Primates of Park Avenue / Roast Chicken with Rainbow Carrots and Potatoes

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This week’s recipe: Roast Chicken with Rainbow Carrots and Potatoes

You may not know it from my lengthy disquisitions on Say Yes to the Dress, but to quote the President, I’m, like, a smart person. I just finished an 800-page biography of Josef Stalin. Some of my favorite books are about North Korean defectors; young women living in the South Bronx at the height of the crack boom; parenting children with conditions including deafness, dwarfism, autism, and schizophrenia; and the meth epidemic in rural Iowa. I find depressing books to be their own form of escapism—I read them and think, Well, my life’s not so bad! But I’m only human, and sometimes I like to read actual escapist books.

Which brings me to Primates of Park Avenue. You may remember it from the explosive “wife bonus” op-ed the book’s author, Wednesday Martin, published in the New York Times, alleging that masters of the universe on the Upper East Side pay their wives an annual stipend based on how well they’ve performed their domestic (and, by implication, sexual) duties that year. This was, if you’re feeling charitable, an exaggeration, and if you’re not, a fabrication, but it got the book a lot of publicity. We were discussing it around the office—I work in the development department of a hospital, and we theorized that some of our donors might be mentioned in the book—and so decided to order it for “research” purposes. It’s been sitting on my coworker’s desk for a year and a half, and when she moved desks last week and put all of her books out for anyone to take, I decided that I was going to spend my lazy Sunday at home curled up with Wednesday Martin and her tribe of bitchy Upper East Side moms.

The conceit of the book is that Martin, who has an undergraduate degree in anthropology, observes the rituals and behavior of Upper East Side moms as would an anthropologist embedded in a foreign culture or a primatologist studying a group of chimps. It’s pretty thin as framing devices go, but she clearly needed some way to make herself stand out from the pack, whether that’s differentiating herself from other Upper East Side private school moms or her publisher differentiating her book from the dozens of other novels and tell-alls that have been written about Upper East Side private school moms. I read the whole thing in a day so I’m not going to act like I’m above it, but it ultimately made me kind of angry, for spoiler-y reasons I will further explain below. But first, the superficial problems:

-The author’s name is Wednesday, which is just stupid. We don’t get to pick our own names so I wouldn’t blame her for that one, except that her name is actually Wendy. Why she changed it, I cannot say. Maybe she is a big fan of the Addams family. But it’s still stupid.

-For someone joining a tribe whose members’ lives ostensibly revolve around their children, Martin writes remarkably little about actual mothering (she has a full-time nanny). Her husband and sons are barely there, to the point that you never learn their names. The fact that she has two stepdaughters—a fact about which she wrote an entire previous book—is literally never mentioned.

-The ridiculous, coy non-name-dropping name-dropping (we get it, your kids go to the 92nd Street Y preschool; the lady who marched into Hermes demanding a Birkin bag was Jessica Seinfeld; etc.)

Despite this, were it not for its last 40 pages, Primates of Park Avenue would have been fluffy, enjoyable, occasionally funny but mostly forgettable trash. But in the last chapter, Martin gets unexpectedly pregnant and then loses the baby at six months. As she processes her grief at this awful heartbreak, other mothers come forward to support her and share their own stories of loss. She realizes that even being the “perfect” Upper East mom, living in the greatest state of comfort and ecological release of all time, doesn’t protect you from nature. It’s a very sad story, and it’s also infuriatingly manipulative. She’s spent a whole book telling us that Upper East Side women are cliquey, competitive, petty social climbers, and then blammo, tragedy strikes and suddenly it’s all rah-rah sisterhood, the power of female friendships! The bar for friendship here—being nice to someone after they’ve faced a terrible loss—is pretty low. But I resented the use of the loss of a baby, one of the saddest and most difficult things a woman can go through, as a device to add gravitas to a book that devotes literally an entire chapter to the author’s quest to obtain a Birkin bag. And what sort of moral is that: the best way to fit in with Upper East Side mothers is to have a miscarriage?

No—the best way to fit in with Upper East Side mothers is to be an Upper East Side mother, which Martin, for all her pretensions to ethnography, undoubtedly is. The apartment on Park Avenue with a dedicated handbag closet; the kids at the Y; the designer clothes; the classes at Physique 57; the house in the Hamptons; the Birkin bag—what, exactly, distinguishes Martin from the moms she’s lampooning? (It’s the same reason I couldn’t get into the show Odd Mom Out, even though lots of people have recommended it to me; the gist seems to be, “I’m not anything like those skinny, rich, blonde, Upper East Side moms; I’m a skinny, rich, brunette, Upper East Side mom.” Talk about the narcissism of minor differences.) Because make no mistake; up until the last chapter, when everyone suddenly discovers empathy, every person Martin encounters is a walking stereotype. Martin claims that every woman who lives in a certain zip code acts a certain way, when it’s closer to the truth to say that no one in that zip code acts that way. No one meets a new neighbor for the first time and then trills, “We’ll see you in Palm Beach! Oh, you don’t go to Palm Beach? Aspen, then!” Seriously, who the fuck talks like that outside of overdone fiction?

If Martin hadn’t insisted on making her point no matter how much it strained credibility, there could be an interesting book in here somewhere. The caricature of a rich man’s wife is a dumb blond gold-digger with inflatable breasts who is half her husband’s age. That’s not accurate now, if it ever was. Sure, ugly divorces followed by much younger second wives are not unheard of in high society. But as I’ve learned over the last few years fundraising for a hospital that is a prominent high-society cause, most of today’s socialites were yesterday’s MBA, JD, and Ph.D. candidates. Many of them worked in high-powered finance or corporate jobs before they had kids, and they’re not any dumber or less ambitious just because they’re no longer working. Instead, they pour their drive into raising their children, perfecting their bodies, and volunteering or charity. Your children inevitably age, you inevitably age, and your ability to have a meaningful philanthropic impact is entirely dependent on your husband’s earning potential—what does it mean to live such a contingent existence?

Martin isn’t interested in probing that deep, instead using her miscarriage to wring pathos out of a story in which she is otherwise a mostly unsympathetic protagonist and all of the other characters are vicious, one-dimensional nightmares. She acts as though forces beyond her control turned her into a stereotypical Upper East Side mom, but I know from personal experience that she had more agency than she lets on. I grew up in Martin’s milieu, or at least adjacent to it. Like her children, I went to the Y for preschool, which definitely had its ridiculous moments—as a (nominally) Jewish school, they would do family Shabbat services on Friday afternoons every once in a while, and one of the mothers asked if they could please move Shabbat to Tuesdays because the current schedule made it difficult to get out to the Hamptons for the weekend. I went to what Martin would call a “top-tier” private school, where bar mitzvahs that cost more than the average wedding were common and yes, our after-prom was in those ubiquitous Hamptons. Martin even calls out the building I grew up in as being home to “titans of industry and their socialite wives” (as anyone who has ever seen my mother pad around the Upper West Side in her New York Stem Cell Foundation t-shirt and leggings with holes in them can attest, that description is absolutely accurate!) Yet somehow, my parents—or my mother in particular—never answered the siren song of plastic surgery, $30,000 handbags, vacations in Aspen, or catered, booze-soaked “girls’ nights” to relax from the stress of being a non-working mother with full-time help. Despite raising their children amidst all this privilege, my parents managed to maintain their values and their identity. Point being, I know Martin wants friends, for herself and her children, but she made a choice to live this insane lifestyle. She acts as though the choices available are to “go native” or be a social pariah, but there’s a third option called “having a life that doesn’t revolve around your children.” My parents were friendly with some of our classmates’ parents, but their real friends were people from work, people from the synagogue, people they had known since college. Maybe the skinny class moms with their designer clothes and blowouts thought my mother was dumpy and weird, but her sense of self-worth didn’t revolve around their acceptance, and ultimately, my parents didn’t need to wait for tragedy to hit them to feel like they were surrounded by an actual community.

A final note: I somehow managed never to go to the Hamptons until after I had graduated from college, when I visited a friend’s house in Southampton. Her neighbor on one side was Calvin Klein; her neighbor on the other side was David Koch. I was lounging in her infinity pool, talking to her mother about how beautiful the house was, and her mother casually said, “Yeah, we really love Southampton because it’s not so fancy.” I was tempted to gulp up some of the pool water, just so I could do a spit take. I understood what she meant—that it wasn’t old money—but at the time I was working in publishing, and it’s no exaggeration to say that there were vases in her house that probably cost more than what I made in a year. It brought home to me an important truth that applies equally to my friend’s mother in the Hamptons, to Wednesday Martin on the Upper East Side, and to me with my private school upbringing: no matter how much money you make, no matter how much advantage you enjoy, no matter how much prestige you garner, no matter how high you climb, no one ever sees themselves as “fancy.” In the abstract, we may be aware that we are incredibly privileged and that our lifestyles are foreign to 99 percent of Americans. Nevertheless, we feel that there’s always someone else out there who is the real snob, who is the real elite, whose way of living is just so ridiculous and over the top. Because of this universal bias towards seeing ourselves as “normal,” I doubt that the mothers in Martin’s book would even recognize themselves in her depictions of them.

So anyway, here’s some chicken. I’m bummed that I couldn’t get a better picture because this was honestly one of the most gorgeous-looking dishes I’ve ever made–and tasty, to boot! I highly recommend you check out the original photography on the Feast and Fable blog to see how beautiful this chicken truly is. Colorful sides, crispy golden skin, lovely sage garnish, what else could you ask for? Being a kosher eater, I substituted the butter for Earth Balance margarine, but I don’t think the dish suffered at all. Make this next time you want to impress your guests!

Roast Chicken with Rainbow Carrots and Potatoes

From Feast and Fable

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 4-6 lb roasting chicken
  • 1 large bunch of fresh thyme (15-20 sprigs)
  • 1 lemon, halved
  • 1 head garlic, cut in half crosswise
  • 2 Tbsp. butter, cubed (or margarine if you’re kosher)
  • 2 Tbsp. butter, melted (or margarine if you’re kosher)
  • Olive oil
  • kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 lb. bag baby rainbow carrots or 6-8 medium carrots. Halved and cut into pieces.
  • 1 lb. red, purple or fingerling potatoes (or a medley of all three as shown), cut in half or quartered, if large
  • 1 onion, cut in quarters and peeled into petals
  • 1 bunch fresh sage leaves
  • Optional: Fleur de Sel

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. Lightly oil a large baking dish. Place carrots, onion petals and potatoes in the dish. Season with salt, pepper and fresh or dried herbs to your liking. Drizzle with olive oil and toss to coat evenly.
  3. To prepare the chicken, first remove the giblets. Rinse the chicken inside and out in cool water and pat dry with paper towels.
  4. Liberally salt and pepper the inside of the chicken. Stuff the cavity with 15-20 sprigs of thyme and add the lemon, garlic and cubed butter.
  5. Brush the outside of the chicken with the melted butter and tie the legs together. (I did not have kitchen string on hand so I opted out of this step.)
  6. Salt and pepper the outside liberally. Place the chicken on top of the vegetables and tuck the wings underneath the body (just like how you cross your arms behind your head when sunning at the beach).
  7. Place in the lower third of the oven and roast for 1.5 hours. After 45 minutes, baste or brush the chicken with the pan’s drippings and continue roasting for another 30-45 minutes. I basted my chicken one more time and stirred the vegetables to get an equal roast.
  8. Meanwhile, heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Once heated, drop one sage leaf into the oil using tongs and cook 5 seconds on each side. The leaf should sizzle in the oil and crisp up quickly, but not yellow. If yellow, your oil is too hot. Once your heat is right, crisp up the remaining sage leaves and place on a plate lined with paper towels to cool. Then sprinkle with Fleur de Sel or a nice, coarse finishing salt.
  9. The chicken is done when a thermometer reads between 160 – 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Once cooked, remove from the oven and let set for 20 minutes before slicing.

Intermarriage / St. Patrick’s Day Cupcakes

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This week’s recipe: St. Patrick’s Day Cupcakes

Unlike a lot of Jewish kids, I don’t remember my parents putting a lot of emphasis on the evils of intermarriage. They framed it in a positive way—they loved Judaism, we loved Judaism, so it would only make sense for us to find partners and raise children that also loved Judaism. The Jewish summer camp I attended took a different tack. Every summer starting at age 14 featured a special Shabbat called “Shabbat ‘Don’t Intermarry,’” where we’d learn things like statistics on relative divorce rate for inmarried versus intermarried couples. It was subtle.

I don’t know whose approach was more effective, but neither I nor my sisters have ever been in a serious relationship with a non-Jew. This is pretty impressive, demographically speaking, for a household with three millennials who were raised in the Conservative movement. (For those who don’t know, the Conservative movement in Judaism is not that conservative; the most religiously conservative movement is called Orthodox, and the liberal movement is called Reform. The capital-c Conservative movement is somewhere in between. Confusing, I know.) Something like 60 percent of Jews are intermarried, and that percentage gets even higher for younger people. My mother’s siblings are both intermarried; it’s looking like all of my cousins will end up married to non-Jews as well (although two out of the four of them aren’t Jewish themselves so that’s not really relevant). So despite the best efforts of “Shabbat ‘Don’t Intermarry,’” the horse has clearly left the barn on this one. But Conservative rabbis are not allowed to perform intermarriages. This has caused a lot of agita at our synagogue, as young people who grew up in the congregation are now getting (inter)engaged, approaching the rabbis about performing the ceremony, and getting turned away.

That’s what happened to someone I grew up with, Saul. Saul was in my Hebrew school class; we went to kids’ services together, performed in Purim plays together, and once we got older, led family services on the High Holidays together. His family is very involved in the synagogue and he cares a lot about the community and his Judaism, but he fell in love with a non-Jewish girl and they got engaged a few months ago. He told his story on Wednesday night at an event the synagogue hosted, where six members gave speeches on their experiences with and views on intermarriage. All of the speakers were excellent, but it seemed like everyone in the audience found Saul’s to be the most resonant.

One point he made in particular really stuck with me: as a community, we welcome couples who are already intermarried, but we push away those in the process of intermarrying. This is really dangerous for our community’s long-term sustainability. Part of our problem, which is a problem many synagogues are having, is that people in their 20s and 30s are a lot less likely to join or be actively involved with synagogue until they start having kids. A young couple coming to a rabbi and asking him or her to perform their marriage is an important inflection point. Do we take that opportunity to engage them and draw them back into the community, or do we reject them so that they are much less likely to raise their kids Jewish?

I have found that almost everyone’s opinion on this subject, my own included, is informed by anecdotes and experience rather than data or Jewish law. Personal experiences are profoundly powerful, and the emotions around this topic are intense and raw. It’s tied up in much bigger questions about the value of openness versus the value of boundaries; about the identity and survival of the Jewish people, not to mention the Conservative movement; about the synagogue’s self-perception as a welcoming and progressive place; and more.

Personally, I don’t know what to think anymore. My gut impulse is to be opposed, but I desperately want to be talked out of it, and I think I’m on my way, in large part because of stories like Saul’s or my friend Alexandra’s. Alexandra and I met on a summer trip to Israel (actually, in a weird coincidence, we had met the summer before in a teen writers’ workshop at the University of Iowa, but we didn’t become friends until the Israel trip). She was deeply involved with her university’s Hillel, worked for a number of Jewish organizations after college, lived in Israel for a year while she was getting her master’s degree, and was just accepted to rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College. She is also the daughter of a woman who was raised Catholic and never converted, so according to the Conservative movement’s interpretation of Jewish law, which traces Judaism through matrilineal descent, she’s not Jewish (she is Reform and they believe in patrilineal as well as matrilineal descent, so it’s not a problem). That is, on its face, ridiculous, and frankly a little racist. I went to grade school with dozens of “full” Jews who went to synagogue maybe twice a year, who had a 10-minute bar mitzvah service as an excuse to throw a $50,000 party, who were not raised with the values of charity, community service, Jewish learning, or any of the other aspects that I find so integral to Jewish identity. In 2017, are we really relying on the medieval notion that there’s some sort of magic blood that makes you Jewish? Why should someone like Alexandra have to prove herself in order to have a Jewish wedding when a “full” Jewish couple who will serve shrimp puffs at their reception and will not set foot in a synagogue again until it’s time for their kid to have his bar mitzvah doesn’t have to pass any sort of test?

The reality is that everyone has different levels of observance, even when both partners are Jewish. Mark wouldn’t keep a kosher home or have Shabbat dinners every Friday night if he didn’t live with me, and my mom probably wouldn’t go to synagogue on a weekly or even a sporadic basis if she wasn’t married to my dad. Everyone is on their own religious journey—on Wednesday, a woman named Kay spoke about having been married to a Jewish man for about two decades before she decided to convert—and while it’s definitely easier when both partners are on roughly the same page religiously, there’s no guarantee that they’ll have a Jewish home or raise a Jewish family. But as Kay said, her marriage didn’t cause the Jewish community to lose her husband or her children, and in fact we gained her. And as Saul said, if interfaith families are made to feel welcome, they may drift away from Judaism, but if they’re not made to feel welcome, they almost definitely will.

Making people feel welcome is a priority for our congregation, which has always been very liberal and progressive. Apart from the thorny question of whether or not the rabbis should perform intermarriages, I thought we were doing a good job, but now I’m not sure. Prior to Wednesday’s event, they held smaller “salon” discussions in synagogue members’ apartments. At my salon, I said something about how I felt that the congregation was welcoming to interfaith couples, to the point where I didn’t even know who was intermarried and who wasn’t. Certainly in my role as a children’s services leader, I am 100 percent certain that there are intermarried parents who bring their kids to my service, but I have no idea who they are and I don’t care. One of the other participants in the conversation, Scott, spoke up and said that he was a convert, that he hadn’t converted until eight years after he and his wife got married, and that he hadn’t felt welcomed during that time. He said that it wasn’t anything specific that anyone said or did; it was simply a feeling of not belonging. After Wednesday night’s event, I understood what he meant. As I listened to the speakers, I found myself having a visceral reaction to the ones that were opposed to intermarriage. Even though I actually agreed with a lot of those speakers’ points, I cringed in the knowledge that they were saying was hurtful and offensive to so many people in the room. I imagined how I’d feel if Mark weren’t Jewish and members of my community were treating our relationship as a threat, and I felt some small, vicarious portion of the pain that interfaith couples must feel all the time. The very fact that we are having this conversation, important as it is, is evidence that non-Jews in our community are seen on some level as a problem, a stain, an impurity. No wonder that they’ll never feel like they fully belong.

Which isn’t to say that anyone dislikes them personally. Nobody is hateful. Nobody is trying to cause anyone else any pain. Everybody wants to be welcoming. But—to finally get to the arguments against intermarriage—Judaism is a very tribal religion, with a long and sorrowful history that makes survival and continuity paramount values. We persisted in maintaining our identity through centuries of oppression and persecution—are we going to water down our standards now because we’re afraid of hurting people’s feelings? And since the main question the synagogue has been exploring has been whether or not the rabbis should perform intermarriages, certain practical issues arise. If the laws of Moses and Israel mean nothing to you, then signing a marriage contract stating that you are being married in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel means nothing. I don’t take communion when I go to a Catholic church; is it wrong to say that there should be certain privileges that are reserved only for members of the community, whether they’re members by birth or by choice?

Some would say that yes, it is wrong, or at least arbitrary. Our synagogue and the Conservative movement ordain women as rabbis. We perform gay marriages. Why draw the line here? To that, I say that you can convert to Judaism—you can’t convert to maleness or straightness. People’s reasons for not converting are varied and legitimate, and it’s not fair that one half of a couple should have to negate their identity, family, and life history to marry the other half. But, as they say, life isn’t fair. There are a million reasons why otherwise wonderful relationships don’t lead to marriage: distance, career commitments, incompatibility with one or both partners’ family, and so on. Because we are assimilated into a secular society, a lot of people see it as ridiculous that ancient religious ties should be one of those reasons. But I don’t. To me, Judaism is such an important part of my life that it’s like having a child. If you have a child and you enter a new relationship, you tell your partner that they have to accept you child, no matter what, even though it’s not and will never be their child. But, leaving the metaphor, what form does that acceptance have to take? For me, it would require a wholehearted commitment: conversion. But others will disagree. These days, I’m thinking that it’s a little like gay marriage: I wouldn’t have one, but the fact that they’re allowed to exist in no way weakens or cheapens my own experience.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of practicality. Intermarriage is a fait accompli; what matters is how we respond to it. You can’t go backwards, only forwards, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You don’t have to worry about intermarriage when you live in a ghetto walled off from the wider world. But once you’re free, you realize that there’s a lot of world out there. Jews are going to meet, socialize with, befriend, and fall in love with non-Jews, and we should be grateful that we’re sufficiently accepted in this society that that scenario is even possible. See, there’s a silver lining to everything!

So anyway, here are some cupcakes. Speaking of the intermingling of cultures, I made these Guinness and Bailey’s cupcakes for St. Patrick’s Day. As a Midtown East office worker who often likes to venture west during her lunch break, St. Patrick’s Day is one of my least favorite days of the year. Actually, scratch that, as a normal, sober human who does not like encounters with drunk morons at 9 a.m., St. Patrick’s Day is one of my least favorite days of the year. 80 percent of you are not Irish, you’re not fooling anybody with that shamrock temporary tattoo on your cheek. Still, even as a confirmed St. Patrick’s Day grump, I think we can all thank Irish culture for giving us the gift of these tasty cupcakes, whose recipe I am sure was authentically created by Patrick Pearse, St .Brigid, James Joyce, and Bono. They came to me by way of JessBeeCreates.com, where they are in cake form. I halved the cake recipe, which made a dozen cupcakes, but made all of the frosting. Super yummy, and the frosting did not suffer from the fact that we only had off-brand Bailey’s. Happy St. Patrick’s Day and Shabbat Shalom, everybody.

St. Patrick’s Day Cupcakes

Adapted from JessBeeCreates.com

Ingredients

Cupcakes:

  • 1 cup Guinness beer
  • 1 cup butter
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 eggs
  • 2/3 cup sour cream
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1.5 teaspoons baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt

Icing:

  • 8 ounces butter
  • 1 pound powdered sugar
  • 1 – 4 tablespoons Bailey’s Irish Cream

Directions

Preheat oven to 350. Add beer and butter to a saucepan and heat until butter is melted. Remove from heat and thoroughly whisk in the cocoa powder. Set aside to cool. In a mixing bowl, combine eggs and sour cream. Add in the beer mixture, thoroughly mixing with an electric mixer. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Pour the beer mixture into the dry ingredients, mixing again with your electric mixer. Pour the batter into a cupcake pan and bake for about 20 minutes.

Make your Bailey’s buttercream icing by combining the butter, powdered sugar, and Bailey’s (start with just one tablespoon, adding additional tablespoons as needed so your icing isn’t too thin). Use the electric mixer to combine thoroughly, blending for about 10 minutes. Wait until your cupcake has cooled completely before adding the icing.

Purim / Hamantaschen

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This week’s recipe: Hamantaschen with Vanilla Cream and Chocolate Chips

Chag sameach! (Or as my iPhone’s autocorrect would have it, chang same each!) Today is the Jewish holiday of Purim, which I usually describe to non-Jews as “Jewish Halloween.” While it does involve wearing costumes and giving out candy, it is a Jewish holiday and is therefore mostly about persecution and deliverance. Fun! No, but really, it is fun. Among other things, you are commanded to get so drunk that you can’t tell the difference between the hero and the villain of the Purim story.

About that story: a quick recap is that there is a foolish king, Achasheverosh, who banishes his queen, Vashti, when she defies him and installs in her place a woman named Esther. Esther is Jewish but her uncle, Mordechai, commands her to hide it from the king. Meanwhile, the king has an evil advisor, Haman, who has beef with Mordechai and as a result convinces the king to decree that all Jews in the kingdom will be slaughtered on the 14th day of the month of Adar. Esther, with Mordechai’s encouragement, comes out to Achashverosh as Jewish, and the Jews are saved. Haman is hanged on the gallows that he had built for Mordechai, and Mordechai becomes the king’s right hand man.

Many people have noted the parallels between the current political situation and the Purim story. Achashverosh, who is stupid, lazy, impulsive, and lecherous, is of course Trump. Haman, the king’s close advisor who is consumed by violent race hatred and guided by an unshakeable belief in his own superiority, is Steve Bannon. Esther, the beautiful Jewish woman who has the king’s favor (and sexual interest, ew) and is able to put her religious identity on the back burner in order to gain power and advantage, is Ivanka. Mordechai, the court Jew who is able to temper the king’s worse impulses but never really bucks the system unless he absolutely has to, is Jared Kushner. Vashti is Ivana or Marla Maples.

So that’s part of the reason that the Purim story feels particularly resonant this year. But we’re also seeing a level of open anti-Semitism that I’ve never seen in this country. Until now, I had felt confident that there was never a better time and place to be Jewish than in contemporary America, but I’m sure that my German grandmother and great-grandparents felt the same way about Berlin before the Nazis took over. Jewish history teaches us that we’re never safe, and that message is reinforced by the Purim story. Haman is a physical and spiritual descendent of Amalek, the eternal enemy of the Jews, and we are taught that in every generation, Amalek arises again. It’s only through God’s providence that we somehow always make it through.

I don’t think any “decrees” are going to go out targeting Jews, but obviously, other communities haven’t been so lucky even in these early days. We can’t count on Ivanka and Jared to play the roles of Esther and Mordechai, to stand up to power and protect the marginalized even at great personal risk. Their actions to date have already made that abundantly clear. But the story of Esther is about using your privilege to stop great evil, and American Jews as a whole are lucky that we have enough economic, political, and cultural power to speak out against racism and abuse, no matter who the victim may be.

So anyway, here’s some hamantaschen. Hamantaschen, you might say, is that related to Haman? It is! These are special triangle-shaped cookies that we eat on Purim that are said to be either in the shape of Haman’s hat or his ear. You can fill them with jam, poppy seeds, or, if you are the brilliant Uri Scheft of Breads Bakery, chocolate and cream! I’ve been making hamantaschen for years and I’ve never found a recipe that I like. By “like” I don’t mean taste-wise–they all taste fine to excellent, and these ones were amazing–but they are such a huge pain in the ass to make. I don’t know why it is but cookies are uninterested in being shaped like triangles. That is probably why…

When you go to the store to buy a cookie
Most of the cookies are round
But a cookie in the shape of a triangle
Can almost never be found
Except for hamantaschen
They have three sides
Strawberries are baked inside
Every time that we hear Haman’s name
We play this little game
And we go stomp stomp stomp
Rat a tat tat
I’m gonna eat your hat hat hat
Stomp stomp stomp
Rat a tat tat
I’m gonna eat your hat hat hat!

Hamantaschen with Vanilla Cream and Chocolate Chips

Adapted from Breaking Breads

Almond Shortbread
1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) butter, cold
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3/4 beaten egg (1/4 goes to egg wash)
1 & 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup almond flour (meal)
1/2 teaspoon salt

Vanilla Cream
6 large egg yolks
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
2 cups whole milk
1 split vanilla bean
All-purpose flour for rolling the dough
1 cup chocolate chips

Egg Wash
1 large egg
1 tablespoon water
Pinch of salt

Instructions

  1. To make the shortbread dough, soften butter a little bit and place in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Add confectioners’ and granulated sugars and mix on low speed until combined, about 30 seconds. Increase speed and beat for 30 seconds more. Add egg, mix on low speed until just combine. Add all-purpose flour, almond meal, and salt. Mix until almost combined. Turn off the mixer, remove the bowl from mixer base, and use your hands to finish the dough. Wrap into plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough for 1 hour.
  2. To make the cream, place the egg yolks in a heat-safe medium bowl, add the sugar, and whisk until well combined. Whisk in the corn starch and set the bowl aside.
  3. Whisk the milk and vanilla seeds together in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan and set it over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the milk comes to a simmer. Whisk a drizzle of the hot milk mixture into the egg mixture–you want to warm the yolks gently so they don’t curdle. Whisk in more milk, a little at a time, until the bottom of the bowl is warm to the touch. Then pour all the egg yolk mixture into the saucepan and whisk well to combine. Set the saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring, making sure the pastry cream doesn’t burn on the bottom of the pan, until the pastry cream is smooth, steam rises off the top, and one or two bubbles burst at the surface, 4 to 6 minutes. Pour the pastry cream into a medium bowl. Cover the cream with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well-chilled, at least two hours (it will keep for up to two days).
  4. Set the shortbread dough on a lightly floured work surface. Roll it into an 18-inch square that is 1/8 inch thick. As you roll it, move the dough often. If the dough becomes warm and starts to stick or become difficult to work with, slide it onto a sheet pan and refrigerate it until it becomes firm again.
  5. Make the egg wash: in a small bowl, whisk the egg, water, and salt together. Use a 3-inch round cookie cutter or an upside-down glass to stamp out as many rounds as possible, leaving as little space between rounds as possible. Place the rounds on a parchment paper-lined sheet pan about 1.5 inches apart and refrigerate for 10 minutes. Lightly brush the surface of each chilled pastry round with egg wash, and spoon some pastry cream into the center. Press five chocolate chips into the mound of filling, and then pinch the dough so it forms a triangle around the filling.
  6. Preheat the oven to 350, chilling the hamantaschen in the refrigerator while the oven warms up.
  7. Use a pastry brush to brush the egg wash onto each side of the hamantaschen. Bake for 15 minutes or until evenly browned.

Bubbles / Pasta with Anchovies, Garlic, Chiles, and Kale

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This week’s recipe: Pasta with Anchovies, Garlic, Chiles, and Kale

Since the election, there’s been a lot of talk about bubbles. Political bubbles, cultural bubbles, social media bubbles, it’s a veritable bubble bath! Except instead of a nice comforting soak in warm water, we have President Donald Trump. In order to understand how this catastrophe came to pass, we’ve been told, we need to pierce our bubbles and see things from the perspective of Trump voters—people whose economic anxiety makes them do and say a remarkable number of racist things, as Charlie Pierce has frequently noted. If you can’t tell from the previous sentence, I don’t think very highly of this bubble-centric line of argument. I don’t remember members of the conservative media eight years ago flagellating themselves for being so blind as to the popular will and asking disappointed, sometimes hysterical, Republican voters to step out of their bubble and into the shoes of someone who voted for Barack Obama. Just as Democrats are always called on to be bipartisan while Republicans will literally ally with the Russian government if it means sticking it to the opposition, the empathy is only expected to flow one way. The categories that characterize the mythical (and I do mean mythical) Trump voter demographic—white, male, Christian, poorly educated, middle-aged, blue collar, rural—are  among the most pandered-to in American political discourse. Sarah Palin wasn’t the first to divide the country into godless liberals and real Americans, but she perfected the art, and over eight years later, voting for Trump means you are in touch with the soul of our nation while voting for the woman who won 3 million more votes means you are a hopeless, bubble-dwelling elitist.

How do I know this? Charles Murray told me so, of course. Murray is a conservative political scientist who is best known for co-authoring a 1994 book, The Bell Curve, which argued that race correlated with IQ. In 2012, he wrote another book called Coming Apart, about cultural sorting and the decline of the white working class. I haven’t read either The Bell Curve or Coming Apart, and unlike my brother-in-law who is an academic, it is my policy not to give critical comment on books that I haven’t read. But Coming Apart features a “How Thick Is Your Bubble?” quiz that can be found in its original iteration and an updated 2016 version online. Since I am consistently being urged by the media outlets that I frequent to break outta that bubble, I thought it would be useful to know just how hard that would be. So I went to the PBS Web site and moseyed on down to Bubble Town.

The quiz is made up of 25 questions designed to see how disconnected you are from the “average white American and American culture at large.” You can click on a “Why this question?” button at the bottom to see the rationale for each question. Though the questions themselves are not phrased in a judgmental way, the “right” and “wrong” answers are clear. I was aware of Charles Murray’s politics so I wasn’t too surprised by the sneering asides on some of the questions about how living in poverty during grad school or buying a pickup truck for your vacation home in Montana don’t count. That doesn’t mean it was all bad. Some of the questions—about education levels, for instance, or having one or more close friends with whom you disagree politically—I found eminently fair. I appreciated that the quiz stayed away from specific political beliefs, although the fact that being an evangelical Christian got you extra points sure felt like a proxy.

My issue with the quiz is that Murray’s designation of what makes an average American is arbitrary at best and biased at worst. “Average” is supposed to mean “typical,” but when 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas—a percentage that grows with every census—why is it considered “average” to live in a town of under 50,000 people? When manufacturing has been dying and automation has been rising for decades, why is it relevant to have walked on a factory floor, for work or otherwise? Why does being an evangelical Christian—a significant minority in American life, but a minority nonetheless—make you mainstream? Some questions, like whether or not you lettered in a sport at school, he concedes are based in stereotypes and not data. And then there’s the question about eating at popular fast-casual restaurants, where Murray admits that he left off Chipotle because even though it is in the top 10 restaurants by number of outlets, it “is to the casual-dining genre of restaurants what Whole Foods is to grocery stores.” To me, that smacks of a narrative. Chipotle is popular but like living in a city (80 percent of Americans), being Catholic (23.9 percent of Americans), or not smoking cigarettes (85 percent of Americans), it’s not popular with the right people for the purposes of this quiz, so off the list it goes.

I know that this sounds defensive, and I’m not trying to make the case that I don’t live in a bubble. I absolutely do. I’ve had educational, cultural, and economic advantages that most people can only dream of. I’ve traveled to four continents but I don’t have a driver’s license. Nevertheless, I don’t understand why someone who lives in the largest, most diverse city in the United States, who has received a college education, who traveled to foreign countries and interacts on a daily basis with people from all different races and religions and countries, lives in a bubble, while someone who lives all their life in the same 10,000-person town, never went to college, has the same job that their father and grandfather had, never travels farther than the next state, and rarely or never meets a person from a different background, doesn’t live in a bubble.

Mainstream American culture is more complicated (and in my opinion, richer) than Murray’s quiz suggests. Just the questions on this quiz demonstrate that we can be a nation of Nascar-loving, varsity-lettering, Budweiser-drinking evangelicals, and that six of our top ten most popular TV program are shows created by and starring black people, a show about physics nerds, and a show featuring gay and interracial couples. There are people who voted for Donald Trump last year who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012. While I believe that the Republican Party as an institution is way more destructive and extreme than the Democrats, I acknowledge that out there in the country, there are boneheads and jackasses on either side (speaking of which, you may have heard about Murray in the news this week after he was shouted down and physically attacked while trying to give a talk at Middlebury. Talk about boneheads and jackasses.) It makes me wonder how useful the concept of “average” could possibly be in a nation as large and diverse as this one. As for the concept of bubbles, I have no doubt as to its uselessness. Bubbles are clearly in the eye of the beholder.

So anyway, here’s some pasta. I made this last weekend when I overslept and needed to put together a quick lunch before my long training run. I used whole wheat penne but I imagine any kind of pasta would work. It was incredibly simple and yummy, thanks in large part to anchovies. Those salty little bastards are the best. They can sit in a tin in your cabinet forever, and they add so much flavor to any recipe (though I wouldn’t recommend putting them in, say, buttercream frosting). Combine that with garlic and red pepper for a little kick, and you’re all set to run nine miles—or, if it’s cold out and you’re lazy, four and a half miles.

Pasta with Anchovies, Garlic, Chiles, and Kale

From the New York Times Cooking Section 

Ingredients

  • Salt, as needed
  • ½ pound pasta
  • 3 tablespoons good olive oil, more for drizzling
  • ¼ to ½ teaspoon crushed red chile flakes, to taste
  • 4 fat garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
  • 2 tablespoons drained capers, patted dry with a paper towel to encourage browning
  • 4 anchovy filets
  • 1 small bunch kale, chopped (or use 3 large handfuls chopped kale)
  • Black pepper
  • Squeeze of lemon, optional
  • Grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese, for serving (optional)

Instructions

  1. Bring a heavily salted pot of water to a boil. Cook pasta until al dente. Drain.
  2. Meanwhile, heat oil in the largest skillet you have. Add chiles and a pinch of salt and toast until golden, 1 to 2 minutes.
  3. Add smashed garlic, capers and anchovies. Let cook until everything is golden, the capers look crisp around the edges and the anchovies have dissolved into the oil, about 3 to 4 minutes. (You can help anchovies dissolve by mashing them with a wooden spoon as they cook.) Add kale and 2 tablespoons water and sauté until kale wilts and cooks in the pan and is well coated with oil, about 5 minutes. You might have to add more water if the water evaporates before the kale finishes cooking.
  4. Add drained pasta and toss well. Add more salt if necessary and plenty of black pepper, and serve drizzled with more oil and a squeeze of lemon if the dish needs a lift. Cheese isn’t necessary but if you like pecorino and have some on hand, feel free to shower it on top.

Say Yes to the Dress / Brown Butter Bruleed Donut Holes

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This week’s recipe: Brown Butter Bruleed Donut Holes

My sisters and I were not allowed to watch television growing up. We also had two working parents who were often not home until late, and our babysitter could not give less of a crap if we watched TV or not, so we would rush home from school and put on Saved by the Bell, Full House, and Family Matters, remote always in hand in case our parents came home early and we had to make a quick getaway. I think that the point of the no TV rule was less about keeping us away from TV and more about making sure that we read, which we all still do, so in that regard, it was a success. But if it was at all about keeping us away from TV, it backfired spectacularly! We are all TV junkies to a greater or lesser extent, although I have no shame about that fact: TV is objectively better now than it was in the 90s, when we were growing up, and for the most part, the shows that my sisters and I love–West Wing, Parks and Recreation, Gilmore Girls, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and the like–are high-quality. But there is one show that we love that is…questionable. Naturally, it’s reality TV, the genre that is a repository for what’s worst and trashiest about television. But nevertheless, I will defend Say Yes to the Dress until my dying day!

Okay, that’s a little dramatic. But Say Yes to the Dress is, I believe, a different breed of reality show, and definitely better than what one would expect from the ironically named The Learning Channel. There are four main iterations of the show:

Say Yes to the Dress is the one from whence they all spring. It takes place at Kleinfeld’s, an upscale bridal salon in Manhattan. Women come from all over the country and even the world to meet with the bridal consultants and try on extremely expensive dresses. Many of them bring large entourages of friends and family members, many of whom have their own loudly expressed opinions, but in the end, the bride always gets her way. If an appointment starts to go south, the consultant calls in Randy, the fashion director. Randy is very gay and extremely good at his job. He is a national treasure. Another prominent SYTTD character is Pnina Tornai, the in-house designer, whose aesthetic can best be summed up as “slutty pirate.”

Fun fact about Kleinfeld’s: there is a bridal consultant named Rochel Leah there specifically for Orthodox Jewish and other modest brides who will need sleeves built onto their dresses. Rochel Leah has only been featured on one episode of Say Yes to the Dress, which makes sense, since modest brides probably do not want their arms and shoulders broadcast on TV.

Say Yes to the Dress Atlanta is basically the same as the original flavor, except it takes place in Atlanta and therefore all of the brides are in their teens or early 20s and they all have perfect hair. (It is one of the great mysteries of life that the American South, a notoriously muggy and humid region, produces women with such perfect hair.) There is also a high probability that the brides are or were at one point in a pageant. The salon is run by a woman named Lori, who is warm and folksy but can also be firm and no-nonsense when the need arises. SYTTD Atlanta has its own very gay man, Monte, who wants to be Randy. No one can be Randy but Randy.

Say Yes to the Dress Bridesmaids also takes place in the Atlanta salon. It is amazing because, much as I love regular Say Yes to the Dress, there is not a lot of inherent drama in watching women try on wedding dresses, whereas the bridal party is a reliable viper pit of long-simmering grudges, hurt feelings, and power plays. There’s always a bridesmaid who feels like the bride’s chosen dress won’t look good on her body type; the bridesmaid who was clearly only asked to be in the bridal party because she’s an old friend even though she and the bride don’t seem to like each other anymore; the resentful maid-of-honor sister, and so on. You can imagine the conflicts that ensue! Fun fun fun for viewers! SYTTD Bridesmaids also has its own very gay man, Brandon, who also wants to be Randy but even gayer/a millennial/kind of bitchy. Again, no one can be Randy but Randy.

Say Yes to the Dress Big Bliss is the exact same thing as Say Yes to the Dress, but with plus-sized brides. Considering that there are often plus-sized brides on regular SYTTD, I don’t really understand the point of Big Bliss.

All of these iterations follow the same formula. There are three appointments per episode, including one where the dress has already been bought and altered. Each episode begins with the salon owners talking to the consultants about the day ahead. Miraculously, the theme of their talk—bossy moms, let’s say, or brides with negative body image—is always reflected in the day’s appointments. Also, they are usually wearing different clothes and hairstyles during the meeting than during the rest of the episode. It’s weird! Anyway, then the consultants are sent out to deal with the brides/bridesmaids and their annoying, judgmental friends and family members. The brides usually have a vision for what their dress will look like, of course. Some of them also have stupid themes for their weddings, such as “Sex and the City” or “bling,” which make you wonder why someone is willing to marry them at all. The consultants sit with the brides in the dressing room to discuss their wedding and ask about their fiancé. The standard spiel is, “Derek is my rock. He makes me laugh more than anyone. We met at a bar/at a party/at a baseball game/in middle school [Atlanta only] and I knew immediately that he was the one.” Seriously. Every single bride says something along those lines, it’s like they’re reading from a script. Anyway, the consultant goes to pick out some dresses, puts the bride in one using a series of frightening-looking clips, and then they go out to get the entourage’s opinion.

They don’t put you on the show unless your appointment generates an appropriate amount of conflict (or if you or your fiancé are famous). You can typically count on the family to be insane. In one of my all-time favorite episodes, a woman’s sister/maid-of-honor somehow got it into her head that she should also wear a veil at the wedding. Naturally, the bride and the consultants put the kibosh on this idea, but that didn’t stop the sister from wandering off to the salon’s bridal section in the middle of her bridesmaid’s dress appointment to go try on veils. Family pathology aside, I would say that there are three main sources of drama: how much skin to show, budget, and weight. Budget, by the way, is relative—if you’re not willing to spend at least $2,000, Kleinfeld’s is not for you. But there are also brides who have tried on over a hundred dresses with no success, brides with unlimited budgets who are buying one dress for their ceremony and one for their reception, brides who are in the military and need to get married quickly before they get deployed, and brides who, for cultural or style reasons, don’t want a white dress. (Those ones never made sense to me—why not just go to a department store, which is going to have a much larger selection of red or black or pink dresses for a lot less money?) Truly, the wedding dress shopping experience is as varied and diverse as the human condition.

Does it sound like I’m mocking? Never! My love for SYTTD is pure, despite its silliness and flaws. Nothing about the production is subtle—not the cheesy narration, the breathless “cliffhangers” before each commercial break, the heavy-handed musical cues that tell you exactly what’s going to happen and which emotions you should be feeling. But I love it anyway. The bridal consultants are so kindhearted and patient and accommodating, even to brides and families that I would smack into next wedding season. They really want the bride to feel beautiful and to get everything she wants for her special day. The toxicity of the “her special day” narrative, the pressure for perfection, and the wedding-industrial complex generally is a topic for another post, of course. But considering what a cesspool most of reality TV is, it’s refreshing to watch a show that has kindness and generosity of spirit at its core (plus a healthy dose of consumerism—this is still America we’re talking about).

So anyway, here are some donut holes. These have been on my “to make” list forever, and since we were celebrating my eldest sister’s birthday, I thought this would be a good excuse to make them. “Ah, this recipe says it yields 20 donut holes,” I thought naively, “that will be a perfect small, celebratory dessert.” It ended up being more like 40-50, and poor Mark had to take one for the team by eating about half of them. But they were so delicious it almost didn’t matter. Plus, it was a chance to break out Ye Olde Blow Torch, which I haven’t used in over five years. I was worried about whether it would still function—can butane go bad?—but it came through nicely and I only set the parchment paper on fire twice, so all in all I’d say it was a success.

Brown Butter Bruleed Donut Holes

From Joy the Baker

Ingredients

1 (1/4-oz) package active dry yeast (2 1/2 teaspoons)
2 tablespoons warm water (105–115°F)
pinch of sugar
3 1/4 to 3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour plus additional for sprinkling and rolling out dough
3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted until browned and cooled slightly
3 large egg yolks
About 10 cups vegetable oil for deep frying
2-4 cups granulated sugar for rolling and torching

Instructions

  1. Stir together yeast, warm water, and pinch of sugar in a small bowl until yeast is dissolved. Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. (If yeast doesn’t foam, discard and start over with new yeast.)
  2. In the bowl of an electric stand mixer with a dough hook attachment, combine flour (3 1/4 cups), milk, butter, yolks, sugar, salt, cinnamon, and yeast mixture. I like to stir the mixture by hand, with a spatula, to loosely incorporate before transferring to the stand mixer to beat with the dough hook.
  3. Beat at low speed on the mixer with the dough hook until a soft dough forms, about 3 minutes. Add a bit more flour if the dough seems too wet. It will tend to stick to the sides of the bowl a bit, but add flour it it seems overly wet and soft. Increase speed to medium and beat 5 minutes more.
  4. Scrape dough down side of bowl (all around) into center, then sprinkle lightly with flour (to keep a crust from forming). Cover bowl with plastic wrap and a clean kitchen towel (not terry cloth) and let dough rise in a draft-free place at warm room temperature until doubled in bulk, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. (Alternatively, let dough rise in bowl in refrigerator 8 to 12 hours and make fresh doughnuts in the morning.)
  5. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and roll out with a lightly floured rolling pin into a roughly 12-inch round (1/2 inch thick). Cut out as many rounds as possible with 1 1/2-inch cutter and transfer doughnuts to a lightly floured large baking sheet. Cover doughnuts with a clean kitchen towel and let rise in a draft-free place at warm room temperature until slightly puffed, about 30 minutes (45 minutes if dough was cold when cutting out doughnuts). Do not reroll scraps. They tend to get tough.
  6. While the doughnut rounds rise, prepare your frying ingredients. Begin to heat your oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Spread sugar on a rimmed baking sheet for after the doughnuts have been fried.
  7. Heat 2 1/2 inches oil in a deep 4-quart heavy pot until it registers 350°F on thermometer. A thermometer is key for this recipe. You need to know just how hot your oil is before the doughnuts fry. Fry doughnuts, 3 at a time, turning occasionally with a wire or mesh skimmer or a slotted spoon, until puffed and golden brown, about 2 minutes per batch (1 minute per side). Transfer the freshly fried, hot doughnuts to the sugar and immediately toss to coat. Coating the doughnuts in sugar works best just out of the fryer so the sugar can stick to the hot oil. Remove from the sugar and allow to rest on a cooling rack before torching.
  8. Return oil to 350°F between batches.
  9. Once the doughnuts are all fried and generously coated in granulated sugar, using a kitchen torch to brûlée the tops of the doughnuts. Allow to cool and set before serving.
  10. Doughnuts are best enjoy the day they’re fried.