‘Mom, is crocodile kosher?’

ElephantThe wide African sky is streaked pink and gold as the sun inches toward the horizon. Sunset happens early and quickly in winter. The trees stretch their bare arms upwards, as if reaching for those last few essential rays of light. Their dark silhouettes are a dramatic contrast to the gently glowing sun and pinky-orange sky.

We are all quiet in awe and wonder.

One lone elephant grazes in the twilight. Her trunk effortlessly tears entire branches off the tree. She drops the woody limbs with their few leaves into her waiting mouth. Her tail swishes behind her, and the grass rustles. For many moments, we are surrounded only by cracking branches, whispering leaves and the setting sun.

We are the only humans around for miles.

We journeyed many hours and great distances across continents, oceans and time zones to this tranquil place at the bottom of Africa. It was a Thursday when we left our busy home in California. By the time we arrived in Johannesburg, it was Saturday. In our exhaustion and excitement, none of us noticed that we traveled through an entire Shabbat.

Like many Bay Area Jews, we celebrate Shabbat and observe the laws and customs of our religion in our own traditional ways: we eat homemade challah and enjoy a family dinner every Friday evening; we keep a kosher home, and the no-pork-no-shellfish rule applies when we eat out; some years we do only one Passover seder, and Lag Ba’omer was a holiday that completely escaped us this year. I acknowledge to my husband and to myself that we are doing our best to teach our four children about Judaism and how to live a Jewish life … but sometimes I wonder if it’s enough.

And now here we are a few days after our arrival, watching the sun bid farewell to a quiet Friday afternoon on the African savannah. Our Shabbat candles and kosher home are far away, as we glimpse a giraffe gently loping though the trees. The elephant doesn’t seem to mind as she continues to munch the branches. A baboon runs across the road with a baby on its back, and now my own kids start to chatter and complain that they’re hungry.

The sun has set and it’s dark by the time we head back to our hotel just outside the magical game reserve. We cross the bridge over the shallow river as we make our way toward the main gate. “Do you think the hippos are still there, Mom?” my daughter whispers to me.

Nobody mentions candles, challah or Shabbat as we head to dinner. We are full of thoughts and conversation about the leopard we saw hiding in the tree, the pack of wild dogs we came across in the middle of the road (a rare sighting!) and the sinister vultures scavenging in the wild brush. It was a thrilling day, and we are all eager to recount our wildlife experiences over and over. The air smells of wood smoke and we take our seats around the table in the outdoor restaurant, close to the fire pit. I watch my kids argue about how many times they saw buffalo. The fire throws flickering shadows over their happy faces and I briefly remember that it’s Shabbat, but I say nothing.

Dinner is a buffet of exotic foods: a rich lamb curry, roast beef, kudu steaks and impala sausage. My daughter returns to the table with her standard bowl of plain pasta and my youngest son is happily tucking into a plate of salad. No unusual foods for these two! But my older boy taps my shoulder.

“Mom,” he says with a frown. His brown eyes are confused and a little worried. “Mom, is crocodile kosher?”

In the wild heart of South Africa, where the animals roam free and the air is pure and quiet, we are so far from our routines, from the customs and rituals of our regular life, and I mistakenly assumed that meant we were far from our Jewish lives, too.

But no matter where in the world we are, we are always connected to our Jewishness. And, just for the record, crocodile is not kosher.

This post originally appeared in my “In Real Life” column in J. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California under the title “‘Mom, is crocodile kosher?’ A curious question in the wild heart of South Africa.”

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather together to share their versions of a completed sentence. This week’s prompt was, “This summer…” Hosted by the wonderful Kristi of Finding Ninee.

Chocolate Moose

Mine is famous – at least in these parts. By moose I mean mousse. And by mine I mean handed down to me by mother. At its best it’s light and creamy at the same time, rich but not too rich. The most delicate, palest shade of brown. And also, it’s non-dairy. Which is essential not only for those who are lactose-free, but also for the kosher kids who don’t eat dairy after that yummy brisket, or roast lamb, or honey-lemon chicken. First rule of keeping kosher: never mix meat and milk. Like ever. (Well maybe that’s the second rule – the first would probably be to eat only foods that are certified kosher!)

Dishes prepared without dairy or meat are called pareve (pronounced pa-rev) in the Jewish world. My chocolate mousse is perfectly pareve, and is often a highly anticipated dessert at holiday meals and festive Shabbat dinners, when the menu most always includes a meat of some kind. We celebrate most holidays and many Shabbats with my dear friend L and her family, and both her oldest daughter and her father have come to expect chocolate mousse – no matter what, whether at my house or hers.

At its worst (is there such a thing?), the color is a little off and the chocolate flavor is a little too intense – but nobody ever complains of too much chocolate! Sometimes the dark chocolate pieces don’t melt all the way through or it’s not mixed uniformly – again, little to elicit a negative response or even much notice.

There are other dishes I’m “known” for around here: a salad dressing that’s been described as “crack”, meat pies (also from my mom), pound cake (called minute cake in SA, this one’s from the International Goodwill Recipe Book, and enhanced by my late grandmother), raspberry tart (a favorite with L’s second daughter – those two girls think I’m the dessert queen, it’s fabulous!), “South African” cabbage salad (I’m not sure why but Jewish South Africans seem to be the only people who make cabbage salad this way in the U.S.).

My point is, while I’m certainly no cook extraordinaire, I can follow a recipe, get a little creative sometimes, and produce dishes that are tasty and even worthy of request.

So it was hard to hear that last Thursday night I produced “the worst meal” I’ve ever made. I quote.

He didn’t say it to be mean. Or critical. He said it because it was true. And he didn’t say it until I acknowledged what a god-awful meal it was. I’m reluctant to even call it a meal.

It was supposed to be spaghetti and meat sauce. A dish I make all the time. The kids ask for seconds and there are never leftovers. But too late I realized I didn’t have any of the tomato ingredients I needed, and I didn’t feel like getting creative right then. Whatever I did, or didn’t do, resulted in an inedible, almost indigestible mistake.

My family is really not that fussy about food – they just like to have food they can eat. Not only at meals, but all the time. “Eat a banana” is my mantra, as we run out of yogurt, cheese, frozen waffles, pretzels, cookies faster than I can replenish. As of right now, we are also out of bananas. Oh well.

So they all tried to eat that spaghetti and… um… meat thing. But as soon as I put my own fork down and announced that it really wasn’t very good, their relief was palpable. “I think this is the worst meal you’ve ever made,” my husband said. I prefer to think he meant the only bad meal I’ve ever made, but he was right. Cereal, frozen waffles and bananas for all that night.

The good thing is we have a barometer now! And I don’t think it can get worse than that meal – which takes the pressure off, for all of us (because those children will start cooking in the very near future – especially if they’re as starving as they claim to be and want more than a banana).

And my chocolate mousse is definitely more memorable. Yum!

*This post was written as part of the April A to Z Challenge. To read more of my A to Z posts click here.

Chocolate Moose by OPI www.nailgalore.my

Chocolate Moose by OPI

Nicki’s Moose (pareve)

  • 6 eggs separated (do not allow one drop of egg yolk to get into the egg whites)
  • 1½ slabs of dark/non-dairy chocolate
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar
  • 2 cartons non-dairy cream (like Rich-Whip)
  • 1½ Tablespoons bakers sugar
  • Melt chocolate with sugar.
  • Beat Rich-Whip with bakers sugar.
  • Beat egg whites until stiff.
  • Beat egg yolks until creamy.
  • Add the egg yolks to the melted chocolate/sugar – mix well.
  • Add this mixture to the egg whites – mix well.
  • Add the beaten Rich-Whip.
  • Mix all together, pour into pretty bowl, refrigerate.