Monday, September 24, 2012

A house is not a home

What makes a home? In her great book Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's minister John Ames says we have no home in this world. He says it to the dying. A comfort, he thinks. He is alone in the night in an old house he's lived in his whole life eating a fried egg sandwich, listening to baseball and the house and the town and the night. Maybe that's a truth to him alone in the dark with fried egg sandwich. But when he is no longer alone, when that same old house has been filled with a wife and a child, the whole notion of home and history becomes furled out before the reader like the light across his Iowa prairie sky. It brimming over with this world, his home.
What makes a home? I would say that it is a place that is both your own and shared; a physical manifestation of the bonds of love, affection and respect by blood or by choice. I imagine old John Ames would agree. I didn't really have a home in Israel until I moved in with my sister. I had almost homes, but not home homes. And now? I wake up in the middle of the night. I listen to the almost silence- my cat snoring beside me; the pine tree ramming into the windows of the enclosed porch; a passing car. I close my eyes. I make an inventory of all the things that are mine in this apartment. Of all the apartments I've lived in in Israel, I love this one most. I love its brightness and quiet; its blue-framed windows and doorposts. On the one side it overlooks a garden and a day-care center, well-set back from the street. On the other, it is exposed, it's window opening on to a view of Jerusalem's hills and Hebrew University. And I have so many things that are mine.

I start in the living room and my books. There is my stately BDB (the 1959 edition, as it should be), my Tanakh, my Talmud. There are the books as my friend Zev once so eloquently put it, "I bought in college to make me look smart"-Plato, Augstine, my beloved Touqueville, Paul Mendes-Flohr, Emmet Larkin and others. Below them are the cookbooks, the ones I use less often. The other bookshelf holds other friends: poetry- Yeats and Collins and Amichai- and fiction-Robinson and other greats, of course, but also a lot of mystery-all of PD James- and fantasy. There is my fading green chair, where I spend most of my day. My couch, showing wear from living with a cat. Above it a window sill. A planter full of herbs. 
 In my bedroom, it is my dresser I love most. It's a new acquisition and its dark wood and elegance makes me feel so rooted. It is a piece of furniture intended to stay. There are prints on the walls-a framed Waterhouse. Yeats' The Lake Isle at Innisfree over my bed. It is my favorite poem; the print brought back from Ireland by a friend. My desk is a mess. It holds dictionaries and files- remnants from my academic life.

And then there is the kitchen with its big picture window that makes it a morning kitchen. There's not enough storage space in the kitchen, and yet it holds so much. My cookbooks, the ones I use time and time again are on the long shelf, running the length of the room. They share space with the oils and vinegar, the basket of odds and ends. The tea. There's my baby. My stand mixer. And my other baby. My cast iron skillet. My 6-inch Wusthoff lays in its plastic sheath above the spice drawer, desperately in need of sharpening. There are plates in the drawers. Pots in the cabinets. Lavender and mint on the windowsill.
An empty room.

All these things are mine. And somehow, they are less mine because they are not shared. Oh, they'll be shared again. The room won't remain empty. But with roommates, more often than not, you go from "so, where are you from?" straight to "who left dirty dishes in the sink?" Sometimes it works out well. Sometimes it doesn't. We'll just have to see.

For almost all their lives my grandmother and her sister, my great-aunt Rose, lived in the same neighborhood. They both married kind, extraordinarily gentle men who went in to business together. They raised their children together. Spent summers in the Catskills together. They spent many an afternoon playing epic, hyper-competitive games of Scrabble together. They talked. They sniped. The took care of each other. Now, my great-aunt has moved out the neighborhood to be closer to her children and grandchildren. But she and my grandmother still talk. They still snipe. And occasionally, they even get together for a game of Scrabble.

My sister and I are less competitive than my grandmother and her sister. We snipe less. Also, we don't play Scrabble. But I do hope that we end up like the two of them- sharing lives (if not Scrabble boards), marrying good men, raising kids until we are both old (not that my grandmother or great-aunt are old. Heaven forfend!). Sure, we're no longer roommates, but we're still sisters.

My Great-aunt Rose's Honey Cake

When I told my grandmother that I was using my great-aunt's recipe for honey cake, she immediately countered with a recipe for honey cookies. That's just the way they are, the two of them. And while, most of my traditional recipes come from my grandmother, this is one time I'm going to go with my great-aunt's. Every time I make this cake, (and by every time I mean Rosh Hashana) I think, why don't I make this more often? Why does it have to be a once-a-year sort of cake? It is not an overly complicated recipe, and it's one of my favorite cakes. It manages to be both light and incredibly moist all at once. It's not too sweet and gains character from the addition of coffee and orange zest. So why I only make it once a year? Who knows? Maybe this year is the year to change that. Just don't tell my grandmother.

6 eggs, seperated
1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
1 lb (16 oz) honey
1 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons vinegar
1 1/3 cup coffee, cooled
3 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
juice and zest of 1/2 orange

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F. In a large bowl mix together 6 egg yolks, 1/2 cup sugar, honey and coffee. Put the baking soda in a little bowl. Pour the vinegar over it. Let it bubble and foam. Add to egg yolk mixture. In another bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and orange zest. Starting and ending with the flour mixture, alternately add the flour and the orange juice to the egg-honey mixture. Set aside.

2. In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. With the beaters running, slowly add 1 cup sugar. Beat until thick and marshmallow-like. Carefully fold the egg-whites into the rest of the batter.

3. Evenly divide the batter into 2 un-greased 8 inch round pans. Rap the pans sharply on the counter-top to eliminate air bubbles. Bake for about an hour. The cakes are done when they spring-back lightly to the touch.

4. Remove the cakes from the oven. Turn the cakes upside down, and prop them up on evenly space cans to cool.* When cool, turn right-side up. The cakes will stay, well wrapped, for a good-while.

* An important note: if your cake pans have even the slightest bit of non-stick coating, DO NOT turn the cakes upside down. They will promptly fall out of their pans. Cool them right-side up on a wire wrack.

1 comment:

  1. Loved the important note :) and the shoutout!