The second annual Females on Fire event at Jax Fish House brought together a collection of talented female chefs and restaurant industry professionals for a five-course dinner with amuse bouche and drink pairings.
Held on October 11, 2016, this year’s featured chefs include Julian owner and chef Celina Tio, Bluestem pastry assistant Elise Landry, Krokstrom Klubb & Market chef Katee McLean, chef Kelly Conwell with Stock Hill Kansas City Steakhouse, Novel pastry chef Jessica Armstrong, and chef de cuisine Theresia Ota and executive chef Sheila Lucero from Jax Fish House. Drinks were prepared or selected by Clare Gillette with Pinnacle Imports, sommelier Jennifer Daugherty, Jax Fish House assistant general manager and cicerone Margaret Adams, cicerone and BackNapkin marketing director Erica Schulte, Restless Spirits Distilling co-owner Benay Shannon and Ça Va sommelier Caitlin Corcoran.
Also held annually at Jax Fish House in Denver, the Females on Fire event creates a showcase for the female talent in an industry where the top talent is predominantly white and male.
Rather than interpret the meaning of Females on Fire from my perspective, I invited several of the women involved in this event to share their thoughts on its significance and value.
Chef de cuisine Theresia Ota, Jax Fish House
What does participation in the Females on Fire dinner mean to you as a professional in the restaurant industry?
Bringing Females on Fire to Kansas City was one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind when I got hired at Jax Kansas City. My boss and mentor Chef Sheila Lucero was hosting these events in Colorado when I was a brand-new cook. I always aspired to be invited to attend, and now I get to host them! It’s a thrill and an honor.
What do you think Females on Fire signifies or communicates to the public in attendance?
The Kansas City restaurant community is super talented, welcoming and supportive. I hope Females on Fire showcases all of those qualities.
Favorite aspect of the event?
I love getting to work with these women. We all manage kitchens. We all have a somewhat similar experience making our bones in this industry. I view Females on Fire as a celebration of making it, and achieving the goal of becoming a titled chef. I want more women to be involved and experience camaraderie; that we can all achieve and be successful.
Pastry assistant Elise Landry, Bluestem
In my career so far, I’ve worked a handful of events with a similar layout as Females on Fire with a group of chefs coming together and each having a course and a pairing. However, I’ve never worked a dinner where I’ve gotten my own course! I see it as a huge step in my career, and it means a lot that those I’ve always seen (and continue to see) as mentors are starting to become my peers.
I think the Females on Fire dinner represents a shift in the once male-dominated industry. More and more I see kitchens with an equal number of men and women. This dinner was a way to showcase (some of) the female talent in KC (because there is a lot!) to the public. The dinner sold out, so I think it’s safe to say we are a force to be reckoned with!
Erica Schulte, Certified Cicerone
General Manager, The Rockhill Grille
Marketing Director, Back Napkin Restaurant Group
I participated for the second year in the Females on Fire dinner. It’s an honor for sure! There are a ton of women in KC constantly raising the game in the industry so it’s a huge compliment to get asked. It’s such good networking as well as an easy way to build new friendships.
I hope that the attendees see it as collaboration as well as an experience they look forward to every year. Local women coming together to present something collectively shows respect and passion. It’s such a fun and laid-back event. Hopefully they see it as a chance to be introduced to new food or spirits/beer/wine that they didn’t know about. Educating is always a big thing for me and putting it into such a fun dinner is a blast.
My favorite aspect is that it’s just plain fun. Preparing for it has never felt like work, because it’s something I love. The experience both years has been memorable. At the end of the day, that’s more important than anything – creating the experience they won’t forget.
Chef Celina Tio, owner of Julian and The Belfry
What does participation in the Females on Fire dinner mean to you as a professional in the restaurant industry?
We’re all so busy. It’s awesome when we get to cook and share best practices with other great chefs.
What do you think Females on Fire signifies or communicates to the public in attendance?
I think that it show exactly that – community. We all work hard to do great things but when you can support one another, that is extra special. I know people aren’t going to dine with me every day of the week. I like to be able to suggest other great places throughout the city. When we come together and work together, we show everyone that teamwork is key.
Favorite aspect of the event?
Finally meeting some people whose places I haven’t yet been because of my schedule.
Sommelier Jennifer Daugherty
As a woman in industry, dinners like this are really exciting because I’m used to being one of the few women in the building. In fine dining, the standard still seems to be put a cute girl at the door and that’s it. In the last decade, I haven’t worked with more than four other female servers at a time. To spend an evening with knowledgeable women at the top of their game was invigorating.
I’m excited to have been part of the event to show the public we are out there. It may take pooling from different restaurants to fill a room, but that’s another story. Despite my pin, I often have guests who don’t seem to believe I’m a sommelier. The chef I was paired with, Katee, has people assume she must be front of house when she says she owns a restaurant. People automatically assume chefs are men and women work in diners and call you “hon” as they serve you pie. I sometimes have people googling food info at my tables because they don’t think I know what I’m talking about.
My favorite aspect was listening to how collaborative everyone was. We tried each other’s courses or pairing and discussed in thoughtful detail how we felt about it. We immediately started spit balling off each other about future adventures we’d like to make happen.
Chef Kelly Conwell of Stock Hill prepared an amuse bouche of Fanny Bay Oyster with apple, cucumber, ginger, and Champagne mignonette. Restless Spirits distiller/co-owner Benay Shannon paired the course with a cocktail of Builder’s Gin, lavender and lemon.
Chef Jessica Armstrong of Novel created a crab eclair with caviar. Clare Gillette selected Champagne Extra Brut NV Pierre Gerbais from France for the pairing.
Chef Katee McLean of Krokstrom Klubb made smoked scallops served with roasted and pickled cauliflower, celery, and sour cream. Sommelier Jennifer Daugherty opted to serve Sancerre, Chaumeau Balland 2014 from France.
Chef Celina Tio of Julian accented tai snapper crudo with raspberry, wakame, and yuzu. She paired the course with Jolly Pumpkin’s O Saison beer.
Chefs Sheila Lucero and Theresia Ota of Jax Fish House composed a dish of abalone with hand-folded rice noodle, cha shu, scallion, black vinegar, and dulse. Erica Schulte’s beer cocktail featured J. Rieger gin, Blossom of Peace plum sake, Hitachino wit beer, and ginger.
Chef Elise Landry of Bluestem prepared brown butter tart with roasted plums, buttermilk ice cream, and thyme. Caitlin Corcoran of Ça Va served Champagne Demi-Sec NV Premier Cru, A Margaine, from France.
Sometimes a dish evolves based on what ingredients are in the refrigerator and pantry. When I want to create something specific like pad siew or clam chowder, I ensure that I have the proper ingredients on hand. But what happens when I don’t?
I rarely follow recipes and prefer to develop a dish based on what I have learned from experience or improvisation. Some cooks are by-the-book, step-by-step, process-oriented rule followers. I follow my instincts and let the food guide me.
Yesterday, I prepared ingredients for a four-course Thai dinner and beer pairing event for a group. For pad siew, I trimmed out the bone and fat from a half-dozen pork steaks and sliced the meat for the dish. Being a frugal cook not prone to waste, I tossed the pork bones with some meat attached into a pot of boiling water. I wasn’t sure what I would do with the broth. I knew I wouldn’t make guay thiew, a Thai soup similar to pho, because I cook that often and knew I’d need a break from Thai food after this private event.
After the bones had boiled, I removed them, let them cool, pulled off scraps of meat, returned the pork to the pot and discarded the bones. On a whim, I grabbed some dried shiitake mushrooms and added them to the stock with a dash of salt and pepper and sliced shallot. I set the pork stock aside and continued prepping for the Thai dinner.
The following day I scrounged around the refrigerator, seeking inspiration for a dish to make. I brought home no leftovers from the dinner and the refrigerator was mostly barren since I had used up most everything the previous day. I spied the pot of pork stock, pulled it out and set it on the stove to heat. I added another cup of water and a can of white hominy which pairs well with pork.
At this point, I had pork, shiitake and hominy but no clue what I was making as a dish. The three main ingredients formed a strange trio that pulled in different directions. Shiitake leans toward an Asian dish but that’s not what I wanted. Instead, I tried to think of them as merely mushrooms that provided umami and blended well with the succulent bubbles of fat that whirlpooled in the simmering broth.
Hominy drew me toward the South, the Southwest and Mexico. I didn’t have lime, cilantro, poblano pepper, beans or corn to develop a Southwest-inspired soup or Mexican posole. I scanned the pantry, grabbed dried ground sage and added a dash just to nudge the process forward. The soup lacked soul and depth of flavor. Turning back to the frig and freezer, I pulled out a jar of homemade lemongrass vinegar, a bottle of Tapatio hot sauce and smoked ham scraps from Burger’s. The vinegar substituted for fresh lime juice and, along with the hot sauce, added acidic pop and bite to the stock. The ham built a foundation of salt and smoke that complemented the pork, hominy and broth. Again this push-and-pull arose between Asian and Mexican culture and cuisine with undercurrents of the South that wasn’t quite any of them.
If I had envisioned this soup with the same ingredients from the start, I probably would have started by sauteing pieces of smoked ham with onion and shallots to caramelize them and create a potent soup base. Odds are that I would have added some guajillo pepper and headed for Southwest territory. Instead, the result was something lighter that still had pronounced flavor. I ladled steaming soup into a bowl and stared at it. It tasted savory with a touch of smokiness, spice and acidity but felt incomplete. The dish lacked color and something to add freshness to this earthy soup.
I remembered that I had a bag of baby Chinese broccoli leftover from the Thai dinner. I grabbed a couple of stalks, rinsed away grit and dirt, and sliced the stalks thinly as if they were green onions. I left the leaves intact. I added the Chinese broccoli to the hot bowl of soup and let it steam for a minute. This last-minute addition added a light crunch from the stalks that contrasted with the chewiness of the hominy and ham. The steamed greens provided vibrant color and a hint of vegetal flavor, brightening the overall dish.
A spoonful with ham, hominy and Chinese broccoli reminded me of the South, where the broccoli stood in as a distant cousin to greens that had been cooked all day with a ham bone. Another spoonful with pork, shiitake, shallot and Chinese broccoli with a sharp finish of vinegar and chili sauce veered toward a spicy Thai or Vietnamese soup. And so it went with each taste, mixing and matching in a harmonious blend.
Not all of my cooking turns out well when I let the process unfold and allow found ingredients to guide my instincts. When it works, it is more than some awkward fusion of cuisines achieved by slapping together disparate ingredients and techniques like Lego blocks. The rewarding result is a dish seemingly made from nothing that turns out to be something. Sometimes, food that satisfies can flaunt the dictates of a cookbook and skirt the boundaries of a culture’s cuisine.
Written November 2000.
I did not want to spend Thanksgiving alone this year. My family lived in Kansas City and would enjoy Thai food and turkey without me for the first time in over thirty years. I had decided to remain in New England during my graduate school break since I planned on flying home for Christmas. Abby Gitlitz, a friend and co-worker, invited me to visit her “crazy” family for Thanksgiving. Her family lived in Kingston, Rhode Island in a house originally built in the early 18th century near the coastline. Abby also mentioned that her family loved to cook. And her family was Jewish. Coastline? Historic house? Cooking? Thanksgiving with a crazy Jewish family? I could not resist.
Abby worked as a store manager at the gourmet deli and fresh food market where I cooked as head chef. Her family often hosted an assortment of acquaintances for the holidays. She drove us from Boston to her parents’ home in Kingston, keeping me amused with tales of past Thanksgiving gatherings that featured Chinese professors and visiting foreign students. Her shoulder-length blond hair, worn in a ponytail, bobbed as she wove through traffic and munched on roasted pumpkin seeds. I have become convinced that Abby was a human dynamo. She biked to work where she cleaned and organized without rest, charming the staff with her quick smile as her no-nonsense demeanor reinforced directions. She created stained glass ornaments for crafts shows and attended a class on Turkish architecture. She spared no time except for sleep.
Nearly two hours after we left Boston, we lugged our gear into the house and entered the kitchen. David Gitlitz, Abby’s father, and Linda Davidson, her stepmother, chatted in the dim lights around an island counter. David, tall with a broad chest and a tint of gray in his dark tangle of hair, greeted me with a handshake.
“Are y’all hungry?” Linda asked with a gentle smile. She wore her long brown hair up, a few tendrils drifted down her neck and along a petite cotton shirt. A Southern accent percolated in her soft voice. Linda was raised with twelve brothers and sisters near Hendersonville, Kentucky in poor tobacco farming country. “There’s chili on the stove and baked beans, grapefruit, bananas, or snacks in the refrigerator. We’re a help-yourself kind of kitchen so make yourself at home,” Linda said.
My kind of place, I thought. I opted for the fresh pot of chili. I cannot resist chili. “It’s an improvised chili with no beans. I didn’t have any beans or chili powder so I threw in some peanuts and peanut butter,” Linda mentioned.
No beans? Peanuts? Goobers, as the nuts are called in the South, did not belong in chili. Granted, many cities boast of food specialties. Kansas City is known for barbecue and steaks. Go to Chicago for deep-dish pizza. Head to Boston for clam chowder. Eat at Chuy’s in Austin, Texas for Tex-Mex. Stroll around the Hill in St. Louis for a plate of Italian spaghetti and meatballs. Gorge on oysters at Emmet Watson’s Oyster House in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. But peanut chili in Kingston, Rhode Island? Hmmm.
“Ahh, that might pass for chili where you’re from,” I could have said. “But back home we serve up the real McCoy.” I reserved comment and let my taste buds judge.
Encouraged by hunger and curiosity, I ladled up a piping hot bowl of tan-colored chili and heaped a spoon of the greasy meat and onions into my mouth. Hey, not so bad. Kind of good actually. I gobbled my food despite the late hour. I felt for crushed peanuts around my gums with my tongue. My instincts as a chef whispered in my ear. Add a little cumin, some tomato sauce, some cayenne pepper. Beans. More cayenne. Spicy enough to make your eyeballs sweat, I imagined.
“How’s the chili?” Linda asked. “Delicious,” I replied. Truly, it was not bad for an improvised chili by way of Rhode Island. As I gathered the last of Linda’s concoction onto the spoon, a tiny piece of broccoli appeared in the chili. Waitaminnit. “That might pass for chili where you’re from…”
I strolled around the kitchen as Abby chatted with her parents and Deb, her sister, who had come downstairs. The room featured a wide space meant for entertaining. The kitchen opened to the newest house addition, the breakfast nook, built to maintain the historic appearance. Broad planks of smooth white pine ran the length of the two rooms, giving the space the feel of a bowling alley. Small wooden dowels fastened the planks into floor joints in the 18th century style of construction. Nearly all doors in the house used a metal latch rather than a lock and key. The house was on the historic register as were many of the houses in town. David pointed to an exposed beam of worn, rough-hewn wood running from the floor to ceiling at a slight tilt.
“Estimates date this beam around 1683 or ’85,” he said. “The original house was a one room shack built about 1703 by tenant farmers. Additions have been made to the house over the years but the building remains within the codes of the original construction.”
My hosts mentioned they would rise at five in the morning to prepare and stuff the twenty-three pound turkey. Apparently, this family did not quibble over portions. After a brief chat, the family retired to bed. Abby presented my sleeping quarters upstairs.
“The guest room,” Abby said, “once had three different types of red wallpaper at one time. The hallway had once featured three different green wallpapers and paint. The previous owners, a preacher and his wife, had a taste for red and green.”
Since then, sections of the house had been refurbished. Now my room featured creamy tan walls and simple furnishings. The floorboards were polished from years of use. I noticed that crude nails were sunk into the wood. Drawers were built into the walls to maximize space. A framed needlepoint hanging depicted a learned man carrying a staff and a book through the rolling hills in the country. The man wore a red cloak with a satchel strewn across his shoulder and chest. An inscription below read “De Canctolacoboapta Advelperas” which I could not decipher. I imagined it to be a patron spirit for wisdom and travel.
As midnight approached, I sprawled on the futon in my room, awake and focused on my immediate surroundings. The walls were thin. Abby tended to sneeze repeatedly in rapid-fire fashion. She shared a room with Deb next to mine. Coughs and sneezes and giggles and creaks could be heard in the house. The noises engaged my senses and imagination as I glanced at a white bookshelf facing the futon. The book titles included: Mexican Camping, Turkey, The Jews in New Spain: Coat of Many Cultures; The Judeo-Spanish Chapbooks of Y.A. Yuña Volume I,_Exploring Rural Italy, The Secret Jews, Peru. The bookshelf appeared to be well traveled. Actually, Abby and her family had traveled extensively as explorers and academics. David and Linda taught courses on Spanish culture at the University of Rhode Island located in Kingston. David had mentioned that the university was only fifty yards of green space from the house. While the wind plucked leaves from the trees outside, I burrowed beneath layers of blankets and slept between an old world and a new world.
I stumbled downstairs late in the morning to find Linda in the kitchen setting out onions and celery for the stuffing. The preparation of the turkey was running behind schedule. Linda bustled about the kitchen while I attempted to shake off my drowsiness.
“Can I help you do anything?” I asked. “Well, if you’d like, you can cut up some onions for the stuffing,” she replied.
Nothing like dicing onions in the morning to awaken your senses. Since there were only two large onions to dice, I plunged in without hesitation. Besides, I felt most at home in the kitchen and preferred not to sit around. Tears squeezed out of my sleepy eyes. Allyl sulphide is the substance in onions which makes the eyes water. Normally, I soak onions whole in water beforehand and re-immerse them in water after cutting to minimize the effect. Linda sliced celery and tossed them into a sauté pan as I scooped in the toxic onions. The sauté mixture danced in the pan as she added parsley, sage, salt, pepper, tarragon, and paprika. She transferred the blend into a bowl and added bread crumbs, raisins, fresh cranberries from the backyard, and chicken broth. David strolled in and washed up to prepare the turkey for the stuffing ritual. My nose and taste buds applauded the combination of flavors and aromas emanating from the mixing bowl.
Minutes later, Abby and Deb joined us in the kitchen. In contrast to Abby and her parents, Deb tended to sleep in late and seemed slightly more laid back. Even in the morning, a smile curled across her face like a wave as white teeth flashed cheery greetings. She practiced sliding across the kitchen floor in her socks. Deb lived in Portland, Oregon, and had flown into Boston to visit Abby before driving to Kingston prior to our drive. She had not visited her family for nearly six months. Deb inquired about breakfast.
“After the turkey is stuffed and in the oven, I’ll make blueberry pancakes,” David announced.
My ears perked up. Pancakes? Happiness filled the room at the prospect of warm comfort food. Abby, Deb and I puttered around the kitchen reading the newspaper and comics while Linda and David tackled the logistics of stuffing a twenty-three pound turkey.
“I was reading an article in Saveur about persimmons,” Abby said.
“We used to get persimmons in Binghamton. Did you have persimmons in Missouri?” David asked me.
“They grew on a tree and dropped into my backyard,” I said.
Persimmons are a hard green fruit, larger than cherries, and taste sour in the summer. In autumn, they ripen to a bright orange and fall from the tree. The mushy flesh tastes sweet and is often used in jams or eaten fresh. Kids in my suburban neighborhood used to pick them by the bucket load each summer and we had persimmon fights. We hurled the green fruit, hard as a stone, by hand and loaded sling shots as we raced around the yard until the ammunition ran out. I missed those summer afternoons of reckless fun. I hadn’t thought about persimmons for years.
“Do you know how to tell if it’s going to be a hard winter?” Abby asked. “Slice the persimmon in half width-wise, and see if it has four stars or five. Four stars indicate a hard winter is coming.”
“Sounds like a piece of folklore to me based on selective memory like the woolly bear caterpillars,” David said.
“I can’t remember what they mean. If you see a woolly bear, is it going to snow?” Abby asked.
No one had an absolute answer to support David’s selective memory theory; if you experienced a hard winter, you tended to remember that you saw a woolly bear caterpillar in the late summer or autumn. Abby and David joked about hunting for woolly bears with the woolly bear hunting call in woolly bear season. They’re nutty, I thought with amusement.
Granddad Gitlitz ambled into the kitchen with his cane. Granddad, sporting rounded glasses and a white goatee, wore a cornflower blue cardigan and spoke in a gravelly but distinct voice. As a 93-year-old man, he relied on hearing aids and a cane for basic assistance. However, his intellect and memory proved to be sharp and distinct.
“Breakfast will be ready soon,” David announced.
By the time the table had been cleared of newspapers and set with glasses and silverware, a plate of wild blueberry pancakes steamed before us. Each pancake cooked up about triple the size of a silver dollar. Plump Maine blueberries oozed out of the pancakes and earthy walnuts added a soft crunch.
“There’s raspberry jam from the garden, maple syrup from out back, and fresh apple butter from the tree out back as well,” Linda said.
The Gitlitz family knew how to live off the land. I could start every morning with a Gitlitz breakfast. Deb and Abby would later challenge each other over whether David made the pancakes from scratch or a mix. “The apple butter is made from either green apples or red apples. I think this is green apple butter,” Linda decided.
“The apple tree in back is grafted from red and green apple trees. So we never know what type of apples will grow,” David said.
“It’s a schizophrenic apple tree,” Deb said.
After breakfast, David, Abby, Deb and I walked around Kingston to work off the stacks of pancakes. Even beneath layers of flannel shirts, coats, mittens, caps and scarves, the brisk wind wiggled its way under our skin. Kingston lies thirty miles south of Providence and was originally known as “Little Rest.” Many soldiers used the small village as a resting place during the Indian wars. The village retains its colonial New England flavor, with many buildings dating back to the 1700s. David pointed out features of houses as we crossed over to the sunny side of the street for warmth. The 18th century-style houses lined the streets in spacious rows of white and yellow-colored boxes. Several houses we passed were built around 1813, he noted. Two yellow adjacent houses were former inns and saloons. Other houses served as post offices or quarters for servants and tenant farmers. The original landowners lived in the larger structures on properties and built separate cottages on the estate for the workers. The streets were lined with Japanese maples and oaks hoisting naked brushes to a cloudless sky. David pointed out two immense birch trees, stark as bold chalk lines, that towered over a decrepit house in need of a fresh coat of paint. Nature had already shed its coat of paint in flakes of burnt umber, dull yellow, and rust-tinted leaves. Shavings of white bark freckled the ground as evidence of winter preparations for spring’s arrival. We walked through the university campus, peeked into hothouses at rows of poinsettias displaying brilliant leaves of red, and hustled towards home and warmth.
Three stone walls lined the backyard of the Gitlitz home, forming a man-made barrier that surrounded the garden, apple trees and a small oval field of rocks and native grasses. According to David, the right wall was built in 1835 to separate the house from the property next door. Rough stones ranging from the size of large handbags to the size of petite suitcases were stacked uniformly into a gray wall that stood waist-high.
Both houses used to be one property,” David said.
“How old is the back wall?” I asked.
“It was built later in the Victorian era. If you look at the stones, you can see the difference. The stones in the older wall are more rounded. The back wall is made of stones with a flatter top, they’re cut with defined edges,” he said.
The left wall on the other side of the backyard was built even later. The physical structures in Kingston, natural and man-made, possessed a history and purpose beyond my comprehension. I felt that I had just walked through time. Whether I walked the Freedom Trail in Boston, or the village roads in Rhode Island, the experiences always awed my Midwestern textbook sense of history. Houses, trails, and stone walls resonated with a sense of endurance not explained by the pages of any social studies textbook. I wondered when I would leave my mark on the world. Abby, Deb, and I crossed over the stone wall into the backyard and shuffled through the piles of leaves. We headed towards a pile of dirt near the back wall, kicking up leaves along the way.
“Linda suggested to Dad to stop trying to mow the middle of the yard because of the rocks. Just let it grow. That seemed to suit him so it became a field. Linda wants to plant wildflowers in there eventually,” Abby said.
“I’m going to lie down and rest. It’s not as cold back here,” Deb noted.
The trees and stone walls provided shelter from the wind so the area felt warmer as the sun glowed above. We plopped down in the leaves and gazed through tree branches at the sky. Every line and curve appeared crisp and sharp.
“It’s so beautiful,” Deb said. She picked up a handful of leaves and tossed them.
Abby brushed the leaves from her face and sat up. I rolled over and watched the sisters erupt into a leaf fight, heaving giggles and smiles and armfuls of leaves. Abby pounced on her sister and they rolled in the green grass with laughter. I grabbed my camera out of my coat and snapped several photographs as they attempted to get the best of each other. Suddenly, they stopped as crumpled leaves scattered in their hair and scarves. I peered through the viewfinder of my camera for another photograph. They both stared at me with grins that meant no good for the cameraman. Lights, camera, action.
After recovering from the tackle and tumble, I studied Abby as she tried to give Deb an airplane ride. Abby leaned back on the ground with legs crouched and arms outspread. Deb positioned her hips on her sister’s feet and grasped her hands. She tried to lean over and fly outstretched over Abby but laughter and awkward stability interfered with a clean take off. I chuckled at the girls as they switched places several times until they succeeded in flying two feet off the ground.
Watching the two sisters play reminded me of how little time I spent lately as an adult in simple fun and horseplay. I was currently attending an MFA creative writing program at Emerson College as a full-time graduate student. I also coordinated catering and acted as head chef at the deli working twenty-five hours a week. Writing, cooking and surviving the grind of life’s daily minutia exhausted my energy. Still, I moved to Boston to experience New England and to pursue a goal of writing and traveling. I left an active but less than fulfilling life working in Kansas City. I missed the time spent playing with my young nieces. I longed for volleyball matches with friends, eating my mother’s Thai cooking, and moments of unbridled creativity. Am I supposed to be playing in the leaves with two Jewish sisters in Rhode Island on Thanksgiving Day? Why had I come this far?
Three people walked into the backyard. Abby introduced her uncle John, his wife Sam, and their nine year-old daughter Victoria. Victoria was born in Peru and adopted from her birth mother at the age of six months. David and Granddad joined the group in the backyard for more horseplay in the leaves. Victoria stood still while the rest of us piled leaves up to her shoulders. She was quiet and soft-spoken, but her eyes shined with delight as the adults frolicked around the yard. As the sun settled into the horizon, everyone trundled inside to warm up and prepare for dinner.
Another guest, Norbert, arrived for the Thanksgiving festivities as Linda and others set the table. Norbert, a pale German from Frankfurt with a mustache, joined David, John, Granddad, and me in the living room to view the latest results of the presidential election proceedings. Norbert and Granddad spoke in German and discussed old German film stars and cities. David and John conversed in Spanish and English about the failings of former Peruvian president, Japanese-born Fujimora, who recently resigned from office. I focused on reading J.D. Salinger stories as the voices and languages babbled around me.
“Dinner is ready,” Linda announced.
The troops piled into the dining room around a wooden table. Brightly colored wooden carvings and reminders of the family’s Jewish heritage filled the room. Black-and-white portraits of Granddad’s father and mother hung on the wall with timeless, solemn gazes. His parents met in 1893 in Belarus, once known as White Russia, a former republic of the Soviet Union east of Poland. The Gitlitz family assembled around the table beneath the portraits of their ancestral patron and matron. David and Linda sat at the ends of the dinner table as present day hosts among multiple generations of family and guests. David asked each guest to remind the group why they were thankful on this day.
“I am thankful that the world is still kind enough to accept a stranger into a home and make me feel like a member of the family,” I offered.
Wine glasses were raised around the table as toasts were uttered in Hebrew, Spanish, and English. I clinked glasses with several family members, exchanged smiles and warm, benevolent glances. The procession of food rotated around the table in an intricate ballet of hands and spoons and napkins. Slices of tender white and dark meat from the turkey graced two platters. The stuffing steamed with the fragrant perfume of onions and celery that were cut early in the morning. John passed the baked green beans in cream sauce. I passed the steamed asparagus to Linda. Cranberry relish, made from scratch, won out over the gelatinous tube of slick mauve fruit and sugar that Deb had emptied from a can.
I cannot fault her for opening the can and plopping the cranberry “sauce” onto a dish. It probably was not her idea to serve this sweet-tart blob that I had grown accustomed to in Kansas City as a Thanksgiving staple. I enjoyed the touch of nostalgia but helped myself to the homemade version. Some people don’t enjoy Thanksgiving unless they eat a particular dish – Aunt Wilma’s marshmallow sweet potatoes or Grandma Lindy’s pineapple jello salad. Maybe it’s a special version of mashed potatoes or pumpkin pie. I briefly missed my Mom’s pad Thai and stir-fried beef and basil over rice. That is until more turkey gravy and still more food flowed in and out of reach. My eyes slowly glazed over with silent admissions of gastronomic defeat. David poured Spanish Rioja, a Viña Cumbrero 1996, into a few glasses to wash down the last morsels.
Dessert followed dinner with a momentous celebration. The lights were dimmed as Abby carried in a Tollhouse chocolate chip cookie pie with nine candles into the dining room. She set the flaming pie before Victoria, who smiled as candlelight flickered in her dark eyes. The group chimed “Happy Birthday” in English, then in Hebrew, and finally in Spanish. Victoria leaned over with her slender neck and blew at the candles, extinguishing the flames in two tries.
“Abby, do you remember the birthday dance?” Deb asked.
“Oh yeah. I think so. How does it go?” Abby replied. “I forgot the words.”
Deb stood up and led off with a happy anniversary chant. Abby mimicked her moves, hopping and turning side-to-side with waving hands around the dinner table. A top hat and a cane would have completed the duet’s surprise dinner-theatre schtick.
This family is crazy, I thought to myself with delight, as servings of pumpkin pie and Tollhouse chocolate chip pie made the rounds.
While cleaning up afterwards, I noticed a poem, titled Pilgrimage, written on a blue-lined piece of yellow paper on the refrigerator.
The intellectual observes
how words fail.
The romantic exults
at the failure of words.
The pilgrim, speechless, walks
toward the setting sun.
“Who wrote this?” I asked David.
“Hmmm? Oh, that’s just a little note scribbled down. Linda and I have researched and written about pilgrimages as part of our work,” he said.
I waited for more information. The poetry struck me as profound.
“It’s probably something I wrote down,” he admitted and shrugged it off.
Something about those words latched onto me. I referred to the poem each time I passed through the kitchen, pondering how intellectuals and romantics view the failure of words. The idea of words failing to express or communicate was not new to me. No amount of reasoning or thinking can articulate my decisions with words in writing or speech sometimes. At other times, the romantic and creative side of me revels in the mysterious inability of words. The image of a pilgrim walking forward, speechless, towards the setting sun struck me as timeless. Why had I come this far? The question weighed on my mind as I tried to attain the intuitive state of being beyond words. The writer’s impulse to record and communicate resisted this idea of pilgrimage.
Earlier in the day before Thanksgiving dinner, Granddad had shared some details of his life. He was born December 7, 1907 – a future day of infamy – as James B. Gitlitz. His White Russian parents worked in sweatshops in New York. His father learned to be a tailor as an apprentice and later started his own shop fixing up secondhand clothes in Binghampton, New York. His mother went knocking door-to-door, buying clothes from people and washing them before her husband repaired them. Granddad grew up during the Depression and had little money for college. He wrote two poems in October and November, 1929, which were accepted in Harper’s magazine, earning him twenty-eight dollars. “Having those poems published was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” Granddad said.
The poems later won a $1000 Morrison poetry prize at Cornell that enabled him to attend college. He eventually earned a full tuition scholarship and began at Cornell Law School in fall of1930. Granddad Gitlitz started a law practice afterwards, working for $12 per hour. He worked in law for the rest of his life.
“For years, I didn’t make more than $5000 a year,” he said. “I had visions of earning a position as Supreme Court Justice. As a registered Democrat in Boom County, in Binghampton, I never stood a chance. If you ran as a Republican in that county, it was tantamount to election. Democrats hadn’t won a spot as a judge in fourteen districts for 100 years.”
When he retired, he had written over 400 opinions working with his law partner. One case involved a two-year fight between the Catholic Church and a local Polish Ukrainian church attended by immigrants. The Catholic Church had sent observers to review the immigrant’s church and determine if practices held to the Catholic standards. The immigrants contested the observer, a Czechoslovakian priest from the seminary appointed by the Pope. They questioned the intentions of the Catholic Church. The case escalated between the various parties until a lawsuit was initiated. The immigrants wanted to establish their own church, or build a new one with their own funds without interference. They recognized the Pope’s authority in spiritual matters but not in legal matters.
During Granddad’s work on the case, he traveled to Presov, located in the eastern tip of Czechoslovakia, to research the Pact of Unguar. According to Granddad, the document related to the case as a religious and legal precedent. During the two-year court case, he traveled to Berlin in 1939 during the week of Hitler’s birthday. While he was there, he helped many Jews obtain visas to depart for the United States during the early stages of the Second World War.
“I got a visa for a 16 year-old boy. His parents laughed at the necessity for a visa and thought everything would blow over. Both parents went to concentration camps,” Granddad said.
He also journeyed to Russia en route to Warsaw, Poland, for legal research. He rode on the U.S.S. Washington to Russia. “This was before transatlantic flight,” he said. “I was on the Britannic, a British war ship, on the travel back home.”
Granddad observed May Day ceremonies in Red Square and was treated like a dignitary during his stay. He attended the Bolshoi Theater and met the president of the lawyer’s bar association. Granddad traveled by overnight train to Kiev, then to Lemberg, Poland, for additional research on the immigrant’s church case.
“After months of research, I came back to New York and wrote the legal brief. I tried the case opposite a lawyer, a law school professor, and won. The Catholic Church appealed to the appellate division in New York but was denied. The chief judge on the court case said it was the best brief ever submitted to him in twenty-five years,” Granddad said.
“Back in Binghampton, I was active among the Inter-Racial Association for Blacks. I met quite a few famous people. Jackie Robinson stayed at my house. Langston Hughes, who worked on the Union League, a national organization, read his children’s books in the mornings to my son, David, at the house.”
Granddad’s tales seemed endless to me but also fascinating in every respect. He had written and published an autobiography to record the details of his life. The book’s introduction acknowledged that the events of his life held no sway over the course of history, but that he wanted his life recorded for the sake of his children. Listening to Granddad made me realize what writing had to offer as a life’s work. He had made his own journeys across countries, historic events, and most importantly, in the lives of people near and far. He had realized that his stories, his experiences, would persevere in written form long after he left the world.
I felt grateful to have heard his story in person. While the rest of the family scurried about in conversation or preparing the endless meals, I noticed that Granddad would nap or simply gaze into a distant place. Somehow, I knew his written words and spoken tales could not entirely capture the life he relived in his mind during those moments. No words can ultimately triumph over the essential experience. Still, his words left me speechless in a sense as I pondered my own purpose.
During the rest of my stay with the Gitlitz family, I ate gefilte fish – a whitefish chopped and stuffed into fish balls, suspended in a jelly broth. The gefilte fish (German for filled) was prepared under the supervision of Rabbis A. Soloveichik and M. Soloveichik which greatly relieved my apprehensions of eating the slimy substance. A healthy dose of horseradish and a glass of Harpoon Ale did not hurt either. I also played board games with Victoria, Abby, and Deb. I collected sea glass and “moonstones,” polished rocks, on the seashore during a walk along Moonstone beach. The smell of salt and decayed seaweed, clean sea mist, and rich brine soaked into the pockets of my coat. Grains of sand dusted my fingertips.
I also took notes on a book written by David and Linda titled A Drizzle of Honey, The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews. The historical cookbook developed through primary research the couple had done on crypto-Jews in medieval Iberia, Spain and other parts of the world. Tens of thousands of Iberian crypto-Jews were converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition. Rather than completely assimilate, they practiced their traditional customs in secret. The cookbook focused on the lives of several crypto-Jews who attempted to preserve their Jewish heritage in private while maintaining a public image of Christian conformity. These people were persecuted by the Inquisition for defying Catholic practices by cooking, or not cooking, certain foods. Testimonials of servants and neighbors and written evidence of goods purchased, ingredient lists, and item costs were used to try to convict many people.
Again, the book reminded me of the essential nature of the written word. Words possessed the power to memorialize the events of a man’s life, or persecute that life based on records of what a man ate. The recipes and historical accounts of the book disturbed me as a chef and as a person. I never realized that food could be used to condemn. I began to comprehend why I had come so far to New England in my own pilgrimage, to study in Boston, to be a writer. I understood more than ever the necessity of writers to put words to higher purposes.
As the holiday visit drew to a close with a tea service and desserts, I luxuriated in the newfound company of friends and family. Eating regained its communal purpose for me and reinforced the need for communication. The Gitlitz family gathered around the table not only to eat food and nourish the body, but also to exchange thoughts and feed their appetites for life. The Gitlitz family was not so crazy. It felt blessedly normal to return to the table, to lift our forks and raise our glasses, and to share words beyond any intellectual or romantic aspirations. I felt thankful for the food on my lips and the words of this Jewish family who reminded me of the bread I had broken.