17 July, 2007

Midwestern glorious food (and a brilliant Bat Mitzvah)

Well, knock me over with a feather. I owe all my recipe readers (and potential users) an apology, although I didn't actually do the thing I should be apologizing for. Let me explain.

Last Saturday found us in Minneapolis for the simply stunning Bat Mitzvah for our niece Sarah. Now, Sarah's dad David would be the first to tell you that normally (as in the dinner the night before, and the dinner the day after), food for the multitudes which must, in the synagogue, be kosher, is not something that will make you stand up and cheer. As we were working our way through the Friday night shabbat dinner, hugely enjoying catching up with Sarah, her sister Ellen, and lots of relatives we had not seen since John's sister Cathy's wedding to David, David himself came over to the table and said mournfully, "This dinner will not make the blog." And so it did not, in terms of describing anything we ate. HOWEVER. Saturday lunch was unbelievably delicious, and included a wild rice salad that I fully intended to give you a "recipe" for even though I had not tried to cook it myself. And in my defense, John's mother (cook extraordinaire) agreed with me: there was nothing to it! You cook the wild rice, saute some lovely bits of colorful vegetables in a quantity of olive oil and garlic, and toss it altogether. Except...

I have never cooked wild rice.


And it turns out that the package directions are, well, inconclusive to say the least. Four cups of water to one puny package of wild rice? How on earth would that work? So I boiled it and boiled it and took a freakin' shower and boiled it some more... Finally I drained off the excess water and found a rather starchy, lumpy mass of whatever. Edible, yes, yummy, no. And it bore no resemblance to what we had at the Bat Mitzvah. But anyway, I had diced many adorable piles of yellow and red peppers, yellow and green zucchini (courgettes, to you across the Pond), red onion, garlic, and some cucumbers to keep chilly to add at the end.

Kathleen turned up with Avery's beloved Cici in tow (what a joyous reunion! just like last summer), and I fed it to her, and to John. Many suggestions: cook the rice less, add some vinegar or citrus to the olive oil, lots more garlic. Since then I have been online and found that most recipes call for you to boil the rice for about 50 minutes, then drain it and cook it dry and fluff it up. I shall try it again and let you know.

I'm so ashamed I almost posted a recipe without trying it! Rest assured, I have learned my lesson. Also that I'll take any advice on wild rice.

Anyway. Obviously of more importance than the food (but the poached salmon was divine! sorry, back on topic) was the gloriously personal, accomplished job Sarah did at her Bat Mitzvah. The rabbi was a perfect combination of informal (she made a point of recommending the challah bread, "very fresh; other days, not so much,"), devoted to Sarah and her family and their place in the community, so grateful to see John's dad there, and so praising of their family in accepting the Judaism Cathy has so devoted herself to. Sarah read and chanted and sang for nearly an hour in Hebrew, her sister Ellen read beautifully, Avery did a lovely job with her prayer. The entire experience made me terribly envious of that wort of warm community. I would happily make chicken and matzoh ball soup every Friday, if I could only ever do (ad believe) the other myriad things required to be Jewish. The sense of openness to questioning, sympathy to other points of view, respect for a wider world, awareness of international issues: all these things combined to make a very intriguing and welcoming day. And how Cathy and David managed their speeches, how Sarah got through her speech, I cannot imagine, without sobbing. For heaven's sake, I sobbed myself and it wasn't even my child! I could never.

It was a gorgeous, lovely day. John's uncle and aunt (whom I last saw in London nearly 16 years ago, feeding them dinner on the heels of my horrendous car crash into a Finnish tour bus!) were there, his aunt and her new husband ("I was alone for 45 years, and he is my reward!" she crowed, and he said, "Such as I am," obviously blissfully happy), all the Iowa friends of a lifetime, all of Cathy and David's eclectic and fascinating group of friends. It's always heartwarming to see people you know and love as family, in their milieu as independent adults with their own sets of friends, clearly the center of their community, and much loved.

And the hotel! Can I say how gorgeous the Sofitel is? We have gone online since and ordered the ridiculously luxurious featherbeds upon which we slept. Unheard-of comfort.

Back to Iowa for just a few days, spent mostly in the company of Avery's beloved friend Meta (with horses, dogs, two new kittens, and the same sense of humor that binds those two crazy chicks together every summer). And Avery got her hair all cut off. Shoulder-length, so she could donate 10 inches to Locks of Love, a sweet organization that arranges replacement hair for childhood victims of hair-loss. I don't envy John's mother the creepy task of mailing that ponytail off! She spent the whole car ride from the barbershop holding the ponytail up to the back of John's and cracking herself up. The secret truth: my mother in law has always longed for her husband to have a ponytail. So I guess holding up her granddaughter's cut-off ponytail to her own son's head is a scary, scary substitute.

One of my favorite lines overheard in Iowa: Avery's hairdresser is her beloved pal Meta's hairdresser, so as Avery was having her hair washed the girl asked, "So how do you know Meta?" and Avery said, oh-so-confidently, "Well, her parents are some of my parents' best friends, from sort of childhood, and it goes back even farther than that..." I should say it does: Meta's grandparents are Avery's grandparents' best friends for the past 45 years. It does make for coziness.

Well, home from Iowa now. Avery and Cici are talking hard and fast after nearly 12 hours together, and I'm ready for bed. Summer is good.

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