Talking old memories and brisket


Savannah Morning News Sunday column

Sun., Aug. 30, 2015

With Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, coming up, we are reminiscing, we are talking food because in between the religious significance of the holiday, the trips you may or may not take to the synagogue or to the river to throw away pieces of bread as symbolic gestures of ridding yourself of accumulated sins over the year, there is eating, there is dinner, there is a gathering of friends and relatives, new and old, Jewish or not Jewish.

“Your brisket is the best,” I say to Sylvia Dane, remembering the juicy, succulent and moist meat dish with the beautiful dark brown gravy. “Definitely not ausgetrikent.”

Ausgetrikent is a Yiddish word Sylvia taught me. It means dry, withered and juiceless, kind of like my mother’s brisket, may she rest in peace. Ah, but Sylvia’s. Her brisket makes you want to leave the table and drift into the kitchen to lift just another piece, another morsel, from the pan.

But Sylvia, to her credit because no one wants to give up a compliment, is quick to correct me.

“I may have cooked it, it may have become known as my brisket, but it wasn’t my recipe,” she says.

“The original recipe belonged to Bailee Kronowitz,” a well-known and loved Savannah cook, artist and personality who passed away five years ago.

That may be true but the Yiddish, the stories, the chuckles, the Brooklyn accent (still as thick as the day she arrived in Savannah decades ago) all belong to Sylvia who still holds forth and still writes thank you notes with her return address on the envelope reading, “The Great Dane,” which reminds her of another story.

“You know David, right?” she says of David Collison, one of the trainers at the Jewish Educational Alliance. “Every time I used to come into the gym with my walker he would announce, ‘The great Dane and her gold Cadillac is here.’”

Sylvia is 97 and still peppering her conversation with Yiddish, the language writer Leo Rosten calls the Robin Hood of languages because it steals from the linguistically rich and gives to the fledgling poor.

Sylvia’s grandparents came from Lithuania. Her grandfather, who lived in lower Manhattan, sold newspapers, pickles pulled from barrels and herring. After his death Sylvia shared a bedroom until she was 20 with her grandmother, who spoke Yiddish.

“The floor was red linoleum,” Sylvia said. “I’d say, why red? She said red is a passionate color.”

Moving on to her mother, she said, “Every day when I got home from work it was to a message that said, ‘If you don’t come here immediately there won’t be a Fanny Finklestein. Come over, eat something,’” and then, because we both knew that wasn’t entirely true, she grinned, slowly, slyly.

“Now when my grandson calls the first thing he says is, ‘Je t’adore’ (I love you) and I say, ‘Don’t shut the door.’ Between him and my granddaughter, I hit the jackpot as a grandmother.” And then for good measure she throws in, “Shep nachas,” Yiddish for deriving pleasure and “gutskeit,” used to describe someone who is good, sincere.

For a while Sylvia was commandeered into teaching Yiddish in Savannah or at least helping to form a class. She and David Rosenzweig, who ran a grocery store with his brother on Bull and 40th streets, and Izzy Karp were in the class, “although the only Yiddish Izzy knew were the words to Yankee Doodle Dandy. But I interrupt myself,” said Sylvia, moving on to another subject.

Every week Sylvia still talks to three friends she met in first grade in Brooklyn, Sylvia, Lillian and Roslyn. “PS 48,” she said. “Then I went to Seth Low Junior High. Then Utrecht High School. We lived at 1829 66th street in Bensonhurst, but I was born at 388 S. First Street in Williamsburg. All in Brooklyn. And I can still count from one to 10.”

One of these friends volunteered at a library until she turned 90 when she thought it might be time to leave.

“So they said to her, ‘If we pay you, will you stay?’ My friend said, ‘I’ll be there tomorrow at 9.’ She just recently quit. She’s 97 and a half, six months older than me. I never let her forget that, either.”

Sylvia never learned how to drive. “Why would I?” she asked. “There was a bus stop at every corner.” She likes people, “but with politics I could get nauseated.” And when she can’t remember a name she looks for her telephone book for a memory nudge.

But can she remember her first phone number?

“Sheepshead 3-1179,” she rattled off, faster than you can say, “Please pass the brisket.”






Let’s hear it for negative space

Savannah Morning News column

Aug. 23, 2015

This is the time of year I start to think about negative space. You know, the space around an object. It’s a simple concept, a simple design. I first encountered it while sitting in a friend’s living room, eating pickled okra before dinner, looking around at the walls in his historic downtown Savannah house. He must be getting ready to paint, I thought, although I didn’t see any telltale signs like spackling paste or framed pictures leaning against the floorboards or rough spots on the walls waiting for someone to come along with a second round of sandpaper. I didn’t think about it until the next time we were visiting and I saw nothing had changed. The room was still pretty spartan, pretty clean. That’s when I realized the blank walls with the decorative molding, the room’s distinctive archways and the old-timey wavy windowpanes were deliberate.

That’s when I started to understand negative space.

My house is the anti-negative space. Every wall, shelf, tabletop, breakfront and drawer is filled to the brim. If there were some interesting architectural elements in the house, well, you would have to hunt to find them. You would have to look beyond the posters, the postcards, the children’s art, the dangling doodads.

The same with my gardens.

Except these days I’m lusting for negative space, for pathways, maybe (horrors) even grass. I’m craving openness.

How else can you appreciate the shape of your pomegranate tree – as wide as it is tall – with those miles and miles of cypress vines crawling in, through and around the limbs? They’re so cute in the beginning, those delicate, neon red, star-shaped flowers at the end of the vine. Until you turn your back. Until you blink. They are not called “social climbers” for nothing, these ipomoea quamoclit. These innocent-looking vines and flowers can cover a garden in weeks. Forget negative space with them around.

And then there is what I call the Joe Biden weed, bidens alba to be exact. I’ve given it the vice president’s name because where Biden the man can talk, bidens the weed can produce, in volumes. Yes, the flower is edible (full confession: I haven’t tried it yet but the bees and the butterflies seem to love it; no complaints there) and yes, this aster-related cousin boasts (or so I read, I didn’t count them) up to 6,000 seeds per plant, which makes it a survivor. Still, that doesn’t mean I’m happy to see it year after year growing in between the rosemary, around the kumquat tree, through the flock of four o’clocks or next to the indigo. That doesn’t mean someone doesn’t bring some to the plant swap.

The good news? Cypress vine is easy to remove. It doesn’t take any strength at all. You grab one end and pull and pull and pull. The bad news? It’s everywhere and it needs to be nowhere if I’m going to reduce down to negative space. Right now the not-so-lovely cypress vine is running neck to neck with the no-longer-exotic passion vine to see how many plants it can lace its way through, how many connections it can make. Last year I would have bet on the passionflower; this year my money is going toward the cypress vine.

And here’s the killer: this year I actually tried to keep them in check. They’re easy to identify and pull when they’re young. They kind of look like little whirligigs. That’s when you weaken and think, “Oh, I’ll keep a few in, for color. They’re so pretty.” Wrong. Wrong thing to do.

While we’re at it, while I’m looking for some negative space – anything! anywhere! – so I can scratch the soil, sprinkle some kitchen waste compost and broadcast some broccoli seeds – and kale and collards and lettuce and beets – there are those sneaky yet not-so-subtle four o’clocks. They will kill you with their kindness. In this case, it’s the intoxicating smell, the sweet, sweet scent every afternoon somewhere around, you guessed it, four o’clock. And they’re yellow, a wonderful color in the garden. But make no mistake. She’s another one, at first so polite, so obliging, all “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am” and “Anything you say, ma’am.” Then you turn your back to pick some figs, snip a little basil or check on the turmeric and she takes over another five feet or so. Stop that plant! Draw a line in the sand! Except you can’t.  Four o’clocks know no boundary. Their roots are as big as the 16-inch softball native to Chicago ballplayers. They have to fill every square inch that falls in their vicinity. They do not like silence. They never heard of negative space.

Oh well, a girl can dream.