Counting almonds


Turns out, I have a natural handicap when it comes to eating like normal people. My daughter discovered this when she was in elementary school and forever engaged in a war of attrition over food: She wanted to live on green apples and Lucky Charms; I thought a third item should be added to the diet. A few years into the campaign, she finally asked me, “What cereal did Grandma let you eat when you were a kid?” 

“I didn’t eat cereal.” 

“Why not? Was Giti as mean as you are?” 

Giti is my mother. She raised my sisters and me with the kind of discipline usually exhibited by Marine sergeants. But, no, she wasn’t mean. 

“Did she think she’s queen of the world and can be your boss? Did she rather you starved and died than let you eat ‘hydrogenated oil’?” 

No. We just didn’t have cereal. 

I know it’s hard to believe, but I never ate breakfast cereal, never even saw Corn Flakes or Rice Krispies until I was 13 and traveled to New York with my parents for the first time. In Iran, we ate flat bread with butter and jam, drank black tea with sugar and, for the kids, a teaspoon of fish oil every morning. In New York, we stayed with my aunt in Great Neck and learned all about things like sour cream and cream cheese, waffles, non-fat and low-fat milk and those little flakes you poured out of a cardboard box into a bowl. You would think this isn’t a big deal. I certainly never gave it a thought, never felt cheated or weird because of it until I saw the light blazing out of my daughter’s eyes and understood she had made a major find. 

“What do you mean, you didn’t have cereal?” she cried, loud enough for her brothers to hear in the next room and rush in for the unveiling. “You mean in the whole country? No cereal in the whole, entire country?” 

That’s right. As far as I know. 

“You had cars but no cereal? What kind of place doesn’t have cereal?” 

They called my sister’s kids to break the news, called my parents to obtain verification, got their friends to see if their Iranian parents would serve as a “second source.” When the shock wore off and the giggles abated, they decided that this childhood deprivation explained everything that is strange and incomprehensible to them not just about me, but about all Iranians and even the country itself. 

So that’s why they had to beg and plead, then finally sneak a six-pack of mini cereal boxes into my cart at the supermarket every trip. 

“It’s because you come from the land of no cereal.” 

That’s why my mother discovers a new cousin every time she leaves the house, why my grandmother lived to age 108, why my great-grandfather barely skipped a beat, didn’t even require surgery, when he was shot at close range in the forehead by his lover’s jealous husband. The doctors cleaned up the blood and sent him home, let the fragments of shrapnel remain lodged in the skull till he died of natural causes some 40 years later.

“It’s because they lived in the land of no cereal.” 

That’s why I say and do things that most normal people would avoid, like making friends with the homeless schizophrenic guy who hangs out around the coffee place I’ve made my second home. He reads my Jewish Journal articles regularly and circles some words he believes are code. He has this idea that I’m communicating the word of Jesus through this secret language I’ve devised and keep hidden in a Jewish publication. I like him because he’s soft spoken and gentle, and because he reads my articles and waits for me to show up every day so he can show me the passages he’s decrypted. We’ve even had lunch together at the corner coffee shop; he’s good company if you don’t mind sharing him with all the invisible people he’s always talking to.

“It’s because you grew up without cereal.” 

Think about it: All those varieties of cereal in every supermarket, all those TV ads, all the debate about artificial coloring and refined sugar; there’s even a classic novel, “Breakfast of Champions,” by Kurt Vonnegut, that drew its title from the General Mills product. Cereal is not like broccoli or braces — mostly American products that can be skipped without major repercussions. If you missed out on cereal growing up, what else have you missed of the pop culture that defines the Americans of your generation, and your children’s generation?

Imagine taking a person like me, from a place like that, and expecting her to function normally in the land of Hot Pockets and Pop-Tarts. Of course my reality will forever be different from “regular” folks’. Of course we’ll forever be out of step with each other because of the absence of a common frame of reference. 

As they grew up, my sons became increasingly wiser in their choice of food. My daughter now lives on Greek yogurt and plain, undressed lettuce, but her brothers have become nutrition Nazis who know more about what’s good or bad for the body than any sane person should. But this doesn’t mean there’s anything close to a meeting of the minds in our neck of the woods: While they’ve evolved and learned and become little scientists who can trace the natural life of a single calorie down to its wretched end, I’ve kept the tastes and habits of my cereal-free upbringing. 

I like tuna sandwiches without tuna, hamburgers without the meat. I hate cinnamon, non-fat milk, sugar-free cakes, sugar substitutes. I can’t last longer than three hours on any diet because I have a visceral resistance to cutting out bread and starches and replacing them with “lean protein and good fats.” I’ve been trying to lose the same five pounds for the last 10 years. I keep asking my older son to design a diet for me, print it out and stick on the fridge, and proceed to ignore it. 

“Mom,” my daughter tries to console me. “Persians can’t diet.” 

I asked my son again the day after Thanksgiving. 

“I ate four kinds of cakes yesterday,” I said as he prepared his morning shake of fresh fruit, protein powder and water. He pretended he hadn’t heard me. 

 “I’m sure I’ve gained a few pounds.” He turned on the blender and let it rip for five whole minutes. 

“I’m thinking you should tell me what to eat today to make up for that.” He turned the blender on again. 

“At least tell me what to eat for breakfast.” 

“A banana and 20 almonds.” He finally said something.

I got the banana. Didn’t get the almonds. 

“Twenty almond whats?” Almond triangles? Almond Joy bars? 

“Twenty individual almonds.” Raw, unsalted. 

As far as I know, nuts are measured by weight, not unit. 

“What kind of breakfast is that?” He put down the empty glass of shake and headed to the door. “Can we drop the banana and add half a muffin? Can I have some bread instead of nuts?” 

“No,” he said. “But you can switch to pistachios if you want. You had those in Iran when you were growing up, right?”


Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.

Genetically engineered salmon: Coming soon to a bagel near you?


Do you want to be experimented on by eating sushi or bagels and lox made with a new type of salmon with eel genes in it — salmon which hasn’t been adequately tested for safety of human consumption?

If not, then we in the Jewish community need to speak up now, for the sake of our health, the environment, kashrut, and to ensure that there will be native salmon left in the future.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking public comments through April 26, on whether to approve the first genetically engineered (“GE” or “GMO”) animal species: Atlantic salmon with chinook salmon and ocean pout (eel, non-kosher) genes forced into its DNA. 

Manufacturer AquaBounty plans to sell it without a GE label.  You won’t know you are eating it.

Over 300 consumer, health, fishing, environmental, parent, and animal rights groups are opposing FDA approval.  The Los Angeles City Council unanimously opposes it.  Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s pledge not to sell it.

Here’s why I am taking action, and I hope you will, too.

HEALTH

Dr. Michael Hansen, Senior Scientist at Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) writes that the FDA determination of no additional significant health risk is based on manipulated data and inadequate studies. Allergy risk findings were based on only six fish, and those allergic to finfish could experience severe allergic reactions.

Friends of the Earth writes, “GE salmon are unhealthy and suffer from skeletal deformities, jaw erosions, inflammation, lesions, increased susceptibility to disease, and increased mortality, raising serious … human health concerns from eating sick fish.  Overall, GE salmon have 40% higher levels of IGF-1.” 

“IGF-1 is a hormone that has been associated with increased risk of a number of cancers, especially prostate, breast, colorectal and lung,” adds Dr. Hansen.

The Center for Food Safety summarizes that the science is not there to say these fish are safe to eat.  Further research is needed.

KASHRUT

The Orthodox Union says GE salmon is kosher, because it has fins and scales.

However, even though some authorities currently state that this fish is kosher, there are Jews who will reject it, saying, “I definitely won’t eat it – it’s not kosher to me.”  Views ranged from an ethical sense of kashrut to “it’s not the natural, healthy food G-d created for us.”

Rabbi Elihu Gevirtz of Netiya said the Torah prohibits eating swimming animals that do not have both fins and scales. Eel lacks scales, suggesting GE salmon might not be entirely a salmon, and therefore may not be kosher. Also, creation of a part-fish, part-eel seems impermissible as a violation of the Torah’s prohibition to mix species.

Brooklyn Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Serebryanski said, even though a small amount of a non-kosher food doesn’t usually render a food non-kosher, it does when it becomes an intrinsic part of the food.  It is prohibited to genetically engineer salmon with eel genes because such boundary crossing is prohibited by the Creator. Using genetic engineering to cross boundaries set up by the Creator creates an imbalance and distortion, disrupting a person’s connection with the Creator.

ENVIRONMENT

GE salmon raises serious concerns about the survival of native salmon. AquaBounty says its fish will be infertile and cannot escape their controlled, land-based environment.  But the FDA allows for 95% sterility, and there will certainly be fertile fish that produce the GE eggs.  Fish and eggs can escape through land-based water recirculation systems. Market competition may potentially push all fish farms to buy and raise AquaBounty’s GE eggs.  Most farms are on coastlines. Thousands of farmed fish escape annually.

Could escaped GE salmon out-compete native salmon for habitat, food and mates, causing extinction of native salmon?   Would eating GE salmon cause illness, infertility or death to bears, whales, seabirds, etc., that rely on them as food?  AquaBounty and the FDA have not done adequate studies.   

The FDA is accepting AquaBounty’s assurances.  Instead it should honor requests from California Senator Feinstein and others, for a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement, and from experts like Dr. Anne Kapuscinski, professor of sustainability science at Dartmouth, for a quantitative failure mode analysis.

ACTION

Friends, if this salmon is approved, you and I may have to stop eating salmon completely to protect our health and/or Jewish practice. Even doing so might not protect our ecosystem from disastrous consequences.

We can make a difference on this issue!  Comments to the FDA may be made until April 26 at: http://tiny.cc/in82qw. To help stop this fish from entering the market by getting stores and restaurants to pledge not to sell it, contact www.gefreeseafood.org or the author.


Lisa Kassner is the San Fernando Valley co-coordinator of the Label GMOs Campaign.

Opinion: At the New Year, let’s give animals a new Jewish chance


Shortly after I became a vegan, around 20 years ago, I ordered my first “vegan option” at a Jewish organizational dinner.

It arrived: a plateful of raw celery and carrot sticks arranged around a cup of something ranch dressing-ish that probably wasn’t even vegan.

Since then, things have changed considerably.

Teenage servers at fast food places know what vegan means even if they have to deliver the news that there is nothing there that fits the description. And at most Jewish organizational dinners today, the vegan option is so delicious that others at my table invariably cry, “Oh, I wish I had ordered that!” when they see it.

Things have changed, but not nearly enough for animals.

Enter the Jewish new year for animals—an initiative to transform an ancient and largely forgotten holiday, Rosh Hashanah l’Ma’aser Bemeima, or New Year’s Day for Tithing Animals, into Rosh Hashanah l’ Beheimot, a New Year for Animals devoted to considering how Jews can improve their relationships with animals.

Animals raised for food, whether on factory farms or “free range,” live and die in unspeakably horrible conditions, treated not as living beings but as the commodities they are. Dairy cows are crammed into tiny stalls and kept impregnated so they will produce milk perpetually. Their calves are taken from them shortly after birth and raised as veal in crates too small for them to turn around in.

Chickens, as several recent undercover videos now available on YouTube have documented, are kept in cages so small they can’t even raise a wing, and they are de-beaked without anesthesia so they don’t peck each other to death, as animals kept in such unnatural conditions are wont to do.

And that’s not even mentioning animals in circuses, product testing labs, the fur trade and other forms of what writer I.B. Singer called “eternal Treblinka.” Nor does the list address other related issues such as human health and its connection to diet and the link between animal agriculture and climate change.

The so-called new Jewish food movement, laudable though it may be, is more concerned with issues of locally grown produce, sustainable agriculture, healthy eating and social justice for workers than with the treatment of animals.

And yet animal cruelty is very much against Jewish teaching. As Richard Schwartz, the president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America and a tireless crusader for animal rights and a plant-based diet, points out, “tsa’ar ba’alei chaim,” causing harm or sorrow to animals, is a Torah prohibition.

That’s evident in many ways, from the mandate that farmers not muzzle an animal while it is threshing in the field (so it can eat some of the grain) to the admiring way the Torah treats the compassionate actions of Moses and King David toward their sheep.

Yet today, as Schwartz writes on the Jewish Vegetarians website, “with regard to animals, the primary focus of Jewish religious services, Torah readings and education are on the biblical sacrifices, animals that are kosher for eating, and laws about animal slaughter, with relatively little time devoted to Judaism’s more compassionate teachings related to animals.”

That’s why Schwartz and a coalition of Jewish groups have proposed the initiative to turn Rosh Hashanah l’Ma’aser Beheima into a New Year for Animals. (Disclosure: I am a member of some of these groups.) The holiday occurs on the first day of the month of Elul (this year, beginning Saturday evening) and initially was devoted to counting domestic animals intended to be used for sacrificial offerings.

This wouldn’t be the first time an ancient holiday has been reclaimed for a related but very different purpose.

Tu b’Shvat—the New Year for the Trees and a day originally intended for tithing fruit trees for Temple offerings—has evolved into a holiday devoted to appreciating and healing the natural world.

Schwartz, who along with Jewish Vegetarians of North America is leading the campaign to establish the new holiday, suggests that Jews use it to consider ways to apply traditional Jewish teachings on compassion toward animals to today’s issues, such as factory farms and moving toward a plant-based diet.

That seems particularly appropriate since Elul is considered a month of introspection as Jews examine their words and actions in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The initiative’s first event is a seder set for Sunday evening at Caravan of Dreams, a vegetarian restaurant in New York City. Other vegetarian seders are taking place at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn., and at a resort in Ontario, Canada.

A number of other groups are supporting the initiative, and several prominent Jewish leaders have endorsed the idea of the new holiday. Modern Orthodox scholar and author Rabbi Yitz Greenberg says in a statement that “it is a beautiful idea to renew/revive a classic day … Your contemporary application … in the form of addressing humanity’s relationship to animal life and the widespread mistreatment of food animals and environmental abuse in today’s economy, marked by industrial farming and animal husbandry, is inspired.”

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles succinctly summarizes the idea of the holiday, writing in a statement, “The Jewish tradition mandates that we are stewards of all God’s creation. In our day we are increasingly sensitized to suffering of those living creatures in our care; this initiative helps us recognize our obligation to animals and so helps us be more fully human.”

Schwartz and others realize that restoring and reclaiming an ancient holiday can’t be done all at once. Plans include setting up a website and Facebook page that would feature a collection of material on Jewish teachings about animals and creating a haggadah for a seder, modeled on the now-widespread Tu b’Shvat seder.

For now, I’m hoping that awareness of these efforts leads to greater attentiveness to issues related to animals, issues that many of us would like to push out of our consciousness, along with other “inconvenient truths,” as we buy our neatly wrapped and packaged meat.

To start things off in a modest way? Read more about the initiative and find links to related sites at www.JewishVeg.com.

And think about having a veggie burger for lunch or dinner.

(Pauline Dubkin Yearwood is managing editor of the Chicago Jewish News.)

Position yourself for Passover’s traditions


After many years of reciting the Passover story around our dining room table, we made a major change. My family decided to re-create the seders held long ago. According to the haggadah, when people live in freedom, they can eat in a reclining or relaxed manner.

We asked our guests to bring pillows or cushions to lean against as we celebrated Passover with a seder on our living room floor, which began with the symbolic foods of the holiday displayed on the seder plate.

During the first part of the evening, we eat the required foods of Passover that families have eaten for generations. Charoset is one of the few dishes that may require a recipe. A mixture of fruits, wine, nuts and spices, it represents the mortar our ancestors made while laboring as slaves in Egypt. It is prepared differently in Jewish communities all over the world depending on the ingredients available. We prepare several kinds for our seder, and one that we serve is made from a Yemenite recipe, a combination of dates, dried figs, sesame seeds, ginger, wine and a little matzah meal. Included is fresh grated horseradish, a bitter herb that is eaten with charoset and matzah.

A roasted egg, which many families dip in coarse salt, is usually served, but our family’s custom is to prepare a cold, salted, chopped egg soup instead. We eat spring onions or parsley that are dipped in saltwater, as well as boiled small new potatoes that symbolize the coming of spring. Also on the seder plate is the roasted lamb shank, representing the Pascal lamb, but vegetarians may substitute a roasted beet. 

Reclining on cushions and pillows while reading from the haggadah was a wonderful experience, but serving food on the living room floor – especially matzah ball soup – would be difficult. After we finished recounting the Jewish people’s liberation from Egypt, we would move to the dining room table for a traditional Passover dinner.

We begin seder dinner with homemade gefilte fish, followed by chicken soup with matzah balls. The soup is prepared with whole chickens that are tied and put in the pot with a variety of vegetables. When the soup is done, the chickens are taken out and roasted in a tomato sauce to be served for the seder dinner. When cold, it can be made into a delicious chicken salad eaten for lunch or dinner during the remaining days of Passover.

The main course is served buffet style; everyone helps themselves to platters of roasted lamb shanks, sliced turkey with vegetable stuffing and candied sweet potatoes.

After dinner, Passover desserts include sponge cakes, cookies and chocolate-covered fruit. For a special treat this year, I am adding a Chocolate Marble Cake With Chocolate Glaze. The rich flavors of cocoa, strong coffee and chocolate make this cake extra-special. Grape Truffles are an easy addition — seedless grapes dipped in chocolate and then coated with cocoa powder are a surprise when they burst with flavor in your mouth.

Wine is an important part of the seder, and sweet concord grape wine has always been synonymous with Passover. But today, dry Passover wines are gaining in popularity, and the availability and varietals are remarkable. They are available from California, New York, France, Italy, Chile and Israel. At our seder, we provide both sweet and dry wine — as well as grape juice — to satisfy everyone’s taste. 

In recent years, our seders have moved back to the dining room. But as friends and family gather around our table for Passover, they recall with fondness how we reclined on the floor to read the haggadah. I’ve considered moving the seder back to the living room, but on one condition: We keep dinner in the dining room.


YEMENITE CHAROSET

1 cup pitted, chopped dates
1/2 cup chopped dried figs
1 teaspoon ground ginger
Pinch coriander
1 small red chili pepper, seeded and minced, or pinch of cayenne 
2 tablespoons matzah meal
1/3 cup sweet Passover wine
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
 
Blend the dates, figs, ginger, coriander, chili pepper, matzah meal and wine in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the knife blade. Mix in sesame seeds and transfer to a glass bowl. Roll into 1-inch balls or serve in a bowl.

Dessert variation: Dip charoset balls into melted chocolate and place on wax paper-lined baking sheet.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups or 12 balls.


GRANDMA GENE’S GEFILTE FISH

Buy whole whitefish. Have it boned, and wrap the bones, heads and skin separately for the Fish Broth. If you’re lucky, you might find roe inside the fish, which you can poach with the fish balls.

Fish Broth (recipe follows)
3 1/2 pounds filleted whitefish
2 yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2 small carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 small celery stalks, sliced
2 eggs
1/4 to 1/3 cup matzah meal
1/4 to 1/3 cup cold water
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Lettuce leaves, sliced cucumber, sliced beets and horseradish sauce

Prepare the Fish Broth and keep warm.

Grind the whitefish with the onions, carrots and celery in a food grinder. Put through the grinder again. Place the ground mixture in a large mixing bowl and blend with the eggs and matzah meal. Transfer the mixture to a large wooden chopping bowl and, using a hand chopper, chop the fish mixture, adding the water gradually with 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt and 1 teaspoon pepper as you chop. (Mixture should be soft and light to the touch.) Wet your hands with additional cold water and shape the fish mixture into oval balls. Bring the Fish Broth to a boil over high heat, and place the fish balls in the broth. Cover, reduce the heat to medium high, and cook for 1 hour, or until fish is tender; do not overcook. Cool, transfer to a shallow glass bowl, cover with plastic wrap and foil, and refrigerate.

To serve, arrange a lettuce leaf on each plate; top with fish and garnish with sliced cucumber and beets. Serve with horseradish sauce. 

Makes 24 small fish balls.


FISH BROTH

1 1/2 yellow onions, coarsely diced (reserve peels)
1 large carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 cup sliced celery tops
1 1/2 pounds fish bones, heads and skin from filleted white fish (wrap in cheese cloth)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 cups cold water

Place the onions, onion peels, carrot, celery tops, wrapped fish bones, heads and skin, and salt and pepper in a large pot. Add water to cover and bring to a boil. Simmer for 1 hour, adding water if needed. When the broth is very flavorful, strain out the fish bones and vegetables and discard. Keep the broth warm.

Makes about 4 cups.

Following the carp — the fish in gefilte — from lake to plate


Big fish, cheap fish; sport fish, gefilte fish.

With apologies to Dr. Seuss, that’s a decent summary of the situation for carp today.

The fish has its share of devoted fans — some like it dead on a plate, others prefer it alive and tugging on a hook — nevertheless, by and large, carp still struggles with a bad reputation that’s as hard to shake as fish oil smell from clothes.

“I’m not a carp expert, but it’s a major ingredient for us in gefilte fish,” Paul Bensabat, one of the Manischewitz Co.’s two CEOs, told me.

“Carp, mullet, whitefish,” Bensabat said, rattling off some of the species that go into gefilte fish, a food with no particular symbolism that has long been a staple on the Sabbath and festival tables of Ashkenazi Jews, and is widely consumed every Passover. “Depending on the type of formulation you want, there’s more fish or less fish in the different styles,” he added.

The fish are shipped whole from the Great Lakes region where they’re caught to the Manischewitz factory in New Jersey, where they are processed into more than 50 different varieties of gefilte fish. The vast majority of Manischewitz-brand gefilte fish, Bensabat said, includes carp.

But even a gefilte fishmonger like Bensabat can’t deny that, broadly speaking, carp isn’t a highly regarded species.

“Carp doesn’t have a great name, for reasons that are beyond me,” he said.

That it’s cheap might have something to do with it.

“I was told that, by your family recipe of gefilte fish, you can tell how well-off people were,” Motti Polityko, the owner of Gordon’s Fish Emporium on Pico, said. “If the recipe consists primarily or solely of carp, it means you were dirt poor — and that was my family.”

Every year, around Rosh Hashanah and Passover, Polityko spends the week prior to the holiday filling orders for people making gefilte fish, and each order is slightly different from the next. Most customers buy his “classic fish mix,” made from three different types of fish (he wouldn’t say which kinds); a good number of customers want to make their gefilte fish exactly according to their grandmother’s or great-grandmother’s recipe.

“Some people will take a filet and grind it at home,” Polityko said. “Some people will not only allow me to grind it, but they will also allow me to season the fish and shape it so they can take it home and cook it. And some people want me to cook it here also, and they pick it up here already cooked. We meet them at every stage of the way.” The stock is fresh but not alive; it comes packed on ice from the Great Lakes, including German carp and Buffalo carp as well as Spiegel carp, but the last has to be special-ordered.

A tiny fraction of Gordon’s customers actually ask for the fish whole, without even a slit in its belly. Usually that’s for reasons of kashrut — Passover is a time when many Jews observe more stringent restrictions on what they will and won’t eat, after all — but there is also another time of year when Polityko sells whole carp.

“Chrismastime, I have lots of Poles, Czechs and Germans calling me for carp as well,” he said. “Guess what they call it — ‘Jewish carp.’ ”

It was a Christmas carp at a friend’s house that turned Reggie McLeod, the publisher and editor of Big River, a bimonthly lifestyle magazine that covers the upper Mississippi River, into a carp fan. He remembers how his own father always told him that carp was inedible, but now he counts the fish among his favorites.

“People are kind of crazy about these sorts of things,” McLeod said of various food prejudices. “A lot of people like shrimp and lobster — and they’re bugs.”

Some call carp ugly, but McLeod notes that koi, the very expensive and beautifully colored fish that can be found swimming in Japanese gardens around the world, are relatives of the common carp.

“It’s exactly the same fish,” McLeod said.

In 2008, McLeod started a carp-cooking contest in Big River magazine as a way of promoting carp as a fish worth eating. “We had two entries last year,” he said, “and not surprisingly, they both won — first and second prize.”

McLeod still remembers that first Christmas carp, though; it was in his friend’s basement — alive, swimming around in a tub of water.

“I said, ‘Joe, there’s a carp in your washtub,’ ” McLeod recalled. “And he said, ‘Yeah, that’s Christmas dinner.’ ”

“The Carp in the Bathtub” is the title of Barbara Cohen’s 1972 children’s book, in which two children try to save a fish from meeting its fate in advance of their Passover seder. Cooks traditionally put the carp in the tub for a few days to fatten it up before cooking.

These days, for Jews in Los Angeles wanting to follow exactingly the old traditions, there is at least one store where live carp can be purchased — the Seafood Paradise Fish Market in Rosemead, which gets its stock from a farm in Northern California. According to manager Vincent Truong, almost all of Seafood Paradise’s customers are Asian or Asian-American, and most of those who buy carp are Chinese and Vietnamese.

“We usually cook it with soup,” Truong said. “It’s very tasty.”

There’s also one more way to find a live carp in Los Angeles: Grab a pole.

“Carp are in virtually every body of fresh water in Southern California,” Andrew Hughan of the California Department of Fish and Game told me. “They’re what’s called a non-regulated species. There’s no limit and no season — so you can catch them to your heart’s content.”

Most anglers who fish for carp don’t eat what they catch, though.

“We practice catch and release angling purely out of respect for another animal’s life along with the environment it lives in,” Wayne Boon,  director of the American Carp Society, wrote in an e-mail. Boon mostly fishes the lakes around L.A., but he said that some sections of the Los Angeles River are known to be home to carp as well.

Whether the carp in any given body of water is safe to eat is another matter. “Carp are in the middle range among game fish,” said Sherri Norris, executive director of the California Indian Environmental Alliance, a group that works to educate members of tribal communities about the dangers posed by legacy mining toxins, like mercury, that can seep into certain species of fish that live in particular areas.

In some waterways, carp is off limits to all people; in others, adult men and women beyond childbearing age may eat the fish sparingly.

“In that case,” Norris said, “you really do need to know for a fish like carp whether the body is highly contaminated or not.”

For instance, the carp in Magic Johnson Park Lake, an urban lake in South Los Angeles that is stocked by the California Department of Fish and Game with trout and catfish, should not be eaten by anyone, according to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

Anglers, for their part, are mostly out in search of big carp to catch — and those might be the most dangerous carp to eat. Carp can live for decades, and the longer they stay in any body of water, the more pollutants they can pick up.

What’s more, the big carp are also believed to be less tasty.

“In the case of Carp, the smaller fish — up to 10 pounds — are the tastiest, so I’m told,” Boon told me.

Then again, if your carp’s ultimate destiny is to become gefilte fish, you can just douse it in horseradish.

Chef Micah Wexler goes global, and local, at Mezze


Chefs often speak of a magical moment during their childhood, when something they tasted — a food so new and bold that it shocked them — changed their life and sent them straight to the kitchen.  For Micah Wexler, 29, the chef at West Hollywood’s Mezze, there was no such moment, just a childhood spent in his mother’s kitchen. 

“It really had to do with all the cooking with my mom, with my grandmothers — mostly for the Jewish holidays. I think that really kind of sparked my interest,” the Los Angeles native said, relaxing at a table at Mezze on a recent afternoon. The restaurant, which opened in the spring offering a mix of innovative Mediterranean dishes along with some of Wexler’s favorite recipes and inventions, already has received positive notices from the Los Angeles Times’ notably tough critic, S. Irene Virbila.

Restaurant staff rush about, preparing the space for dinner service. Sun streams down through a huge skylight onto the potted olive trees in the middle of the elegant room. It’s a far cry from the kitchen in which Wexler spent Passovers helping prepare food for seders at his parents’ house.

With a childhood of home cooking and a local gig at Vincenti restaurant under his belt, Wexler went off to school at Cornell University and, after graduation, found himself in Europe, working at Righi La Taverna in Italy and for chef Martin Bersategui in Spain. Far from being intimidated by the foreign-ness of it, Wexler found the experience refreshing. “To be in an environment like that, where you’re really focusing on something that’s your passion, but also you’re training at the same time, is a really unique opportunity.”

Wexler’s experience in Europe landed him gigs in the kitchens of famed chef Joel Robuchon in New York and, later, Tom Colicchio at Craft Los Angeles. He has also worked locally at Melisse and Patina. The experience would prove valuable to Wexler, teaching him how to make his food stand out when he set off on his own.

“My time at Robuchon, really learning that philosophy … that’s where the simplicity in the flavors and approach comes from. The whole philosophy of Robuchon at his restaurants is, ‘If I’m giving you a tomato, it should taste like the most intense bite of tomato you’ve ever had.’ ”

Wexler brings that simplicity to Mezze and marries it to his insistence on using all local ingredients. “The thing about Mezze, to me, is it’s really a California restaurant, at the end of the day. All of our products … everything is from California — the produce, the meats, the fish.”

Although the cuisine is Mediterranean, it’s far from the standard fare. “There’s a reason why I don’t cook traditional,” Wexler said. “There are so many places in this city that cook a great Mediterranean meal … I wanted to do something different.”

One thing you’ll find at Mezze that’s not a usual staple of Mediterranean cuisine is bacon. “I break a lot of rules,” said Wexler, whose version of his grandmother’s challah is also on the menu. “I want to break rules. I’m not interested in confining myself into a box or doing what’s expected.”

Stepping out of the box includes using some odd spices to liven things up. One of Wexler’s favorites is black lime. “They take limes and boil them in saltwater and dry them out for a period of anywhere from one to a few months. … The boiling in saltwater kind of changes the composition of the limes a bit. They get all black inside, they’re completely dry, and it has this sort of funky, musty but really citrus-y scent to it still. … You throw one or two of those into a braise and it sort of perfumes the whole thing.”

Whether he’s cooking up a twist on risotto using Israeli couscous or preparing his personal favorite, shakshouka, Wexler is constantly experimenting with flavors, usually to the delight of his diners. “I get Israeli people who come in here and say, ‘Oh you have shakshouka. Are you really sure you know how to make shakshouka?’ They always love it, they’re always really happy and impressed.”

The kitchen at Mezze is on full view to the patrons, something Wexler found was important at his previous stints in the restaurant world. “I spent a lot of time in my career working in open kitchens. … From a chef’s perspective, it’s really great to kind of break down that wall and be able to see the guests’ response to your food.” 

Wexler had plenty of input in the design of the restaurant, which is housed in the space formerly occupied by David Myers’ Sona. “My investor here is not just the guy I get money from,” Wexler said. “It’s somebody who cares about us, who’s invested in what we do.”

As for future plans, Wexler looks forward to one day stepping into the shoes of a chef-entrepreneur, like his mentors Colicchio and Robuchon.

“Our goal is to start a restaurant company. We’d like to have several restaurants,” Wexler said.  But for now, “I’m really about making this a great restaurant and building my team and my infrastructure.

“My goal was always to establish myself in Los Angeles as a chef and a restaurateur.”

With Mezze up and running, he can consider his goal accomplished.

RECIPES FOR SUKKOT

Courtesy of chef Micah Wexler

ROASTED BEET SALAD

3 baby red beets
3 baby gold beets
3 baby striped beets
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
Sea salt
1 pound halloumi cheese
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon dried mint

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Trim the beets of their leaves and stems. Place each type of beet on a separate sheet of aluminum foil. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar and some salt to each. Fold the foil into packets. Place the three packets in a roasting pan and roast for 45 minutes or until beets are tender.

Remove beets from oven and allow to cool. Using a clean dish towel, rub off the skins and discard. Cut the beets in half; combine all the beets in a large mixing bowl. Add 1/4 cup olive oil and remaining sherry vinegar.

Mix the yogurt with the lemon juice, dried mint, 1/4 cup olive oil and salt to taste.

Cut the halloumi into cubes and fry in a pan with remaining olive oil until golden.

To dress, place the marinated beets in a bowl and garnish with the yogurt dressing and fried halloumi.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.


POMEGRANATE BRISKET WITH POMEGRANATE GREMOLATA

5 pounds brisket, whole
4 1/4 cups pomegranate juice
3 cups red wine
Salt and pepper
2 carrots
1 onion
2 leeks
4 garlic cloves
2 bay leaves
3 thyme sprigs
1 bunch parsley, chopped
3 ounces pine nuts, toasted
3 ounces pomegranate seeds
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon zest

Clean brisket of any silver skin or excess fat. Place brisket in a large container and marinate for 2 days with 4 cups pomegranate juice and red wine. Remove brisket from marinade, reserve liquid. Dry brisket.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Season brisket with salt and pepper; place in a roasting pan on stovetop. Over medium-high heat, sear brisket until browned. Cut carrots, onion and leeks into large pieces and place around the brisket with garlic cloves. Allow vegetables to cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

Add the reserved marinade liquid, bay leaves and thyme; cover with aluminum foil and braise in preheated oven for 3 1/2 hours or until tender. 

To make the gremolata: While brisket is cooking, combine chopped parsley, pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, olive oil, lemon zest and remaining 1/4 cup pomegranate juice; set aside.

For the last half hour of cooking, remove aluminum foil from brisket and allow to brown while glazing with the juices every 5 minutes.

When brisket is ready to be served, slice and place on a large platter. Spoon the vegetables and pan juice over the brisket, and top with the gremolata.

Makes 8 servings.

Break the fast with a buffet


As the sound of the shofar officially closes the long day of Yom Kippur prayer, people head home a little weary but spiritually uplifted. It has been a tradition for our family to gather upon returning from synagogue for a break-the-fast meal. It began when our children were growing up, and we prepared a light brunch-style dairy supper.

In many Jewish homes, a favorite way to break the Yom Kippur fast is with a buffet table filled with easy-to-serve appetizers that guests can nibble when they return after a long day of prayer and fasting. Most of the food can be prepared in advance and put on the table quickly. No one wants to spend time in the kitchen while suffering from acute hunger pangs. The transition from fast to feast should be a gradual one. Begin with tea flavored with lemon and honey, or a glass of wine served with challah (egg bread) and honey cake.

Last year, we served mini Russian blini (blintzes) with smoked salmon and salmon caviar topped with sour cream. The recipe for the blini is not difficult and can be prepared in advance. I use a pan with seven shallow wells that is made just for this, but a nonstick frying pan will do as well. Cured or smoked salmon and salmon caviar helps replenish some of the salt lost after fasting for 24 hours.

I still remember what I was told by my parents: “After the Yom Kippur fast, our bodies need salt.” So our break-the-fast dinners always included smoked salmon and pickled herring. I’m not sure whether modern science agrees, but to be safe I’ve included Grandma Gene’s special recipe for Chopped Herring. It contains onion, apple, chopped hard-cooked egg and lots of love.

I can’t resist adding a few new ideas to the break-the-fast menu. This year I will serve a Vegetable Frittata that was inspired by a dish that is served at Cora’s, a small coffee shop in Santa Monica. The frittata is made in advance and heated when ordered. Filled with red peppers, onions and zucchini, it adds color to the buffet table. Prepare the frittata ahead of time, refrigerate, and serve at room temperature or heat in the oven just before serving.

Traditional Honey Cake is a holiday staple, symbolizing a sweet new year, but I continue to develop new recipes to make it better. This is one of the most delicious I have ever tasted, and even if you are not a big fan of honey cake, I think you will enjoy this one. 

The children always enjoy crisp cookies at the end of the meal, and these crunchy Sesame-Honey Thins are perfect. I suggest orange blossom honey or any light honey for the recipe, as a strong flavor tends to overpower these delicate, paper-thin cookies. Make the dough mixture in advance, and store them in the refrigerator until baking.

CORN BLINIS WITH SMOKED SALMON OR SALMON CAVIAR

1 1/2 cups fresh corn kernels (boiled) or frozen corn, defrosted
3 eggs
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/4 pound smoked salmon or salmon caviar
1/4 cup sour cream or crème fraiche
3 tablespoons minced fresh chives

Place the corn in a food processor and pulse a few times. Add the eggs, flour, salt and pepper, and process until smooth.

Brush a large nonstick skillet with olive oil (or use a heavy cast-iron skillet with seven pancake wells), and heat over medium heat until hot. Working in batches, drop the batter in by tablespoon and cook until golden brown, about 20 seconds a side.

Top each pancake with smoked salmon or salmon caviar and sour cream. Sprinkle with chives and serve immediately.

Makes about 24 servings.


GRANDMA’S CHOPPED HERRING

For almost every holiday gathering, Grandma Gene would arrive at the front door bearing a large glass bowl filled with chopped herring, along with her corn rye bread. She always finished garnishing the herring when she arrived, and then would serve it with pride. It took many years to convince her to part with the recipe. Finally, I sat there one day when she made it, measuring and taking notes as she prepared the dish.

1 pound schmaltz herring fillets or 1 jar (1 pound) pickled herring fillets in wine sauce
2 slices challah or egg bread
1 medium onion, cut into quarters
1 green apple, peeled, cored and sliced
2 hard-boiled eggs
4 teaspoons vinegar
2 or 3 tablespoons safflower or vegetable oil

Soak the herring in cold water overnight. Drain well. Bone and skin the herring and cut it into pieces. Soak the challah in cold water for a few minutes and squeeze out the water.

Place the herring, challah, onion and apple in a food grinder and grind. Chop the hard-boiled egg whites and combine with 3 teaspoons of the vinegar. Mix the whites into the herring mixture. Spread the chopped herring on a platter. Mash the egg yolks with the remaining 1 teaspoon vinegar and spread over the top of the chopped herring. Cover with plastic wrap and chill. Just before serving, drizzle the oil over the top. Serve with thinly sliced corn rye bread.

Makes about 8 to 10 servings.  


VEGETABLE FRITTATA

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium red onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 medium zucchini, cut into small cubes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
6 large eggs
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Heat the olive oil in a nonstick skillet, brushing sides of skillet, over medium-high heat. Add onion, bell pepper and zucchini; sauté until soft. Add salt and pepper, to taste. 

Whisk the eggs in a bowl, blending well. Pour egg mixture over hot vegetables in the skillet; stir gently to combine. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, without stirring, until eggs are set on bottom, about 5 minutes.

Sprinkle half of the cheese over frittata. Place under broiler and broil until cheese melts, about 2 minutes.

Sprinkle remaining cheese on top, cut frittata into wedges, and serve.

Makes 6 servings.


NEW CLASSIC HONEY CAKE

Olive oil for loaf pans
1/2 cup finely ground almonds
1 3/4 cups honey
1 cup strong brewed coffee
1/2 cup currants
3 tablespoons brandy
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/4 cups brown sugar, packed
4 eggs
3 1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1 tablespoon grated orange zest 
 
Brush two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans with olive oil.

In a saucepan, combine the honey and coffee; bring to a boil and cool. Soak the currants in the brandy.

Preheat the oven to 300 F.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, blend the ¼ cup olive oil, brown sugar and eggs. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices. Add the dry ingredients alternately with the honey/coffee mixture to the egg mixture, stirring after each addition. Fold in the currants, almonds and orange zest.

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pans and bake for 1 hour; the top will be sticky, but a toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean.

Makes 2 loaves, 8 to 10 servings each.


SESAME-HONEY THINS

3/4 cup unsalted butter or margarine, cut into pieces
1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar, firmly packed
1/4 cup orange-flavored honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
 
In the large bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter, brown sugar, honey and vanilla until light and fluffy. Blend in the egg and sesame seeds. Add the flour and salt; beat until smooth. (You may cover the dough with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator or freezer for later use.)

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Spoon small marble-size mounds of dough 2 inches apart onto a lightly oiled, foil-lined or silicone baking sheet. Bake for 5 minutes, until the cookies begin to brown around the edges. Cool on the baking sheet. When the cookies harden, carefully peel them off.

Store in an airtight container with foil between the layers.

Makes about 8 dozen.

VideoJew’s VideoGuide to L.A. #3 — Jewish Los Angeles


Dining, shopping, living, praying—VideoJew Jay Firestone shows you how it’s done Los Angeles-style.

 

Bring the taste of France to your Passover table


One might expect the chef-owner of a haute cuisine, award-winning French-American restaurant, where l’addition can easily top $300 per couple, to be an egotist. One would be wrong.

Chef Josiah Citrin of Mélisse in Santa Monica, which earned the prestigious four-star rating from Mobil Travel Guide just 18 months after opening and was named Zagat’s No. 1 Restaurant in Los Angeles for French-American food, is a down-to-earth former competitive surfer, a mensch who participates in cooking and charitable events, and a serious chef who still loves his mom’s soy and honey-glazed chicken.

Check out Zagat: “Finest French food in L.A.,” “a classic deserving of its reputation,” “delicate flavors in every bite,” they warble.

But I did not come to discuss the osetra caviar or seasonal truffle menu. With Passover approaching I was looking for ideas. I aim high.

Citrin, who never took a formal cooking class, developed a love of cooking and fine food early in life. His father’s family is from France, and he grew up hearing his grandfather tell stories about the great French chefs.

But grandpa Ivan Citrinovich had other more frightening tales to tell. “He fled Poland during World War I when he was 13 and was injured in a bombing,” Citrin explained. “He escaped to Germany, made millions in steel there and then lost it. Most of his family were killed. He was very paranoid that it could all happen again. But for me, it’s hard to be scared when you grow up in California.”

Citrin’s mom was a caterer who ran a cooking school, and he took to cooking at home from the age of 12 as naturally as he took to surfing the Malibu waves.

In a bold move, he left for Paris after high school, reconnecting with his ancestral roots, to work at Vivarois and La Poste, developing a solid classical French background before returning to Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main and Granita, and Joachim Splichal’s Patina and Pinot Bistro.

“I worked for a kosher caterer in France too,” he recalled. “We did parties, weddings and bar mitzvahs. The rabbi was always drunk and would show up late. We couldn’t turn the stoves on without him!”

“But my worst experience was one time we had to make cow tripe. I cut a hundred kilos of tripe. You simmer it and it makes this beautiful Moroccan tagine. I left it out to cool, and the crew was supposed to come in and put it in the fridge. When I came in the next day it was still outside, bubbling.”

Citrin fondly recalls his childhood seders (“It’s the first time you get drunk, right?”) and will gather with his family this year at home. “I’ve done it with them coming here, and sometimes families reserve a private room for a seder. We use a reform hagaddah. It’s got a rap song in it!”

Brisket is on the menu, but with a twist. The oven-braised beef is compressed flat, then cut into squares and reglazed. “This is the same way we do braised short ribs here all the time,” Citrin said. “You can slice it the usual way if you want, but what’s the point of giving you a recipe if it’s going to be the way you always make it?”

The dish is an homage to his wife’s grandmother. “She made the same brisket for all the holidays: Passover, Chanukah, Rosh Hashanah,” Citrin recalled. “I had never seen it before. When I was growing up we had lamb or lemon chicken, different stuff on Passover. When Goldie passed away I started making it. The meat is so tender, but all the flavors ooze out into the liquid. When you glaze it down the flavors are reabsorbed.”

The stuffed gefilte fish is his mother’s recipe. “Sometimes I make it in a terrine, using the same fish mixture, and then cut slices. We serve it with the same sauce and a julienne vegetable salad.”

Citrin, dubbed “a farmers market junkie” by Los Angeles Magazine, emphasizes fresh ingredients. In fact “mélisse” is French for lemon balm, a Mediterranean herb.

“Because of the freeze, we’re behind right now,” he observed, “so we’re using root vegetables.” The recipe below was another from his mom. “They taste better just a little beyond crunchy — no California crunch,” he advised.

What’s in the future for Citrin and wife/co-owner Diane (“the first Jewish person I ever dated”)? There’s a cookbook in the works, and “I’d like to do Jewish second weddings. We’re closed on Sundays anyway. This is the perfect room for 40 to 50 people,” he said, pointing to the sun-filled atrium, “with the aisle here and the chuppah at the end. And the glass always breaks on cement, not like on the grass.”

Charoset
1 cup pitted chopped dates
1/2 cup dried apricots
1/3 cup sweet Manischewitz wine
1 small red chili pepper, seeded and minced
3 tablespoons chopped almonds
2 tablespoons matzah meal
1 tablespoon chopped Meyer lemon, zest and rind included, or 1 tablespoon lemon zest
2 teaspoons chopped orange zest
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
Pinch of ground fennel

In a large bowl, combine dates, apricots and wine. Add chili pepper, almonds, matzah meal, lemon, orange zest, ginger and fennel. Mix well. Set aside at room temperature until ready to serve.
Makes about two cups.

Gefilte Fish Wrapped in Napa Cabbage With Tomato-Tarragon-Horseradish Emulsion
For the fish:
1/2 cup matzah meal
5 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken stock
2 heads Napa cabbage
1 pound whitefish fillet, cut into cubes
1/2 pound pike fillet, cut into cubes
1/2 pound carp, cut into cubes
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup Italian parsley, minced
2 tablespoons tarragon, minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
3 large eggs, separated
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne
Zest of 3 limes, finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and cut into julienne strips
2 leeks, cut into julienne strips

For the sauce:
Yolks of 2 large eggs (use only farm-fresh eggs kept under refrigeration or a pasteurized egg product)
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup vegetable oil
2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
3 tablespoons grated fresh horseradish
1 tablespoon chopped tarragon

Place matzah meal in a bowl. Mix with 1 cup of the stock and set aside.
Submerge cabbage in a large pot of boiling water. As the leaves soften, remove and place in ice water. Separate leaves, keeping them whole. You will need 12 unbroken leaves. Dry well. Trim the central rib so the leaf is of uniform thickness all around and will lie flat.

Semper Fiber


I am a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, especially of the weight-loss variety. I’ve even been known to renew my vows on a weekly basis. Yet, I have learned
that any drastic promises, such as, “I will never eat another bowl of Ben & Jerry’s Coffee Heath Bar Crunch ice cream ever again,” never work.

Other sure-fail methods include eating “calorie-controlled” blueberry gelatin and promising that you will only eat three ounces of cold turkey (skinless, of course) for lunch every day. A coworker of mine ate this way until one day she opened her mouth to speak but started to gobble instead.
Last year, I also decided that I would only weigh myself on the summer and winter solstices.

Too-frequent weigh-ins can sabotage any diet efforts, because a woman’s weight is a mysterious, jumpy, undependable thing that does not follow any known laws of nature. Over-weighing would lead to stress. Stress would slow down my metabolism, which was already prone to sleeping in late.

When my scale realized it was being ignored, it had a digital breakdown. Now my husband and sons are perplexed why the scale registers a difference of 15 pounds from a Monday to a Wednesday. Finally, payback time.

This year, I looked for fresh ideas on reducing poundage. Fortunately, I found an article that uncovered facts never before revealed to the American public. For example, did you know that Krispy Kreme Doughnuts are full of saturated fats and sugar? Who knew?

Now that I am aware of this and other startling nutritional data, I don’t dare approach within 100 feet of a Krispy Kreme shop. (Frankly, they deserve a boycott for the spelling alone.) But I am going one better: I am also making a commitment to fiber. This inspiration came from my friend Helen, who went from a pleasingly feminine figure to a lean, mean marathon machine.

Each time I saw her, she had dropped another dress size, her skin glowed more radiantly than ever and the threat of middle-aged wattle under the chin had vanished. When she moved her arms, her biceps flexed insouciantly. Helen looked fantastic. If she didn’t knock it off, I would have no choice but to hate her.

“How have you done this?” I asked, faking wonderment instead of envy.

She took my arm and leaned in close. “It’s all about the fiber,” she said. “You’ve got to try it.”
“No thanks,” I said, holding my hands up in a “stop” gesture. “It may be ecologically friendly, but pure fibers are much too high maintenance for me. I bought a linen dress once, and the dry cleaning alone nearly killed me.”

“Not that fiber,” she said. “I’m talking bran cereal, garbanzo beans and broccoli.”

She whipped a small nutrition bar out of her pocket, where she apparently kept a stash. It was made of flaxseed, apricots and at least 25 percent recycled greeting cards.

“Try this. Fourteen grams of fiber in this little bar,” she said. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you,” she laughed.

It was a strange laugh, perhaps the kind of laugh you get after ingesting too much fiber.

“Great,” I said, dropping the bar into the vast black hole of my purse. “If it works, I’ll ask my doctor for a prescription.”

“Oh, no need,” she said. “These are over-the-counter, even the blueberry. But if you’re really serious about prescription fiber bars, I know where you can order them cheap from Canada.”

And so, desperately trying to become sinewy and taut like Helen, I put my trust in fiber. Scads of fiber. My main food groups became split peas, collard greens and psyllium husks. I tossed soy nuts and lentils on everything, even cereal. One night, I dreamed that I had fallen into an open barrel of barley at the local Whole Foods store. I developed indigestion.

After two weeks of uncompromising fidelity to fiber, I had not lost any weight, but my pantry was four pounds lighter, because I had used up most of the lentils and several cans of kidney and white beans.

Then I saw Helen again, who looked more buff than ever. My indigestion flared up immediately. Probably too many raw red peppers at lunch. Not a good idea.

“What gives?” I demanded. “You claimed that you looked so great because of fiber. I’ve eaten so much fiber I could be the poster child for the National Colon Health Foundation. You must be doing something else. Come on, spill it ”

“I’m working with a personal trainer three times a week,” Helen said. “I’m sure I told you.”

I knew there had to be a catch. Helen’s confession vindicated me. A diet of chickpeas and cantaloupe might get you poster child status for colon health but would not get you on the cover of Brawny Babe magazine. The green stuff of Helen’s success wasn’t only kale, it was cold, hard cash for the trainer.

Since then, I’ve gotten used to my more fibrous diet, but sometimes I pine for hours for an empty calorie. Overall, it’s not really that bad, if you don’t mind indigestion. I can’t afford Helen’s personal trainer, but at least I know the secret of her success. Commitment, self-discipline and money.

Who knew?

Judy Gruen writes the popular “Off My Noodle” column at judygruen.com. Her next book, “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement,” will be published in May.

Seven-Year Switch


We want to have everything, and we want it better, bigger and more spectacular than everyone else. Gas-guzzlers roam the roads, and our oil dependency forces us to redefine values and ideals, like democracy and freedom. In Las Vegas and Palm Springs, we must have lusciously green golf courses and lawns watered generously, while other areas are pumped dry or threatened with drought. We demand constant availability of fruits and vegetables, regardless of the season.

As the sages write in Pirke Avot: “Greed, desire and arrogance drive people out of this world.” Indeed, if we don’t wake up, these traits will drive the world away from us.

The first role God designated for humankind is the one we most blatantly ignore. When God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, He ordered him to cultivate and protect the planet. And while we have cultivated the rich soils of planet Earth, in the last couple of decades it is achingly clear that if we do not do our best to keep the second part of the commandment — to guard the planet — we might lose it altogether.

This week’s parsha offers inspiration for re-establishing this much-needed balance. The Torah orders the Israelites to fallow the land every seventh year — the Shemita, or Sabbatical year. During that year, naturally grown crops are divided evenly among the whole population. There are no class differences. Even the animals are not prevented from taking their share. This idea must have been shocking and disturbing to agrarian societies in ancient times, and it is still revolutionary today.

The benefits of the seven-year cycle are immeasurable. First, the land recovers the trace minerals it needs without using ammonium-nitrate-based fertilizers, which endangers the aquatic ecosystems. Second, the social structure is corrected every seven years; the differences between the classes are eroded and a sense of unity and togetherness takes over. Lastly, the seventh year provides an opportunity to stop the insane race for provisions, power and glory. It allows people to reconnect to the precious gifts of their family and their inner self.

After seven cycles of Shemita, or 49 years, the Jubilee is to be celebrated. During the Jubilee year, not only would the land be fallowed but all slaves would be released and all nonresidential properties that were previously sold would return to the original owner.

The Jubilee made sure that there would be no lifetime slaves. Since absolute slavery was prevalent in biblical times, this system was a lesser evil that eventually paved the way to total abolishment of slavery in Judaism, long before slavery was relinquished in the rest of the world.

The Jubilee also guaranteed that shrewd businessmen and moneylenders would not be able to amass huge estates and create feudal societies. Instead, every 50 years, land distribution would go back to the beginning, when each household was granted land according to its size.

As urban dwellers, we are far removed from the daily reality of agrarian life, but the message of Shemita and Jubilee goes beyond the agrarian framework. Early mystics pointed out that the Shabbat, the Shemita and the Jubilee are part of the same seven-stroke cycle that extends to greater, cosmic cycles beyond our comprehension. Tuning in to this cycle, mentally and physically, blesses us with inner calm, with love and caring toward planet Earth and toward all humans. It teaches us the real values in life and pulls us away from greed, desire and arrogance.

And while modern life doesn’t permit many of us to take a sabbatical, we can turn our free time into quality time, helping ourselves and the planet. Spending more time with your kids, eating wisely and educating yourself about organic agriculture, global warming and air and water pollution are good beginnings.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at haimovadia@hotmail.com.

Sonoma Plan Adds Flavor to Dull Diets


Dr. Connie Guttersen is on a mission to make America smaller. Well, perhaps not geographically, but at least to shrink the size of the average American.

Scientific studies have proven that weight-loss diets that are based on moderate amounts of the healthiest types of fats, such as olive oil, fish and nuts, are more effective long-term than traditional low-fat diets. And since the low-fat diet myth was busted recently with the publication of “The Nurses’ Health Study II,” the public is struggling to determine what role fat should play in everyday meals.

Guttersen explains that a moderate amount of the best types of fat make healthy foods taste better. This is the basic premise behind her best-selling book, “The Sonoma Diet” (Meredith Books, 2005), a Northern California spin on the Mediterranean diet that also encourages plenty of wine consumption, setting it apart from many other structured diets.

A 2001 weight-loss study cited in the International Journal of Obesity compared a Mediterranean-inspired diet (moderate in fat) to a low-fat diet and found that the Mediterranean-inspired diet had more long-term success when it came to weight loss and participants adhering to it. It also found that vegetable consumption actually went up in the Mediterranean diet group as compared to the group that ate the low-fat version of the diet.

Many low-fat dieters fail to stick with their plan because the foods they’re eating simply don’t taste good or fail to satisfy their hunger. A common challenge with low-fat diets is that it may also promote an increased dependence or selection of highly refined processed fat-free grains and snacks. This combination is not ideal for individuals challenged by sweet cravings and poor blood glucose control. The Sonoma diet also differs from the famed South Beach Diet in that there is no glycemic index to check.

The type of fat we eat has an affect on health and the success of weight loss more than just focusing on the total amount. Limiting the amount of saturated fats and hydrogenated fats becomes the real issue for healthy weight loss. Saturated fats, such as those found in animal products, tropical oils and hydrogenated fats can actually contribute to obesity and the health related problems associated with being overweight.

The Sonoma Diet, inspired by the Mediterranean and California wine country, combines this healthy way of eating with a weight-loss plan to lose weight and gain health with the most flavorful foods. Beyond low-fat diets, The Sonoma Diet focuses on the ideal balance and type of healthy fats, such as extra-virgin olive oil and almonds in combination with lean meats, wholesome grains, fruits, low-fat dairy and colorful vegetables. Although there is much discussion as to whether a diet should be low fat, low carb or even high protein, The Sonoma Diet recognizes the need to clear away the confusion and form a comprehensive approach.

An eating plan with the healthiest foods in the smartest combinations maximizes the health benefits of all foods absorbed and boosts weight loss. For example, combining a medley of roasted peppers and tomatoes with a tasty vinaigrette made with extra-virgin olive oil, not only enhances the flavor, but boosts the body’s ability to absorb the antioxidants contained in the peppers and tomatoes. A salad of baby spinach and other dark greens sprinkled with toasted almonds makes for a delicious and smart combination when it comes to health. An herb-marinated flank steak served with roasted broccoli sprinkled with toasted almonds, and wild rice is another great way to enhance the health and flavor in these foods.

“These combinations are not only delicious, but they enhance the protective qualities of these foods so as to reduce risk factors associated with many diseases such as heart disease and cancer,” Guttersen explained.

Heart Disease

A diet inspired by the Mediterranean lifestyle, with a moderate amount of fat, is more effective in reducing cardiovascular risk factors as compared to the conventional low-fat diets. Monounsaturated fats, such as extra-virgin olive oil, avocados and nuts contain healthy fatty acids, antioxidants and unique phytochemicals that have been found to offer more cardiovascular protection when it comes to atherosclerosis, stroke and inflammation.

Cancer

Studies have confirmed that a Mediterranean diet, characterized by high consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean meats and healthy fats, such as olive oil and nuts, protects against cancer. Many of the healthy fats contribute their own antioxidants as well enhance the protective actions of other nutrients found in fruits and vegetables which act us a protective factor against cancer risk factors.

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Scales of Injustice


I was 10 the first time I stepped on a scale. It was the summer of 1978, and I was visiting my grandmother in Florida.

Every day, grandma and I went for our daily two-mile walk, past the golf course, past Publix, the supermarket where the old people bought prune juice and cod liver oil. On the way home we’d stop there to weigh ourselves on the giant outdoor scale.

“Girls have to be thin and beautiful,” grandma would say. “The world judges on first appearances.”

My grandmother didn’t look like you’d expect a grandmother to look — soft and round and smelling of gingerbread. No, this grandma was all sharp angles and points — her make-up and hair carefully arranged, her clothes stylish and neatly pressed. She was skinny, and the needle hovered around 120.

Then it was my turn. My grandmother would peer over my shoulder. “Same as yesterday.” Or: “You’ve lost a pound. Aren’t you happy?”

And I was.

Was I ever really “fat?” Well, no, I suppose not technically. As a child I was a gymnast, muscular, firm; my greatest pleasure was going to gymnastics and coming home to a large cheese pizza, the oil dripping on my leotard and tights. I loved food, loved everything connected with it: cooking it, reading about it, consuming it. I could (and still can) match my father Whopper for Whopper; at the dinner table my mother would shoot me dirty looks when I reached for a second helping. But this food-love was never a problem; as a child I ate pleasurably, without guilt. Occasionally, I’d weigh myself on my mother’s little green scale, wearing layers of clothes, a pair of hiking boots. The numbers meant nothing to me.

They did to my mother. She always warned that if I wasn’t careful I’d “blow up like an elephant.” This had always been impressed upon me; I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t conscious that fat was something “bad.” I remember calling home from a neighbor’s house — I must have been about 7 — for permission to sprinkle “real” sugar into a cup of tea; I was constantly warned by my mother and grandmother never to gain weight. Fat was ugly, undignified, a sign of weakness and failure. But though I was aware of this, I never really worried about it. Fat, like fatal car crashes or terminal illnesses, was something that happened to other people.

And then adolescence hit, and I quit gymnastics. My muscles wilted. My waist cried for looser belts. My breasts grew faster than I could say “D cup.”

Not surprisingly, food stopped being a source of pleasure and became, instead, the enemy. My grandmother refused to let me come to Florida unless I lost 10 pounds. The kids at school came up with all sort of creative nicknames for me (“Flabby Abby!”).

My mother insisted I “get hold” of myself and lose weight. So I joined Weight Watchers, NutriSystem, Diet Workshop. I devoured books on the Atkins Diet, the Scarsdale Diet, the Pritikin Weight Loss Program. I’d be “good” for a day or so, but then I’d binge on cookies, cakes, ice cream.

This Yo-Yo cycle went on for three years, until my grandfather died, left me a few bucks and I had enough money to send myself to a weight-loss camp, or food rehab, as I liked to think of it. Sure, it was expensive — about $3,500 for nine weeks, money I could easily have put toward college — but I thought it was worth it, and I happily forked over the cash. Losing weight seemed something I had to devote all my energies to, a full-time job, and at home there were too many distractions. I couldn’t wait to go to camp, couldn’t wait to return home and lead a different (read: happier, better, party- and boy-filled) life. How would it not be? I’d be thin.

I lost 15 pounds that summer, which I kept off for a little over a year. And then it crept back on (plus 10) and I returned to camp. This went on for six years: thin, fat, camp, thin, fat camp. In the end, none of it really mattered. Sure, I was happier when I fit into a pair of Size 6 jeans, but I was beholden to the numbers on the scale, beholden to a cycle of eating that affected everything I did.

I’d like to say that epiphany struck me over the head and one day, in a flash of clarity, I discovered that who you are on the inside matters more than externals. But the truth is much less exciting. Over time I simply got fed up — pun intended — of dedicating my energy to calories. After devoting six summers and 25 years to my size, I got bored of focusing so much thought on my body and ignoring what was going on in my head; of putting myself in an environment where I could feel superior instead of learning to feel that way in the real world; of being convinced that my life would be better once I knocked off 10 pounds, only to discover that it wasn’t.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I’ve overcome my obsession with achieving a certain body type (I’d do anything, for example, to be 5-foot-8. Even 5-foot-6 would be fine). Our appearance is endlessly appraised; we live in a culture that values Cameron Diaz over Kirstie Alley, and it’s hard not to fall victim to that. My heart breaks when I see an overweight kid; nothing’s worse than being a fat child.

And food certainly still ranks high in my personal pantheon. By no means am I ready to throw in the kitchen towel and accept fat defeat. I order low-calorie or low-fat meals on airplanes, and have been known to hand the contents of the hotel minibar to the front desk. Still, you can be conscientious without being crazy. You can be a little zaftig and still attractive; some of the sexiest women I know — most of them, actually — have extra meat on their bones. And you can be fit no matter what you weigh.

But I never step on the scale, I don’t deprive myself, and I don’t eat like a refugee who might never see food again. I work out, but not maniacally. If I feel heavy, I eat less. Mainly, I try to remember that there is a wealth of things to worry about other than the size of my thighs (which are really not huge). There’s no reason to miss a social gathering because I’m too fat. There’s no reason so stay home because I’m too big.

After 25 years of dieting, this is what I know: There’s more to me than the sum of my parts, no matter how much they weigh.

Abby Ellin is the author of “Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat Kid Weighs In on Living Large, Losing Weight and How Parents Can (and Can’t) Help” (PublicAffairs, June 2005).

Fit L.A. – The Birthday Party Crasher: Dr. Atkins


Over the past few months, I have relished the apparent collapse of the low-carb industry. Low-carb specialty stores and magazines arrived with much fanfare but soon crumbled like a tired soufflé.

Good riddance to them, I thought — especially the magazine that tried to bilk me after I wrote an article for them. Low-carbism was just another sorry scheme to part consumers from their hard-earned bucks and their bagels.

And who could afford the stuff? I tried an insanely expensive low-carb pasta once. It was heavy, gummy and tasteless — and those were its finer qualities.

But I realized my satisfaction was premature, when I was confronted with the ghost of Dr. Atkins. She was draped in a Size 2 dress and toting a sorry slice of flourless bread between scrawny fingers.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. I was happily toting a batch of homemade bread and a broccoli quiche to a pot-luck birthday party, eager for some good fun and good eats. But I had barely crossed the threshold, when Sandy, the hostess and erstwhile birthday girl, announced that she had lost another 10 pounds on the Atkins plan.

Sandy had always been as slim as an asparagus spear. Why she felt compelled to whittle down to as thin as a blade of wheat grass was beyond me. And telling me bordered on the cruel. I forced a smile at her “achievement” as I placed my culinary contributions on the table.

“Mmmm, smells good,” Sandy said, leaning over to inhale the bread.

If she were still Atkinizing herself, could I blame her for wanting a little inhalation therapy of a wheat product?

“This is home baked, isn’t it?” I detected a plaintive quality to her question.

“Yes, and I made the broccoli quiche, too.”

Hope returned to her voice: “Is it crustless?”

“Uh, no, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were still no-carbing it.”

“I’m not no-carbing it; I’m low-carbing it,” she clarified.

“But Sandy, it’s your birthday, for crying out loud. Can’t you allow yourself a measly 50 or 60 carbs today? I mean, look at you. When you turn sideways you disappear.”

Sandy was saved from answering by a knock at the door. Linda and Rachel had arrived, the heavenly aroma of something Italian wafting in after them.

Soon, all the guests had settled around the table. I sliced my bread and passed the basket around. Sandy immediately passed the basket to Linda. Meanwhile, I saw her stealthily uncover a very dark, very thin slice of bread filled with sprouty-looking things from under her napkin.

“What is that?” Linda asked.

It appeared to have been made from at least 40 percent recycled paper products.

“It’s flourless protein bread,” Sandy explained. It was called Ezekiel 4.9, “as described in the Holy Bible,” according to the package, made from lentils, barley and spelt, whatever that was.

Just what we all needed: a “friend” seemingly bent on becoming skinnier than Lindsay Lohan and a loaf of bread that quoted scripture. Sandy offered us all a piece, and we each took polite little bites.

“Who says there’s no truth in advertising?” I asked. “This actually tastes biblical.”

“I thought the Atkins thing was over,” Linda chimed in helpfully, washing down her Ezekiel 4.9 with an eight-ounce cup of H2O.

“Not for me,” Sandy said. “I’m almost at my high school cheerleading weight, which is my goal. You may think it’s silly,” she admitted, ejecting a carrot curl from her salad as if it carried the avian flu.

Rachel was busily serving up a nice portion of the broccoli quiche and some low-fat manicotti: “My sister-in-law is going one better than you, Sandy. She’s only eating raw foods.”

“That sounds exhausting,” I said. “Who has that much time to chew?”

“She says it makes her feel light,” Rachel answered.

“If I want to feel that light, I’ll float in the Dead Sea,” I said.

Was I sounding a tad snarky? I couldn’t help it. I had been looking forward to this birthday party, and the guest of honor was ruining it for me. If only Sandy had warned us all in advance, we could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble and prepared a meal that she could have eaten without picking out half the ingredients, such as a plate of cheese slices and broiled zucchini. Rachel had made her famous Big Fat Greek Salad, but I was distracted by the sight of Sandy making a little hill of the croutons and shunting aside all the tomatoes, as well. What a waste of all that Vitamin C.

I didn’t say so at the time, but it didn’t seem to me that Dr. Atkins’ dietary brainstorm helped him very much, either. After all, he died after taking a fall. Seems to me that if he had had a little more padding on him, he probably could have just gotten up, dusted himself off and went on his merry way.

Of course, the Atkins people like to keep this quiet, but I also heard his cholesterol was higher than the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Despite all his efforts, you still never hear anybody say, “That’s the greatest thing since sliced celery.”

Inevitably, dessert time arrived. We all sang “Happy Birthday” to Sandy, but I wasn’t feeling so happy anymore. The unspoken pressure during lunch had made me peel off the pasta from the manicotti, and even I was reduced to foregoing the croutons on the Greek salad. It’s amazing how fast mass hysteria can spread.

Rachel served her luscious carrot cake, and Sandy blew out the candles before eating a piece. But no matter how long she sat there, no way could Sandy pick out all the microscopic pieces of carrot from a slab of carrot cake.

However, it all worked out in the end. While the rest of us ate the actual cake, we scraped off the cream cheese frosting and gave it to Sandy.

Judy Gruen (www.judygruen.com) is the author of two award-winning humor books, including “Till We Eat Again: Confessions of a Diet Dropout” (Champion, 2002).

 

Say ‘Hi’ to a College Before You Pick One


Every year, the college tour is a rite of passage for students and parents alike, but for some it becomes an occupation. I wanted to make it simple, that is, wait until after my son was accepted, but before we had to give notification to colleges, a two-week period between April 15 and May 1. Had I known that our three-day, three-state, three-college tour was going to be so hectic I might have planned otherwise. I worried: Was this too much pressure, in too little time, to make such an important decision? What was the best approach?

Although there were no right or wrong answers, this rite of passage was harder than I thought to get right: for every decision, another better one could have been made. Of course, I get to do it all over again in four years when my daughter goes to college.

The Big Question: When to Visit

My son and I visited two UC campuses in the spring of his junior year, but by the time senior year rolled around he had forgotten everything he liked about them. And by senior year, unbeknownst to me, he had his heart set on going east. But for those whose first choice is a UC or Cal State, a couple of campus visits, one in junior and another in senior year, makes sense.

East Coast schools are another problem: to visit before, after or both? One father I know took his daughter to New England to see her college choices before she was admitted, and then again afterward. Some parents use the college tour as a kind of marathon summer vacation between junior and senior year, visiting more than a dozen schools on one trip. One parent I know dragged her daughter to 22 different schools.

Since regular students and teachers aren’t on most college campuses during summer, I don’t see the point, other than saving your child from missing classes during the school year.

The other less costly choice is to visit only after the acceptance letters arrive. My advice: resist pressure from other parents and students to go beforehand. All in all, I’m glad we did.

Use the Internet; Make a Date With Your College Interviewer

I found letters from college interviewers telling my son they would be in town on such and such a date buried under stacks of homework papers. When confronted, he told me he didn’t know what he would say to these strangers anyway. After missing a few of these opportunities, his father told him he had to go. He ended up actually liking the interview process, and determined from talking to a Harvard alumnus that he didn’t want to go to an Ivy League after all.

Take advantage of “walking tours” on the Internet — you can get a fairly accurate feel of what college campuses and their buildings look like. Also find out when representatives from out-of-state colleges will be in your area. My son’s best friend decided on Boston University after admission counselors came to Los Angeles and presented a slide show of the new athletic center.

Eating…

Everyone I talked to said eating at the campus cafeteria was mandatory. They didn’t say that what you get with your meal is sometimes more than food. When my son visited Wesleyan University, he and his host ate dinner at the freshman cafeteria. In the middle of the meal, the campus streaker ran into the room, threw off his cape and made a loud proclamation: I am Wesleyan. After getting a bored response, he ran naked down the stairs and out the door. I imagine a lot of students lost their appetites, but perhaps not; after all, Wesleyan does have a clothing-optional dorm.

Sleeping…

Visiting a dorm room is a must. At BU we viewed the sleeping arrangements of a friend, Yoni, and his roommate, who cleverly arranged their beds perpendicular to each other, to leave more communal space intact, i.e. more room for the TV. While there, we also got a taste of the open-door policy. Yoni’s friends were constantly popping in and out, using the computer, making dinner arrangements. I wondered: how do freshmen get any homework done with the doors wide open? The answer: They don’t; that’s what the college library is for.

…And Praying

There are many opportunities to experience Jewish student life. At Wesleyan, Schmooze With the Jews was in full swing, inviting new recruits to meet Jewish students on campus. Schmooze sponsored a Shabbat service, with free bagels afterward. (The congregation was made up of mostly non-Jews, but then I realized-where there’s free food, there’s freshman!) At BU, Hillel is the largest organization on campus, with 25 student groups organized around cultural, social and religious events. At Bard College, there’s a large Jewish presence, lead by President Leon Botstein, the conductor of the Jerusalem Orchestra. As a matter of fact, the first student we met at Bard was Jewish, Ari from Chicago, who played the trumpet and walked around the campus in 46-degree weather, barefoot.

Don’t Judge a College by the Parents It Keeps

The campus tour is a good place for your son/daughter to check out other students and their academic aspirations, while you can check out the parents. Curiously, there was a majority of Californians visiting at the same time as us, easily identified by their unusual clothing. While touring Bard, I met an American Sikh from San Francisco. He told me that he was unsure if his son would be attending college, given that the boy was a sensitive soul concerned with the condition of the world. But when we met up with him later, the Sikh’s son seemed most enthusiastic about the school’s Division III soccer team. As it turned out, he loved soccer more than saving the world.

True or False: The Last College You Visit Will Be the One You Choose

Somewhere I had heard that the last college you visit will be the one your child will remember the most, thus, the one he or she will choose. Wrong. My son picked the first East Coast college he visited. But, it is true that the last school you visit will be the one your child will know most about, because by that time he/she will have discovered exactly what questions to ask, what professors to see, what classes to attend and anything else he/she has forgotten to do on previous visits. In the end, it doesn’t matter because what determines your son or daughter’s choice is oftentimes so elusive, not even you, the wise parent, have a clue. (See next topic.)

The Mystery Factor

How did my son finally choose his college, and when did he know that this was the school for him? His first inkling came when he was walking on the Bard College campus and saw students who looked like his friends back home. I noticed then that his shoulders relaxed. When we visited a friend’s daughter, Corrie Segal, in her dorm room, I stepped back and let the two of them talk. Soon, a roommate joined the conversation while she fried an egg. Turned out their dorm room was a popular destination: dozens of Polaroids of friends who had spent the night on their couch adorned the walls, while tea bags adorned the ceiling. Corrie explained: one day, while having tea, a friend suggested flinging the tea bags toward the ceiling, where they stuck, with the little strings hanging down. Soon, they found that flinging tea bags was a very satisfying thing to do. By the time we visited, most of the tea bags had already fallen, save one or two, but the remaining tea stains made the ceiling look like a distant constellation. My son was impressed. He was also impressed by Corrie’s photographic portfolio, which showed that the school had an impressive arts curriculum, the very thing my son was looking for. In the end, he chose Bard over four other colleges, just in the nick of time; he mailed his acceptance a few days before May 1. I was relieved. He liked the campus, the food, the history class he sat in on, the professors. But I believe it was the tea bags on the ceiling that clinched the deal.

 

Read All About It


 

At this moment, I have no idea if Jennifer Garner is having Ben Affleck’s baby, who Hilary Swank is wearing to the Oscars or what brand of moisturizer Catherine Zeta Jones has shipped in from a nunnery in Peru.

I am no longer binge reading. As of now, I’m out of touch with In Touch.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with reading celebrity gossip magazines. If you can do it in moderation, I applaud you (and please let me know if Lindsay Lohan’s dad ever gets his act together). In my case, however, I was a problem reader and I had to put the magazines down. It started innocently enough. I was working on a morning news show in New York and doing occasional segments with writers from Star Magazine, In Touch, People and other weekly magazines. I’d interview gossip writers about the celebrity news of the day, how Julia Roberts was handling her pregnancy, what new freebies Star Jones was hoarding. This was all part of my job, and it never went to “a bad place.” Soon, the magazines started showing up at my office, sent to me by publicists. They’d sit on my desk, as enticing to me as a fistful of Vioxx. Inevitably, a co-worker would glance down and notice a particularly poignant headline, for example “Celebrity Flaws.”

“No way! That is not Jerry Hall’s thigh,” they would squeal, snatching the glossy from my desk. “Are you telling me those are Paris Hilton’s feet? Those are huge!”

Like children hearing the muted tones of an ice cream truck entering the cul-de-sac, other women would materialize, hungry for cellulite secrets and maybe a scoop of schadenfraude.

“Let me see that. Are those Angelina Jolie’s hands? She has man hands!” someone else would chime in, peering down at the cover. The excitement would build until I’d give the magazine away.

One moment, I was indifferent to celebrity hands, the next they had a choke hold on me. I started smuggling the magazines home in my purse.

Because I worked the early morning shift and kept odd hours, I found a stack of magazines really took the edge off trying to busy myself during the day. I’d climb in bed with dozens of stories about Tara Reid and Ashton Kutcher, a cold Fresca and the compelling desire to disappear into a world of customized crystal cell phone covers and anorexic Olsens.

This went on once a week for nearly six months, until I finally saw the correlation: pop culture binge reading sessions were always followed by fitful naps and waking up with a vague but nasty sense of emptiness. Strangers like Pamela Anderson and Britney Spears wormed themselves deeply into my subconscious and wandered lost like ghosts with excellent teeth and Uggs. No matter how much I devoured their stories, one truth remained. They were on the Red Carpet — I wasn’t even at Red Lobster.

I’d like the say it’s just that simple, that reading about the rich and famous is painful unless you’re one of them, but I doubt that’s it. I’m going to guess that even the rich and famous suffer low-grade ennui after thumbing through the pages of Star. There’s just something about immersion in a sea of other people’s lives — from their handbags to their Oscar parties to their kabbalah bracelets — that drowns out anything real. What’s so dazzlingly distracting is also what’s numbing and uncomfortable.

When you think about it, garden-variety gossiping usually gives you a temporary high but leaves you feeling out of sorts. Binge reading works on the same principle, but it’s even more distressing. It’s gossip without the human interaction, a one-way conversation about people you don’t know, a mindless activity that quietly fosters longing and loneliness, at least for me.

On the subway once, I saw a young woman flipping through an Us Weekly. I was surprised, because she didn’t look the type. She was all no-fuss hair and debutante angles and perfectly fitting khakis. I studied this woman, with her tennis-lesson body and lightly worn monogrammed bag. When the subway stopped at 59th, she was halfway through the magazine. I saw her put it on the seat next to her, and snatch it back up again, and put it down before she gathered her things and stood up. I wanted to tap her and say, “I know.”

As long as life is sometimes uncertain and boring and as long as there are airplane flights and waiting rooms and eating meals alone and afternoons gaping with open spaces, I’ll always be looking for distractions. All I can hope for now is that they involve far less of Melania Knauss.

As it turns out, people who need People are not the luckiest people in the world.

Teresa Strasser is a TV host and Emmy Award-winning writer. She’s on the Web at target=”_blank”>teresastrasser.com.

 

Heart to Heart With ‘South Beach’ Doc


 

Carbohydrate-filled days are over. Almost everyone is on the Atkins or Zone Diet. That is unless they’ve deserted them for The South Beach Diet, which proposes eating the “right carbs” and the “right fats” along with protein, giving dieters the best of both worlds.

This extremely popular diet doesn’t count calories or severely restrict the kinds of foods you can eat. The name brings to mind buff, bikini-clad bodies parading Miami’s hip beach. But South Beach Diet developer Dr. Arthur Agatston, a cardiologist and pioneer in noninvasive coronary artery imaging, was aiming at offering a palatable, safe diet to his chronically overweight heart patients.

“My concern was not with my patients’ appearance,” he said. “I wanted to find a diet that would help prevent or reverse the myriad heart and vascular problems that stem from obesity,”

He never found such a diet, so he developed one himself and, in doing so, he also created an overnight sensation among South Beach’s body-conscious beach-goers. Why? Agatston’s plan claims to help you shed pounds fast — right from the waistline and belly. His scientifically based program promises immediate results, helping dieters shed 10 to 30 pounds while radically changing their blood chemistry, reversing pre-diabetes, lowering cholesterol and averting a range of chronic illnesses and conditions.

“Our thesis is really that the processing of food in America has caused the epidemic of obesity and diabetes,” Agatston said.

The South Beach Diet advocates eating as few processed foods, such as white bread, white pasta and commercial baked goods, as possible. Agatston’s quarrel with most carbs we consume today is that they have been overly processed and stripped of almost all healthy fiber.

The plan allows you to eat meat, fish, cheese, healthy fats such as canola, sesame and olive oils, nuts, fruits, vegetables and the right carbohydrates.

“Another basic principle of the diet, even if you have no weight to lose, is to consume all the good oils rather than trans fats, and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables,” Agatston said. “That’s what we were meant to eat.”

Since the doctor knows that nothing undermines a weight-loss plan more than the distressing sensation that you need more food, the South Beach Diet is based on eating three balanced meals a day. To keep dieters from feeling deprived, it also suggests several snacks and dessert after dinner.

The doctor’s message is clear: you can count calories or omit an entire food group for a while, but you can’t turn it into a lifestyle.

Surprisingly, Agatston’s diet does not require exercise to shed pounds. It does require, however, a long-term commitment.

“We started the diet to prevent heart attacks and strokes. The diet takes a few months to alter blood chemistry enough to be effective, so you need to be on the diet for the long haul,” Agatston said.

And with the long haul in mind, there are no absolute restrictions on the diet except during the first phase, which spans only a couple of weeks.

The doctor explained that the South Beach Diet also prevents cancer by incorporating ample vegetables and fruits into the regimen. He points out, for example, that the lycopene in tomatoes is known to thwart prostate cancer.

“There are so many phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables, and we thought we could isolate them into a few vitamins and give supplements, but that hasn’t worked. You need the natural stuff,” he said.

That is the diet in its essence: returning to natural, whole foods — the kinds our primitive ancestors would have eaten.

Besides trading white flour for its whole-grain counterpart, looking to the sea for sustenance is another place to start. Agatston calls Omega-3 oils, largely found in seafood, “the missing ingredient in the Western diet.” Another problem of our Western diet, he said, is that farm-fed animals, including fish, do not have as much Omega-3s as free-range.

“Omega-3 oils, which we emphasize, have been shown to be helpful for depression, arthritis and colitis. I think Omega-3s are helpful for a lot of conditions,” he said, adding, “When I talk about Omega-3s, I feel like a snake oil salesman!”

Another tenet of the South Beach Diet: It’s not just what you eat; it’s how you eat it.

“The faster the sugars and starches you eat are processed and absorbed into your bloodstream, the fatter you get,” Agatston said. “Therefore, anything that speeds the process by which your body digests carbohydrates is bad for your diet, and anything that slows it down is good.”

In short, the more food is processed, the more fattening it will be.

According to the doctor, a baked potato will be less fattening topped with a dollop of low-fat cheese or sour cream than eaten plain. The calorie count will be slightly higher, but the fat contained in the cheese or sour cream will slow down the digestive process, thereby lessening the amount of insulin that potato prompts your body to make. Surprisingly, he points out that even french fries are better than baked potatoes, because the fat they are cooked in slows down the digestive process. Don’t be misled: none of these are good choices for someone on the South Beach Diet — Agatston uses the examples to explaining how blood chemistry and insulin production (and overproduction) affects weight gain or loss.

Will the American Heart Association change its dietary guidelines, best known for the high carbohydrate content on the bottom of its food pyramid? Agatston thinks so, but says change will be slow to come.

To help dieters learn the tricks of the trade, namely glycemic indexes and discerning the good carbs and fats from the bad, Rodale Books (the “South Beach Diet” publisher) recently published a companion reference book titled “Good Fats, Good Carbs Guide.”

As a complement to his New York Times best-seller, Agatston offers more than 200 recipes in “The South Beach Diet Cookbook.”

While pleased with the success of his books, they are not Agatston’s foremost accomplishment.

“My most rewarding experience was watching the expansion of the heart scan, which I believed in and developed in 1988,” he said.

Several years later, at an international meeting of physicians, everyone started referring to it as The Agatston Score. Embarrassed at the time, today the cardiologist is proud of the acceptance of his methodology and its ability to detect early heart disease before the first heart attack.

When not practicing medicine or counseling on nutritional matters (and writing books), Agatston enjoys sports with his wife, Sari, and their two teenage sons. The Agatston family supports an array of philanthropies.

And in Miami, the busy physician continues caring for his cardiac patients.

“I am very much keeping my day job,” Agatston said with a warm smile.

 

Seattle — Kosher Mecca of Northwest


In the past, the dynamic and innovative Pacific Northwestern city of Seattle has been associated with Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks, The Pike Street Market, The Space Needle and grunge bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana.

Today, the city can boast of having a stunning new downtown library, a cutting-edge science fiction museum, state-of-the-art football and baseball stadiums and the Experience Music Project, a hands-on rock museum. And, a well-kept secret is that Seattle is the “kosher mecca” of the Pacific Northwest.

Previously, the thriving Seattle Jewish community of 40,000 was best known for having the third-largest Sephardic community in North America (after Los Angeles and New York). Many of Seattle’s 3,000-4,000 Sephardim (who came to the city in the early 1900s from Turkey and the Greek island of Rhodes) and many of the city’s Orthodox population, reside in Seward Park, which has two large Sephardic synagogues, the city’s main Ashkenazic Orthodox synagogue and an eruv. (Many Jews also reside in areas like Mercer Island, Bellevue and the North End of Seattle.) The existence of such a large Sephardic population may be one of the main reasons that there are so many kosher restaurants scattered throughout the city.

In fact, Seattle, which has a population of 2.5 million, has more kosher restaurants than the nearby cities of Vancouver, B.C., and Portland, Ore., combined. Seattle’s kosher establishments receive their kosher certification from the Va’ad HaRabanim of Greater Seattle, which among other things, takes care of kashrut issues and gives supervision on various kosher products and kosher establishments. (They also get a lot of calls from tourists wanting to know where they can find kosher restaurants and kosher food in the city.)

For a city of its size, Seattle has an incredible array of kosher restaurants to satisfy almost every palate. There is mouth-watering kosher pizza, pasta, soups and sandwiches at the Panini Grill Cafe near the Green Lake area; traditional Jewish fare and kosher baked goods at Leah’s in the North End; traditional fare can be found at Nosh Away and tasty North Indian Punjabi vegetarian kosher at Pabla Indian Cuisine — both in Renton; pareve Thai and Chinese Vegan cuisine at The Teapot Vegetarian House in Capitol Hill, a funky neighborhood near downtown Seattle; vegetarian Chinese food at the renowned Bamboo Garden in Queen Anne near Seattle Center; and kosher vegetarian Indian cuisine at Namasthe in Redmond.

Joy Somanna, the manager of Pabla Indian Cuisine, points out that business has increased since the restaurant (which is owned by Harnil Pabla) decided to become kosher at the request of the Jewish community of nearby Seward Park. Pabla’s also has a downtown location that the owner, J.S. Pabla, attempted unsuccessfully to convert into a kosher restaurant. But Pabla — who helped to establish the Renton location with his brother, Harnil — is hoping to open a kosher vegetarian Pabla’s outlet on Mercer Island in December. Seattle could have its eighth kosher restaurant before the end of 2004.

In addition to the many great kosher restaurants in the city, there are several bagel shops and coffeehouses under Va’ad supervision that offer kosher fare in Seattle. And, not only does Seattle have a wide variety of kosher establishments, but it also has a distinctive hechsher, or kosher symbol: a K-shaped Space Needle.

According to Rabbi Aharon Brun-Kestler, the executive director of the Seattle Va’ad who came from the Orthodox Union in New York, “Our standards are in line with other mainstream organizations and our supervision is generally accepted by outside agencies such as The Orthodox Union in New York.”

Ellen Kolman of the Seattle Va’ad noted, “You know that you’re getting a good hechsher, when you buy a Va’ad-approved kosher product from Seattle.”

Kolman, who is from Philadelphia (but came to Seattle with her husband from Northern California) is impressed with the number of kosher restaurants in Seattle.

“But even though there is a big Orthodox population in Seattle, kosher restaurants can’t survive with only Jewish customers because Seattle is not New York,” she said.

Daniel Cohanim, the owner of the Panini Grill Cafe, which opened in North Seattle in 1997, is also impressed by the number of kosher restaurants in the city. According to Cohanim, who is a native of Seattle, “There is a lot of co-operation between Sephardim and Ashkenazim in the Seattle Jewish community.”

This cohesiveness, he believes, may partially explain why there are so many kosher restaurants in the city. He also agrees with Kollman’s assertion that it would be difficult to survive solely with a Jewish clientele and attributes the success of his restaurant to the fact that he has been able to attract both a Jewish and non-Jewish clientele from the nearby trendy Green Lake area.

“Some of my non-Jewish customers don’t even know that they’re eating kosher food at a kosher restaurant,” he said, “but I’ve worked hard to make Paninis feel like a regular restaurant in order to attract a broad customer base.”

Cohanim also gets a great response from kosher travelers from New York and other eastern cities who are amazed by the quality of the food available at The Panini Grill and by the selection and quality of kosher restaurants in the Seattle area.

“We have some great kosher restaurants in the city, so food should not be an excuse not to travel to Seattle,” he said.

For more information about kosher Seattle, visit www.seattlevaad.org. For more information about visiting Seattle, visit ” target=”_blank”>www.seattleattractions.com.

Friends Find Real Flavor of Europe


We sat at a table by the water in Venice, Italy, enjoying gourmet pasta and the serenade of two accordion players nearby. A waiter brought dessert menus, and we struggled to speak to him in very Americanized and pathetic Italian. Like thousands of others college-age Americans, my three friends and I were backpacking through Europe. We came straight from our year of study at yeshivas in Israel, and our travels had one important difference: We were eating kosher.

Eating kosher on a budget in Europe is a little like being unemployed — you never know when or where you’ll eat again. &’9;

Our trip began in Madrid, where we then rode trains through Spain, southern France and Italy, ending in Rome before flying home for the summer. Traveling through predominantly Catholic countries, we hopped from ancient Jewish ghettos to fledgling Jewish communities, sampling the kosher restaurants that saved us along the way.

While restaurant hopping almost always dominates a European trip, when attempting to eat kosher, itineraries center on food. Web sites like shamash.org and chabad.org list kosher restaurants around the world — a very helpful resource for planning ahead.

Still, after a long day of visiting museums and skipping meals, the Web sites did not prepare us for the disappointment of finally arriving at the listed location of the kosher restaurant in Madrid, only to find the restaurant had been closed for years.

Such are the disadvantages of eating kosher through Europe, especially when not traveling through Jewish centers like London and Paris. Cheap meals are few and far between, and trying to pack kosher snacks in an already overstuffed backpack can grate on even the most patient of nerves.

Despite the aggravation, kosher eating developed into one of the highlights of our trip. We found some surprisingly tolerable and occasionally elegant kosher restaurants: La Escudilla, an Israeli-style meat restaurant in Madrid; Gam Gam, an Italian restaurant in Venice; Yotvata, a milk restaurant named after the dairy kibbutz in Israel, and La Taverna del Ghetto, a pricey Italian meat restaurant, both located in Rome; and the curiously named Pizza Dick in Cannes. More importantly, in almost every restaurant and bakery where we found food we could eat, we also found some of the most interesting Jews in the world.

In Nice, while dodging drunken Bulgarian soccer fans, we met a beaming British couple celebrating their 50th anniversary.

At a Chabad Shabbat dinner in Florence, we were awed by the operatic skills of Franscesco, a convert-in-training with a booming voice and an oversized Star of David around his neck.

And in Barcelona, we met Chaim Chalfon. Chalfon, a self-proclaimed "conquerer of the world," had settled briefly in Barcelona after a lifetime of success in business, spending time serving gourmet vegetarian food to wandering Jews in his home on Shabbat. We sampled his Pacific Island salad and salmon quiche on a balcony with a magnificent view of the city’s quirky architecture. Chalfon showed us his cookbook, which was in the final stages of publication, and contained a fusion of recipes and self-help begging readers to always focus on "the human element." Chalfon told us to "forget about responsibilities and get lost in the world for a year or three."

We never really understood what Chalfon was saying, but he made great salads, so we indulged him with smiles and nods, making sure to take second servings of everything. Chalfon aimed at hosting 1,000 people during his three-year stint in Barcelona, and as we signed his guest book, his wife informed us he was more than halfway there.

At Chalfon’s, Americans, Israelis, Moroccans, Italians and Spaniards all dined together — and Hebrew united us all. Our Hebrew helped more than English in Europe, as Israelis run most kosher restaurants and many of the Chabad centers and synagogues.

Despite the gourmet cuisine, my favorite part of the meal was the warm environment (granted, there was no cholent or meat, which might have changed things a bit). Sitting around the table and listening to each other, I realized that while we lived thousands of miles apart, spoke different languages, had various levels of religious observance and had our birth dates that spanned five decades, as Jews we shared a deep, common bond.

In the three countries we crossed, we saw everything from Michaelangelo’s David to astounding Italian synagogues, from Gaudi’s dream houses to old Jewish ghettos, but the real highlight of the trip was the people we met along the way. From the black-hat Chabad shaliach (emissary) in Madrid to the stunning brunette boasting about her three previous (and unsuccessful) engagements to Jewish men, the stories of the people we met gave most of the flavor to our trip, more than the kosher food we ate.

Maybe our European experience was not "authentic": We ate schnitzel in Spain and pizza in France; we never tasted real Tuscan delicacies or the mouth-watering gelato in Florence. However, our trip was authentic because we learned how kosher European Jews live, of the sacrifices they make, how they struggle to keep restaurants and synagogues open so that four spoiled Americans fresh out of yeshiva can eat more than instant soup and find a minyan for prayers.

We are home now — and we will never again take Los Angeles’ kosher restaurants for granted.

Frank McCourt, Let Our People Eat


Consider the hot dog.

For some of us, it’s nature’s perfect processed food —
with bun or plain, grilled or steamed, sliced up and cooked with beans or
lathered with spicy brown mustard, sweet onions and pickle relish. But always enjoyed best at the ballpark — especially at Dodger Stadium.

Or so they tell us.

If you keep kosher and you’re a Dodger fan, enjoying a hot dog in Chavez Ravine is about as remote as right field, about as unlikely as a championship pennant or of even harboring thoughts of baseball in October in Los Angeles. And that’s too bad.

Why whine about this now? Or at all? Because the season has just opened, and many of us Dodger fans who happen to keep kosher can’t stomach the prospect of sitting through another season with cheese pizza, garlic fries and peanuts to keep us fed and entertained.

We want to enjoy the same experience as that fan over there — the one jamming a grilled Dodger Dog into his face and relishing a belt-loosening ballpark rite as old as the game.

It’s the right time for the Dodger front office to acknowledge the significant Jewish fan base in Los Angeles and make plans to consistently link us up with a kosher product that we can put in a bun of our own — every game, not just on Jewish Community Night.

New Dodger owner Frank McCourt has talked about rebuilding the family-owned Dodger legacy and serving up an enjoyable fan experience. And quite frankly, if management can’t deliver Pudge, Nomar or A-Rod, the least we hope it can do is persuade its vendors to deliver us a “K Dog.”

To their credit, the Dodgers have tried to make accommodations and find a solution. A kosher stand on the reserved level of the stadium quietly pops up for special events or when advanced ticket sales flag the arrival of busloads of kippah-wearing camp kids.

On-site food storage and preparation are key issues, as is Farmer John’s substantial advertising sponsorship, but certainly they are not insurmountable. As many as 11 other major league ballparks have managed their way around similar issues.

According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, Los Angeles is second only to New York in the number of pounds of hot dogs purchased on an annual basis — 44.7 million –and Dodger Stadium is the reigning ballpark leader in hot dogs consumed, with 1.5 million sold in a season.

Of interest, too, is that the kosher hot dog category is growing at twice the rate of the total hot dog market, even though only a quarter of the 6 million Americans consuming kosher products are Jewish, according to the council. You can imagine that Farmer John might be a bit concerned.

But this is not about doing away with the legendary Dodger Dog. No way. It’s simply about expanding a menu choice for the thousands of the more observant Jewish Dodger fans included among the 650,000 Jews who call Los Angeles home.

A movement to bring a kosher hot dog alternative to Dodger Stadium is gathering steam, although we would prefer, when the kosher dogs come, that they be grilled.

The Lou Barak Memorial Hot Dog Committee is a growing group of Dodger fans, ticketholders and Jewish community leaders who are rallying efforts to see kosher at Dodger Stadium. The movement honors a San Fernando Valley educator and Dodger fan whose persistence and caring sent hundreds of school children on strong life paths. And, well, Lou liked a good kosher hot dog.

These days, it’s easy to argue that there are plenty of issues far more critical to the Los Angeles Jewish community than hot dogs. And we would agree the Dodger front office should stay focused on finding a few hot dogs for the field.

But spring is in the air. The Fox guys have left the building. And there’s hope, however fleeting, that the Dodgers can step up to the plate and deliver a winner. Heck, we’d be satisfied with a wiener — a kosher one.

We’ll worry about the bun later.

To get involved, contact the Lou Barak Memorial Hot Dog
Committee at kosherdogs@hotmail.com .


Steve Getzug is a Los Angeles-based public relations executive and lifelong Dodgers fan. His e-mail address is
smgetzug@yahoo.com.

A Tabernacle Full of Knickknacks and Love


Sukkot, the eight-day festival that begins Oct. 11, commemorates a central event in Jewish history: the 40-year desert trek that followed the exodus from Egypt when Jews lived in portable shelters or booths.

People celebrate the holiday by building, eating in — and sometimes sleeping in — a temporary structure topped by a "natural" covering, such as tree branches or a bamboo mat which allows star-gazing. The structure is a show of trust in God’s protection. During the festival — sometimes called "Tabernacles" and "The Harvest Festival" — we also say a blessing over the four species: the lulav, etrog, hadas and arava.

Around town, people celebrate the holiday in extraordinary ways.

One is the raucous potluck party thrown annually on Sukkot by Joan Kaye, director of O.C.’s Bureau of Jewish Education. Equal parts barn-raising and decorator open-house, she suffuses the event with a seasoning of religious meaning.

At a previous sukkot party hosted by Kaye, Polaroid pictures were snapped of arriving guests. Each then puttered at a craft table to fashion the image into a decorative ornament.

Taking a cue from the immigrant anniversary, this year Kaye asked guests to string up an item that represents the melding of Jewish and American values. A kippah with a soccer-ball design may be Kaye’s own contribution to the sukkah’s current motif.

"It’s a great party with a purpose," said Kathleen Canter, 38, of Aliso Viejo, who has attended more than one of Kaye’s sukkah-raisings with her husband and two children.

The holiday is Kaye’s personal favorite. But since moving here seven years ago from Boston, her celebration has taken a new direction.

"It’s a mitzvah to dwell in a sukkah," said Kaye, who for seven days spends as much time as possible — with the exception of sleeping — on the patio her guests transform. Outfitted with a clock, lamp and table, she holds meetings there. She also entertains guests under its shelter. "You couldn’t do that in Boston," she said.

Like Christmas trees that remain decorated long past Jan. 1, Kaye hates to pack away the sukkah’s strands of lights, ceramic fruit and leafy garlands. "I’ve left the everyday world and moved into holy space for a week," she said.

Her Sukkot event begins with a chaotic sukkah-raising that is both a communal event and learning opportunity. The patio of Kaye’s condo is conveniently three-sided and partially covered with open beams, which meet the de facto booth-making requirements without effort. But guests, including some bearing palm fronds, soon are fully employed stringing colored lights and festooning the beams with decorations, including the guest-created theme ornaments. Open beams are reached by crawling out upstairs windows.

Most people don’t erect a sukkah at all or mark the holiday by relying on their synagogue-built sukkah, said Larry Kaplan, 48, of Irvine, who brought his family. He said Kaye’s event is special, "because many more hands are doing it. It’s the sense of a disparate community coming together for a repetitive communal event."

"It doesn’t reek of being a religious event," added Rosalie Holub, 71, of Tustin, who helps Kaye organize craft materials. "It’s a multi-generational party where adults do kid stuff."

Decorating aesthetics are not the point. By taking part in beautifying the sukkah, children not only take pride in their individual contributions, but the event itself becomes more meaningful, said Holub, a primary grade teacher at Adat Chavarim in Los Alamitos.

Kaye’s guest list includes her 11-person havarua, the bureau’s staff and new board members, and people who have missed a sukkah experience. Last year, that included her Christian classmates from a doctoral program. This year, will include Kaye’s two daughters and four grandchildren. The event began out of pure necessity as more than one of Kaye’s Boston-built sukkahs collapsed.

Another American-stamped Sukkot experience is the Oct. 18 men’s campout organized by Matthew Keces of Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El.

About 25 members are expected to participate in the fourth Sukkot trip to Escondido’s Lake Dixon. On these occasions, the tents function as the traditional sukkah, Keces said. Providing a religious component will be Rabbi Michael Churgel, who intends to say the blessings over the four species, the lulav and etrog.

"It’s very relaxed and everyone puts aside any demeanor they have to maintain in the real world," Keces said. Besides boating and fishing, last year everyone in the group ranging in age from 30 to 70 joined in a whiffle ball game. "Everyone was 17 again," he said.

For $50 per person, the synagogue rents camping equipment and supplies food, and Keces organizes carpools that caravan from his home.

"We make it as easy as possible," he said. Member Ken Roane, a former Ritz-Carlton chef, prepares meals.

"Food is a treat," Keces said. "It certainly is not camp-out style food."

No, it’s Sukkot "American style."

For the Kids


Rosh Hashanah is upon us. We will use the shofar to blow us into the new year, we will dip apples in honey for a sweet year and our challah will be round just like the yearly cycle. Our new year will be celebrated this on Sept. 26, the 1st of Tishrei.

Here are some weird customs people perform on Rosh Hashanah that you might not know about:

Eating from the head of a sheep and saying: "May we be at the head and not at the tail."

Not napping on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah. Why? Because if we do that on Rosh Hashanah we may end up "napping" through the year.

Eating a pomegranate. It is said that the pomegranate has 613 seeds — just like the number of mitzvot in the Torah.

 

Tashlich Time

Another ritual performed during Rosh Hashanah is Tashlich, which is the act of throwing your sins into running water. People use bread crumbs or rocks to symbolize their sins. They go to running water, such as the ocean or a river, because there are fish there. Fish never close their eyes, so they symbolize the ever-watchful eye of God. Cool, huh?

Apples & Almonds

How About This?

Make Rosh Hashanah Cookie Cutters

You will need:

3 1/2 cups flour

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 cups margarine

1 beaten egg

2 teaspoons almond

extract

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

bowl

rolling pin

floured board

cookie cutter(s)

cookie sheet

Combine ingredients. Mix, roll and cut out the dough. Bake until lightly browned at 375 F, about 12 minutes.

Preteen Advocate Educates Nation About Diabetes


At first glance, Emma Klatman’s summer vacation sounds like that of a typical 11 year old. She attended summer camp and traveled to Washington, D.C. Instead of merely a participant at camp, however, Klatman was a featured speaker. And in our nation’s capitol, she came not to sightsee but to lobby legislators.

Klatman serves as the American Diabetes Association’s (ADA) 2003-2004 national youth advocate. Her duties entail promoting research and public policies relating to diabetes, and visiting diabetes summer camps to involve other children in the fight against the disease.

“Emma acts as an ambassador on behalf of all children with diabetes,” said Stewart Perry, chair of the ADA’s National Government Relations and Advocacy Committee. “She puts a face on diabetes in children.”

Perry accompanied Klatman on her recent legislative visits in Washington, D.C., where she urged Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and aides to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Diane Watson (D-Culver City) to increase funding for research and to insure that diabetes medications be covered under Medicare.

Adapting to her new role like a pro, Klatman presented her case to a supportive Feinstein as the senator walked from her office to a hearing.

“People don’t want to talk to kids when they’re in a hurry, but she did,” Klatman said.

Klatman’s interest in acting (she also attended the Youth Academy for Performing Arts this summer) and a natural poise gives her the confidence to lobby effectively. In one instance, she pulled out her “finger stick” and pricked her finger to show what it’s like to check blood sugar — a constant necessity for those with diabetes.

Visiting diabetes summer camps for children in Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin, Klatman told the young campers that they can also be advocates, whether by helping other children understand how to manage their disease or by contacting a legislator about important issues. She said this enables children to “gain self-esteem and think that you really make a difference.”

Perry said that youth advocates like Klatman can be more effective than adults in showing children that they “can live a normal, happy, healthy life with diabetes if they take care of themselves.” Her example, he said, shows “this is what you’re capable of — what you can aspire to be.”

Klatman was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 7. She is one of the more than 13,000 American children annually diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes (previously known as juvenile diabetes), which involves a failure by the body to produce insulin. With overweight and inactivity increasing among U.S. children, more cases of Type 2 diabetes are now being seen in children and adolescents. In the past, Type 2 diabetes was considered an adult disease.

Prior to her diagnosis, Klatman experienced symptoms typical of diabetes — she was drinking and urinating frequently, felt constantly hungry and often fatigued. It was at a Purim celebration at Temple Beth Am that her parents realized something was seriously wrong. Her father, Chris Klatman, recalled noticing that Emma appeared peaked, and assuming that she needed something to eat. He bought her more hamantashen and soda, which only served to further elevate her blood sugar. A trip to the doctor quickly confirmed diabetes, and Emma’s life changed from that day forward.

Today, she wears an insulin pump, a blue plastic device that resembles a slightly oversized pager, which is attached to a tube under her skin. The pump automatically administers insulin throughout the day and Klatman presses a button to inject additional insulin based on the food she consumes. She must check her blood sugar levels at least six times a day by pricking her finger and placing a drop of blood in a small device called a glucose meter. Like all people with diabetes, Klatman must keep tight control of blood sugar levels since low levels (hypoglycemia) can lead to loss of consciousness and high levels (hyperglycemia) can eventually cause kidney, nerve, blood vessel and eye damage.

“Sometimes I get so mad that I have to test 10 times a day and I’m not like most kids…. I have something to worry about and they don’t,” Klatman said.

But she said the process has become routine, and even generates admiration among her peers.

Klatman is quite matter-of-fact about her disease and her ability to accomplish her goals. With her youth advocate duties involving monthly travel, she said, “I’ll have to work twice as hard with school, but I’m capable.”

In some ways, Klatman’s illness seems to take a greater toll on her parents, who believe research — particularly stem cell research — may hold the key to the cure for this and other diseases. Until then, her mother, Carol Eisner, noted, “As parents, we’re never relaxed. We really deal with life with Emma test by test.”

While Emma said she can eat anything, her mother elaborates that “eating is never, ever the same…. It’s like keeping strictly kosher: Every single bite that goes into your mouth has thought behind it. For every morsel [you need to ask]: How many carbohydrates does this have and how many units of insulin do I have to give myself for this?”

Because of the frequent need for diabetics to monitor blood sugar levels, one of the ADA’s top priorities involves insuring that children with diabetes be allowed to check glucose levels and inject insulin where and when they need to at school, rather than being forced to walk a distance to the nurse’s office or another isolated location.

Perry talks about other barriers children with diabetes may encounter in schools. “They’ve been told they can’t play football. They can’t be cheerleaders. They can’t go on field trips,” she said. “We want kids with diabetes to be treated no differently than any other kid — not segregated and not discriminated against.”

Emma reflected on what having diabetes means to her.

“I don’t like to refer to myself as a diabetic. I refer to myself as someone with diabetes. It’s something that [requires me to do] more in my life. But I’m still Emma.”

For more information on diabetes, e-mail nya@diabetes.org  or call 1-800-342-2383.

Latkes That Last


Finally! You can now say goodbye to those weird frozen triangles of premasticated potatoes that pass for latkes after Chanukah has ended and the frying pan and grater have been packed up. Scientists at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa have come up with an alternative way to preserve food, which promises to keep latkes frying-pan fresh — even months later — without extreme heat, chemicals or freezing. Instead, they zap the food with pulsed shockwaves — a process that takes a second, but kills microbes, harmful enzymes and bacteria. Since no chemicals are used, the flavor of the food remains the same, but its shelf life is increased exponentially.

"There is really a great need for alternative preservation methods in order to get safety and shelf life," said Dr. Hadassa Zuckerman, a lecturer in food engineering and biotechnology at the Technion, who helped develop this system. "There are many materials that cannot be preserved by heat or other methods because then they lose their functional properties."

Latke eaters are not the only ones who are going to be able to welcome this procedure. Shockwaves are also being used to preserve biological materials such as blood and plasma. "Without this system, it takes approximately one week to preserve plasma," Zuckerman told The Journal. "Our method takes a few seconds."

Zuckerman called this preservation method "revolutionary" and said that they are still testing its uses.

"We were convinced that latkes were only worth eating fresh out of the oven," she said. "Now we may all have to reconsider that notion."

A Forkful of Trouble


Turkey, potatoes and gravy, candied yams — all the foods you love to pile on your plate come Thanksgiving. But you might want to check your blood sugar before you take another helping of mashed potatoes, because if you are one of the many American Jews at risk for diabetes, that extra forkful could spell a whole lot of trouble.

"I’m an Ashkenazi Jew, a meat-and-potatoes guy," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who was diagnosed with Type II diabetes in January 2001. "All of these things are off my diet now. No potatoes, not even a french fry."

It is no small irony that November is home to both Thanksgiving, our nationally recognized day of gluttony and sloth, and National Diabetes Month. Diabetes, which affects 17 million Americans, is on the rise in the United States. According to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, the number of people with diabetes in the United States has risen by nearly 50 percent during the past decade.

The impact of diabetes in the Jewish community is significant. "The prevalence in the Jewish community is greater than in other Caucasian populations," said Dr. Riccardo Perfetti of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Dr. Francine Kaufman, head of endocrinology at Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles and president of the American Diabetes Association, said that lack of exercise at Jewish day schools is compounding the problem.

Diabetes results when the pancreas cannot create enough insulin, which helps the body convert glucose (a sugar) into fuel. Any additional sugar in the bloodstream, from either sweets or complex carbohydrates (like potatoes or white rice) aggravates the condition and increases the risk of fainting or stroke.

Type I diabetes, once known as juvenile diabetes, is rare and tends to be diagnosed at birth or in childhood. The more common Type II diabetes comprises 90 percent to 95 percent of all cases, and can go undiagnosed in many cases.

Although Yaroslavsky’s mother and "everyone on that side of the family" had had diabetes, he didn’t think it could happen to him. He dismissed the symptoms — extreme thirst, fatigue, frequent trips to the bathroom — as the combined result of stress from his busy schedule and age. Yaroslavksy might never have realized he had the disease if not for a bad cold, which led to a routine blood test.

The doctor told him that with diet and exercise he could manage the diabetes and live a normal life, but "if I didn’t, I could have any one of the following: amputation, kidney failure, heart failure, stroke or blindness," Yaroslavsky said.

So he changed his dietary and exercise habits, increasing his jogging routine, and is following a diet of whole-grain bread, chicken, fish, salads and some vegetables and fruits.

Yaroslavsky has no self-pity for the loss of his favorite foods. He calls it "a win-win situation."

"The diagnosis of diabetes will probably add 10 to 15 years to my life, because without it, I would have been eating the junk I ate before and not thinking about the consequences," he said.

Kaufman and Perfetti attribute the large increase in diabetes cases to a lack of physical activity — "God forbid we take the stairs," Kaufman said. She added that when it comes to exercise, schools are the worst culprits, including Jewish ones.

"In schools across the country, there are not enough physical activities to meet the needs of the students," Kaufman said. "Jewish day schools are the same or even worse, because they demand such a high level of academics. I would think that with the root of our religion being the reverence of life, we would stress taking care of our body as being just as important as academics."

Exercise can make a difference in the treatment of diabetes, Kaufman said, noting that one of her patients, Steve Eidelman, a Beverly Hills High School senior diagnosed with Type I diabetes, plays varsity tennis and even ran a marathon in Rome last summer.

In his spare time, Eidelman helps promote responsibility and activity among newly diagnosed youth. "If you are responsible," he said, "there is no reason you cannot control your diabetes.

A number of promising studies are underway to find a cure for both types of diabetes. Perfetti is working on one involving engineering a man-made gene to promote insulin production. He hopes to begin testing on human subjects some time in the next year.

Kaufman is chairing two multicenter clinical trials for the National Institutes of Health: one aimed at diabetes prevention, the other to determine the best treatment for the growing number of children with Type II diabetes.

Both physicians agree that the increase in the disease is a battle that can be won, if more people pay attention to their eating habits, and if they move away from their sedentary ways.

My Mother’s Kitchen: A Natural Disaster Area


My mother had a green thumb. Too bad she employed it in the kitchen, not the garden. To her credit, she was such a good housekeeper, you could have eaten off her floors. Which, unfortunately, was preferable to eating off her plates.

There are people, I’m aware, who are terror-stricken at the mere thought of visiting a dentist. I, however, who am as prone to fear and panic as anyone and more than most, can snap my fingers at the drillmaster. It’s all a matter of early conditioning. For compared to some of the culinary disasters concocted by my mother, root canal isn’t all that threatening. In fact, many was the time I used to wish I had anything, including cotton wadding, to nosh on, so long as it hadn’t been prepared by you-know-who.

We had a weekly dinner schedule in our house. Monday, we dined on meatloaf or lamb chops; we could tell them apart because the chops had one big bone, and the meatloaf had hundreds of tiny ones. On Tuesday, we had salmon patties. On Wednesday, we’d receive a care package from the local deli. Thursday, we had tuna fish and leftovers. Friday was our night for boiled chicken and barley soup. After all these years, I don’t recall what, besides indigestion, we had on the weekend.

If my mother could be said to have had specialties, they would have been her Tuesday and Friday night offerings. I don’t know who first invented the salmon patty, but I suspect he must have been related to the shmo who dreamed up chipped beef on toast. My mother used to sweat over those darn salmon patties, which didn’t help their flavor any, but probably didn’t hurt, either. At dinner, she would glower at me as I studied the orange-and-yellow creations, trying to determine, in “20 Questions” fashion, whether the objects would qualify as animal, vegetable or mineral.

My mother would remind me on such occasions that children were starving in Europe. I would urge her to mail my dinner to Poland. The nice part about my plan was that the patties wouldn’t have required wrapping. Put a stamp on one of those babies and it could have been mailed to starving children on the moon.

As if Tuesday night weren’t hardship enough, on Wednesday my lunch bag would contain a salmon patty on stale white bread. Go try to swap one of those for a cupcake! On Wednesday, believe me, I was quite prepared to keep the salmon patties and mail my mother to Europe.

It was on Friday, though, that she truly outdid herself. There are people, I understand, who absolutely adore barley soup. Which only proves, as the missionary said to the cannibal chief, that there’s no accounting for taste.

I was able to hold a spoonful of barley soup in my mouth for a remarkably long time. I could probably have kept it in there for a month, if one can possibly survive a month without swallowing. Actually, I would eventually swallow the soup; that is, the liquid portion. I would manage this by slowly and ever so carefully filtering the liquid through my teeth. This would eventually leave me, though, with a mouthload of barley. I would sooner have swallowed hemlock. After about half an hour, my parents would finally cave in. The soup would be removed from my presence and the entree would be served. It is hard to describe boiled chicken to those whom fate has spared. But such a chicken, one can safely assume, doesn’t get to go to barnyard heaven.

It always seemed to me that the Allies missed a golden opportunity to end World War II long before 1945 rolled around. It would have meant sneaking my mother into the kitchen of the German High Command. As I see this daring plan taking shape, by Tuesday night, there would have been a vague, but general, queasiness among the various field marshals. By Wednesday, when Goebbels and Goring discovered salmon patty sandwiches in their lunch bags, morale would have begun plummeting. And, by Friday evening, when Der Fuhrer himself would have been sitting with a mouthful of barley, while my mother noodged him about all the starving children in Milwaukee, you could have started the countdown to unconditional surrender.

Family Values


Gurinder Chadha was having one of those surreal multicultural moments you get in L.A.

The Punjabi Brit was munching a bagel at Nate ‘n’ Al’s when two elderly Jews walked in and ordered Chinese chicken salad. “I just thought that was hysterical,” says Chadha, whose charming film, “What’s Cooking?” centers on four families – Jewish, Black, Vietnamese and Latino – celebrating Thanksgiving on one block in L.A. “This Jewish deli was selling something called a Chinese chicken salad, which you never see anywhere but California, and these elderly Jews were clearly relishing it.”

Not surprisingly, the Jewish family in “What’s Cooking?” eats Chinese chicken salad along with the turkey. (And, of course, kugel.) Fare on the other Thanksgiving tables includes pho, tamales and macaroni and cheese – all devoured between family crises.

While most U.S. films expose the conflict in diversity, Chadha’s comedy-drama is celebratory. “I wanted to make a classic American family movie, but I wanted to people it with Americans we hardly ever see on screen,” says the director, a jovial former BBC radio journalist who reports her age as “sort of 30’s, late-ish.” “If you choose to see it that way, it’s quite a subversive film. Using food as the metaphor, you discern that everything can be accommodated on the Thanksgiving table in the same way that culturally anyone can be called an American.”

“What’s Cooking?” began simmering for Chadha during her first trip to L.A. in 1994, when she was promoting her first feature film, “Bhaji on the Beach,” another story of identity and eating in the Diaspora. (Bhaji is a popular Indian food in the UK, similar to vegetable tempura.) In between screenings, she wandered the streets and was astounded to discover a city that was vastly different from the L.A. she’d seen in Hollywood films. “I saw storefronts with Hebrew and Korean signs,” she says. “I saw billboards in Spanish and people reading The Forwerts.”

The clincher was the Thanksgiving dinners she attended with her French-Japanese-American husband-to-be – notably the one with sushi at his mom’s house. Chadha asked for the Tabasco and decided she wanted to make a film about this kind of America.

Chadha’s films depict the rich duality of the Diaspora, because she grew up in one herself. Until the age of 3, she lived in British colonial Africa; after Kenya achieved independence, her father searched for work in London, only to be laughed out of a branch of Barclay’s Bank because he wore a beard and turban.Her family ultimately found haven in the colorful, West London neighborhood of Southall, “a fantastic place that was to the Punjabi community what Fairfax was to L.A. Jews,” Chadha says.

At home, she ate daal and chapati, read teen zines and complained when her grandmother made her turn off the telly for evening prayers. Chadha and her sister rolled their eyes when grandma pointed to every trashy TV villain and blurted: “He’s a Muslim!” After school, young Chadha took her British classmates to eat free meals at the local Sikh temple.

At 14, she went through a rebellious phase when she decided that everything Indian was bad. “There are all these pictures of me at weddings, wearing dreadful polyester flares while everyone else was in glamorous, shiny gold brocade,” she recalls, laughing.

But by the late 1980s, Chadha was wearing Indian fabric with her Doc Martens and filming a significant, controversial docu-mentary, “I’m British, But – ” about Indian immigrants.

She obtained the funding for “Bhaji,” her first feature film, from the very bank that had spurned her father 30 years earlier.

To research the 41 characters in “What’s Cooking?” Chadha and her husband, co-writer Paul Mayeda Berges, interviewed family and friends who belonged to various ethnic groups. Her mother-in-law’s close friend, Doreen Seelig, a history teacher at Venice High, was a primary source for the film’s Jewish family.The fictional character of Ruth Seelig, played by Lainie Kazan, is deliberately written against the stereotype of the pushy Jewish mother, says Chadha, who lives in London and Redondo Beach. In the movie, the Jewish mom quietly struggles to accept the fact that her daughter (Kyra Sedgwick) has brought home her lesbian lover, played by Julianna Margulies, for Thanksgiving. Relatives eat rugelach, argue over the propriety of circumcision and note who’s Jewish on TV.

Production designer Stuart Blatt recreated his Jewish mother’s mustard-gold kitchen for the Seeligs, while actor Maury Chaykin played the Jewish dad as his own, recently deceased father. Chadha, who insisted that real, edible food be present for every take (the cast went through 35 turkeys), discovered that she liked kugel.

She also discovered some real similarities between Jewish and Punjabi families: “Everything is about marriage, babies and family,” she says. “And interfering relatives.”

The revelation proves the point she’s trying to make in “What’s Cooking?”: “That difference isn’t so different,” she insists.

“What’s Cooking?” opens today in L.A.

Use It or Lose It


The other day, an older client said to me, “I’ve reached that point in my life where the only thing I want to exercise is caution.”

Just because we’re getting older doesn’t mean we can slack off on exercise. You can choose to be 20-years-old or 50-years-young. The difference is often in how well we take care of ourselves — and that means exercise and eating right..

Throughout history our mere existence demanded a level of physical activity and movement that made resting time a luxury. Nowadays, we have become so sedentary that we need to exercise apart from our daily living. Most people do not fish, hunt or work the fields anymore. Nor do they walk or run long distances to work or chop down trees. Most of us sit while we work, travel and navigate through our daily activities. We therefore have a need to create “the exercise period.”

The same goes for what we eat. Thanks to modernization and industrialization, fast foods have become a part of our daily diet. Too bad, because diet has the unique distinction of being one of the few major health determinants that is completely under our control. You can’t always control the quality of the air you breathe, the noise you are subjected to or the emotional surrounding climate, but you can control what you eat.

The American food pyramid for the 50-plus population recommends the following daily portions:

A vitamin supplement with calcium, vitamin C, vitamin D, all the B complex vitamins, vitamin E and Minerals (especially selenium). The use of fats, oils and sweets sparingly.

At least two 3 ounce servings of protein (including poultry, fish, beans, eggs or egg whites, nuts, soy, and less frequently meat)

2-3 servings of nonfat milk, cheese, yogurt.

At least 3 servings of cooked or raw vegetables.

6 (70 calorie) servings of high fiber, whole grain breads, cereals, rice, pasta.

At least 8 glasses of water.

In addition, small amounts of flaxseed and the use of green tea is also helpful. Obviously these new recommendations evolved to partially address the health related risks in an older population, including cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, diverticulosis and anemia.

This modified pyramid coupled with a regular exercise program will help seniors get on the right track to health.

The five core elements of exercise for this group include:

Aerobic Conditioning. Aerobic fitness is the ability to take in, transport and utilize oxygen more efficiently. Aerobic fitness can be influenced by heredity, age, gender and current body fat status. There are many ways that disease processes can interfere with the ability to reach this aerobic fitness. Individuals with emphysema and other lung diseases will be limited in the ability of the respiratory system to extract oxygen from the environment and deliver it to the blood. Those with heart disease will be limited by the ability of the heart to deliver oxygenated blood to the muscles being used. In addition, those with circulation problems will find it difficult to use certain muscles for exercise if blood cannot reach them when needed in greater demand. Your aerobic fitness program should be designed individually, taking into account various possible limitations. Examples of aerobic exercise include bicycling, use of a treadmill, outdoor walk/jog, cross country ski, stairmaster and step/dance aerobics. Your choice should be based on your abilities and limitations, but more importantly whatever brings great enjoyment. Remember, a warm up period before starting your activity as well as a cool down/ stretch period will protect you from annoying post exercise complications.

Strength and resistance training We can now, thanks to studies done in the last decade, emphatically state that muscular fitness tremendously impacts one’s health. Fit muscles increase muscle mass which in turn helps to burn fat. In addition, exercises that cause muscular development also help prevent the crippling bone demineralization known as osteoporosis. In this age population, strength and resistance training helps insure one’s independence and mobility in the coming retirement years The old adage “use them or lose them” has never been more important. Methods of this discipline include the use of free weights. This is the cheapest and most versatile application, however supervision is often needed for safety. Weight machines are another convenient option and require less supervision. If you are inexperienced, invest in several sessions with a trainer to familiarize yourself with the set up and use of the equipment. Make sure that the training session is appropriate to your age needs, level of fitness and abilities.

Flexibility This aspect of training focuses on altering the limits of motion imposed by connective tissue restriction and lack of muscle use. Injuries often occur due to decreasing flexibility in individuals. Low back pain specifically is commonly associated with poor back and hamstring flexibility as well as weak abdominal muscles. A warm up prior to stretching will help enhance muscle and joint flexibility. At minimum, stretching should take place for several minutes after aerobic or strength training.

Balance and agility Dancing, tai chi, martial arts and tennis are few enjoyable options that can help you in this area.

Stress Reduction Through yoga, tai chi, meditation, walking and swimming will round out the fifth component in the five core elements to long-term fitness and health.

Clearly there are specific eating plans and exercise programs to address individual health issues. Allied health professional with specific expertise can help in these areas. The reference books listed below can help you get started. But the important thing is to start, now. Getting older should be an adventure, not a problem.

Amy Hendel R-Pac, AFAA, IDEA is a certified personal trainer/nutritionist as well as a physicians assistant. She runs a private consulting firm “One on One Fitness” in Encino, Ca. She is also originator/coordinator of “Body Jam” a bootcamp and kickboxing facility in Encino.


Health Reference

Recommended reading and reference books for healthy aging:

“Natural Health, Natural Medicine” Andrew Weil, M.D.

“Fitness and Health” Brian J Sharkey, PhD

“ACSM Fitness Book,” 2nd Edition

Dining Out…


As a rule, you don’t go to museums to eat. Unless you’re like me — someone who, when push comes to shove, prefers great food to great art. I make no apologies: The last time I visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I ate a tasteless, watery and expensive fruit salad in the cafe there. That I remember. What exhibit I was there to see I’ve long forgotten. It had something to do with famous dead artists.

Zeidler’s Cafe at the Skirball Cultural Center is memorable — for all the right reasons. Forget that it’s located in a museum lobby. If Zeidler’s Cafe were on Ventura or Wilshire boulevards, you’d have to reserve a table for lunch.

The light, large space shares a stone floor with the outdoor patio, which stretches out past a wall of plate glass. Somewhere beyond the atrium, the city and Valley lie far beneath you. Never mind that the Mulholland Drive exit on the 405 is only a few hundred yards away — this place feels like a getaway.

The menu at Zeidler’s mixes deli with California creative — not surprising, considering that it is owned by Marvin and Judy Zeidler, who also own the Broadway Deli and Citrus. (Zeidler’s is dairy, but not kosher.) You’ll find crisp, generous pizzas with Puck-esque top-quality ingredients (around $7 to $8) such as kalamata olives and smoked Gouda. The sandwiches (around $6) are simple and clean-flavored: tuna, egg, salmon salad; no olive pastes and sun-dried tomato spreads lurking under the bread.

About a half pound of nicely seared tuna comes with the seared ahi salad. Though the fish is ice-cold — I like mine still warm on the outside from the sear — it is perfectly cooked, high-quality tuna, crusted with black and white sesame seeds. The bright composed salad beneath it is lightly dressed with a sesame dressing and laced through with peppery daikon sprouts.

Mushroom pot sticker salad is flavorful, if a little too much like…pot sticker salad. And who needs that?

The barley soup has a swell peppery kick, the meatless cousin to the barley shitake mushroom soup down at the Broadway Deli. Other deli selections, such as latkes ($2.50) and rich, light blintzes tangy with lemon peel ($6.95), make Zeidler’s a good choice for Sunday brunch.

The desserts, made on premises, are large and homey. Cheesecake tastes more of New York than Los Angeles. It’s a good-sized wedge, perfumed with vanilla and creamy at the core.

I like the service at Zeidler’s too. A manager comes by to check the water level in my teapot. When I sent back a cup of coffee because it tasted sour, the teapot and some black tea appeared in seconds, with a smile.

Zeidler’s is, of course, the place to eat when visiting the Skirball. But it may be the perfect midpoint spot for friends coming from the Valley and the city to rendezvous, and a good choice for pre- or post- Getty Center viewing. That little place should be so lucky to house a Zeidler’s of its own.

Zeidler’s Cafe is open weekdays (except Monday), 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and weekends, noon-5 p m. (310) 440-4515.

Haute Latkes

Ashkenazic Jews eat latkes because they’re fried in oil, and well-oiled foods symbolize the Chanukah miracle of the oil lamp that burned in the sanctuary for eight days. Italian Jews make an ethereal fried chicken for the holiday, using lemon peel in the batter. And Sephardic Jews have a battery of fried desserts. Israelis eat jelly doughnuts, sufganyot, baseball-sized blobs of dough stuffed with a red goo that might share some distant lineage with a real fruit.

But I like latkes.

The recipes that follow are from Zeidler’s Cafe at the Skirball Cultural Center. Created by Chef Jim Herringer, they push the envelope of Jewish tradition while incorporating traditional Mexican and French ingredients. These might not be your first choice for a Chanukah latke, but they’ll work well as an hors d’oeuvre any time of year.

Southwestern Latke with Chunky Salsa

4 medium russet potatoes

2 Eggs

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

salt and pepper

2 tablespoons grated cheddar cheese

8 ounces chunky salsa

1) Halve the potatoes and grate on a coarse panel grater.

2) Beat the eggs in a bowl and fold in the cilantro and potatoes.

3) Heat the oil and form small circles with the potato mixture. Fry to golden brown, remove from the skillet and top with salsa.

4) Sprinkle with cheddar cheese.

Chunky Salsa:

1 pound ripe tomatoes

4 serrano chile peppers

1 clove garlic

salt to taste

1) Preheat broiler and place the tomatoes and chile peppers on the broiler pan. Broil, turning frequently, until the skins are blistered and slightly charred.

2) Allow the tomatoes and chili peppers to cool at room temperature. Remove the skin and seeds.

3) In a food processor, process the garlic and chile peppers on the chop setting. Add tomatoes and salt to taste. Pulse on and off until chopped, not puréed.

4) Place a dollop of salsa atop each latke just prior to service.

Crisp Potato Latke with Goat Cheese

4 russet potatoes, peeled

2 tablespoons finely chopped chives

8 ounces goat cheese

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

salt and freshly ground pepper

1) Halve the potatoes and grate on a coarse panel grater. Do not rinse potatoes. Squeeze moisture from potatoes. Season with salt and pepper.

2) Add one tablespoon of oil to a large skillet. Lay out a thin layer of grated potatoes, forming a circle. Top the potato circle with one ounce of goat cheese, sprinkle generously with chives. Cover the goat cheese with another thin layer of potato, ensuring that the cheese is completely covered. Add remaining oil and carefully turn the latke over and cook to golden brown on both sides. Repeat, making a total of eight latkes.