On Table Manners

We were not overtaken by the pandemic pounds from the forced isolation like we expected. Instead, my wife and I looked up from our roasted chicken meal last night and realized that we had thrown most of our table manners out the window. We had devolved into slobs.

Please understand, we have had to practice topnotch manners for decades, as we attended weddings, b’nai mitzvah parties, desserts, business meetings, congregational dinners, and private invitations to congregant homes. We learned to cut up anything served in a red sauce smaller than usual to avoid a “whoopsie,” an advertisement of clumsiness on good clothes. At shiva calls, if the offerings were not finger foods, then all was to be avoided lest the paper/garish plastic plate become our downfall. “Just a cookie please, we have more obligations.”

Yet, we sat across from each other with greasy fingers, picking tidbits from chicken pieces and chasing errant pieces of zucchini and sweet potato threatening to fall off the edge of the plate. Looking down from my fingers, I realized there was no napkin waiting in lap, which I usually need for the whoopsies. Dressed in my old, stained sweats with dogs hovering beneath my stool with bated breath, what was the point of having a napkin? Oh yeah: I cannot touch anything clean without smearing grease on it.

We are not going to restaurants anytime soon, so what is the point?

The point is the lack of attention has demeaned our daily rituals. Our ritual of table manners has served my family for years. Every so often, my adult children thank us for demanding they learn how to carry themselves in public. They have experienced the business meal where their good manners stood out as polite, conscientious, and engaged while those without such knowledge were diminished. We all sat across from diners in any situation with confidence that our conversations would not be sidetracked by an obvious faux pas.

I always considered table manners to be the great equalizer amid the American melting pot. The rituals of sharing a meal with others transcends cultures, countries, education, and economics. This is not a matter of whether one culture belches loudly after a good meal, which can be interesting. Table manners, no matter what culture where one is seated, is about demonstrating respect for the other. They are the simplest vehicles for offering respect, whether the etiquette is over chopsticks, hand foods, or western utensils.

Table manners broadcast respect for ourselves and for others in a most personal and intimate setting. Our use or lack of these rituals telegraph who we are and what we think of others. The cliché, actions speak louder than words, is oh-so-true at the dinner table.

Let not the sticklers for etiquette deter us from the task of giving respect for others. No one really cares if the bananas foster is served with a fork or a spoon; we only care whether you will wait for mine to be served so that we may share together. Table manners are something we do together, a ritual we share that confirms quietly and unobtrusively the respect we each offer.

Unless it’s barbeque in my house, in which case all bets are off and you are on your own, sucker.

Spicy Mushroom Caps

The recipe is a pesto style filling for mushrooms that invokes spice and Mexican ingredients. If you want to substitute a hotter pepper, the ingredients promote the heat rather than temper it. (Learned the hard way.)

Preheat oven to 350o.

2 jalapeños
4 garlic cloves
2 scallions
2 tomatillos, peeled of paper
¼ cup chopped cilantro leaves
1/3 cup shredded cheddar cheese or queso fresco
½ cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
4 TBS oil, divided
¼ – ½ lb. chicken sausage (optional)
4 mushrooms, chopped
8 large button mushroom caps or 2 portobellos

Wash vegetables, removing stems and roots. Heat cast iron skillet on HIGH and add 2 TBS oil. Toast jalapenos, garlic, scallions, and tomatillos until seared on all sides. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes.

In food processor, add cooked vegetables and process. Add pepitas and cilantro, process. Slowly add remaining oil in a slow drizzle with machine running. Scrape down sides. Add cheese and chopped mushrooms, process. If adding sausage, process last.

Remove stems from large mushrooms and wipe grit off caps with a damp paper towel. Wipe caps again with oil. On a baking sheet, either oil the bottom or use parchment paper. Fill the caps with mixture and place on baking pan.

Bake 30-40 minutes. Tops will be browned.

Refrigerates well for leftovers.

Almond Butter cookies

“Someone” purchased almond butter as a possible replacement for peanut butter on sandwiches – not a successful idea. However, cookies were a hands-down winner and the container haunting the back of my pantry shelf now has a welcomed spot among the baking ingredients.

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup sifted coconut flour
  • ¼ cup rice flour
  • 1 cup almond butter
  • 1½ cups sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • ¼ cup peanut oil
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • ½ teaspoon salt

In a mixer, combine almond butter, sugar, eggs, peanut oil, vanilla, and almond extract. In a separate bowl, mix both flours and salt. With the mixer running, slowly add the flours to the mixer until completely combined. Batter will be loose.

At this point you may preheat the oven to 375oF. Let the mixture rest in the bowl, either on the counter or in the refrigerator for at least 10 minutes, 20 minutes is better.

Use parchment paper or a silicon sheet on top of the baking tray. Scoop out oversized tablespoons of dough onto the baking tray. Bake 15 minutes. The edges of the cookies should be brown. Remove from oven and let rest in tray for two minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. The inside of the cookie will be wetter, with a marzipan-like consistency.

Short Ribs – slow cooked

This is a pandemic recipe, for those working from home. Cooking time is 5-1/2 hours.

The prime rib was served in the better neighborhoods and the short ribs were on the menu in the modest neighborhoods of my youth. Short ribs were a working man’s affordable beef choice before modern restaurant fare discovered the qualities of this cut, ruining the easy affordability for everyone. The ribs were typically used in a beef stew where the bone marrow added flavor to the developing broth. Stew was difficult to cook correctly because the meat tends to be tough and chewy, and stovetop burners were unforgiving. However, stew was a one pot meal that could feed a family meat, potatoes, and vegetables. The standard fare was tough meat, limp vegetables, and pasty potatoes.

My family is done with the stew recipe.

This is an updated recipe for braised short ribs on offering to the modest homes of the world who can still afford beef occasionally. The recipe only works in a cast iron pot with a cast iron lid because we are braising. The limp vegetables and pasty potatoes are cooked separately, and you are on your own for those recipes.

Cast Iron Pot in its natural pristine form.

3-5 lb. short ribs

1 large onion sliced

2 tomatillos, cut into several pieces

1 tomato, cut into large pieces

2 cups broth (vegetable or beef)

2 cups salted water (your call how much salt)

1 cup flour

Salt and pepper

¼ cup oil (grapeseed or olive oil)

This recipe is for a cast iron pot with lid.

Preheat oven to 300F.

Place the pot on a burner and pre-heat on medium high. Add oil in small increments as the flour absorbs the oil. Be careful not to scorch the meat. Save the leftover flour for end.

Wash and dry the short ribs. Season the flour with salt and pepper before coating the dry ribs. Add ribs to hot oil in batches. Let ribs rest on a plate while working on the next batches. When complete, add more oil to pot with heat turned down to medium. Add onions and sauté until soft, about 3 or 4 minutes. Add tomatillos and tomatoes, stirring them to coat. Add broth and stir. Add water and stir again.

Return ribs to pot, bone side down. Lid the pot and place in oven. Cook for 5 hours.

Return pot to burner. Plate the short ribs on a large platter. Using oven mitts, pour off the fat into cup.

To thicken the broth into a gravy, take three teaspoons of the reserved flour and put in a bowl. Add three or four tablespoons of the piping hot fat from the cup. Stir into a paste. Add the paste to the pot (it is still cooking hot), stirring until it is incorporated. Correct salt and pepper seasoning. Pour the gravy over the ribs and serve.

Faux Peanut Sauce

Dipping sauces are a huge stumbling block for people who have adverse reactions to MSG. Nearly every worthy sauce for dumplings has a strong MSG component. Asian sauces in particular, view MSG as a necessary ingredient, and Western industrial food companies have followed suit. Complimenting dumplings is a struggle.

This sauce is a not an imitation of Vietnamese Peanut sauce; rather, it is an homage. Several of the flavors have been lifted from Vietnamese cooking, but the sauce stands on its own. Some of the ingredients are European and one, Saba, is from medieval Italian cooking.

Faux Peanut Sauce

2TBS fresh ginger

1 clove garlic

1 lime, juice only

1 TBS saba (medieval Italian grape-based sweetener and thickening agent)

3 TBS peanut butter

½-1 tsp hot pepper sauce

½ tsp white wine vinegar

3TBS white wine

1 cup vegetable broth at room temperature

1 TBS rice flour

Chopped peanuts (optional)

In food processor combine all the ingredients but the broth and flour. Process. Transfer the puree to a pot set on medium high burner. Suspend the flour in a small bowl of the broth, then add to puree. Add the rest of the broth, stir until sauce is reduced to preferred consistency. Garnish with nuts before serving.

Hot Sauce – two ways

thai chilis

Of all the possible sauces, hot sauce is the poor people’s choice. First, hot sauce is cheap to make at home because there are only three base ingredients: salt, vinegar, and hot peppers. Peppers are easy to grow and are found on every inhabited continent. Second, hot sauce is an outdoor worker’s friend, promoting healthy sweat glands and thirst that are necessary to thrive in hot climates. Finally, hot sauce has a unique method of covering a variety of issues with poor quality food, transforming distasteful flavors, spicing up bland ones, and (sorry to say) making old and rotting foods palatable.

No matter how gourmet or expensive marketing managers make their hot sauce products, this is one sauce easily executed at home that will taste superior. Hot sauce will stay a long time without industrial additives. Even if a batch goes bad, a new, long-lasting batch can be whipped up in an hour.

20 hot peppers (jalapeno, serrano, thai bird, etc.), about 1 pound, less for the more potent peppers.

1 large clove garlic

½ medium onion, sliced thin

2 medium tomatillos diced

1 bell pepper diced

2 TBS vegetable oil

1 tsp salt

2 cups water

1 cup cider vinegar or white vinegar

*Either ventilate the room or wear a mask. The capsaicin fumes will burn the tissue in your throat and nose. Do not use cast iron for this recipe.*

Peel as appropriate and dice all the vegetables. Heat the oil in a large pan on medium high. Add the vegetables and ¾ tbs of the salt. Sauté for 5 minutes. Add the water and continue to cook, stirring occasionally. After 20 minutes or so, the peppers should be very soft and most of the water evaporated.

Remove from heat and allow the mixture to cool down to room temperature. In a food processor, puree the mixture until smooth. Add the vinegar and the rest of the salt. Mix, taste, and add more salt, as necessary.

Two Ways

Spread – jar as is, in a mason jar. Let the mixture rest for two weeks in the refrigerator before use. Spread as a paste or add to mayonnaise, mustard, and dipping sauces.

Sauce – strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve. Toss the solids. Place the liquid in a mason jar, letting the mixture rest for two weeks in the refrigerator before use.

The Social Contract and the Pandemic

The life of the spirit has taken a terrible beating these past few decades. From teaching MBA candidates that “Greed is good” to the hyper-politicization of moral stances for purposes of attracting votes and onward to the monetization of, well, everything, integrity and ethics have been downgraded in importance and denigrated as superfluous. In fact, some argue that having business ethics condemns integral people to lower incomes and worse prospects. As a result, the bond between the letter and the intent of laws, principles, and proclamations has come under ever expanding assault. The concept of the social contract, the spirit of the public square, has been abrogated.

*****

The pandemic is a good (which is to say, appalling) example of what happens when the Social Contract is broken. The corruption of the social contract was laid bare when the first wave of the pandemic rushed into New York City. The call was for a “shelter in place” order, a demand that all individuals lock themselves in their domiciles, emerging only for necessities when delivery was impossible. NYC became a ghost town as wisps of essential workers made their way to and from work with trepidation. The social contract was that if everyone sheltered in place, government would use the time to put in place protocols such as personal protection equipment, and implement initiatives, especially contract tracing to extinguish the spread. These steps would ensure that when everyone emerged from lockdown, economic, cultural, and social life would be able to restart safely, albeit slowly and carefully.

If the government response is an abrogation of the Social Contract, there are also examples of the broken contract at the individual level. Compare the Covid19 response to the easiest to understand functioning social contract: the obligation of the shopping cart. The spirit of cooperation between those who patronize the same store obligates the patrons to return the cart for other shoppers to use, who in return will do the same. Returning a shopping cart to the corral or abandoning it in the parking lot is a choice where there is no reward or punishment. Those who cannot honor the social contract without threat of punishment are bad actors.

Wearing a mask in public is an equivalent social contract. Currently, there is no exercised punitive government-sanctioned penalty for not wearing a mask in public places; owners and managers of venues make a choice to expel the unmasked. The reasons given for defying the mandate of wearing a mask ignore or even deny the existence of a social contract. The excuses do not mention any obligations that the community adopts. “My rights” trumping the social contract of wearing a mask is a clear case of the broken bond between the letter of the mandate and the spirit of the mandate. The same malignant dynamic plays out when gun-toting individuals mass in front of state capitols demanding the governor open businesses. Their demand of “their rights” is a repudiation of participation in social contract between fellow inhabitants of the land.

The social contract during this pandemic has not been fulfilled. Too many politicians and bureaucrats failed to accept and act on their responsibilities. Individuals and certain politicians decided their response to the pandemic would be based on politics and economics when the social contract obligated them to respond with science. Over 100,000 U.S. citizens have died thus far, and tens of thousands of them unnecessarily. The counts will continue to rise.

Social Contracts are not theoretical constructs; they are statements of human integrity. They are valid, powerful, and necessary components for any human endeavor. When such contracts are broken, institutions and communities are weakened and sometimes broken. In rare cases such as a pandemic, people die because of the breaking of the bond between letter and spirit.

A Little Bit of Vocabulary

Book whisperers have suggested that struggling with difficult texts is as much a moral or ethical discipline as an intellectual one. Real questions cannot be explored with simplistic solutions nor can real dilemmas be resolved with quaint moral exhortations. The issues of the day require drive, focus, and perseverance. Difficult texts are the result of complex problems that defy easy solutions.

To limit the amount of “mind candy” one consumes is good for the soul as much as the brain. Unfortunately, the online book purveyors push reams of pulp that make finding the better reads akin to hunting for the contact lens you dropped before putting it in your eye – you are going to cover a lot of territory before you find one. Online book sites have become unwieldy and often unusable without a good amount of preparatory work.

I finished Donald Harman Akenson’s “Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds” after several years of picking it up and putting it down. The hardcover comes in at 623 pages of text, notes, and appendices. He had a few things to say.

Dr. Akenson’s breadth of vocabulary is extraordinary. When I bought the book at Farley’s Bookshop in New Hope, PA, they placed one of their paper bookmarks in the text. I kept a running list of vocabulary for which I did not know the definition on the back of that bookmark. I have heard of some of these words but was forced to admit I did not know the meaning. After page 294, I was forced to switch to an Excel file because the list kept growing. The last word comes from page 400.

Below is my vocabulary list from Dr. Akenson. I offer it as a little meat and potatoes instead of the usual tasteless pudding.

semioticlapidaryapposite
prolixatrabilioustenterhooks
palimpsestreliquaryequilibrations
valetudinariananodynepelf
parallaxhectoringanechoic
conflateaphoticbenisons
picaresquecolporteurspropinquity
verisimilitudefasciclevergers
aniconicadamantineotiose
stratigraphyincarnadinehermetic
salvicmeretriciousapothegm
politesseimbricationperduring
brumeusucaption 
guyingautochthonous 

After a weekend of protests over the murder of George Floyd

In the protests over the state-mandated lockdowns a week earlier, the protesters were shouting, “My rights! My rights!” Pretending they were innocent victims, they were asking us to consider, “What are my rights?”

The correct response at the time was, “If you want rights enforced, then what are your responsibilities in return.” President Kennedy had something to say on the subject.

Then came the murder of George Floyd. All the arguments over rights and responsibilities were put under a glaring focus that played across our screens. In this light, the arguments over rights are selfish and shallow, coming from a place of no fear while parading around government buildings fully armed. Few if any were arrested.

“Where are my rights?” The African American community is asking a more fundamental question. It is the same question they have asked since they arrived here on slave ships: “Where are my rights?”

Where are they, indeed. As the protests across the nation demonstrate, the rights of Black men and Black women are lacking in most every metropolitan city from coast to coast, and in the rural outposts in between. I am surprised that I have not seen a protest sign saying, “Do I even have rights?”

“Do citizens have rights in the United States of America?” On paper, you do; however, in the streets, it may depend on the color of your skin.

A Prayer in the Time of Pandemic

 “Every hand that we don’t shake must be a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern.

Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise. 

So, as we keep a level of social distance, let us all remain spiritually near to each other, by responding to this health emergency with love and care for everyone’s well-being. 

May Adonai give us the wisdom to continue to react appropriately to this crisis and heal those who have been infected.” 

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

B’nai David-Judea Congregation

Los Angeles, CA