Sunday, November 16, 2008

Breaking Bread in My Mother's House

I recently wrote an essay about Mom opening her home and her heart to all our foreign students. I want to share an abridged version with you here on the blog as this week’s column.

My mother prospered in her life and she believed in sharing the wealth. There was always room at her table for another chair. Educated as a social worker, she was an expert listener and had a hunger for knowledge about what made people tick. Her fascination with people prompted her to sign on as a placement coordinator for the Exchange in International Living. That is how I became the “little sister” to a Taiwanese brother, a Palestinian brother, and a Turkish brother, and shared my dinner table with countless other foreign students from around the world while I was growing up.

Mom placed foreign exchange students in host homes for one month before the students went off to an American college. The host home placement was meant to assist the student in adjusting to American culture. One of the greatest challenges, of course, was providing some of the more exotic students with familiar food. It should come as no surprise that one thing that particularly contributed to homesickness for these students was the strange food in America. They yearned for their mother’s and their grandmother’s cooking.

One of Mom’s greatest successes was an African student who could not find anything to eat in America that even vaguely resembled the food he knew from home. (This was back in the 1960s, when international cuisine was not as prolific as it is today.) He was a picky eater to begin with and he was utterly miserable until Mom did some research and instructed his host home mother to feed the young man steamed spinach and peanut butter. He loved it.

When my Taiwanese brother first arrived stateside, he was an adventurous eater. Unlike the African who wanted familiar food, my Taiwanese brother was game to try whatever Mom cooked. Unfortunately, he was so polite, that he refrained from telling her if he didn’t like something. He just ate it and declined the next time. If you knew how polite he was, you would understand the enormity of his response when Mom attempted to feed him cottage cheese. He took one taste and set his fork down, gagging. Mom apologized, so did he, both of them embarrassed. He blurted out, “That stuff tastes like glue.”

My Palestinian brother was the youngest of seven children from a Christian Arab family in Beirut. His older sister lived in our home town, taught English at the high school, and spent two years laying the groundwork to get her little brother out of Beirut before he was conscripted into the army. Only weeks before his arrival, his sister was deported to Canada. Before her hasty departure, my parents arranged to host her brother upon his arrival. He lived with us for over a year, then went to college nearby, and finally emigrated to Canada to be near his sister. While he stayed with us, Mom learned how to cook an assortment of Lebanese dishes. She discovered an import store in a nearby town and took my Palestinian brother there to seek out foods familiar to him from his home. Thus, she had a good source for imported food when she took in my Turkish brother. My Turkish brother lived with us for only a month; however, he returned to us for part of the summer and during most of his college vacations while completing his master’s degree because he couldn’t afford the airfare to return to Istanbul.

Mom’s open door policy and involvement in the Exchange in International Living led to her most challenging culinary moment, which occurred when I was a freshman in college. I returned home for the Jewish Passover holiday and, although I was not particularly observant, my mother was. She kept a kosher house, meaning she would not cook meat and dairy together in the same meal and she did not prepare un-kosher meat or fish (such as pork or shellfish). She had painstakingly trained the Taiwanese, the Palestinian, and the Turk in how to keep kosher so they wouldn’t accidentally mix up her meat and dairy dishes or silverware and un-kosher her kitchen. For Passover, she removed all her plates, cups, and silverware from her cupboards and drawers and replaced them with her Passover kitchenware (a meat set and a dairy set). She taped many of the drawers and cupboards shut, covered others with plastic, and she removed all prohibited food from the house. For one entire week, her kitchen produced only foods deemed kosher for Passover in the Ashkenazi tradition, which forbade any foods made from grains (except matzo) or legumes. No wheat, rye, barley, rice, pasta, beans, lentils, peas, soy, soy oil; the list goes on and on.

On this particular Passover, when I returned home, Mom had a houseful. My paternal grandmother, a diabetic with a heart condition, had moved in with my parents. She was on a restricted diet. My Palestinian brother, a Christian, was in Lent so he couldn’t eat meat. The Turk, a Muslim, was in Ramadan, so he couldn’t eat anything at all while the sun was in the sky. He had a pre-dawn breakfast and was pretty hungry each day by the time the sun officially set. I am vegetarian (no meat or fish). If memory serves, at that time a friend of mine (a lapsed Anglican), visiting from Scotland, was living with my parents while recovering from a medication allergy that had landed him in the hospital while touring the U.S. He had never met a Muslim or a Palestinian before. I was the first Jew he had ever known. He had no idea what Jews ate during Passover and relied on the Muslim and the Palestinian to help him navigate the kosher kitchen because Mom had taught them how to keep kosher. The Taiwanese was not present during this particular Passover season.

Armed with little more than twenty boxes of matzo, dozens of eggs, six jars of borscht, and ten pounds of gefilte fish (an acquired taste to say the least), Mom faced the dubious task of preparing a meal every evening for this eclectic household, which, by-the-way, also included my two younger brothers and Dad. Let me add that my youngest brother was an extremely picky eater who lived on ketchup sandwiches for most of his childhood. (Ketchup and matzo?) The food situation was, to say the least, mind-boggling. On my first night at home, Mom laid the ground rules. She informed all of us that she had filled the refrigerator and cupboards with kosher-for-Passover food and that she was not cooking for us. She told us to forage and prepare whatever we liked or were allowed, at whatever time we wished or were permitted to eat. “Just don’t un-kosher my kitchen,” she ordered. And that was that.

When Mom fell seriously ill in 2003, prayer circles of every religious denomination in places around the globe spoke her name and prayed for her recovery. And when Mom passed away in 2005, my Taiwanese brother drove four hours to her memorial service, my Palestinian brother flew in from Canada, and my Turkish brother phoned from Istanbul to tell us how much he wished he could be there to break bread with us in my mother’s house.

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