Last year, my rabbis asked me to give a speech on Yom Kippur afternoon about creating a day of ultimate tranquility on the "Sabbath of Sabbaths." I expressed my feeling to the congregation that the irony was not lost on me that I, the food writer, was speaking on a day of fast. The congregation laughed, and I went on to promise them that I would not make them hungry… at least not for food. Memory was my stimulant.
My talk was centered more on memory - my childhood memories of attending services, listening to my mother sing in the choir, and the oneg Shabbat (refreshment ceremony) after Friday night services. As I was writing the speech, my mind wandered to specific memories of Yom Kippur - the clergy in white robes, the congregation's tuxedo-clad past presidents (there were no female presidents at that time) on the bimah (pulpit), and the time I climbed through the living room window of our house to retrieve my father's forgotten tallit (prayer shawl) and house keys just before Kol Nidre services! My thoughts also went to the smell and taste of my mother's chicken soup, redolent with the flavor of dill, the round challah studded with raisins from Cookies Bakery around the corner, and the taste of sweet wildflower honey into which I would dunk local Macintosh apples.
Many people wrote or told me that the speech brought tears to their eyes; my words elicited memories of their loved ones. The sights and aromas of food cooking on a stove or over a fire produce memory just as easily as the spoken word.
Making and serving the meal before Kol Nidre generally does not present many problems, but it is essential to select foods that will stave off hunger and prevent blood sugar spikes. Meat dishes can be prepared in advance, and complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, kasha, barley, sweet potatoes, and quinoa all are good choices as side dishes. Remember, too, to keep the salt content down. This is not the meal for white rice, mashed potatoes, or a rich chocolate cake for dessert. The simple carbohydrates will not stave off hunger; they actually will heighten cravings for sweets.
Preparing for the break-fast is another matter. Although in some regions of the country cold cuts traditionally are served after fasting, dairy foods are the menu choice in most homes. Here is where the problem lies: these dishes often require last minute preparation, which means that the cook often spends more time in services thinking about the food for the table instead of the food for the soul. If planning is done right, however, you have made as much as possible in advance, ordered the bagels and other foods that can be picked up or delivered late in the day, and delegated other dishes to invited friends, who will prepare them in advance and bring them to your home. These friends will be more than happy to expedite the presentation of food since they have been fasting as well. With a well-executed plan, you should be able to attend the N'ilah service to watch the "gates close."
Here is where you are going to think me out of my mind, but I would like you to consider including your children or grandchildren in some of the preparations. Last minute cooking is out and slicing bagels is definitely out for all cooks. (No one with shaking hands after a day of fasting should be handling a knife and a resistant round of bread!) But cooking the round challah with children or making a honey cake or fresh applesauce not only teaches them how to prepare these items, but also creates a memorable experience for you and the child.
Imagine twirling the challah into a beautiful round as you explain the meaning of this delicious creation. Use the time together while it rises to share your memories of the High Holidays with your young cook. What were some of your favorite foods for the holidays? Did the family congregate at your grandmother's house or a favorite aunt's apartment? Do you remember some relatives that spoke Yiddish or Ladino? Can you teach the youngster a new word in a language that is foreign to him or her, but part of the child's heritage? What does your young charge like about the High Holidays? Is there a special time or taste that tells them the holiday is near? These questions and more can make the rising time of the challah pass very fast!
Cooking and conversation do more than fill time; they are the link to our Jewish heritage and our personal history. As we begin a new year, may you create experiences in your kitchen that will be recalled and retold for generations to come.
Eat in good health!