Friday, September 28, 2012

Every Object Tells A Story

A movie theater ticket, bent and misshapen, a swatch of a baby blanket, soft and weathered from hundreds of washings and years of cuddling, a teacup handle, gilt-edged and hairline-cracked. These may all be useless items to most people, but what they represent to others can fill tomes, and then some. They are silent story tellers, waiting for their tales to be unraveled--and its up to their owners to do the telling.

BPA, bisphenol A, bisphenol, what is bisphenol a, what is BPA, is BPA harmful, products with BPA, bpa free, bpa contamination, bpa disease, bpa receiptI once saw a report on the news about a woman who meticulously saved all of her receipts in a box for five years. At the five-year mark, she went through them and felt as though she were looking at a five-year encapsulation of her life. Through these receipts she knew what she ate, when she was dieting (and when she wasn’t). They helped her remember old boyfriends and what she wore on some dates, classes she took, and books she read. When I first heard that, I remember thinking she was a little crazy. After all, there are much simpler and more thorough ways of chronicling one’s life than trying to decipher the flotsam and jetsam on a bunch of crumpled up, faded cash register receipts. And once the information is collated, you then have to read into what it actually symbolizes.

Well, I thought the idea was nutty until I went through an old handbag that I hadn’t used since I relocated from California.... 

Amidst the detritus at the bottom of the bag: some old pieces of gum--with and without the wrappers, sixty cents in spare change, a half-empty tube of sunscreen, a prescription I never filled, and a few now-spent pens, were a slew of receipts. 

Since I moved, anything from my past has become Smithsonian-worthy to me, so rather than chuck the receipts, I decided to put them in piles and go through them. And with each one I glanced at I began to understand just what that “cuckoo” woman meant. I know that people save receipts for business and tax purposes, but they’re looking at the bottom line--the total.  Once they’re done with them, they get tossed or stapled to some expense report. There is not one iota of sentimentality attached to those pieces of paper. To those owners, they signify money, or the loss of it. I was approaching these receipts as bits and pieces of my past life. And when I looked at it that way, those origami-like folded slips of paper took on a whole new level of importance. 

There were various receipts from restaurants in and around Calabasas and Los Angeles, where I used to live. One from the middle of March reminded me of a dinner our group of friends had at a local Italian restaurant celebrating my friend Julie’s birthday. We were a loud group, as usual, and Julie gave out bags of her famous mandel bread as party favors. I remembered having just come from an open house at a nearby clothing store where they were kind enough to feature my candy and help me promote my business. I ate a tuna tower. I gleaned all that from one little receipt!

In amongst the grocery receipts--that pile was the largest--was one from Henry’s Market. On that day, I purchased, among other things, bell peppers, lettuce, eggplant, chicken breasts, and sun-dried tomato turkey sausage. The date was sometime in May. May was great because everyone was home in May. Probably did some grilling that very night. My family loved Henry’s sausages--they were all homemade. I would usually grill some up while I was grilling chicken and veggies. My boys and my husband would have those sausages with some coarse mustard--it helped them wait a little more patiently for the rest of the meal to be cooked. Through all this the dog would be running around trying to snipe something, anything, that would fall on the floor. Just one receipt brought me back to that place.

Amongst some purchases on a Bloomingdale’s receipt was a purse for which I used a coupon. I remember the purse--it was sage green, and it had lots of pockets. It was perfect for my upcoming trip to Italy. I was leaning towards the yellow purse in the same style and my friend Kathy said, “go with the green,” so I did.  Every few months Kathy and I would meet for lunch and then go shopping. She is one of the few friends I have that will share a dressing room with me. We’ve seen each other naked enough times that it doesn’t really matter. And quite often, she’ll try something on and say, “this would look better on you.” And sometimes it does, and sometimes what I’ve got on will look better on her. But always, no matter where we go, Kathy will say, “Wait, I’ve got a coupon!” And on that day, she did, and the green handbag was my constant companion in Italy. (If you’ve seen any of my photos from that trip, you’ve seen the bag!)

Before my trip to Turkey this past May, I tried to read some books that would give me a feel for the country. One in particular, The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk, was a wonderful story about two families, one aristocratic and one lower class, who lived in Istanbul during the 60s. It is a tale of love, betrayal, and obsession, and explores a culture not often dealt with in novels that I have read. On another, even more interesting level, the book also deals with mementos and their preservation. 

Throughout the years, the main character secrets away everyday items that are meaningful to him--buttons, handkerchiefs, hair clips, an earring. Random objects, so insignificant that their disappearance is not even noticed. But to him they represent years and years of memories--shards of his heart and soul. So precious are they to him that he creates a museum devoted to these "treasures," and invites anyone else who would care to donate mementos of their own to do so. The irony in all of this is that life has imitated art--the author has actually created a real museum that mirrors the one in the book. It is located in an Istanbul townhouse, and has been described not so much as a museum, but as a “story den.” I unfortunately, did not get to the museum while we were in Turkey, but I certainly understand it’s significance. 

We are surrounded by stories--every object we see is a part of one, and if taken to the extreme, every object can be elevated to being a museum-quality piece. Even if it’s merely for a museum in your mind.

The saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” but it should really be, “One man’s trash can also be his history.” I must admit that I have not, as the character in my book who has been overtaken by madness, relegated any of my receipts to a museum, but they and the motley crew of items that were hiding at the bottom of my purse, did give me a glimpse into a forgotten period of my life. I didn’t learn anything earthshaking about myself, but it was nice diversion...and a nice blast from the past.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


The flames from the Yahrzeit candles painted an orange sheen on the walls of our kitchen. The rows of small candle-filled glasses were neatly lined up, one after another, in metal pans that my mother kept just for this occasion. I say that it was an occasion, but that’s really not true. The word occasion, for me, conjures up something pleasant, like a birthday party with a double fudge cake and gift bags stuffed with various hues of pastel tissue papers hiding lotions and beaded trinkets beneath them. Or a Fourth of July picnic--hot dogs, potato salad, heirloom tomatoes, and giant chocolate chip cookies passed around in plates the shape of lobsters; cloth napkins that look like the American flag. Yahrzeit candles--otherwise known as memorial candles--are not pleasant. They serve as a reminder of the dead; to honor them. They burn for 24 hours, and by the time they are burned out, the memory of the dead has been burned into your mind. 

It is Jewish custom to light a candle on the anniversary of someone’s death and on certain holidays, but since my parents were Holocaust survivors and could not be sure of the exact dates of the deaths of all in their families who had perished, they did this big time on Yom Kippur.

I always thought one candle would have been enough of a memorial, but my dad was adamant that there be many. I cannot say that there is any hard and fast rule that every dead person gets his or her own memory candle, but my mom obliged Dad’s wishes. So we had many. And there they were, year after year. Serving as a reminder of the huge hit our family took during that horrible time in history. They stood there, in their rows and their flames flickered as if to say, “we are still here, we still matter.”

I don’t know why I never questioned some of the things my parents did. Never asked them how they felt or told them how I felt. It’s almost as if the reasons behind everything they did, good or bad, were because of what they had been through. It was understood, a given. We shied away from bringing attention to “it” for fear that we would hear more than we cared to hear in any explanations.

Most of the year they held it together. They were able to celebrate when the celebrating was appropriate (sometimes), but this holiday...this holiday was different. This was a somber holiday, thus my mother took the opportunity to revel in it’s solemnity. Today it was expected of her to beat her chest.  It was a day of atonement--a period of repentance, and she took that as being her right to mourn. We were not permitted to turn the lights on...nor the TV, radio, or any other electrical appliance. My dad would do his praying at temple, but my mom stayed home and stood with her prayer herself. Those nights, in the almost dark apartment (we kept a light on all night), I would watch her praying and wonder what she was repenting for. What sins had she committed during the year? Hadn’t she suffered enough? Those nighttime hours seemed interminable.

The daylight hours were almost bearable: weather permitting, my sister and I would get out of the house and take long walks, passing through neighborhoods we ordinarily would not get to see on foot. We would walk for hours, knowing that each passing minute would bring us closer to the day’s end...and food! When we were younger, or when it rained, much of the holiday was spent playing board games and reading.  Not such a bad thing, really. And ironically, a lot of the reading was of the various food magazines scattered around the house. We would look at the pictures and dream about what we would eat once our fast was over. (There’s nothing like being a glutton for punishment!) 

Devoting a day to reflection is almost welcomed, now that I am an adult. My family and I observe the holiday very differently than I did as a young girl. We still do a lot of reading (not in the dark) and praying, but there is the understanding that this holiday is all about introspection and making our peace with God. It’s almost like a spiritual cleansing. For me, the mourning and chest beating are symbolic. I don’t think my parents could ever have intellectualized it in that way. They’re minds were too clouded with the antiquated teaching of the religion they grew up with, and as always, with their experiences. 

My room was down the hall from the kitchen, and as I lay in my bed, I could see the orange cast of the candlelight. Even as my eyes were closed, I could imagine the flickering flames shining through my eyelids. If I closed the door, the faint orange glow would slide in through the thin strip of space between the door and the carpet. Just couldn’t get away from it. The strange thing was, this light didn’t haunt me--but it did sometimes upset me. It reminded me of who my parents were, and I just wanted them to be like everyone else. 

There’s a small aluminum pie tin on my counter on Yom Kippur. It holds two Yahrzeit candles whose flames flicker and dance for twenty-four hours.  They are for my parents, and they remind me, “We are still here...we matter.”

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Cooking Matters...A Great Program!

I grew up in a home where food was always in abundance. My parents were both Holocaust survivors who often spoke about the time in their lives when food was at a premium--when a crust of bread, or a spoonful of soup was more valuable than gold. When people would, and sometimes did, do unthinkable things, just to get something to eat. So, to my parents, a well-stocked pantry and fridge meant success and comfort...and most of all, it was symbolic of their survival. They’re greatest joy was to feed people, and it was incumbent upon anyone who walked into our kitchen to have something--a snack, a fruit, and often the ultimate, a meal. My mother could not fathom how, in such a great land as America, people were starving. She knew firsthand what it felt like to be hungry and never wanted others to experience that feeling. And she passed that desire on to me.

Children who are poorly nourished suffer up to 160 days of illness each year.

I first became acquainted with Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit bent on ending childhood hunger in America, when I was a pastry chef. The organization works closely with the culinary industry, and relies heavily on its generosity and expertise. Through fundraisers such as Great American Bake Sale, and Dine Out For No Kid Hungry, it raises money to fund their programs and feed hungry Americans. Their goal is quite simple, but unfortunately in these sad financial times, it can often seem quite herculean: “to connect children with the nutritious food they need to lead healthy, active lives." 1 out of 5 children in this country go to bed is unthinkable!

50% of Cooking Matters teens are eating more vegetables.
  1. Through SOS, I became affiliated with a program called Cooking Matters. I taught nutrition classes to students in Los Angeles for many years through a grant program, and Cooking Matters sounded very similar. It too is a nutrition education program, but it’s so much more, as it connects chefs and dietitians with entire families who are at risk of hunger. You see, the problem is not that there is a lack of food: "There is plenty of nutritious food in America and there are effective programs in place to help feed hungry children. But too many families are not connected to these programs." The professionals teach cooking skills, food safety, food budgeting, and resource management, with the intent of empowering these people with the confidence to go home and make healthy, affordable meals for their families. One of the guiding principles of the program is that food is to be enjoyed, and even those who are living with very low incomes deserve to enjoy their food as well. Encouraging these families to prepare meals at home also encourages them to eat more healthfully and together as a family. The ritual of the family meal has been proven to be a social activity that has a direct impact on the well-being of children.
  2. Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last 30 years.

Cooking Matters For Kids is another portion of the program. It doesn't deal so much with the cost and budgeting aspects of is more nutrition-based, and for six weeks this past summer, it was my program of choice. I, and my fabulous team: the program coordinator, Kate, dietitian, Cara, and assistant, Michele, taught a group of 13 students, from 3rd grade through 5th. The classes were themed (Healthy Snacks, Healthy Breakfast Options, Whole Grain Goodness, etc.), and divided into sessions--nutrition, cooking, and eating, and by the time these kids were through, they had a really strong sense of what was and was not healthy eating. We discussed knife skills and life skills. They learned cooking basics: cutting, chopping, measuring, as well as how to read labels, work together in groups, and even a little food science. The lessons were jam-packed with information. They definitely went home with both their heads and tummies full. It was a great time!

Cooking Matters has grown to serve more than 17,000 families each year.
At the end of the six-week period, the students graduated and were given diplomas, recipe books, and chef’s toques. Aside from having a positive impact on the kids, this was such a rewarding program for me. It was really encouraging to see them getting excited about cooking and figuring out which foods were healthier than others. Childhood hunger, childhood obesity, and healthful eating are true passions of mine, and I believe the only way to better the eating habits of the people of this country is to start with its children. Youngsters and teens who are mindful of nutrition become healthy adults, who then have healthy children. And so the cycle continues. If you'd like to help or volunteer for one of these programs, go 

 Children and adolescents who are obese are likely to be obese as adults.

Here’s an example of one of the dishes the students prepared. Turkey Tacos, loaded with lots of veggies, was definitely one of their favorites. We used low-fat cheese and whole-grain tortillas, which made it a really healthy meal.

  • 1/4 cup shredded zucchini
  • 1/4 cup shredded carrots
  • 1/4 cup diced bell peppers
  • 1/4 cup diced onions
  • 1 pound lean ground turkey
  • 1-15 1/2 ounce can pinto beans
  • 1 cup no salt added tomato juice
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 8 ounces low fat cheddar cheese
  • 1/4 head of romaine lettuce
  • 2 large tomatoes
  • 8 whole wheat tortillas

Directions: Drain and rinse pinto beans well, using colander.

Coat a large saute pan with non-stick cooking spray, over medium heat saute zucchini, carrots, bell pepper and onion until tender. Add turkey meat to vegetable mixture, cook until browned.

Add pinto beans, tomato juice, tomato paste and all seasonings into saute pan. Stir well.

Grate cheddar cheese, set aside. Rinse lettuce and shred; set aside. Rinse tomatoes and dice; set aside. 
Reduce heat to medium and cooking until thickened, about 20 minutes.Assemble tacos with tortilla, ground turkey mixture, cheddar cheese, and lettuce, and top with diced tomatoes.