Tuesday, June 29, 2010

You Don't Have to Challah!

Shabbat #23

Guests: Amy, Jeff and their two sons D. and L. Amy and I worked together in television ... she had a real job and I was just slave labor. Either way, it sounds much more exciting than it actually was.

Menu: Gluten Free! Grilled Flank Steak with Balsamic BBQ Sauce, Grilled Corn, Grilled Peach and Spinach Salad, Brownies with Icecream ... and challah

What I Learned:

On Friday a bit of challah chaos ensued. Toby -- of the one and only Toby's Challah House -- was on vacation. So I sent Steve speeding over to CRC. Stike two. The volunteer CRC bakers were, you guessed it, on vacation. Was there some kind of challah baking convention that no one bothered to tell me about? After conducting a very scientific survey ... on Facebook ... I resorted to picking up a loaf from Whole Foods along with a $4 Stevia-sweetened root beer.

And it was good. The challah that is ... not the root beer. It tasted like crap.

But not so good that I would even consider giving up Toby's.

I first discovered Toby's Challah in 2005 at a Nishmah event on Jewish cooking. Secretly, the real reason I love being Jewish is the food. It is a carb-loving comfort food paradise. Kugels, kashi, blintzes and, last but certainly not least, challah. Especially Toby's whole wheat challah. Yes. You heard me. Whole wheat. Practically a health food.

A few weeks later I ventured out to the source of this heavenly challah just north of Delmar in University City -- my old stomping ground.

Steve and I bought our first house together in University City back in 1995. It's a diverse neighborhood. Lots of DINKs (did that really used to be us???) are drawn there because the houses are cheap(er), but still within walking distance of Clayton. Lots of Jewish families -- particularly Orthodox -- live there because it is within walking distance of a number of synagogues. Back in 95, those tidy houses filled with Jewish families held a certain mystique for me. The way they dutifully walked to services each week. Built sukkahs each fall. Lit candles in their windows. Thing I had never seen growing up Methodist in a less than diverse west county suburb.

And things I expected to only observe from the comfort of my front porch.

Not Toby's.

But that's where I found myself in 2005. On her front porch. Buying a loaf of bread.

The first Friday I arrived I literally thought alarms and lights would start going off as knocked on the door. Alerting her (and everyone else in the neighborhood) that there was an impostor in their midst. Kind of like when Steve first brought me to his (former) Jewish country club. But that didn't happen. (At the country club or Toby's.) And as far as I could tell Toby didn't blink an eye.

Week after week, I showed up for my order and a few minutes of casual conversation. Mostly about motherhood. In 2007 we both had daughters. As I bemoaned childbirth and breastfeeding, I suspect she bellied up to her commercial-sized oven, child slung to her chest and hummed a happy (Jewish) tune as she continued to pump out challahs and other sweet treats without missing a beat. Because, at least from my view, that's the type of woman Toby seems to be. Diminutive in size, but not in strength.

Oh. And did I mention she has a lot of kids of all ages. Obedient ones. Seems like every time I visit they're either studying in the family room or helping their mother. HELPING THEIR MOTHER. Yes folks you heard me. Not watching Wonder Pets or wreaking havoc on one another.

Kind of like my house. Except EXACTLY OPPOSITE.

These days the challah gathering is Steve's responsibility. I'm the chef. He is my Sherpa.

A few weeks ago he called me after his visit.

I don't know whether to be proud or petrified?

(Words that I would prefer not to hear my husband utter after last year's debacle.)

What happened?

Toby invited us for shabbos.

Sure. I was proud. A shabbos invitation from Toby seemed to signify that we were indeed regulars. And certified Jews. Like some sort of stamp of approval.

But equally petrified. Like pee my pants petrified.

My first thought? What if Ben asked for spray butter for the challah? Surely not a kosher product ... and arguably not a food substance at all. What if she discovered that those challahs I'd been buying all those years were only getting a half-baked (though well-intentioned) blessing, me fumbling over the transliteration of the prayer for so long until I finally had it memorized? And forget about my kids doing something inappropriate at the table ... which I would reason excusable by the old adage "kids will be kids." What if I did or said something inappropriate ... because really this is all pretty new to me?

And then I paused.

If I, host of 25+ shabbos dinners in 2010, opener of my not so perfectly tidy home and thoroughly practiced in the art of getting my kids to sit through (at least a portion) of a meal that did not come in a box with a toy was petrified .... how had everyone that we had been inviting these last 6 months been feeling?

Were they nervous too? Apprehensive about bringing small kids to a new place where they would hopefully share? And use utensils? And the potty? All in one night. Apprehensive about doing something that could be categorized as, well, religious? And in some cases, apprehensive about spending an evening in the home of a family they barely knew?

Truth is that even if they were, they came anyway. And they keep coming.

So cheers to all of you who wikipedia-ed shabbat before you came. Who curiously asked if we kept Kosher. Who confirmed, dog-fearing children in tow, that there were no D-O-Gs on premises. Who were delighted to find that we also consider ketschup a food group. Who discovered some new foods with otherwise picky eaters -- kids and husbands included. Who did not fear the lit candles in front of every child. And to all who breathed an audible sign of relief when the children were excused and the bottle of wine was passed.

For you I will go forth to Toby's shabbos dinner proud ... and slightly less petrified.

I promise to write about it. Even the part (which is inevitable) when Ben asks for spray butter and I stick my foot in my mouth.

And maybe I'll make out with an extra loaf or two of challah.

P.S. Hilary (my favorite gardener). If you are reading, I must take you up on the challah baking lesson so that I will be better prepared next time Toby skips town. I'll bring the wine. You knead the bread. Seriously, thanks for your thoughtful, thoughtful offer. I can't wait.

1 comment:

  1. I wandered here - not entirely sure how. And what delightful musings to accompany a warm and welcoming concept, your year of Shabbats. I hope to come back and read more.

    Whole wheat challah? Who knew?