Sunday, March 29, 2009

I Aint No Challah Back Girl....

... and I'm not a baker either. In fact, these beautiful loaves of challah are one of the reasons baking intimidates me, as do bakers. These incredible loaves were baked, on the fly, by a woman we met Friday night. The fact she was moving the next morning, and still had boxes to pack, didn't deter her from getting into the kitchen and creating these masterpieces.

Yes, I'm gushing, but you would've, too. Still warm, they gave off a slight scent of citrus as they were placed on the cutting board. 

"Is that lemon?" one person asked, leaning in and taking a whiff. "Did you make those?" asked another.

"Yes, the recipe called for Meyer lemon. And yes," answered Jessica, the woman responsible for these creations. 

The nonchalance of her replies, and the seeming ease of her efforts astounded me. I pictured her, surrounded by flattened cardboard and rolls of packing tape, grating lemon zest in her kitchen as the clock ticked out the final hours in her apartment. That image made me smile. I immediately liked her. So what if a Uhaul was coming at ten o'clock the next morning. So what if dishes and glasses and mixing bowls and measuring cups were still sitting on their shelves. Movers? Shmovers. There was bread to be baked. 

The waft of fresh bread went through the party, and so did the buzz: "Is that challah?" "Did she make that herself?" "Oh my gawd, it's homemade challah!" 

When the first loaf was sliced a quick taste test proved the hype was justified. While it was not as eggy as the challah I'm used to, this bread had major star-power. The Meyer lemon was perfectly balanced by a large, coarse-grain finishing salt. (It could have been rock salt, it was definitely too big for kosher salt. I'm kicking myself now for not asking.) It was perfection.

People started congregating, having followed the aroma into the room where the bread, and not the wine that we came to taste, was now the main attraction. 

"Have you tried the challah?" I said to my neighbor Joey. It was more of a directive than a question. As he reached for a sliced he looked over his shoulder and asked "Are you Jewish?" 

I didn't know how to answer. I didn't want to be called out as a poser. But the truth is there are times I wish I could answer "Yes, I am Jewish." Just like there are times when I wish I could answer "Yes, I am an Arab, North African in fact," or "Yes, I am Asian, well, sort of, on my Mom's side, Japanese, four generations back."

The unifying theme in all of these Walter Mitty-ish daydreams of mine involve food. I dream of serving dinner guests a shabu-shabu pot, or making the perfect harrisa, or setting the perfect seder

I was yanked out of my culinary revery by Joey, who was still waiting for an answer.

"No," I admitted sheepishly. "I'm just an Honorary Heeb. And I have the shirt to prove it." (I do, really, thanks HEEB magazine.) 

"Sure sure, I get it," was Joey's reply. He took a bite of the bread, and his eyebrows raised. I nodded knowingly. "Amazing, isn't it?" I asked, but he couldn't answer. His face said it all: He was on a challah high.

As everyone dug into, and clearly dug, the challah, I got a giddy rush witnessing how something like food can unite people. Or at least bring them together. On this particular Friday evening, at a house party in San Francisco, you couldn't have asked for a more diverse group. As people hovered near the cutting board, I could hear conversations starting, and introductions being made. "Is this your first time here?" "Which wine have you tried" "By the way, my name is..." 

The proverbial ice was being broken. Strangers were breaking bread. 

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