When I was a kid growing up in Kew Gardens Hills, Rosh Hashanah meant a few things, aside from being the first day of the year and an excuse to get a new outfit or two. Rosh Hashanah meant walking to Flushing Meadows Park for tashlich and meeting half the world. It meant going to shul and spending most of davening listening to the women all around me try to find the place because no one seemed to be able to follow the chazzan. And, of course, eating the traditional holiday foods: round raisin challahs along with apples and honey.
That’s it. Back then, I never heard of anyone eating any Rosh Hashanah-themed foods other than apples and honey (and fish heads, but we won’t even discuss those frightening looking things that hardly qualify as food) although the Shulchan Aruch does list plenty of others. But the only ones we ever saw in my parents’ house were slices of honey-dipped Macintosh apples that my father would insist we eat straight from his hand so that we didn’t drip honey all over the table.
Maybe it is the advent of social media, but today we often hear about various customs others practice and many of us have taken on those minhagim as well. Shlissel challah is practically obligatory for the first Shabbos post-Pesach and rare is the little boy who gets a haircut before three even if no one in the previous generation waited to do an upsherin. And Rosh Hashanah simanim? The list of symbolic foods that people prepare seems to have grown significantly over the years. It seems that by the time you finish eating all the simanim, everyone is so full you might as well just skip straight to dessert.
Far be it from me, however, to tell anyone not to adopt a nice minhag that, like those apple slices dripping with honey, overflows with symbolism. From dipping our fingers into the havdallah wine to our weekly Shabbos dish of scallions in olive oil from the Chanukah menorah – both omens for a good livelihood – we Ellers are more than happy to embrace new ideas laden with positive themes. That is why I have devised a new and intriguing way to keep the food flowing at a fairly reasonable pace.
Call me crazy, but this Rosh Hashanah will be the third year that I will be using an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of all of our simanim, which now include carrots, spinach, black-eyed peas, fish, fish head, figs, dates, sesame seeds, pomegranate, zucchini, carrots and beets, in addition to the apples and honey. While a spreadsheet might sound like overkill, you have to appreciate the realities in our house. In addition to our family having, Baruch Hashem, grown considerably over the years, we also do our best to accommodate likes and dislikes as well as more than a few food allergies. Aside from keeping track of who wants actual fish and who is having gummy fish (because I can’t blame anyone who gets grossed out by eating any part of a disembodied head staring up at you from the table), I also have to remember which child is allergic to which fruit in its either raw or cooked state, leaving us with both apples and applesauce eaten with honey, as well as a bottle of Benadryl somewhere nearby, just in case.
If you multiply all of the above food items by the number of people at the table, there are an awful lot of possible permutations, making spreadsheeting the entire process a pretty logical approach if you ask me (though I do appreciate that there are those who find the concept to be just a tad on the compulsive side). The other benefit of having everyone put his or her simanim orders before Rosh Hashanah on my handy dandy spreadsheet? Being able to plate everything in advance so that by the time the guys come home from shul, all of the plates with the simanim are ready to be handed out. Oh, and another thing about those plates – I try to go with simple gold or silver paper plates and then use a metallic paint marker to label them with everyone’s names, which makes figuring out who gets what a real breeze.
Over the years I have learned to be creative. I can tell you that for a good ten years I tried finding ways to cook carrots so that my kids would eat them. I have made tzimmes, carrots in honey sauce, carrots in a brown sugar glaze, etc., and not one of my children was willing to even taste those orange beauties (and I should point out that we haven’t been dealing with toddlers in a very, very long time in our house). Finally, I gave up and decided to go another route: mini carrot muffins. There is no cheating here with baby food carrots; I grate those carrots by hand so you can see those nice little flecks of carroty goodness and, by the time we make Havdallah, there is not a single one left. I use the same approach for spinach, making my regular spinach kugel recipe in a mini muffin pan and, instead of messy little gobs of creamed spinach, my old standby, we have adorable little kugelettes that everyone loves.
Not all of my experiments have met with success. Since my husband is the only one in the house who will even taste beets, one Rosh Hashanah I tried to mix things up by buying a bag of red, white and blue Terra chips. I picked out all the red ones – beets chips disguised as snack food – but they still tasted like beets and were not a big hit. The black-eyed pea patties that I tried one year were also not a home run – those of us who liked black eyes peas ate them and everyone else just said the Yehi ratzon while politely declining the peas.
What am I thinking about for this year? Saving myself the effort of making spinach kugel and just buying a bag of fresh spinach. And maybe getting tiny buns and resurrecting my black-eye pea patties, but this time calling them sliders and hoping they sound intriguing. Just for fun, I Googled “beet cake” and got quite a few hits for things like Martha Stewart’s chocolate beet cake and a red velvet beet cake recipe that claimed that beets make the cake “achingly moist, almost molten.” Hmmm…. molten chocolate beet cake…you think I can get my crew to eat that? I guess there is only one way to find out…