A Sweet Start

L’Shanah Tovah! It’s Rosh Hashanah and time to start the new year. As we cast aside our regrets, apologize for our mistakes and set new goals for the coming year we will celebrate the abundance of the season with sweet treats. Typically this has involved dipping apples, which we picked from a local orchard, into honey we purchased at the farmers market.

This year, however, we have not yet gone apple picking. I am too excited by the organic peaches and plums that the local farms are now selling. For this reason, I was very pleased to read about a new take on the Rosh Hashanah tradition (reprinted from the Chicago Tribune in my hometown newspaper). The author, Laura Frankel, suggested that it was perfectly acceptable to celebrate with another type of sweet fruit. Especially if it was one you could only get at this time of year .

Farm fresh peaches and plums for the new year treat

Farm fresh peaches and plums for the new year treat

Lucky for me then. I had just purchased a quart of what my grandmother called Svechuan plums. I think you would identify them as prune plums. They are oblong and less juicy as well as more tart than regular round plums.They only are available in September and my grandmother used them to bake pies she called Svechuan Kuchen. I fondly remember sitting around the table with my extended family while we each had a slice or two of pie. Of course, my grandma always served it with ice cold freshly whipped  cream.

So, now that I feel affirmed to expand the holiday tradition because of the author’s suggestion, I plan to bake a plum creation of my own – a Svechuan Buckle. I will probably throw in a peach and some raspberries from my own garden to make sure it is moist. And a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top will make it the perfect sweet dessert for our new year celebration.

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If this photo made you wish you could share a piece with us, I included the recipe below. Enjoy!

Svechuan plum buckle   all crisp and golden on top

Svechuan plum buckle all crisp and golden on top

Svechuan Plum Buckle

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Matzah Ball Soup

My fifteen year old is home sick today. For the most part she stays in her room and rests, but I know she appreciates me coming to check on her from time to time. When I went in a few minutes ago, she asked me to make her some Matzah Ball Soup. In our mixed faith household, matzah ball soup has become a comfort food. Even though my mother never stocked matzah meal in her house, I always make sure to have some on hand in my pantry.   It is not hard to make matzah ball soup, it is just time-consuming. My husband will make fresh chicken stock, but I usually use grocery staples to keep it simpler. I mix the matzah meal in a bowl with eggs and oil,      

chill it while I boil the water, form it into balls

and plop them into the pot, quickly putting the lid over it.

We used to only have matzah ball soup with holiday meals, but Nana has been with the kids often enough when they were sick that she knew to pick up groceries at the local store and cook up some TLC with her more traditional recipe. For my daughter, the request for this soup translates into a subtle plea for attention. She needs me to acknowledge she is not feeling well and deserves some special treatment. I recognize this need but do not mention it. Instead I obligingly fill my role as mom and caregiver, one that does not come up as frequently in her teenage years. It is a tacit agreement that she needs me more than she cares to admit and that she knows I love her, even though she won’t say it.

The parent-child relationship changes so much over the course of a lifetime. We start as completely dependent on our parents and grow to break away from them. As we mature into adults, we reform our view of our parents and gain mutual respect. While we live independent lives, it is still reassuring to have a parent to ask advice of, or to give moral support when you are down. As our own parents age, we know they may need our assistance too. After a lifetime of pouring out love for us, we want to give some of that back to them.

Now I am in the role of sending that loving message to my own child. By taking the trouble to make her this matzah ball soup, I am letting her know how important she is to me and how much I care. I already know there will not be much of an exchange, other than a brief expression of thanks; but a lecture is not necessary to convey my thoughts. The matzah ball soup has become a symbol of comfort and love. It shows us that we are family and will do what it takes to keep each other well. And I know on another day it will come back from her direction. But for now, this says it all…

Fall Traditions: A Trip to the Apple Orchard

It would not be right to let Fall pass without a trip to the local apple orchard. Ever since my kids were little, we would head out on a nice fall day, purchase a bag for our apples and walk through the orchard in search of the best trees.

We always sampled the apples first, because we wanted to know what kind we were getting. Empires, Galas, Macintosh, Cortland, Pink Lady, Yellow Delicious, Granny Smith each has their own distinct flavor. Some are sweet, others are tart; some are better for baking, others keep fresh longer and we can still enjoy them a month later.  We usually found a favorite to load up on, but we always mixed in several other varieties, depending on what was available.

At first, we looked for the trees with lower branches that the kids could easily access and as they got older, they liked the challenge of reaching the top ones with an apple picker- a long pole with a grip on the end. The grip would loosen the apple and release it into the bag hanging from the pole. They enjoyed seeing if they could catch more than one at a time.

Once we had picked our fill, we would head over to the farm house where we could purchase hot apple cider and cider donuts. We would take our snack and sit at a picnic table near the petting farm. When the kids were little, they got a thrill feeding kibble to the sheep and goats. Afterwards, we would head home where I would make applesauce and apple pie with our surplus. There is nothing like a crisp apple you have picked yourself for lunch!

This year our trip was considerably shortened and more focused on the purpose of picking apples. We had time restrictions which did not allow us to wait in the long queue for our cider donuts, and the kids were no longer interested in petting the animals. Regardless, I know the kids felt it was a tradition they wanted to do.  Establishing traditions is an important job of a parent. Traditions create a sense of continuity and calmness in today’s busy and often unpredictable lifestyle. Even though I could not say we wandered aimlessly among the trees since we did have an ultimate goal, we did not have a step by step plan to follow and could randomly choose where to go, depending on how full the trees looked or how the apples tasted. Traditions also are a way of learning about life and it’s lessons.

The kids worked together to choose the trees and sample the flavors (respect). They were also assigned the task of transporting the bag (responsibility). It took both of them to carry it, balancing the weight of the apples between them (cooperation).  They had to deal with the mishap of a handle breaking while the apples poured onto the ground (problem solving). The unexpected happens, we pick up our apples and carry on. It’s what happens in life.

Family traditions give us a chance to step back and think-  this is what is important, this is what really matters. Traditions can be passed on from generation to generation and hold real meaning. My parents took me and my sisters to the apple orchard every year for a similar family bonding activity. I have fond memories of dad lifting me on his shoulders to reach the highest apples or of helping grandma peel the apples to bake in a homemade pie. The memories are so special to me, that now I have passed this seasonal ritual on to my own children. And if we have apple pie as a reward for our efforts, well that isn’t half bad!

Day 7- Athens: Crowds and Old Friends

This morning we docked in Piraeus, the port city of Athens. The Cruise family, Susan and Kate were in a rush to disembark. We had to catch a train in order to meet up with our tour guide. Mike had arranged a private tour with some local archaeologists to take us around the Agora and the Acropolis. We got slightly lost when our train was detoured to a different stop than planned, but we arrived at our meeting place only a few minutes late. Unfortunately, no one else was there.

Mike spoke with a local shop keeper who was happy to let him use the phone to call our guide. It took over a half-hour to determine that no one had been sent for us and we would have to take the tour on our own. Mike was extremely disappointed, but we all let him know we appreciated his efforts and would make do.  Kate and David had fun running amongst the statues, comparing their heights to the headless figures. Susan and Megan were deep in contemplation over what it took to build these sites; while Mike and I marvelled at how amazing it was that they were still around.

               

It was getting hot, so we decided to go to the top of the Acropolis before it got any later. Much to our dismay, we realized the crowds were growing large and there was no way to avoid them. The children were very patient and calm, even though we were wedged into a mass of strangers speaking many languages. The adults, however, were secretly panicked. We mentally divided up into partners, each with a child, whom we would protect in the event of a stampede (I know, we all have dark thoughts and worse case scenarios running through our heads). By the time we gained access to the historical site, we were stressed, dehydrated and needed a break. Poor  Kate had been such a trooper standing in line, but at soon as we broke free, she needed to sit down and take some Tylenol for her headache- which had started during the hour-long wait.

Almost at the same time, Amy called us on Mike’s phone. She and Hillary had met up with some old family friends who were visiting relatives near Athens. They had come to the city for the day to take them out to some museums and lunch. When we relayed our misfortunes to Amy, our friend insisted on coming to “rescue” us and bring us to lunch as well. By this point, we had had enough heat and crowds so we did a quick walk through of the Acropolis, took our mandatory photos and actually felt thankful that we didn’t have to stop at each ruin to hear a detailed explanation.

               

We met up with Amy and Demetrius, a now 60-something gentleman, but just as charming as I remembered. He greeted each of us with a big hug and his signature Greek kiss, one on each cheek. He gave us a local tour on our walk to the museum. He had grown up in Athens and his descriptionof how it had changed was almost more meaningful than seeing the ancient ruins. Demetrius and his wife were the picture of Greek hospitality. They were both so delighted to have us on their turf- although we felt ashamed we had come all the way to Athens to catch up, when we could have seen them in New York.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch- Greek salad, soup, lamb or pasta and a refreshing beer or lemonade to revive us after our stressful morning. We spent an hour talking and exchanging family updates. The children heard stories about their parents and came to realize that these kind people actually knew a lot about them. When it was time to head back to our cruise ship, Demetrius made sure to get us on the proper train with directions to our stop. We all vowed we would do a better job keeping in touch.

It is so wonderful to reconnect with old friends and realize why you were friends in the first place. Now it is up to us to cement that bond, and not just on Facebook. I don’t think eFriends give out Greek kisses, at least not last time I checked.

Days 5 & 6- Istanbul: Reflections on food and faith

We docked in Istanbul this afternoon, sailing into the port which proudly sported the Turkish Star and Crescent. We had great views of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia from our starboard side verandah.  Amy had a friend who lived in Istanbul. We were not able to meet up with her, but she had made a dinner reservation for us and we were looking forward to a real Turkish meal. We had some time to spare before dinner though and most of us wished to wander around the city. Only Hillary and Kate stayed behind as they were a bit jet-lagged and wanted to save their energy for our big shore excursion tomorrow.

Everyone else headed over the bridge that crossed the Bosphorus. The walkways were loaded with fishermen trying to pull in something big enough for dinner. The women were dressed in a variety of styles- ranging from jeans and tank tops to full burkas. I guess I neededn’t have stuffed a scarf in my bag since we were not going to the mosque today.

We reached the Spice Market- a very traditional building with exquisite mosaic designs, and walked inside to see the most amazing arrangements of a different kind. There were fresh spices of every color, stacked in open bins, with their fragrant aromas spilling out into the air! It was hard to resist buying bags full of every imaginable flavor. My husband was smart not to give me any of the Turkish Lira he had exchanged. So all I could do was take it in with my camera and breathe the air.

We caught a glimpse of the neighborhood where our dinner reservation was- up the hill by the Galata Tower. When Amy and I realized how steep the walk would be, we became concerned that Hillary would have trouble because of her knee. We knew the kids could manage just fine and Susan, who had been a good walker all her life, was getting stronger every day. We decided Susan & I would walk up to the restaurant with Megan and David while Amy and Mike went back to the ship to collect Hillary and Kate and hail a cab to dinner. We were starting to realize how cumbersome a group we were and that it would be impossible to fit everyone in 1 car anyway. Fortunately, we had a van reserved for our tour tomorrow.

It took about 40 minutes to regroup outside of Kiva, but when we went in our table was ready. We had a prime spot for 8 by the open area looking out on the Galata square. It was the first night of Ramadan and the restaurant was empty at 7:00. The owner was so friendly and willing to talk to us about the choices. He decided to give us a special treat since we were so interested in the local delicacies. He had his staff prepare about a dozen dishes in smaller portions that we could all sample from. These included black-eyed pea and spinach salad, a seaweed salad, zucchini casserole, mushrooms in sauce, shrimp skewers, chicken curry and several flavors of rice. Needless to say, David was able to enjoy almost everything. He turned down the chicken, but loved the shrimp, and was excited about all the vegetables and rice dishes. Kate was very adventurous and even tried a taste of the seaweed!

It was not until after 8pm that the locals started coming in to break their fast. By the time we were finished, the place was packed. Again, it was a mix of secular and orthodox attire. It made me realize that Islam is similar to all other religions in that way. You have control over how strictly you follow the rules and traditions. I myself only attend church on Christmas Eve. My husband no longer fasts on Yom Kippur. And while our children benefit from the holiday traditions of both faiths they have never been forced to go to Sunday School. As our tour guide told us the next day, she was conducting her job-including a lunch break- just like 60% of the other Muslims in the city. She planned to eat a special dinner with her parents as part of their tradition, but other than that she didn’t practice regularly.

This all got me thinking about why the U.S. has such misperception about Muslims. Have we become so paranoid about terrorists that we have classified all Muslims as such? In reality, Islam is a very tolerant religion. It was founded on the practice of allowing other faiths to practice in exchange for a “jitzah”- a tax on non-Muslims which granted them religious freedom.  Our fear has blinded us as to how similar we really are. There are extreme groups within any religious or political organization whose voices somehow carry more weight than those of the more secular masses. I am just glad that our family got to see first hand how these Turkish people lived and how friendly and welcoming they were. It was a great opportunity for us all to form (or reform) our own perceptions.

As we walked back to our ship that night, we looked at the colorful lights illuminating the mosques and heard the final call to prayer. How fortunate we were to be able to observe such a wonderful blend of new and old religious celebration.  

Day 4- At Sea- To Eat or Not to Eat

Today we are sailing from Split all the way around Greece, up through the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus River- the location of many battles over the centuries- to Istanbul. As it turns out, we had to face our own battles- based on food. First of all, as I previously mentioned, there were too many tasty treats readily available. We tried to keep an eye on the kids in order to prevent them from gorging on sweets, but it seemed like we were always saying “No”.

With three adults monitoring the situation, we slowly recognized how often this was happening and began to feel terrible. Wasn’t this cruise supposed to give them independence and personal responsibility? We became very distressed with ourselves. How can we be responsible for their eating habits without giving them all these limits? In the end we decided the reasonable thing to do was set some general guidelines on what to eat and how often, and hope they had more self-control than most children. This strategy may have given them 10 days of excessive eating, but it was better than fighting over the issue every day.

In contrast, Susan who was underweight due to a shattering life change (mentioned earlier), was trying to put on a few pounds. She needed to learn some “bad” habits. She added croutons, nuts, olives and eggs to her salads, ate whole sandwiches instead of open-faced, and threw some chips or fries on the side. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds though. Her appetite had severely dropped and she was only able to eat small portions at a time. It probably didn’t help to keep checking in at the gym to see if she was putting on any weight. We made a plan for her to always eat with someone for company and to limit how often she was checking her progress.

More Food for Thought

When we went to dinner tonight, we had a huge private table for 8. It was so wonderful to all be together and talk about our day. We shared our favorite shore adventures so far, the funniest things that had happened (for Kate, Amy and myself this was the pepper shaker story, which I’ll save for another time), or a report on the ping-pong matches of the day.  This tradition of sharing while eating as a family has always been important to me- a value instilled when I was growing up.

Ever since I was a girl, dinner has been more about socialization than actual eating. It was a family gathering time- a place to catch up with each other and share our day. My parents made this time an important family value and I continue to carry on this principle in my own home. Ever since my kids were little, I have enforced the 10 minute rule. This meant you must sit at the table for at least 10 minutes before you may be excused (remember when kids are little, 10 min is an eternity). As they have gotten older, we rarely have to enforce this rule unless someone is in a surly teenage mood.

Obviously on this cruise, our dinners lasted over an hour and we had plenty of time to talk. The thing that really impressed me though, was the variety of foods the kids were willing to try- watermelon soup, stuffed mushrooms and even tuna tartare. They may not have liked them all, but some were surprisingly delicious. I was just proud of them for trying.

When Food Choices Backfire

Sometimes, trying new things can backfire, though. On this night, David decided to be adventurous and order the roasted quail.  He took a few bites of it and then recognized that his dinner had once been a real bird- similar in size to the pigeons he loved in Venice. He politely excused himself from the table, saying he didn’t feel well. When I went to check on him later, he was very upset. He declared he was never eating animals again.

David is a very compassionate person and when he makes a decision on a principle it is very difficult to dissuade him. I tried to be supportive, figuring it would only last a few days (I was so wrong and this became a concern as time went on). Do you know how hard it is to support your child when you are concerned that their decisions will have a negative effect on him? I have certainly done enough research on healthy eating habits to know vegetarianism can be very beneficial if done correctly. There were multiple vegetarian options on the cruise menus so I was not concerned about what he could find to eat, but Mike and I did convince him to continue to eat fish as a source of fat and protein. For the remainder of the cruise, David declared himself a Pescatarian and enjoyed all the fruit, vegetables and sushi he could possibly eat.

Day 2- Embarkation Part A: Organization & Challenges

Today we all slept in a bit – trying to catch up on some shut eye. However, by 10 am we were repacked and ready to head to our cruise ship. Once again we each had to drag our suitcases up and down stairs and through narrow alleys until we reached our vaporetto stop. By the time we arrived at the dock, we were soaked with sweat. Everyone received a room key but David and Kate were disappointed to learn they needed to wear identification bracelets due to their age. This would become a point of contention later in the day. However, at this moment everyone was eager to check out their staterooms and explore the ship.

We were staying on the Ms. Nieuw Amsterdam. We had booked a Deluxe Verandah suite for the four of us and I was pleasantly surprised by the size of our room! We had a king size bed, a large sitting area with ample room for the pull-out sofa, a spacious bathroom with 2 sinks and showers and a separate dressing area with plenty of storage space, including a large vanity. Our verandah was twice the size of the regular ones and had comfortable seating for 8 people- perfect for our whole group!

I’ll admit I am an organization maniac and I set to work right away trying to figure out where to store four people’s stuff for the next 12 days. The guys were easy. They were able to share a closet and use some drawers. I found some drawer space for myself and used a closet for shoes and hanging things. That just left Megan’s stuff.

I knew she had packed way more than she needed, but a 15-year-old girl needs her fashion and her make-up so we agreed that, as long as it fit in her suitcase, she could bring it. As it turned out, the dressing room was perfect for her. She could fit everything in the closets, lay her makeup out on the vanity and I could draw thew curtain on her mess so the rest of the room looked presentable. Problem solved!

Since Megan and Susan were returning Mariners, they were able to attend a special Embarkation lunch and invited the rest of us as guests. We walked in to the Manhattan Dining Room and were immediately impressed by how friendly and helpful the staff were. The choices of food on the menu indicated the luxury of the options we would have during our stay.

Since it was only lunch, I skipped the appetizer and ordered a chilled asparagus soup and a raspberry walnut salad, followed by a scoop of watermelon sorbet for dessert. Everything was as delicious as it sounds! Little did I realize what a sensitive issue our food choices were to become during the cruise.

At the outset of our trip, my mother-in-law was seriously underweight. Since being widowed less than 8 months ago, she had not been eating well. Compounded by the stress of her new situation and occasional depression, she looked shockingly frail. Her goal was to put on 5 pounds and revive her spirit on this trip.

Kate, on the other hand, had been sent on this trip by her mother- who tried to maintain healthy eating habits at home and asked us to be mindful of sticking to them. With so many courses to eat and tantalizing desserts everywhere we looked, we quickly knew this was going to be a challenge.

The remaining members of the group, myself included, were foolishly trying to enjoy a variety of foods without gaining a pound. This idea seems ridiculous in retrospect, as there was always good food available at the Lido buffet, in the Neptune Lounge or by ordering room service.  Fortunately, none of this was on my mind as we finished our first meal. Everyone smiled at each other and complimented the waiters on how delicious everything had tasted.