Apr 12 2014

Pictures of life

In a golden, Godiva chocolate box, I have a collection of loose photographs. There is no order to them. Godiva photoboxThey encompass many years, most of them from before I moved to Sweden, and are collected from many places. Inside can be found some baby pictures that I took from my parent’s photo albums. There are a number of photo ID cards, some from Pratt Institute where I was a student, some from the Metropoliten Museum where I worked after graduation. There are some old driver’s licences – yes, I did once have one. Some pictures were taken in photo machines – one strip dating back to 1970 and another with me, my very young son and my husband crammed into the frame. There are also a bunch of old Polaroids from the 70s, with their white borders loosening in places.

I’ve had this box since I worked on a slide show for a production company in New York City back in the 1980’s. The production time-period included Valentine’s Day and we who were working there were working our asses off with long, stressful days and very late nights. The owners of the company came around on V-day and handed out to each of us, a large box of Godiva Chocolate – to keep our spirits up, I guess. Every night, I would go home very late, carefully choose one piece of chocolate from the box, eat it and fall into bed for a few hours of sleep – till I had to go back to work the next morning. It was a beautiful box, covered in embossed gold paper, and I didn’t want to just throw it away after all the chocolate was gone. In those days, I almost never took photographs. I’ve rarely owned a camera actually, and never a really good one. I had a Polaroid camera for awhile and one of those cameras that used a special film cartridge. It actually didn’t matter much what sort of camera I owned, I was a terrible photographer anyway. Because of this, I never had a lot of photographs lying around but I did have a few. I decided that the new golden box was the perfect place to put my meager collection. So that was where I put the polaroids that I took as reference material for illustrations and the few things from college and the baby pics. The box is now pretty filled up and I rarely put new stuff in there. Occasionally, however, I open it and look through the images that are there.

I also have a newer collection of photos taken after I moved to Sweden. My husband is a good photographer so we have lots of pictures. A large portion of them fill about 4 small IKEA photo boxes which sit on the shelves of a bookcase. The storage boxes contain neatly organized envelopes, the kind you used to get from photo stores after they developed your film. On each envelope is written the date and a brief description of the photos. Most of the envelopes contain double photos – that’s what we always ordered – so we could send pictures to my family back in the States. I guess I didn’t send a lot of photos because most of the envelopes still have their doubles. Or else I just sent the ones I looked good in. Occasionally, when we would have guests, the envelopes would come out and we would bore our friends with 30 or 40 pictures of us doing things.

In the late 90s, photos became digital and I stopped collecting envelopes of paper prints and collected them on my computer instead – in well organized folders. These days I don’t have to drag out envelopes of photographs to show to people, I show them on Facebook instead – and only a few of the best.

Facebook recently celebrated its 10th anniversary by offering to make a 1- minute video compilation of your Facebook posts. Many of my Faceys (my Facebook friends) did it but I was hesitant. There was something about it that bothered me. Was it because I didn’t want a machine to remind me of who I was?  Occaisionally, I find myself looking through my Facebook Photo Albums, reminding myself of the images I have posted there. I’ve even gone back and taken a look at posts I have written through the years. I had this idea that I might collect them and list them all in one long blog post –  as a way of seeing what I have been thinking about over the past 7 years since I have been a member of Facebook. But, like so many other things, I never got around to doing that. Now, however, here was FB offering to do it for me – collected into just one minute. Part of me was curious but part of me thought it was creepy. Well, curiosity got the better of me and I finally did it. I would send you the link so you could see my life too but it only works if you are logged in as me.

A few weeks ago, I listened online to a short radio program (www.thetakeaway.org/story/facebook-best-place-archive-our-memories) about the type of effect Facebook and its personal collections of photographs and texts might might be having on people in the long run. One of the ideas that was brought up was how, instead of showing our real lives, on Facebook, we only show the sort of life we want to project outwardly. It only shows the good side, our best self – that it is a scripted narrative. More recently, there has been a trend away from posting exactly what’s on your mind and instead posting something that illustrates how good your life is. The question asked during the discussion, was,
“Ten years down the line, will people look back and think that this “artificial” life  is what their life was actually like? Is this the only thing that will frame their past and how will it effect the way they remember their past?”

My response to this question is, so what? What is the big deal – how is this different than before? Our memories of our past have always been framed by what we keep and what we show. Whether its the boxes of junk left over from every move we made, still sitting in the garage; or the photo albums collecting all the photographs taken through the years; or the journal writings we made or the letters we sent to or received from others, telling bits of news of our lives. Some people have more and some people have less of these tangibile reminders of the life we have lived. A friend of mine who was the youngest of 5 kids says that by the time she came along her parents had gotten tired of taking photos and there are very few of her but masses of her oldest siblings. Some people wrote journal entries every day and others barely managed to send out a Christmas card once a year. I remember what my dog Skippy looked like from the photo I have of her and me when I was 5 years old. I have other memories of her but they are fleshed out by that photo. The same goes for many other past events that I remember. Sometimes the memory has become vague and faded but the photograph proves it was real and actually happened. The black and white photographs which my mother so very carefully arranged, with captions, in her photo albums with their black paper pages and white photo corners were a selection of the best images of her and her friends that she could collect.  And that is how I know her past. Facebook isn’t really different from this. The medium is different but the purpose is actually exactly the same as it was 70 years ago. The only thing to really worry over is whether the medium we use today will have the same possibility to last as long and be looked at as long as those old albums with their paper photographs. I can look at my mother’s photographs without needing the correct operating system, the right hardware or a particular App or Program. All I need to do is carefully pick up the slightly falling-apart scrapebook and gently turn the pages.

I sometimes wonder if the youngsters of today will be able to reminisce and enjoy looking through the images which they today capture in their smart phones with the same pleasure that I feel when I rummage through the contents of my Godiva Chocolate box. When they are 62 years old – will their images even still exist to be looked at? Will they still have something real to look back at to help them remember who they were? Will they still have something as sweet?

Apr 3 2011

The relay race

My mother was recently in the hospital. She’s back home now, but not really home, not in her own apartment but in the rehabilitation health-care center of the independent-living facility that she has been living in for the past two years or so. It seems she had a pelvic fracture and had trouble standing up or walking. So she is there for them to look after her and give her physical therapy to help her heal. When they are not busy torturing her with exercise she spends most of her time in bed watching the television. I call her most every day and talk to her, ask her how she is doing, telling her about small things happening here in my home. Its really all I can do, living so far away. She sounds tired as I talk to her. She still manages to be cheerful but often she sounds tired. Anyone who has had to spend more than a few days in bed just watching TV knows how tiring that gets to be after awhile. You start wanting to be able to leave the bed and get on with your life. Start doing things again. But doing things has been getting harder and harder for her to do.

Talking to my mom makes me think of my grandmother. Not that my mom is anything like Grandma, she is definitely much nicer than my grandmother ever was. But the tired thing. It reminds me.

I remember a day, standing in front of the large bathroom mirror in my parents house with Grandma, looking at our reflections. We were dressed up for some holiday family get together. Grandma is in her 80s. She looks at herself and says she doesn’t recognize the person she sees there. She doesn’t feel as old as that person looks. She talks about how she used to be as strong as an ox but not anymore. I didn’t really understand what she meant then. After all, I was barely 30, strong and healthy, still.

I recognize my grandmother in the black and white photographs that I have from her. I see her in my mind’s eye in the story she told of herself, newly arrived and processed at Ellis Island after her 2 week-long journey from Poland in 1920. She was 20 years old then, just a few months older than my son is now. She sees her brother Nathan, standing there in the large hall, tall and well dressed, waiting for her. She runs into his arms, knocking off his bowler hat in the process. Her life is just starting. She has almost a decade of good years after that, and then the Depression starts. Her married life during the 1930’s, her thirties, bring with it all the years of economic hardship, but she struggled through it. Followed closely by the 1940s and the discovery that almost all of her family left behind in Poland were gone. In 1948, she and Grandpa made a nice wedding for their daughter and saw Evelyn start her life as an adult with my dad.

I didn’t know Grandma then. I was born when she was already in her 50s and probably younger than I am now. I can remember her loudly arguing in Yiddish with Grandpa in their kitchen in their house in Budd Lake. I was over their house when I was a kid, playing in the backyard. I saw a snake crawling through the grass. I ran into the house screaming, afraid of the snake. My grandmother ran out, grabbed a hoe and killed the snake. I thought she was the strongest and bravest person I had ever met. I must have been about 8 or 9 years old.

I think of my mom. I turn over in my mind, memories of her, mind photos you could call them. I think of her when she was a young woman and I was just a kid, in her 30s and 40s, active, working, volunteering, raising children. Competent, taking care of things. Getting on with her life. I knew her then but didn’t give her much thought. She was my mother. I took her for granted. When I was 18, my father and mother drove me off to Brooklyn with all my transportable belongings and delivered me to the dormitory at Pratt – starting me on my journey towards adulthood. They continued on their trip back home to Budd Lake to live their life, to retire, to move to a new home in Columbus, New Jersey, taking with them boxes of my stuff I had left with them in Budd Lake.

I’ve known four generations of my family now – Grandma Bertha, my mom Evelyn, myself of course and now my son. I’ve seen these generations as they go by. I’m 10 years older now than my grandmother was when I was born. I’m almost the same age as my mom was when I moved to Sweden. I’m at the age I am now as my son is starting his first tentative steps into adult life. Our generations overlap. They are like a part of a revolving relay race through time. Each generation handing on the baton to the next. A real relay race has an actual begininning, at the sound of the starter’s pistol. But this generational relay race has no real beginning – before my grandmother started, there were her parents and before them more parents; and hopefully, it has no end, though sometimes it does when the next generation isnt born. But my personal race has a beginning. It started with the oldest family member that I actually got to know – my grandmother and is continuing with my son. That is my snippet of the eternal ever-revolving relay.

In my snippet, my grandmother stands at the starting line, waiting for the sound of the gun. Off she goes, running as fast and as strongly as she can. Sometimes the path is straight and easy, sometimes it’s curving and difficult but she keeps on going. There ahead of her she sees the next member of her team. That’s my mom – there, jogging along the track in the hand-off zone. They run together for awhile, both running strong, working together. And there it is – the hand-off! Now its Mom who has the baton. She’s in the field now, running her own race. Grandma of course doesn’t stop running immediately after the hand-off. She keeps on going, slowing down gently, but still running along. Now Moms coming around the bend. I enter the track, start jogging in the hand-off zone. We both run together until finally, the time is right and Mom hands me the baton. I’m off! Running my race through Art School in Brooklyn, then life in New York City, then the big curve – moving to Stockholm. I’m now approaching the next hand-off zone. I see him there entering the field, my son Bevin. He’s starting to jog while I come up along side him. We run together a good pace while he comes up to speed. Soon, very soon, I will hand him the baton and he will be off on his own race as I wind down, slowing my pace, preparing myself to stand on the sidelines cheering him on, as my Mom is now doing for me.

This race of ours is a good one, as we all make it around our track in our individual legs of our journey. I hope my son gets to run a good race on his leg of the track and as he runs, remembers the runners he has met that have helped to hand him the baton.

Apr 25 2010

Making cheesecake

This weekend I baked a cheesecake to take to a dinner party. It wasn’t really a big deal. I’ve been baking cheesecakes for almost 40 years. I bake them because I like to eat them and I learned to eat them when I was still in college, at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. This is a pic of Junior's from the 1980s - after I had already left Brooklyn but it looks like I remember it.Downtown Brooklyn had a restaurant named Junior’s and we Pratties ate there on special occasions, usually when we had a little bit extra money. The restaurant wasn’t expensive but we were pretty poor. Junior’s cheesecake was known as the best cheesecake in New York City. One week, when I still lived in Brooklyn, I went there 3 times (I was already working by then so I had some extra money). I ate 2 slices of cheesecake there and the third time I bought a whole small cheesecake to take home to eat. Now in those days a single slice of Junior’s cheesecake was about 3 or 4 inches high and a pretty big wedge. The small cake was about 8 inches in diameter though not so high. Also, in those days, it didn’t matter how much cheesecake I ate, I never gained weight. Those days unfortunately are gone. But, after that week, I didn’t eat cheesecake for almost 2 years. I think I OD’d.

I baked my first cheesecake when I think I was still at Pratt. My friend Irene told me that they were really hard to bake and I guess I took that as a challenge. It wasn’t so hard. There have been lots of different recipes through the years. That first one had pineapple on the bottom, just above the crust. I thought I had lost that recipe long ago but a few years ago I was rummaging in some of my still unpacked boxes of books from New York and found my Joy of Cooking, from the early 70s. There in the cookbook, was an index card with my pineapple cheesecake recipe on it. I still haven’t bothered to bake it again though.

A few years ago I was looking for a Cheesecake recipe to bake for a party. I needed one that had no flour in it because my friend, Amy, was allergic to wheat flour. Most of the cheesecake recipes I had contained flour. So I googled and got a ton of recipes to choose from. But, the question was, how did you pick one that was good. Then I saw one that was named Junior’s Cheesecake and was supposed to be the original recipe from way back when. So that’s how I chose. It used cornstarch instead of flour. And it was very easy.

Now I just want to say that I’m a purist. I like my Cheesecake plain – not with all that fancy stuff on it. No strawberries, or pineapples or anything else on top. I once made a chocolate marbled cheesecake that was great though. And I won’t turn down a taste of cheesecake just because it has something on top of it. But I prefer it plain. I used to always use just a simple Graham Cracker bottom but now I live in Sweden so I can’t find Graham Crackers. I use various other types of cookies for the bottom instead. For my wheat-allergic friend’s cake I used special wheat-free cookies. Often, I use Swedish pepperkakor (gingerbread cookies) and feel that I’m combining two cultures together, the New York Jewish with the Stockholm Swedish. cheesecake

Anyway, the reason I’m even writing about cheesecake is because I wrote on my Facebook page that I was baking a Junior’s cheesecake – mainly to bring back memories to all my fellow Pratties on Facebook. But a whole bunch of people wrote to me wanting my recipe. And everyone at the dinner party wanted it too. So I decided to write about cheesecake. I started out by regoogling for the recipe. And now, I’m not sure this really was exactly the way Junior’s makes their cheesecake because I’ve found other recipes called Junior’s cheesecake that have a different bottom made from spongcake. But I’ve never made a sponge cake bottom so this is my version. The filling tastes exactly like my mouth remembers it in any case. If any of you former Pratties remember what the bottom was like, let me know. I still like mine though.

Junior’s Cheesecake
This recipe was supposedly developed by baker Eigel Peterson in 1950. And it comes from The Brooklyn Cookbook by Lyn Stallworth and Rod Kennedy, Jr.
This cheesecake has a buttered crumb bottom that climbs up the sides a bit and nothing on the top. It is a very dense and heavy cheesecake – not the light fluffy kind. I didn’t follow the original directions exactly. I’m not good at that, really. Following directions, I mean. So this is my version.

Cheesecakes should be made in springform pans. That’s the kind that you can take the sides off of. The pan I used is 8 ½ inches or 22 cm in diameter.

Preheat the oven to 450°F. (230° C)


2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted – I use whatever I have, salted or unsalted, or even Bregott (a Swedish butter-canola oil combination) and I don’t really measure. It just has to be enough to blend with the crumbs.

Graham crackers all crumbled up. The crumbs don’t have to be completely uniform in size. Here in Sweden I can’t find graham crackers so I use other kinds of cookies, such as Swedish pepperkakor or even wheat-free cookies for my wheat-allergic friends. You can even use chocolate cookies and add chocolate chips to the batter if you want. But then, it’s not very plain anymore, is it.

7/8 cup Sugar (2dl) This is good if you don’t want it too sweet. A full cup is OK too.
3 tablespoons Cornstarch sifted so it’s not clumpy.
30 oz. Cream cheese (850 g), Take this out of the fridge in advance so it’s not too cold anymore. I try to only use Philadelphia brand cream cheese. And I never use the light version. Tried that once. Yech.
1 Extra-large egg They don’t have extra large here in Sweden, so large has to do.
1/2 cup Heavy Cream (a little over 1dl)
1 teaspoon vanilla I use the liquid kind but I guess the Swedish Vaniljsocker is OK too.

What to do:

Crush the crackers/cookies to very small crumbs. Mix the crumbs with the melted butter. I sprinkle on a tiny bit of cold water to make the crumbs stick together better but don’t overdo this. You don’t want gooey crumbs just crumbs that stick together.

Coat the pan bottom with the crumbs, pressing them onto the bottom and up the sides a bit. Don’t make it too thick but you shouldn’t be able to see the bottom of the pan. I don’t bother to bake it before adding the filling but I did put it in the fridge till I was ready for it but I don’t think you have to.

Mix the sugar with the cornstarch.

Put a package cream cheese in a bowl and start to mix it with a mixer.
Add some of the sugar/cornstarch mixture to the cream cheese.
Add more cream cheese. Add more sugar/starch mix.
Do this till all the cheese and sugar is being mixed together.
Blend in the egg and mix till its evenly blended but not on high speed.
Add the heavy cream, a little at a time, and mix. Add the vanilla.
Spoon batter into the crumb-filled pan.

Bake for approximately 40 to 45 minutes, until the top is a light golden brown. The cake can jiggle a little bit and still be done.

Put the cheesecake in its pan on a rack and let it cool till you can put it in the fridge.

That should do it.

Because not everyone likes plain cheesecake I usually bring with me some frozen berries, like raspberries or blackberries that can defrost during dinner and be eaten later with a slice of cheesecake. I, of course, eat it plain, with a cup of tea on the side.