and I are the designated makers and masters of the Apple Cake, and we have been for as long as I can remember. In fact, as the two girl cousins at the seder every year, neither I nor our mothers and aunts can remember a time that we weren't in the kitchen, helping with the seders, from beginning to end. Whether we were entrusted with the apple cake because it's a simple recipe and easily prepared (unlike the sponge cakes, the eggs do not have to be separated, for example), or whether we simply took over because we enjoyed making it (and eating it!) so much, I have no idea. All I know is that whichever aunt is hosting the seder lets the apple cake baking wait for our arrival (if possible). My Aunt Karen brought this recipe to the family, but we have definitely taken it over. Here are some pictures:

I'm beating eggs while Alyssa "gradually adds a scant cup of oil." The meaning of "gradually" and "scant" are always funny to us, and always require explanation to non-apple cakers! Tim is sifting the matzoh cake meal before measuring it. I will then stir (not beat!) it into the batter.

Two apple cakes: one decimated and one untouched (for now). I took this picture at the end of the second seder, and these are the third and fourth apple cakes of the weekend. We made five and 1/2 all together!

I don't even know where to start with knishes! Apparently, there are other kinds than the ones we make, but I've never seen or heard of them. Ours are essentially mashed potatoes with a ground meat filling. There' s a lot more to it than that, but I haven't ever really prepared the filling. I've fed a hard boiled egg or two through the grinder, sure, and I've watched it being made every year, but I've not yet be in the driver's seat, so to speak. Except for Aunt Karen, none of my aunts nor my mother grew up making knishes. They all learned to make them from my Grandma Alta (great-granmother), and my Bubbie Rissel. At my mother's first seder, the women of the family taught her the first verse of one of the Hebrew songs while they made knishes, so that she could surprise my father by knowing it later that night. And he was very surprised, to be sure! Until a few years ago, the "one" verse of Echod, Ani Oh-dey-ah? (Who knows one? I know one!) was hers, until we all taught her Schnei-eem, the "two" verse.

But going back to knishes... We usually either make an assembly line, or a circle around the work space. This year, because the Aunt Diana's kitchen island is so wide, we made an assembly line.

In this assembly line, you can see the various stages of knish construction. From left to right: waiting (with potato-y hands), coating hands with matzoh meal, flattening a ball of mashed potatoes, adding meat filling, and closing the potato parts around the meat parts. Aunt Nancy is holding a finished (unbaked) knish.

Aunt Diana and Aunt Nancy ponder how much oil REALLY needs to go into the pan (a lot!). In some ways, we all re-learn how to knish every year. My mom is the only one that can seem to remember all the amounts and ingredients from year to year! This may be because she knows that you put in "enough eggs/matzoh meal/etc so that it feels right," and isn't concerned with exact amounts. But what better way to follow a recipe that instructs you to stick your elbow in the oven to see if it's hot enough?

Finished knishes! These are on trays, ready to be warmed in the oven. They'll be put onto platters for serving.

I'd love to hear about your family's holiday food traditions, or any questions you have about ours!

Monday, April 14, 2008

It's an opportunity for feedback! Or, How I Learned to Get Things Done

Dustin Wax posted a great lifehack today about getting creative work done by clearing project space, rather than breaking big projects down into small tasks. I mean, that works to a point, but like he says, there comes a time when you've got an idea, maybe, you've done a lot of reading, and you've got to write the damn thing! "Writing the damn thing" is very much on my mind as the end of the semester, and the attendant term paper deadlines, loom on my horizon.

His article speaks to some of the ways I've had to change my thinking about writing and getting things done in my first semesters in grad school. The issue for me is usually getting past the overwhelming fear that gathers in my chest when I look at a blank Word doc on the screen, or even at all of my assembled notes and readings. I feel a rising panic that I have nothing to say, or just don't know how to do this! Here are some of the mantras and methods that have helped me immeasurably in getting going, getting through, and getting done:
  • It's an opportunity for feedback. It's not meant to be perfect! I learned this one from a very wise lady (thanks, Lisa!), and I have been known to repeat it over and over - particularly to get started, and then to print out and move on. It keeps me from obsessing (too much) about whether my ideas are valid, and about each word and phrase. It's all purpose, really, and reminds me of something another wise lady (thanks, Mom!) taught me:
  • If I already knew everything, I wouldn't be in school.
  • I don't have to start at the beginning. Instead, I begin with what I'm inspired to say, whether that's a particular point in my argument, an engagement with a particular source, my reasons for wanting to write this in the first place, or even my research methods. I used to get hung up on writing the perfect introduction, and by the time I'd gotten that, I had lost all the energy and inspiration that fueled my creative fire.
  • It doesn't have to be coherent the first time. The way I say this to myself, actually, is "just vomit onto the page." This goes along with not starting at the beginning. Thanks to the wonders of cut and paste, I don't have to order my argument logically or coherently at first. I'll get to that. The important thing (and again, see above) is to get it down on paper.
  • Leave a trail of breadcrumbs. I leave notes and other signposts for myself in the body of the paper where I've put sentence fragments or ideas that need filling out. This visual map helps me to trace my thoughts back to the original flash of insight that sparked an argument. It also alleviates the fear that drives me to feel like my writing of the paper has to start at the beginning and flow perfectly the first time: the fear that I'll miss something in the revision process. (True story: I turned in a final paper as a freshman in college that still said "Explain this more fully..." Which I hadn't. I love in-text highlighting!)
  • At some point, you've got to stop reading and just write. When I get there, I know that I'm putting off writing with reading, which is really just the fear of having nothing to say disguised by a drive to do further research. There is no substitute for just sitting down and writing. (For tips on how to do this, see Dustin's excellent article, or any number of lifehack posts.) And here's something to remember:
  • The only good paper is a finished paper. So, I use the GEPO method: Good Enough, Push On. I have to remember that I may not get an A on this assignment, but if I don't turn it in, the grade will be much, much worst than that. And anyway, my best has always, always been good enough. And in any case, for each assignment,