|That's me, Pattie Weiss Levy.
A Modern-Day "Ima"
on a Modern-Day Bimah
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Thursday, November 22, 2012
A Word From the Weiss
As a popular ’60s advertising slogan proclaimed, “You don’t have
to be Jewish to love Levy’s.” Neither did you have to keep kosher to attend Kosherfest, the recent annual extravaganza
featuring all the latest products created in accordance with the laws of kashrut. You merely needed to be in the
business of preparing, selling, or distributing kosher foods. Or be a member of the press (even a lowly blogger like me).
As I discovered, you also needed to be able to navigate in and around New Jersey. Oh, well. One outta three ain’t
The 24th annual Kosherfest, “the world’s largest kosher certified food and beverage trade show,”
took place on Nov. 13-14 at the Meadowlands Exposition Center, and as NiceJewishMom.com I was not only allowed to go, but
received an actual invitation from one of the biggest machers among the participants, the Manischewitz Company. There
I would find more than 325 exhibitors from around the world, offering insights into the latest trends and flavors. Not to
mention free samples.
How could I resist?
We happened to be in NYC at the
time anyway, taking advantage of my husband’s week off from work to perform our parental duty of noodging our
two grown kids, as well as to catch a couple of new Jewish plays (My Name Is Asher Lev, based on the classic book
by Chaim Potok, and The Twenty-Seventh Man, written by Nathan Englander). The Meadowlands were only a 15-minute drive
from midtown, according to Mapquest. So, we figured, why not go?
Unfortunately, that estimate did not allow for either the vagaries of the New Jersey highway system or our
own fallibility when it comes to following simple directions. Nor for the grave limitations of Siri, the iPhone’s pseudo-sage,
once we got hopelessly lost. So we probably should consider ourselves lucky that we took only about a dozen wrong turns and
managed to make the journey in more like an hour and 15 minutes instead.
When I’d first proposed to my husband that he join me and write a story about this event himself, since
he’s the consumer reporter for a large newspaper in Connecticut, he’d argued that few of his readers were likely
to care about kosher foods, since only a small fraction of them are Jewish. Do I (and the Kosherfest website) have news for
Although there are only about 5.2 million Jews in the U.S., there are over 12 million kosher consumers here,
meaning not everyone who buys kosher is necessarily Jewish. In fact, only 8 percent of the people who purchase kosher products
report that they keep kosher all the time. By contrast, a whopping 55 percent of them say that they buy kosher items for health
and safety reasons, and 35 percent claim to prefer kosher products strictly for the taste.
Then there are the 3.5 million Muslims and members of other sects who opt for kosher fare for their own
Altogether, the kosher food industry is estimated to be worth $12.5 billion. Now, that’s a whole lotta
matzah… and matzah ball soup mix, kasha varnishkes, and kishka.
But if you think that kosher products are limited to Passover foods, pickles, and other timeworn items stocked
in the corner deli or your grandma’s pantry, think again. Although 40 percent of kosher sales are still made on the
eve of Passover, the kosher aisle now includes everything from Vietnamese Vegetable Pho Base to Happy Squeeze organic beverage
pouches in acai, grape and apple, to the biggest hit at this year’s Kosherfest, chocolate peanut butter gelato made
with soy milk from Gelato Petrini.
To paraphrase another ’60s ad campaign, keeping kosher has come a long way, bubbe.
And if all those facts and figures
failed to impress my husband, it turned out that all I’d really needed to say were the magic words. Not “Abracadabra,”
or “Open sesame.” I’m talking about three little words from the Manischewitz press release that turned out
to be the key to his nice Jewish heart: “Red Velvet Macaroons.”
A giant banner across the entrance to the Expo Center said it all: “Welcome kosherfest.” Inside
we found the vast convention hall teeming with businessmen in yarmulkes, bearded Hasidim in black garb and peyes,
and other haimishe-looking merchants hawking challahs, hand-made Havdalah candles and other Jewish wares.
And suddenly I had the same eerie
feeling that I’d experienced a few nights before, when we’d arrived at an off-Broadway theater that turned
out to be showing not just one but two different super-Jewish productions at once: My Name Is Asher Lev upstairs
and Old Jews Telling Jokes down below.
What would you call it –
a sense of safety? Security? Belonging? Or was it just a reassuring certainty that, although we hailed from different sects,
levels of observance, and walks of life, everyone there was basically rooting for the same team?
Or were we?
I followed now as my husband made a beeline for the Streit’s booth, where a woman was busy frying fragrant
brown potato latkes in sizzling oil. Popping one in my mouth, I swooned with ecstasy, even if I was also thinking that, however
delicious, they were from a mix and nothing compared to the ones I make for Chanukah from scratch.
At the same time, I also felt a
bit like an interloper, a subversive, and a charlatan, since I thoroughly enjoy shellfish and have never in my life kept a
kosher household. And although I have nothing but respect for people who do, my experience is that this often leads to awkward
complications, along the lines of a story I heard last summer.
My friend Pat was having a party at which almost all of the guests were Jewish. One man was dating a shiksa,
though – a non-Jewish woman -- and she phoned the day before to explain that he insisted she bring along a fabulous
pasta dish she made.
“What’s in it?” Pat asked. Upon learning that it contained both cheese and meat, she explained
graciously that she wouldn’t be able to serve it because they keep kosher in their home. The woman offered to bring
a version with only cheese, but Pat hastened to explain that this wouldn’t work either because she would be serving
The couple arrived at her home the next night carrying a large platter nonetheless. “You didn’t
want me to bring my dish either with meat or without it,” the woman told her. “So I decided to forget about the
pasta altogether, and just brought shrimp instead.”
Even a relatively savvy Reform Jew like me knows that she probably should
have quit while she was ahead. Although having been raised by a vociferously Jewish mother who grew up keeping kosher but whose favorite sandwich was a
BLT, I have been known to make that sort of gaffe now and then… well, maybe not quite that bad... and still they rarely have had as happy an ending as this one did (since rather than insulting
her guest or defiling her dining room, Pat chose to serve the trayf outside on the deck, where no one seemed to object… because those
shrimp disappeared like that).
But now here I was at Kosherfest, being welcomed by the nice Jewish folks at Gabila’s, a 92-year-old
“famous” company based in Brooklyn, purveyors of blintzes, latkes, sweet potato pancakes, and the original Coney
Island square knish. Plus another familiar blast from my past, Nathan’s “Original Coney Island Mustard.”
But this being a trade show, the emphasis was decidedly on what was new. Nu?
In most cases, this meant modern twists on very traditional themes, like the winner of the Best New Frozen
Entrée, piping hot, yummy Pizza Pinwheels from a company called Ta’amti (meaning “Try it”),
which looked like small danishes but tasted like olives. And yes, like pizza, I suppose.
There was also Thai-style
sliced turkey from a firm called Tirat Zvi. Whole wheat chocolate-coated pretzels (not just whole grain, but also lactose-free)
from Shibolim. And “It’s so good I can’t believe it’s for Passover” vanilla cake mix from Streit’s,
now available in gluten-free.
And what would a Jewish food fest be without hummus? But this hummus, from Sabra, now came in trendy flavors such
as Asian Fusion, Southwest, and Tuscan Herb.
Picking up the Tuscan herb theme as well was the Roland company, with its Israeli couscous, also offered
in Porcini Mushroom and Garlic Jalapeno.
“We used to have it in a box in more traditional flavors like Tomato Basil,” noted a fellow named
Chaim who was manning their booth. “But now everybody’s into instant foods that come in a pouch and take 10 minutes
to cook.” Hence Roland’s new quinoa, available in Toasted Sesame Ginger, Black Bean, and Mediterranean. Plus
its kosher yet still funky-looking Feng Shui dry-roasted edamame, edible straight from the pouch.
Similarly trying to stay ahead of the curve (and prevents customers' curves from becoming a little too zaftig)
was a line of weight-loss cuisine from Skinny Kosher Creations, with 42 different meals available, including Moroccan
Meatballs with Couscous and Szechuan Beef. (Call 1-855-SKINNY-0 for more info.)
And if you’re concerned about the latest reports revealing the dangers of energy drinks, you might want to
pick up (or perk up with) something a little less potent and certified kashrut: Kickbutt Amped Energy Ballz, a Canadian
confection available in cappuccino, cherry, or grape, which pack about 40 mgs. of caffeine per ball (vs.
the 138 mgs.found in a 2-oz bottle of Five Hour Energy drink).
Meanwhile, my late mother would be happy to know that even in the most kosher kitchen she’d be able
to indulge in her precious BLT’s, as long as they were prepared as FLT’s – that is, made with Facon, the
winner in the fest's Best New Meat, Seafood or Poultry Product category, which is fashioned to taste like the real thing
but actually made from a fatty cut of meat called “beef plate” that is seasoned, smoked, and fried.
I had my own priorities, though, and with little effort managed to track down the booth that had garnered
what was essentially the title of Best in Show. It was the one with the line extending halfway down an aisle, as people queued
up to sample luscious, Florida-based Gelato Petrini. No wonder they seemed to be all out of the grand prize-winning flavor,
chocolate peanut butter, by the time I had reached the head of the line.
Ogling the array of remaining options, from
Mandarin Orange & Ginger to Dulce de Leche, my powers of decision-making utterly failed me. “Which is the best?”
“Dairy or pareve?” the young woman wielding the scooper inquired earnestly (the latter
term referring to “neutral” foods that are neither meat nor dairy).
Was she serious? And could I have cared any less? “Either way,” I replied. Then my gaze landed
on a glistening mound labeled chocolate hazelnut – which sounded to me like the love child of Haagen-Dazs and Nutella
– and the contest was instantly over.
“Good choice,” the woman allowed approvingly. Good indeed.
I plunged my plastic mini-spoon into my cup again and again and really swooned this time.
Then I went off to track down my husband, who was clearly enjoying this gastronomical excursion
much more than he had anticipated. For while I’d been waiting for my single cup of frozen ecstasy, he’d managed
to sample veggie corn nuggets, veggie cigars, hot dogs, falafel balls with tahini, Roland’s Piquillo and Jalapeno Bruschetta,
Chef Suzanne’s Natural Gourmet Savory Crisp Flatbread, ED’s chocolate crunch lollipops and frozen fruit balls,
Old School popcorn, and a large selection of kosher products from — believe it or not — the Philippines (many
of them coconut-based).
Is it any wonder that we found ourselves craving something to wash it all down?
There were bottles available everywhere of presumably kosher water (is any bottled water not actually kosher?). But my husband
wanted something a little more potent.
No problem. There was an entire section of the fest devoted to kosher
Heading for the Kedem sign, we were intercepted enthusiastically by a man pouring samples of Danue, a golden-hued
vintage from the Morad Winery. “This unique wine is made entirely from the finest passion fruit grown in Israel,”
the bottles read.
Although as I have noted here recently, my husband is not all that fussy about wine, or almost anything else for that matter,
he generally prefers red over white and dry over sweet, so he looked a bit skeptical at first. Yet he took a nice, hearty
gulp, and from the look on his face this fruit of the vine was indescribably delectable and apparently his new passion.
So I gulped too and had to agree.
Intrigued, he continued to linger
in this general vicinity as he went on to taste four kinds of beer and ale from Israel, a creamy vanilla vodka liqueur from
a company called Walder’s, and assorted wines produced by Yarden, LeSorquet, and Gilgal, all from Israel as well.
As the designated driver for the day, however, I had already reached my quota. Besides, it was getting late
and I had yet to find the Manischewitz booth. Having been invited by them, it seemed only fair that I "dance with the
guy that brung me," as they say.
Once again, this proved none too challenging to track down, considering that the company had commandeered
one of the largest booths at the entire show. After all, along with its ritual wines, Manischewitz also produces a vast array
of traditional Jewish foods – not just matzah and matzah ball soup, but gefilte fish, egg noodles, falafel…
At age 123, the granddaddy of kosher food companies also had made its way into the modern era, though, and was there to
plug everything from its Guiltless Gourmet brand of items like coconut water to their new almond butter cups (“like
Reese’s, only Pasedicheh,” I was told).
I had a different chocolate treat in mind, though (and I am not talking about the marshmallow-filled frogs
and locusts from Zelda's Sweet Shoppe). I quickly uttered the three magic words, whereupon the young woman behind the counter
popped open a round cardboard canister and poured a dozen reddish brown mounds onto a paper napkin.
“Help yourself,” she urged.
They were chocolaty, densely chewy, sweet, and rich – not
all that different from your typical canned macaroon, yet with the color tint and taste of red velvet cake. Mmmmm.
Before I could bite into another
(just to be sure I’d gotten the full effect), she tore open another cardboard package and formed a second pyramid of
fudgy temptations. “Dark Chocolate Covered Potato Chips,” the box read.
Now, I have never been much of a snacker, and am so health-conscious that I haven’t eaten a potato
chip in years. But dark chocolate is my downfall. And suddenly the concept of “Bet you can’t eat just one”
had my number. And that number was six.
OK, maybe seven.
While I munched, the young woman introduced me to their latest products for Chanukah, a Do-It-Yourself
Chanukah House decorating kit (complete with a vanilla cookie cottage to construct, three icing colors, sprinkles, and sugar
decorations shaped like menorahs, mezuzahs, and six-pointed stars). Also available was a smaller D-I-Y sugar cookie decorating
kit, featuring four cookies stamped with menorah and dreidel designs that you can fill in with icing and sprinkles and other
I guess it’s not just OK now to play with your food. It’s actually even
Indeed, kosher food “is not just for your grandmother anymore. It’s now you, too!” the
young woman exclaimed.
Is it for me? Who knows? Maybe I’m just too set in my trayf-loving ways to start
buying only Glatt kosher meat and separating fleishig foods and utensils from dairy now. I must admit, though, that
when I did my shopping for Thanksgiving this week, I went as usual for a kosher turkey from Empire, even though it cost a
small fortune –nearly 50 bucks – and about twice as much as the regular, non-frozen Butterball birds.
Why? Maybe about 25 percent of
it was for health reasons (I just assume kosher is better for you) and another 20 percent or so for flavor (kosher tends to
taste better too). But the main thought behind my reasoning was that it just allowed me to feel more Jewish and to turn even an all-American holiday like this one
into more of a religious experience.
Never mind that I’m going to serve it with my home-made
pumpkin pies, made from fresh roasted pumpkins and slathered with a hefty dollop of hand-whipped heavy cream. Maybe we’ll
wash it all down with some of that passion fruit wine from Eretz Yisrael. And that’s kosher enough for
Wednesday, November 7, 2012
A Word From the Weiss
With all the flooding and devastation inflicted by power-sapping Sandy, you’re
probably expecting a grim tale here depicting deprivation, darkness, and despair. So I’m embarrassed to confess that
while the storm was raging and incapacitating the entire East Coast, my husband and I were vacationing in a balmy locale 3,000
No doubt that will lead you to conclude that we lucked out. We dodged a bullet. Hardly! Face it, when you’re
a parent -- particularly a nice Jewish one -- it’s impossible to feel lucky or to remotely relax when your kids are
in the line of fire. So although we were away with good friends in one of the most delightful spots on earth, it was a struggle
not to stay glued to CNN 'round the clock, obsess about what might potentially befall our kinder… or wonder,
with the countless flight cancellations, how we’d ever manage to get home.
Ever since our dear friends Jake and Doreen moved from our town in Connecticut to Minneapolis in 1998, our
visits had been too few and far between. Back when they lived here, we’d socialized regularly as a six-some with our
close mutual friends Rafi and Lois. One night late last summer, we learned that the four of them were planning a long weekend
in Napa in late October. Were we interested in joining them?
They didn’t need to ask twice.
Although we’d visited California’s spectacular wine country before – not only once, but
twice – we’d be hard-pressed to think of a nicer destination. My husband and I decided to fly out on Friday Oct.
26th, a day in advance, to spend time with our nephew, Charlie, and his new bride Holly, who both attend grad school at Berkeley.
(I’m not just a nice Jewish mom, I’m also a nice Jewish aunt, and I’ll be damned if I was going to be anywhere
in northern California and not see them.)
Little did we imagine at the time that a major storm would be looming when we left. And by the time we realized
that, it was too late to pull the plug on the excursion. Our flights were booked, the hotel deposit nonrefundable, and we
didn’t want to ruin the trip for everyone else involved. Perhaps we’d get stuck out there, but maybe Sandy would
not become all that she was cracked up to be. We’d simply have to hope for the best.
As if the dire weather warnings weren’t enough, our daughter came down with a bad case of bronchitis
the day before we left. The little girl she baby-sits for had viral pneumonia, so it was no surprise when Allegra woke up
wheezing too. But she was down in New York anyway, and we were already packed.
California, here we came!
We flew out of JFK in order to
get a direct flight, rented a car in San Francisco, and arrived just in time for dinner. When Charlie had emailed asking what
kind of food we liked, I’d responded that we ate everything, although I wasn’t a big fan of Mexican food. So I
was slightly mystified, yet also amused, when Comal, the bustling Berkeley eatery where they’d arranged to meet us,
turned out to specialize in margaritas, enchiladas, and tamales. The kids were in great spirits, though, and everything was
beyond delicious, so I could only assume that Charlie had misread my memo and hope that he’d never figure it out.
Unfortunately, he realized his error later that night and wrote to express his remorse for having “picked
the one thing that you said you preferred not to get.”
"Please don't give it a second thought!”
I replied. “The place you picked was perfect.”
The fact was that I actually did like Mexican food, I continued.
In fact, “I eat almost everything, including rattlesnake (although to be honest I only tried that once, and once was
enough).” As for Mexican fare, the only thing I disliked about it was all the beans, I explained. “And that isn't
because I don't like beans, but for other reasons (’nuff said). But there were no beans last night. Just really good
food. And margaritas!”
Just for the record, I had only
one drink, but coupled with the jet lag and the three-hour time difference, that was more than enough to do me in before midnight.
With luck, my husband’s old friend Gail Saliterman lived in Berkeley and had generously offered to put us
up for the night, so we didn’t have to pay for a hotel.
What I was already paying for was having dared to leave while my daughter was ill, because when we called
on Saturday morning she was totally wiped out and struggling to breathe. Now it was our turn to feel remorse. Where
was my homemade chicken soup, a.k.a. Jewish penicillin, when she needed it? We begged her to go to a clinic.
Gail had not only given up her bedroom for us, but also graciously invited another old friend of my husband’s,
Mark Levine, and his lovely wife Irma for breakfast. A lengthy email negotiation had ensued between them over whether Gail or Mark should get the bagels. Regrettably, my husband failed to get the final installment
of this, in which Gail admitted that there were no decent bagels in all of Berkeley and requested that we bring some
from home, which I gladly would’ve done.
(Note to any enterprising entrepreneurs
out there: Bring better bagels to Berkeley!)
Personally, I thought the local ones tasted just fine, though, and topped with lox and a liberal shmear
of cream cheese, who could really tell? After breakfast, Mark took us on a lively walking tour of the surrounding area. A
former Princeton classmate of my husband’s and the winner of nearly 200 international awards -- including a Fulbright
Scholarship, Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, and actual Nobel Peace Prize in 2007-- Mark had spent most of his illustrious
career promoting energy efficiency in China. But he didn’t mind in the least waiting around while I searched inefficiently
for the souvenir I’d promised my cousin: an authentic tie-dyed T-shirt bought on a Berkeley street.
Then it was time to bid hippie
heaven goodbye and head to Napa to meet our friends.
Jake had kindly taken it upon himself
to make all of the arrangements for the trip, and (in contrast to my usual penchant for searching ad nauseam for
a really good deal) he'd opted to dispense with the "deal" part of the equation and simply go for "really good."
The Harvest Inn in St. Helena was posh and elegant, with two outdoor pools, exquisitely maintained grounds, and charming English
Tudor-type architecture. But most thrilling was to see our old friends pull into the parking lot shortly after us.
Now that was a sight for sore eyes!
After quickly dropping our bags
in our rooms, the six of us had to put on sunglasses as we strolled through the scenic vineyard out back, chatting animatedly
as we sampled blueberry-sized wine grapes straight off the vine. After repairing to a shaded patio to partake in the hotel’s
complimentary wine and cheese tasting, we quickly dressed for dinner.
Meanwhile, back at the National Weather Service, meteorologists continued to speculate frantically about
Sandy's potential effects and when and where she might make U.S. landfall first. CNN kept alluding to the 60 people
already killed in the Caribbean and predicting the worst.
“Hope you have food stocked up and flashlights, candles, etc.,”
I texted our son, who lives in the Chelsea area of Manhattan and was in likely peril of a power outage. “We’re
Aidan knows me all too well and responded almost instantly to allay my fears. “I’m fine, well
stocked with plenty of food, water, and survival items. Hope you’re having fun!”
Having fun? We were in Napa. Of
course we were having fun, I tremble to confess.
By the time we’d finished lingering over the quiche and croissants at the lavish breakfast buffet the
next morning, Allegra had reported that her health was reviving at last, but New York City was now evacuating parts of Brooklyn,
downtown Manhattan, and other low-lying areas designated as Zone A. Her apartment on Roosevelt Island, located between Manhattan
and Queens in the East River, was considered Zone B.
Friends were entreating her to leave anyway. “This storm looks bad,” she wrote. She was rallying
her roommates to join her at the store to load up on storm supplies.
Not surprisingly, she found the island’s
only supermarket badly depleted and almost impenetrable, with at least 100 carts lined up at the cash registers.
What could I do but head out to
meet my friends for a scenic drive through the countryside? After wending our way through Calistoga, we stopped at a winery
called Chateau Montelena, famed for having first put California wines on the map when one of their Chardonnays had outranked
the French vintages at a Paris wine tasting in 1976.
Sampling the wines inside this castle-like structure cost $20 per person, we learned, but that fee would
be waived with a $100 purchase. Jake proposed sharing one “flight,” with each of us taking a small sip of the
four wines they were pouring. We did not object. Although most of these vintages were way too pricey for the likes of us,
the first, a Riesling, was absolutely delicious and priced within reason at $25, and it went well with turkey, we were assured.
We’d been invited to my brother’s for Thanksgiving.
“I’ll take two,” I said. Jake seconded the motion, and our $100 minimum was spent.
I texted Allegra as we strode past
the giant barrels out front. Back on Roosevelt Island, the sky was darkening and wind picking up. Gristede’s market
was now closed.
Our next stop was at the lovely home of a vintner Jake had met at a friend’s party.
Jake, I should note, is a wine
connoisseur and collector with an educated palate (and Doreen savvy by assocation). The rest of us? Not so much.
Although we always order wine when we dine out with Rafi and Lois, she maintains that during her many years
as a pathologist, some sort of chemical so impaired her sense of smell that she might be hard-pressed to distinguish
between a red and a white without looking.
Rafi has refined tastes in everything and seems to avidly enjoy a glass or two of red, Merlot in particular,
but to not be terribly fussy about what sort.
My palate, I’d like to believe, is well attuned to subtle
flavors, but isn’t particularly educated about wine, and since I’ve never been a big drinker (or spender)
I’d just as soon keep it that way.
As for my husband, he relishes wine so much that he imbibes daily. But to say that he isn’t especially
discriminating would be far from the truth. The truth is that he is not discriminating at all. Although he prefers
red over white, his senses of taste and smell are so limited that he can’t tell the difference between any kind of wine and
any other. And being frugal by nature, he genuinely prefers his wine as cheap as possible.
So we were a little alarmed to arrive at the home of Elliot Stern and his wife Avis and discover that their
Oakville East wine was very, very good, and also priced accordingly.
While we sipped, Elliot undertook the task of
introducing the uninitiated among us to the intricacies of wine making and tasting. Many large, corporate vineyards pick and
sort their grapes with machinery, he observed, whereas the more exclusive operations, like theirs, pick by hand, then have people
stationed on either side of a conveyor belt to remove stems and grapes that are substandard in size or color. Hence the higher
What you taste when you drink wine is very subjective, he added, and influenced by innumerable things, including
what you ate for breakfast. But like any good story (or blog), all fine wines are expected to be complex enough to have three
key components: a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The beginning, or “front,” is what you experience when
the wine first hits your tongue, where your taste buds are. “Then the wine starts moving down the center of your tongue
to your throat,” he continued. Your tongue and palate should begin picking up a wide variety of elements. “If
you don’t taste any flavors, it doesn’t have a ‘middle.’ ”
“And when it goes down your throat, what’s left in your mouth is the ‘finish,’ ”
Avis concluded. I swished a large gulp and swallowed hard. All I tasted afterwards was heat.
The flavors you detect at any of
these stages may include notes of fruits, spices, and other foods, including strawberry, blueberry, or even chocolate. But
Elliot said the most important issue isn't about the specifics. In the end, there is only one ultimate question. “Yuck
As he spoke, he yanked the corks on so many yummy bottles for us to savor, while Avis, a talented photographer,
put out such a lavish spread of snacks to accompany them, that after spending nearly four hours there we felt obligated to
buy something. So my husband was relieved when Elliot pulled out a wine in a form of novelty packaging -- a plastic sack that
held two bottles’ worth -- then mentioned that it cost only 20 bucks.
This humble elixir, dubbed Lakegirl, was geared to go on sale back East at Stew Leonard’s this spring.
Avis had penned the evocative copy on the back: Listening to the lapping of the waves against the shore and seeing the
moon reflected on the water, I’m transported to the moment of my first kiss. I know I’m home when I’m at
the lake. Forever Lake Girl.
Although I’d taken a shine to a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon called Exposure, it happened to be priced at $70. Bottles
of Lake Girl went for $12.99 Even I was intrigued.
My husband immediately offered to take one of the plastic sacks,
as well as a handful of the bottles – a white for me and reds for himself, our daughter and our son. No need to pop
the sack’s spout and taste it. Forever Lake Girl. What was not to like?
Then we all went outside to take an invigorating walk up the steep hillside outside their door. I breathed
in the sweet, fresh air and surveyed the breathtaking expanse of lush green countryside, a gorgeous patchwork quilt of mist-enveloped
mountains and grape vines planted in manicured rows stretching as far as the eye could see.
Then, despite being somewhat the worse for those seven wines we’d just sampled, I dared to text Allegra
in New York.
“Has storm hit?” I wrote.
“Not yet,” she replied.
“Good!” I said, continuing
to blabber on, a little too candid in my impaired state. “We feel so guilty. We’re in the sunshine, 3,000 miles
away and totally smashed.”
“And I’m in an evacuation zone,” she retorted.
What else could I say? Probably
almost anything but what I actually did. “Sorry! Just tasted 7 bottles of super pricey wine.”
“Stop telling me!”
she shot back.
So I did.
Back at the inn, we barely had time to change
our clothes before departing for Redd, a stylish restaurant 10 miles down the road, where the service was impeccable and everything on the menu sounded so tempting that it was impossible to choose. I finally settled
on an appetizer of Yellowfin tuna tartare with avocado, Asian pear, puffed rice, and cilantro, followed by an entrée
of seared Sonoma duck breast with fig and mushroom crepe, spinach, sunchoke, and balsamic hazelnut jus. (Yum.)
Lifting our glasses poured from two good bottles left over from Elliot’s (which he’d generously bestowed
upon us and the restaurant had agreed to let us consume after levying a corkage fee of $25 apiece), we toasted to our friendship
and to Jake’s impeccable taste in everything he had arranged so far. Then we ordered dessert. (Definitely yum.)
Back at the hotel afterwards, a reporter on CNN was standing in the middle of a road in New Jersey, knee deep in water,
his voice muffled by the evil roar of the wind.
It was 1 a.m. in New York, but Allegra was still up… and terrified. The elevators in her building
had been shut down at 7. Fortunately, she lived on the third floor and could walk down. The storm hadn’t hit yet, but
“U should hear this wind,” she wrote.
In Manhattan, a tidal wave of up to 11 feet was expected to hit. Aidan lived on the second floor. I began
to calculate in my mind. How high were those first-floor ceilings?
I barely slept that night.
After breakfast Monday morning (what… quiche and croissants again?!?), we reconvened quickly
because we were expected at another winery by 10:30 a.m. (If Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb can get tipsy on Today
daily at 10, why not us?)
At Morlet Family Vineyards, the wines were so exclusive that several had been served at the White House.
We were received there by Jodie Morlet, the owner’s effervescent wife, who led us on a quick tour that wended its way
past a conveyor belt where grapes were being hand-sorted before plummeting en masse into a deep trough. Then she sat us down
at a long dining table to actually imbibe.
Like Elliot, she took the time to school us in the complexities of the wine world. (Her husband preferred
to use grapes grown in the “bench” and foothills of Napa rather than on the mountains “because the vines
will struggle more,” she said.) Yet being a relative novice (i.e. total ignoramus), and a nice Jewish mom (i.e.
yenta), I somehow took much more interest in the love story that had led to this vineyard’s unlikely birth.
Her husband Luc hailed from France, where his family had been making Champagne for four generations. Jodie
had been raised in Sacramento by a family that never drank. Then, when she was 7, her father had married a Frenchwoman.
Every summer, her stepmother would promise to bring her to France, but then only take her own daughters. Only after Jodie
had finished grad school at age 24 did she finally keep her word.
While there, her stepmother’s mother took them to visit her cousin, who happened to
be Luc’s grandmother. At dinner, they poured Jodie some Champagne. She explained in English that she didn’t like
it, but this only prompted them to open another bottle and pour her even more. After the seventh glass, she
asked her step-grandmother why they weren't getting the hint. The woman explained that they assumed she merely didn’t like
that Champagne, and they were continuing to open bottles until they found one to her liking.
Jodie tried to convey that
it was the taste of the alcohol she didn’t care for, but Luc’s grandmother scoffed at this. “Champagne eez
like water,” the woman declared. “There eez no alcohol!”
Jodie made up her mind then and there that she would never consider getting involved with anyone whose entire
life revolved around spirits, even though Luc was clearly smitten with her. But when she returned to the States, she put down
her bags and cried for three hours straight because she missed him so much. That’s when she realized the feelings were
mutual. They stayed in touch, and he eventually got a job as the head winemaker with a major vintner in Napa.
They were married the following year.
“When we were engaged, he
said that he loved me the way I was, and I didn’t need to drink wine,” she recalled. But two months later he reconsidered.
“The wife of a winemaker needs to drink wine!” he asserted. So she learned to like it. A few years ago, she was proud
of herself when she beat him to a restaurant one night and ordered a glass on her own. But when he arrived, he took one
sip and crinkled his nose.
“You ordered a 2008, didn’t you?” he demanded. Evidently, it had been extremely dry that
summer, causing lots of fires, so many vintages made then betrayed a hint of smoke.
I couldn’t imagine having
to cook nightly for a French winemaker with so hypersensitive a palate. (I love to cook, but it's nice to know my
own husband would be perfectly content with Campbell’s soup... or probably pencil shavings if they contained enough
Neither could I imagine actually buying any of the exquisite wines she proceeded to pour for us, which ranged
in price from $65 to $225 apiece. A form we'd been given clearly stated that there was a tasting fee of $50 per
person, though, which would be waived only with the purchase of three or more bottles per couple.
When we’d last visited Napa, five years ago, we’d stayed at a charming bed-and-breakfast where
the nightly rate entitled us to free tastings at dozens of wineries with no obligation to buy. We’d chosen to purchase
several bottles anyway, all of which were far less expensive than these, yet hadn’t opened any of them yet because they
seemed too special to actually drink.
When were we ever going to drink a $75 Chardonnay, let alone a $175 Cabernet
Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc?
So we considered ourselves lucky when Jake announced that he was buying five bottles for himself and Doreen,
allowing the rest of us to purchase only two per couple. He’d already assumed the lion’s share of the expense
by shelling out big-time at Elliot’s. We could hardly complain.
Then we drove back to our hotel, where we learned
that while we’d been busy choosing between the $85 Bouquet Garni Syrah (which I didn’t love) and the $95 Pinot
Noir (which I did), Sandy had continued to sprint toward New Jersey, where later that night she would pulverize the coast
as though squeezing the juice out of a fragile grape. In anticipation of that, thousands of flights had been canceled, including
We spent much of that afternoon trying to rebook, largely because having bought our tickets with mileage,
we were transferred seven different times by our credit card company before they explained that we needed to speak directly
to the airline instead. Then the airline indicated that the earliest we could get back would be late Friday night, three full
days after we’d been due to arrive, and we were lucky to have that.
OK, maybe getting stranded in such a temperate locale wasn’t exactly a hardship. But if you believe
that then, as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie would famously say, you don’t know me. When almost everyone else is
in danger, particularly your kids, about the last thing on your mind is your own safety, let alone enjoying
Who wants to sit in a posh hotel on the opposite coast when disaster strikes? I was worried about our children.
I was worried about our puppy. I was worried about our house, and the entire Eastern seaboard. My husband was also bound to
get reamed for being AWOL from work for an extra three days. We had loved being with our friends. We’d had great
fun. But now we were ready to put a cork on it.
It was time to go home.
And beyond the storm and its likely devastation, there were other considerations. We’d been scheduled
to leave Tuesday to arrive home just in time for Halloween. Our friends Dial and Sally, who always celebrate it with us, were
coming over for dinner. Precisely a year earlier, a premature blizzard had clobbered Connecticut, downing trees and power
lines and knocking out electricity for 10 days. They’d had to officially cancel Halloween in our town. So this year
I’d bought extra candy, expecting hordes of kids to turn out for some remedial trick-or-treating. I didn’t want
to miss the festivities again… and I didn’t want our house to be TP’d mercilessly because we weren’t
Dinner that night, as you might expect, was a little less festive, and not just because our journey was drawing
to a close. I don’t even have the heart to tell you what we ate. All I can say is my stomach was churning, and not just
because of the beans.
“Starting to get crazy here,” Allegra texted soon after we returned.
“Crazy how?” I asked. “Wind? Rain?”
“Wind,” she answered. It was roaring so ferociously out her window that she couldn’t sleep.
Aidan had already lost power, and she hadn’t heard from him in hours. With anxiety mounting, I called the airline again
and was offered a slightly earlier flight, a Thursday night red-eye that would get us in on Friday morning.
Rafi and Lois somehow had managed to book a flight on their own airline back to Boston, where they’d
rent a car and drive home, so they were leaving the next morning. Jake and Doreen were taking off too. Gail had been nice
enough to offer to put us up in Berkeley for a couple more nights, and before leaving after breakfast Jake asked me what we’d
do there. I looked at him blankly. Sightseeing was the last thing on my mind.
My husband had already called the airline again and been told to try back after 5. But as a nice Jewish mom,
I’m not someone who discourages easily. No, let's be honest. I don’t discourage at all.
When it comes to my kids’ welfare, I come from my own mother’s school of try, try again -- and again and again
-- until you get your own way.
So I called and sat on hold for half an hour, then told the woman who answered that we had to get to Boston
or Hartford no matter what, even if my car was still at JFK. She looked, and she looked, and suddenly she found two seats
on a plane to Dallas. This would connect with a second flight to Boston and get us in just after midnight.
We barely had time to get there,
let alone to return our car. “I’ll take it!” I cried.
Then we jumped in the car, drove like hell, and made it by the skin of our teeth.
We arrived at Logan at 12:15, left
in a rental car by 1:15, and got home just after 3. Our house and the dog were both just fine, it turned out, and also a sight
for sore eyes.
Halloween, to our surprise, turned out to be a real bust in terms of trick-or-treaters. I’d stocked
up on enough candy for more than 250 kids. Only around 25 showed up.
We had a great time with Sally and Dial, though, who turned up in their customary costumes. (What would Halloween
be without that big, puffy pumpkin suit, which Sally fished out of a dumpster years ago and has proudly
donned annually ever since?)
With both the subway and tram cars out of commission, Allegra was stuck on Roosevelt Island for days, then
had to walk miles to work. Her Halloween singing gig, a triple-header featuring three bands billed as “Bewitched, Bothered
and BOO-wildered,” got canceled due to flooding and the virtual end of the world.
Meanwhile, Poor Aidan weathered nearly a week without power. But they’re fine, so my heart goes out to the real storm
victims instead, the people of New Jersey, Long Island, and Staten Island.
In view of their losses, I’m beyond embarrassed to divulge the good time that we had. Human nature
has it that when everyone else is suffering or in deep water (perhaps even literally), you don’t want to be
comfortable. You either want to be out helping them, or you want to be suffering even more. You don’t want
to talk about all the fancy wine you just drank. When someone says, “It’s 40 degrees in my house and I waited
in line for gas for three hours,” you want to say, “That’s nothing. It’s 30 degrees in my
house, and I waited for gas for three days!”
So believe me, I’m not bragging about the hardship we had to endure flying home. And I’m not
trying to show off in any way by boasting about that stuff we ate and drank. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the
finer things in life, and there’s nothing better than being with good friends. But when it comes down to it, I remain
Nice Jewish Mom. Truth is, I still don’t know beans about wine and I’m more comfortable with a fine whine.
I wish that I could donate that $95 Cabernet to the cause. Someone suggested I try to sell it on eBay. It
seems simpler to merely make a comparable donation to the Red Cross (or perhaps the UJA-Federation of New York, earmarking
it for Sandy relief). Then we can look forward to drinking that bottle someday… and sooner rather than later.
The fact is that we have continued
to save the wine we bought on our last Napa trip because we’re always waiting for some special occasion, a real reason
to celebrate. Maybe the thing to celebrate is that we’re here and we’re alive, and so are our children. I hope
all the storm victims recover soon. Meanwhile, maybe we did dodge a bullet.
|That's me. The redhead on the right. But that is NOT my baby.
No, sir, that's not
my baby. How could any mother smile beatifically while her own child wailed? Never mind that neither of my offspring
ever cried so plaintively, as far as I recall (not while I was there to nurture them through their every perceptible
need... although my son still complains that I often dressed him in garish and girlish color schemes, scarring him FOR LIFE).
Besides, I'm distinctly beyond prime
delivery age ("Kitchen's closed!" as my mother might say), and my kids had departed the diaper stage by the
dawn of the Clinton Administration. Now in
their 20s, both are currently living on their
own, in not-too-distant cities, although each manages to phone me daily. In fact, to be exact, several times a
day, then sometimes text me, too. (That may sound excessive, and emotionally regressive, but I subscribe to
the Jewish mother's creed when it comes to conversing with kinder: Too much is never enough.)
Two demanding decades spent raising two kids who are kind, highly productive and multi-talented, who generally
wear clean underwear (as far as I can tell), and who by all visible signs don't detest me are my main credentials
for daring to dole out advice in the motherhood department.
Presenting myself as an authority on all matters Jewish may be trickier to justify.
Yes, I was raised Jewish and am biologically an unadulterated, undisputable, purebred Yiddisheh
mama. I'm known for making a melt-in-your-mouth brisket, not to mention the world's airiest matzah
balls this side of Brooklyn. My longtime avocation is writing lyrics for Purim shpiels based on popular Broadway productions,
from "South Pers-cific" to "The Zion Queen." Then again, I'm no rabbi or Talmudic scholar. I
can't even sing "Hatikvah" or recite the Birkat Hamazon. Raised resoundingly Reform, I don't keep kosher, can
barely curse in Yiddish, and haven't set foot in Israel since I was a zaftig teen.
Even so, as a longtime writer and ever-active
mother, I think I have something to say about being Jewish and a mom in these manic and maternally challenging
times. I hope something I say means something to you. Welcome to my nice Jewish world!
|LEVYS! MEET THE LEVYS! WE'RE A MODERN JEWISH FAMILY...
In coming weeks, I will continue
posting more personal observations, rants, and even recipes (Jewish and otherwise). So keep reading, come back often,
and please tell all of your friends, Facebook buddies, and everyone else you know that NiceJewishMom.com is THE BOMB!
The family that eats together (and maybe even Tweets together):
That's my son Aidan, me, my daughter Allegra, and Harlan, my husband for more than 26 years, all out for Sunday brunch on a nice summer weekend in New