Thursday, September 22, 2011

Rosh Hashana, Apple Cake and Getting Fat

The Jewish calendar reveals that it's almost Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the New Year, and despite our religion's lack of superstition, when our future hangs in the balance--literally, with our good deeds weighed by God against our bad--we bring on the symbolism.
With food.

Since early Jewish commentaries (Gemara tractate K'risos 6a) where "Abaye said ' the beginning of each year, each person should accustom himself to eat gourds (squash), fenugreek (or sesame seeds or black-eyed peas), leeks, beets and dates...'," families have adopted the custom to put these and four other foods on their tables, eaten ceremoniously, each with a request to God.  The others are pomegranate, a whole fish, and the most famous, apple, eaten dipped in honey.

The foods were chosen because their names relate to ideas for increase and sweetness for the coming year, and protection from harm.

The apple dipped in honey idea has led to holiday menus incorporating permutations of both, including apple cake and honey cake.  I usually serve a first-night menu that features honey in every dish.  Even the challah, the egg bread that's shaped as a braid the rest of the year, gets a new form--round in a circle, representing the circular nature of passages in time.

Since our college-freshman son was in third grade, we've made apple cake from a class cookbook of the kids' favorites.  It's easy and delicious, more like chunks of apple held together with sweet crumbles:

Max’s Grandma’s Apple Cake

2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
3 cups peeled and sliced apples
½ cup vegetable/canola oil
1 egg, beaten

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Spray a bundt or springform pan with non-stick cooking spray.
Combine flour, sugar, soda, salt, and cinnamon in a large bowl. Mix in oil, egg and apples. 
Pour into pan and bake about 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Every culture has its culinarily-based traditions, and certainly Jews imbue their food with more than flavors and guilt. We use it to elevate ourselves above animals by a "ritual" washing and blessings, and we are commanded in the Torah to "eat, be satisfied, and thank the Lord your God for the good land he has given you."  But even beyond all that, Rosh Hashana food is far more than merely reminiscent of the holiday.
Jewish scholars have noted that the point isn't the foods themselves, but rather the humility and respect for God viewing them invokes in us.  Even if you don't like the symbolic foods, or you're allergic, you'd still put them on the table to focus our yearnings.  As the one cooking and planning, I'd guess that all the extra effort that goes into gathering all these symbols earns a bit of God's attention.

An article last week in the New York Times bears upon America's food traditions, connecting changes in family habits with the sharp rise in obesity between 1980 and 2000.  Imbuing food with symbolic powers and emotional connections, like Jews do on Rosh Hashana, isn't the culprit in humanity's higher BMIs--instead it's the eeeevil corporations who market bounteous food at low prices. And it's irresistible sloth-enticements like television and computers, robbing the young of fresh-air playtime. 

A current series of articles in The Lancet, chock-full of politically-correct messages, say that no culture has ever reversed its obesity trends--which "increases the urgency for evidence-creating policy action, with a priority on reduction of the supply-side drivers."  In other words, government must mandate less food availability, so people have to eat less and thus get thin. In a reversal of the war on hunger, Lancet pundits suggest a war on plenty.

In the Times article, health writer Jane Brody reminisces about the good-old days of her childhood, when, lacking nearby vending machines and fast-food outlets, she had to "walk or bike many blocks to buy an ice cream cone," no doubt through ten feet of snow. Kids "went out to run around and play until dark," TV was a week-end special event, and nightly home-cooked meals included no "convenience foods" other than canned fruits and vegetables.

OK, I can play that game too.  When I was a kid, yes, my family did have dinner together, and when I'd ask my mom "What's for dez?" (dessert), she'd usually answer, "canned fruit."  You know, the kind in that heavy sugar-syrup.  Because fruit was healthy.  I'd be disappointed, but sometimes she'd bring home a coffee cake, which we'd devour slathered in butter.

We consumed lots of beef. Mostly ground, the fattier kind, because it was cheaper than the lean.  An eating-out treat was buying a big bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.  So greasy I'd use half a roll of paper towels blotting it first. It came with mayonnaisy cole slaw.

We drank our milk from those quaint glass bottles the milkman would leave by our back door.  Whole milk, of course.  It was better for children than the only other type, skim.

I didn't come from a family that kept kosher, and every Sunday, my mom would fry up a huge pan of bacon.  Pig bacon, and sausages, served with eggs and pancakes with butter and syrup and glasses of whole milk.

Being a girl, "going out to play" meant confabs or poring over Seventeen Magazine with my best friends.  It meant card games and sometimes sidewalk roller skating.  Good thing there weren't so many skateboarders around. (Why aren't those guys at their computers??)  I had a lot of homework, hand-written from notes taken sitting for hours at the library. 

But we know, suggests Jane Brody and the Lancet crew, that fast foods, corn-syrup-laden store products, aggressive advertising and TV and computers caused the rise in US obesity. 

What, then, has caused its slight decline over the last decade?  What has caused increased obesity in developing countries without these innovations? 

I suspect that alarm over the "obesity epidemic" is exacerbating it.  The more experts insert themselves in our eating choices, by law, policy or admonition, the more we feel guilty about food.  And the stress makes us eat. Or convolute our diets so our bodies don't get what they really need.

Which brings me back to Rosh Hashana, when particular foods are not seen as cholesterol, calories, trans-fats, raw or slow.  Instead, they're sweetness, plenty, protection, and entreaty to God.  In a sense, it's a good thing to have an occasion when we see beyond the sensory pleasure of food to the long-term meaning of sustenance--to continue through another day, and another year.

To my Jewish friends, have a stevia-sweet 5772 of svelte and active health.  And to us all, may every taste remind us of heaven.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Child's Unusual Response to 9-11

Recollections are unavoidable a decade after that frozen-in-memory day when our sense of security as a nation was forever ruined.  The surreal understanding that America was attacked on our own soil--using hijacked airplanes filled with commercial passengers--shocked observers of those horrific events.  No one will forget his place or state of mind when he found out.

Because we live on the west coast, I was the one who had to inform our children as I awakened them for school.  Most concerning was the impact on our youngest, then a third-grader.

I told him our nation was attacked in New York, and that many people had died.  He started to cry, and I cried with him, holding him tightly.

He immediately wanted to arise to fight and kill the aggressors.  He wanted to defend and protect our land.  Realizing he couldn't act on that desire, and feeling an urgent need to make a difference, he asked what he could do.

I suggested he take on a mitzvah, a Jewish observance.  The recognition was that God is involved in human affairs; just as He notes the evil in the attack on America, He acknowledges the good in the effort to draw closer.

My son had always worn a kipa, a head covering, every day to his public school.  And he was regularly teased for it.  Frequently, mean-spirited classmates would grab his rather large, colorfully-embroidered yarmulke off his head, toss it from one to the next or run away as my frustrated son attempted to retrieve it.  He was different, and while I'd always felt it was character-building to cope with one's individuality, he always felt picked-on.

But he was willing to accept even more teasing, if it would redress or somehow cosmically balance the enormous loss of that September day.  So, despite inconvenience, he began to wear tsit-tsit, a four-cornered undershirt with knotted cords.

Predictably, his classmates mercilessly jibed him for his "strings," which tended to pull out of their place under his shirt and tucked into his pants.  But he continued to wear them, throughout his years in elementary and middle school, when children were most cruel.

That was what a nine-year-old boy could do, as a response to 9-11.  Yes, we talked, cried, donated money, put a flag on our car and in front of our house.  But my son also took on something that caused him personal sacrifice, and that related to an idea larger than his own comprehension of or emotions concerning our nation's wound.

I wish I could say that at 19, he still wears tsit-tsit every day.  But I do see him earnestly grappling with his relationship to God, and attempting to consider others' feelings in everyday interactions.  We Americans can never reconcile ourselves to the loss of life ten years ago, nor to the loss of blithe confidence in the goodness of the world.  But I am still impressed that on that traumatic day, my sheltered son was willing to fight the bad guys who perpetrated the attack, and stand up to the mean guys who would belittle his appeal to God.

Friday, September 2, 2011

College Freshman: Time to 'Build Character' with Challenges?

Our son started college in LA last week, a stressful but exhilarating time, leaving home, arriving in a strange town, adjusting to an unfamiliar campus and four professorial personalities who determine hours of his mornings and most of his free time.  Perhaps the most useful part of college, I hold, is learning to negotiate and navigate for oneself.

Then our son found himself in a situation where he needed to find a new place to live.  This caused some conflict between us, which was informed, upon reflection, by an underlying belief on my part that it's good for college freshmen to suffer.

OK, that's a more extreme version of my belief.  Actually, I think a large part of the benefit of college is learning to deal with poverty and discomfort, not getting what the freshman wants all the time, not "having it all handed on a silver platter."  I think 19-year-olds learn from grumpy and slothful roommates about their own desires for order, and how to deal with difficult people.  I think they gain empathy and a work ethic by serving in any of the many minimum-wage jobs typically handled by kids their ages.

Needless to say, my son disagrees.  He thinks the inherent difficulties of being a freshman in an awesome but unknown place are challenge enough, and that if we're blessed to be able to afford it, he shouldn't have to work just to have the experience.  He considers his job to be working hard in college and getting excellent grades, to enable him to continue his education pursuant to his career goals.

Perhaps it's because I had to work in a minimum-wage job I hated from the age of 16 that I feel "the school of hard knocks" confers a worthwhile degree.  After awhile, I got a better job, and then a darn good one, but a stint at the bottom was valuable.  Or do I just like to think so?

In my mind, dorm life is helpful to the development of a college freshman. At the least, sharing a domicile with a diverse array of styles prepares for family life and forces roomies to forge some sort of relationships. Eating dorm food with others is a socializing step. But my son replies that having his own apartment will let him avoid the strife, noise and mess of an unpredictable cohort, and control of his own fridge and own kitchen is even more "adult."

In my heart-of-hearts, I hold there's a time of life when overcoming obstacles girds one to endure trials sure to occur later on, and part of me feels that by smoothing the way I'm denying him a gift.  On the other hand, do I wish I didn't have that horrid job when I was 16?  I resent to this day sitting inside a building tending 300 clients of an answering service (stuck sitting in front of two vertical boards of holes into which I plugged octopus-like cords) while my friends enjoyed all the fun of after-high-school activities.  But it taught me to be responsible for myself, and that I could do whatever it takes to survive.

I've tried to inculcate that in my children while sparing them from such resentment or burdens. What parent wouldn't give her children the carefree youth she craved?  What parent doesn't delight in fostering his child's success, as long as the child comes through and actually performs?

I'm still conflicted, though. As my son prepares to move into his apartment, intent on staying abreast in his studies and integrating into the LA Jewish community with classes and synagogue, am I depriving him of important learning opportunities, or encouraging his flourishing?  He insists, with ample gratitude and reassurance, that it's the latter, but I suppose it all remains to be seen.