Lawrence Szenes-Strauss

Before It Was Cool

In Uncategorized on 10 December 2014 at 6:54 PM

This year’s Hanukkah post is in the works. (Hint: I’m completely revising my latke recommendations.) In the mean time, let it be known that the New York Times finally noticed that schmaltz is delicious and not an immediate death sentence. Some of us knew that back in 2011 — as did others decades and centuries ago, I suppose — but hey, better late than never.


Tish’a Be’av

In Holidays, Uncategorized on 4 August 2014 at 3:44 PM

A circular granite fountain commemorating the six victims of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.On February 26th 1993, a truck bomb was detonated underneath the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. The terrorists responsible had hoped to bring down both towers with the explosion. They failed, but over a thousand people were injured and six were killed. A memorial to the six was installed directly above the blast site in the plaza between the towers. It was a fountain made of granite, and a reasonable person might have expected it to last for a thousand years, but it was destroyed after only eight. One recovered piece has been incorporated into the 9/11 memorial park.

Stonehenge: A partially disrupted circle of stone pillars, some of which support stone crossbars, in the middle of a green field.Though it has hardly survived in its original condition, Stonehenge remains a notable curiosity more than 4,000 years after its construction. The stones have persisted, but the memory has not. This part of the South of England has been continuously inhabited since prehistory, yet nobody can offer more than an informed guess as to who built this monument, or how, or for what purpose. Its creators appear to have left no written records, and their oral history has faded. Stonehenge is world famous, but at the same time it is utterly forgotten.

Solomon’s Temple burned from the eve of the 9th of Av until midday on the 10th, two and a half millennia ago. My tradition has no need for monuments—how is a monument any more permanent than the thing it commemorates? My tradition has no need for speculation—we know who built the Temple, and why, and what they did afterward, and how it all came crashing down, and whose swords and torches did the work, and whose transgressions made the work possible. We know who redeemed us from exile—a foreigner with the peculiar name Kūruš, so well-remembered that even today there are Jewish boys named Cyrus. We know that our return was incomplete, and that our leadership quickly gave in to corruption, greed, and struggles for power both internal and external. That the Second Temple, for all of its expanding glory, was only a shadow of the first, and that it, and we, fell again, this time over our inability to keep a safe distance from each other’s throats.

We know all of this because once a year we meditate on this history, moved by the words of Megillat Eicha—the Book of Lamentations—and driven by the hunger and thirst that our refugee ancestors must have felt. I write about food in part because it encompasses so much communal and memorial power, but the same can be said for its temporary absence. Tish’a Be’av is a memorial in time, indestructible and unforgettable as long as we maintain it.

Still Here! or: Some Thoughts on the Impending Paschal Event

In Cooking, Holidays, Passover, Pesach on 15 March 2013 at 4:52 AM

"Chuck and Beans" cartoon strip. First panel, entitled "Your First Post": Chuck sits at a computer, writing "Hey world! Welcome to my new blog! I'll try and update every day with my thoughts and observations! Be sure to check back regularly!" Second panel, entitled "About Your Third or Fourth Post": Chuck sitting at a computer, writing "So I guess it's been a couple years since I posted anything."Over a year has passed since I published the Kemach Torah 2012 Passover Guide, which remains my most-viewed post to date. It’s also been over four months since I wrote anything in this space. Some of that is due to the welcome inconvenience of being employed, but another obstacle arose in the form of our disintegrating, lovably eccentric laptop computer. Working on that thing was a bit of a pain when I started the blog, but lately its long response times and tendency to freeze just before I hit “save” on an important document have been supplemented with mysterious display malfunctions, rainstick-like noises whenever it is turned sideways, and the barely audible, unnerving sound of giggling emanating from within the cooling system.

We got a new computer. It was time, you know?

We’ve been getting other things, too. Pesach has a reputation for straining the bank accounts, credit ratings, and (in extreme cases) kneecap integrity of the Jewish people, mostly due to the expense of Passover-certified foods. I addressed this issue and others in the 2012 Guide (which you should read via the link above), but I did not touch on another issue that can come up if, like us, you find yourself in the process of building up eight days’ worth of Pesach kitchen equipment.

As we packed for our move from New York to Vancouver, we spent a lot of time on triage. We weren’t as merciless as my mother is whenever she moves house (“If I haven’t used it in six months, I don’t need it”), but we got rid of a lot of junk that had piled up over the years. That junk included most of the contents of the one little cabinet where we kept our Pesach cookware. Every pot, skillet and saucepan was discarded, because they were of such poor quality that moving them probably would have cost more than their original retail price. They were made of steel so thin it might have served as a medium for experimental origami, painted with something black that claimed to be a non-stick coating, but that somehow got the concept backwards and clung to food much more dearly than it did to the metal underneath. The plastic handles on top of the pot lids — on top of them — somehow got too hot to touch whenever we brought any liquid to a boil. It was like cooking over an open flame, only with a cheaply pigmented psychological barrier in the way to make everyone feel safer. Getting rid of all that was cathartic, but it left us without any way to cook for a holiday that’s famously heavy in the cooking department.

We talked about replacing it with something better but still unimpressive, since we’d only be using it for a week and change each year and it made no sense to be extravagant. Then we remembered trying to cook matzo brei in a skillet that didn’t so much conduct heat as get out of its way, and turned in the other direction. The cookware we bought today is not only better than the old stuff, but better than our year-round cookware.

We made the decision we did for two reasons. The first is that the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavu’ot and Sukkot are characterized in our liturgy as times of happiness, and having a really good ten inch skillet for matzo brei and the like, while it probably wouldn’t make us happy per se, would certainly reduce our background irritation and let us enjoy the happiness undistractedly. Why spend our time fighting with the kitchen when we have an option, on a holiday that induces so much food-related distress in so many people?

Steel 10 inch frying pan

You will deglaze me and love it.

The other reason is less spiritual and more practical. Cookware wears out. Since we have to replace pieces from time to time, and since for various reasons we’re gradually transitioning from non-stick to open metal, why not get some high quality tri-ply utensils now and let them do reserve duty for a week every year until they’re called up to the front lines? In fact, promoting* kitchen utensil from Pesach to year-round use is a smart move, and it’s the reason we tend to put off major kitchen-related purchases for this time of year. Why not grab the chance to use that new cooking doohickey for Passover just once before it becomes intractably chametz-tainted?

In related news, I finally went out and got that full-sized mortar and pestle, and I just remembered that we haven’t yet used our 12 inch, meat-designated cast iron skillet. This is going to be a fun holiday.

* Or demoting, depending on how you look at it.