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Archive for October, 2012

The preliminary title of this post was Seudat Mitzvah, but Sharon’s shoes, as you will soon see, were too fabulous not to have top billing. First, the food. This from The Jewish Chronicle:

The priority Jews place on food in our communal celebrations … comes from a central religious tenet called the seudat mitzvah, a commanded meal, which is required after celebrations and life cycle events. Meals served after weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and even funerals are all considered to be occasions requiring a seudat mitzvah. The priority of food after an important occasion in Judaism is not about feeding people per se; it is about sharing an event in your life with the whole community. Mourners should not grieve alone and celebrants should not celebrate alone; the commandment is on the entire community to be with the people undergoing a significant moment whether it is significant to just one family or to the entire community.  Meals are seen as the natural post-experience gathering place in Judaism and the role of the seudat mitzvah is a central one in Jewish communal life.

I like it, despite the slightly jarring implications of obligatory feast. And even more than the concept, I liked the seudat mitzvah–aka brunch–that my family and I enjoyed at Rob and Sharon’s wedding. Rob, you may remember, is gifted and generous cook, so it came as no surprise that the wedding was not just celebrated by food but wrapped in it. Food is life, and it’s right that all our special occasions be marked by the sharing of food with a community of friends. Bill and I were married in our backyard, 25 years ago, and the food still shines in memory.

We gathered last Sunday at 11am in a private dining room at the Wayne Hotel, mingling with the other guests and snagging proffered mimosas and champagne from the circulating wait staff (I was grateful to be served Pellegrino in a wine glass, not the usual clunky tumbler) and eyeing beautifully plated appetizers on a counter. In-laws fretted briefly about certain teenagers getting ahead of themselves by noshing on the apps, but lo–we were invited to partake, even before the ceremony! Caprese bites, smoked salmon, pastries, yogurt parfait with raspberry preserves, duck balls, ricotta cheese bread pudding, pineapple and melon, each one as distinctively pretty as high-end sushi.

Thus satisfied, we were then invited to gather around for the wedding ceremony itself. Sharon in sparkling lace and Rob in a smart gray J. Crew suit stood together beneath a soft cotton chuppah with the rabbi, who explained everything. “The chuppah symbolizes the home Rob and Sharon will have together.” Looking up, she said, “this one looks like it might be from the kitchen.”

“It’s Indian,” said the mother of the bride.

Prayers and blessings ensued, sung in Hebrew and translated, wine was sipped, vows were exchanged, and rings placed on fingers, though the bride’s knuckle, recently sprained at the gym, proved a challenge. We guests stood beaming, aquiver with happiness for these two friends, while they took the leap of faith we call marriage. Then Rob stomped on a wineglass, a ritual variously interpreted as a reminder that even in times of great joy that there is sadness; that although the couple came together as a single union, the world as a whole is broken and needs mending; and that just as the glass is forever changed, so is the couple. At which point we all shouted “Mazeltov!”

A pearly paper scroll lay at each of our places with the words Congratulations Sharon and Rob! running along the edge. Were this a different kind of wedding, one might have expected this scroll to be some kind of souvenir, perhaps a reprint of the wedding vows. But no, it was a menu, and a fine one at that. My Scottish salmon was deliciously strewn with slivers of green grapes, almonds and teeny tiny florets of toasted cauliflower. Bill got the Eggs Benedict, with the poached eggs perfectly jiggly. If you look very closely, you will see that Bill is wearing his wedding tie.

All this time, a flower-bedecked white cake had been perched on the sideboard, so smooth and flawless that, abandoning all I know about Rob and Sharon, I entertained no hope for its taste. I was so wrong. This was a fake cake in what turns out to be a fairly common wedding practice, that of substituting a fondant clad, styrofoam prophylaxis for the real deal and thus, as they say, having one’s cake and eating it too. For the ritual cutting of the cake, the bride and groom sliced into the one real corner of the stand-in, shared a [real] piece, and had their picture taken. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the staff was cutting pieces of a delicious, honest-to-goodness cake with chocolate mousse filling and hazelnut buttercream. The coffee was first rate too. What a great day!

The official photos haven’t come through yet, but here’s an incomplete portrait of the extended family. Not for the first time, Rob is wondering where Sharon’s mother has got to.

Are you ready for Sharon’s fabulous shoes? Like Rob’s new suit (“You are not getting married in pleated pants!”), the shoes were mandated by Rob’s daughter Hadley, she of the blue dress and cocked eyebrow in the top row. Ta na na, ta na na na. She got diamonds on the soles of her shoes.

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Three friends have died within the last six weeks, I think. It could be more. I say this with uncertainty because I’ve only just now stumbled into the news about two of them on Facebook, of all the godforsaken ways to find out, and there’s no way of knowing what else I have missed. The shock of their deaths is compounded by the shock of not having known, and by not having said goodbye.

Willy-nilly, through the tears and regret, I’ve been thinking about the food I shared with these friends–and  how food mirrors life itself. Both are glorious, challenging and diverse beyond measure. Both are ephemeral; here today, gone before you can say itadakimasu.

Carole was mild in manner and coloration, a soft-spoken woman of whom it was wise to assume had the heart of a tiger. I didn’t know her well, or long enough–we met in the crucible that was the Obama campaign of 2008, powering through thousands of phone calls on the strength of a doughnut and a few stale bottles of water–but well enough to recognize in her a radiant being. Her husband had been sick; he was the one we were worried about. The last time I saw her was on a Thursday at Tung Chen Grocery, where she was stocking up on tofu delivered fresh that day along with bahn mi and bánh tro to those who knew it was there. We smiled at our little secret.

Domingo was my landlord for five days in 2008, when he gave us his 9th Street storefront for use as a Get Out The Vote office. There were more than a few degrees of separation between the Dominican businessman and this white lady volunteer from the suburbs, but in that 5-day lifetime we became what I can only call soulmates. It didn’t matter that I never knew much about him, nor he of me; we had trust and a tremendous fondness for each other, and that was enough.

He came running into the office on the Sunday before the election, waving his arms and insisting that I come right that minute to the church down the street. Outside the big red doors of St. Paul’s, a woman was telling the exiting parishioners they would be bad Catholics if they voted Democratic. The priest rolled his eyes discreetly heavenward, and Domingo and I handed out Obama stickers to the grateful crowd. On Election Day, while I was busy wrangling hundreds of volunteers, he caused several dozen pork and turkey sandwiches to appear at the office.

Domingo was a deacon at St. Paul’s, and in the years that followed, he introduced me to the tamale stand that pops up between masses and to the fundraising dinners at the parish hall where for $5 you can load up a plate with pulled pork and beans and corn and tostones and flan and coconut cake. I would make a pie or a batch of cookies and drive over to 9th Street, knowing I would find him there at one of his businesses. The last time I saw him I was canvassing near his house, and he invited me and my friend Jess inside to meet his wife. Jess spoke with her in Spanish, I waved, and Domingo showed us around his gorgeous three-story brownstone that in Manhattan would cost $6 million. There were signs of a recent child’s birthday party–crepe paper, deflating balloons. He sent us off with a slab of cake apiece. He had cancer.

And then there was my friend Doc, a brilliant, audacious man who in August lost his struggle with depression. Doc was guy you could connect with on a lot of dimensions–baseball, Unitarian Universalism, Bruce Springsteen, kids. With me and Doc, it was the Red Sox—not that I know anything about baseball, but I am from Boston and my husband is a fan and that was way more than enough for Doc. He showed up at my door one day with a Red Sox jacket he’d found at Goodwill.

We also shared an interest in John Updike, and thanks to Doc’s initiative we spent an evening in Harrisburg, in the august seats of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, listening to Updike explain why James Buchanan was not the worst president of all time. 

But most of all, with me and Doc, it was food. He wasn’t fussy. As with everything else, if it was fun and with friends, he loved it. Doc learned that I had a knack for sushi, and the next thing I knew he had acquired a sushi-making kit and was clamoring for a shopping list and a guest appearance at his house. This was Doc as I knew him—an enthusiast, grabbing hold of an idea, wrapping his arms tight around it, and charging ahead with a fervent devotion that captivated everyone in his path.

I should have worn a kimono; he would have thought that was fabulous, and launched into a narrative Q&A designed to teach the kids something about Japanese fashion of the Heian period. As it was, there was plenty of discussion about just what constitutes sushi (it’s the vinegared rice, not the raw fish); the architecture of it—either rolled on a membrane of dried seaweed, or shaped in the palm to form quail’s egg-sized balls of rice draped with little quilts of fish; the aesthetics, though we made a pretty big mess of the kitchen; and of course, the eating of it, which was also messy.

I didn’t know then that for me and Doc, that was the last supper. I didn’t know I wouldn’t see Carole again after that Thursday at the market, or Domingo after he wrapped up the birthday cake. One doesn’t, usually. Which is why—as I’m learning so very slowly that I have to admit to resistance—every moment we have together is important. 

I am in many ways a bad friend. I get busy and then neglectful. I take it for granted that there will always be another chance to pick up the phone, but there isn’t, always. I am trying to make up for lost time by renewing some of the relationships I’ve let slide–by making amends, by writing to cousins and college friends, by telling my kids more often than usual that I love them more than I can ever say, and by remembering to give thanks for everyone and everything involved in the process of bringing food to my table. Thank you to the cooks and the farmers, the shoppers, clerks and truck drivers, the rain and the sun, the chickens and the broccoli. And thank you to those with whom I have shared a meal. Itadakimasu, yo.

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