Sunday, January 30, 2011

Living within the seasons

One of the things I quickly learned after moving to the country was how to plan ahead for Jewish holidays, because way out here, there just aren't any kosher specialty stores.  That's why I'm already thinking about Passover in January.

For example, you need nuts to make charoset, the apples-and-nuts mixture served at the Passover Seder.  And the nuts must either be certified free of any leavening products (that is, kosher for Passover), or still in their shells.  Finding Passover certified nuts in small-town America is next to impossible, and nuts in the shell can only be found in December or early January (except for peanuts, but they're legumes, not real nuts.)   So I learned very quickly to plan ahead and stock up on almonds and walnuts and such in December so I'll have them at Passover time in April.  (I also save black walnuts from my own tree in the fall, and wild hazelnuts when I can find them.)

The same is true for many other things people take for granted in the city.  One of the reasons my wife and I  are vegetarians (although by no means the only reason!) is because of the hassle and extra expense of trying to get kosher meat outside of the Metro area.  I suppose I could have learned to slaughter my own chickens (one of the best-kept secrets of the kosher meat industry is that any Jew who knows how can slaughter for own his household, provided he doesn't sell the meat as kosher to others) but I'm just not cut out for that.  My backyard chickens are friends, not food.  And to be honest, we eat much better as vegetarians than we would be for the same amount of money as carnivores. 

There have also been years when I couldn't find fresh parsley for the Seder, either, because the local grocery didn't have it and there certainly wasn't any growing out there under the snow.  In fact, this is why the traditional dipping vegetable at a Russian Jewish Seder isn’t parsley, because nobody in Russia had fresh greens when the ground was still frozen solid at Passover time.  So they used a piece of boiled potato, which falls into the same pri ha-adamah ("fruit of the earth") blessing category as parsley.  Even today, if you go to a traditional Lubavitch Seder, they still use the potato, because that's what their Rebbes used in Russia.  A piece of carrot would do, too.

I also grow my own horseradish for the maror (bitter herbs), because once again, fresh horseradish just isn't available here in April, and the kind in the jar isn't so easy to find, either.  The first year we were here, I had to special order horseradish roots and take 5 pounds -- but at least I had enough left over to start the patch that I've harvested from ever since.  (Of course, I need to remember to shovel away the snow a couple weeks before Passover time, so the sun can reach the soil and thaw it enough to dig the stuff out.)

Yes, I could order these things from the Internet (and I do that with some things, such as vegetarian soup mixes), but that's not the point.  Simplifying my lifestyle and getting in touch with nature is.  Up until recently, nobody had the same fruits and vegetables all year round.  Eggs weren't so easily available, either.  When I made the decision not to eat factory farm eggs and only use those from my own chickens or free-run hens from places I trusted, our winter diet changed radically.  Right now, in the dead of winter, I'm getting maybe 6 eggs a week from my little flock, if that.  So I'm not having eggs for breakfast today.  They will get saved for baking bread and other things for the Sabbath.  My winter breakfasts consist more of hot cereals.

Urban  Jews will read this and probably wonder why I put myself through all this trouble.  But I think I have a better understanding of Hasidic stories when I live closer to the way that early Hasidim lived.  Foods were seasonal back then, and this was reflected in the way our feasts were celebrated. Lots of spiritual reasons are given for serving eggs at Passover time (or Easter for my Christian neighbors), but the most down-to-earth one is, that, in the natural order of things, the hens start laying again in spring.  I think it's important not to lose sight of that.


Unknown said...

Nice post Rooster! I am not Jewish but we do try to live from the land as much as we can. On the other hand, my husband is Jewish and I know what you mean about trying to find things. The local supermarket had a fairly nice offering when we first moved here 10 years ago. Now it has just a small shelf stuck in a corner.

Rabbi Gershom said...

Hi, Fairy! Welcome to my blog! A generation ago there used to be a lot of small-town Jewish communities, so groceries carried more kosher stuff, but over the years the younger people went to college, got careers and did not return, so a lot of those little communities have died out. (There is no Jewish congregation where I live now.) Some major products are certified kosher, and we use those, but otherwise we have pretty much gone back to cooking our own foods from scratch.

BJEN said...

Nice to learn about you and your blog!

Rabbi Gershom said...

Welcome to my blog, BJEN -- come back often and hope you enjoy it1

Unknown said...

We do all of the cooking here also, however my husband does remember certain things he ate when he was a kid that he still likes to eat now, like Gelfite fish. Thankfully, it comes in a jar so when I find it I pick up more than one. Also, we do make trips to Boston so that helps.