January 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last Wednesday was the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shvat (aka the New Year of the Trees), a celebration and appreciation of the planting, sowing, growing, and harvesting to come after the winter rains have passed.  The holiday is easy to celebrate: head to your market/supermarket/bodega/corner store/farm stand/farm, buy fruit, and devour it happily.  Also, eat one of each of the Seven Species of foods from the holy land (conveniently smooshed together in the fascinating Bible Bar–I’ve eaten it–you shouldn’t).

If you’re more inclined towards a ordered progression of feasting, the Tu B’Shvat seder might be for you.  Developed by Kabbalists in 16th century, later printed in the 18th (check out my friend Aharon’s historical and liturgical background info here) and adapted, altered, and personalized by countless communities and individuals since, the basic seder organizes and links wines, fruits, seasons, elements, and themes of human/divine interaction and development into 4 groupings.  Two years ago I volunteered to lead Kol Tzedek‘s Tu B’Shvat seder.  I was organizing the meal and editing the haggadah during a particularly difficult phase of life, and my parents came from New York to Philadelphia to help me purchase fruit, nuts, and wine.  Traversing the city to find persimmons and pistachios together took my mind off of difficult transitions and later helped me understand how, during the ebbs and flows of changing seasons and life, care and love make beautiful things grow.

About two weeks ago I took an impromptu trip to the Black Sea region of Turkey, specifically Sinop and Samsun, to touch another sea and visit some Fulbrighters.  In Sinop, I slept in Amy’s cozy seaside bungalow.  She and next-door-neighbor Lucian are making the best of a difficult placement.  Amy has turned one corner of her room into an art studio where she makes beautiful prints (check out her digs and prints samples here).  One morning she explained to me the intensive hours spent cutting and preparing her materials and I was amazed by her patience, vision, and eyes and hands for detail.

Amy was trying to eat all of the food in her kitchen before the semester break and I was thrilled when she told me I could cut into her pomegranate.  Pomegranates are all over western Turkey no matter what the season, in corner stores, supermarkets, and at street-side juice presses (oh lord I’ve probably spent half a month’s salary on pomegranates and fresh-pressed juice so far).  While Amy prepared crepe batter for breakfast, I eagerly dug into the massive fruit, easily spending at least 10 minutes picking out every seed, covering the kitchen in ruby-red juice, and eating every other handful as I went along.  The final result was worth it, though: heaping crepes of apple, pomegranate, and peanut butter (and maybe a bit of Nutella).

Stuffed with the best of Turkey’s harvest, Amy, Lucian, and I set out to explore Sinop, Turkey’s nothernmost point.

At the highest point in Sinop, near the former NATO base, overlooking the town

On our way back, we stopped by the laundromat to pick up Amy’s laundry (she trades English lessons for laundry and salsa lessons–love this woman) and also the pazar for more fruit.  I couldn’t resist more pomegranates and bought another kilo.  At home we crashed on the couch/my bed to rest before heading out for the night’s dinner (famous Sinop manti–rough translation as meat ravioli but oh so delicious, with walnuts and yogurt).  Waste not, want not, though, and we realized that if we deseeded the pomegranate now, we’d have instant sweet happiness in the morning.  As we began the process of cutting, opening, picking, and tasting, we fell into a quiet rhythm.  There was a magic in the moment, two women content in the repetitive yet satisfying work of preparing food.  Amy broke the silence when she acknowledged the beautiful bond that grew between us, the peacefulness of the bungalow and the seaside brought on by the fruit dismemberment.  But speaking did nothing to diminish the moment–we just smiled, popped more seeds into our mouths, drank the juice off the plate, and smiled.

Pomegranate seeds appear in many stories and teachings, from Persephone condemned to a half-year in Hades for eating but 6, to the 613 mitzvot of the Torah being reflected in each fruit.  I’d never had one before coming to Turkey–at the Tu B’Shvat seder I had to settle for old seeds in a box from the Indian grocery.  They were the first fruit I attempted to prepare in my makeshift bathroom/kitchen set-up in the NKU hotel back in October.  They’re frustrating, hard work, the juice stains and the seeds burst and I eat so much as I go along that there’s barely any left after I’m done picking.  But it’s always worth it, always.  Some of my friends never understood why I would spend hours in the kitchen to prepare a meal that I would eat in 15 minutes.  It was always worth it.  Like Amy’s prints, food is art to me.  I don’t mind the hours spent picking, cutting, creating a masterpiece, however transitory the meal may be.  Maybe I take my cues from Burning Man and the sacrificial celebration and destruction of art by fire.  Hours of work gone up in flames–or digestive juices.  Though I haven’t been cooking nearly as much as I should be in Turkey, food is my celebration, my renewal, my release.  Although I didn’t formally celebrate Tu B’Shvat (la fiesta de las frutas) this year, I send my love and support to my friends in the world of  environmental and agricultural education at Teva Learning Center and the Jewish Farm School, animal rights defender and bff Michael Croland, yoga teacher and challah weaver Michal Waldfogel, and Challahman at Four Worlds Bakery.

Enjoy the Black Sea


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