When my four kids – now all out of high school – were younger and in their youth group days, The Wife and I were always amazed at the degree to which so many of their activities revolved around fire. And around food.
Especially around fire and food.
They were all in Bnei Akiva, and were constantly going out late at night to one activity or another. When parental consent was still necessary, we readily gave it, thinking those Bnei Akiva activities wholesome, Zionist and wonderful, just wonderful.
We conjured up images of our offspring engaged in creative activities that would instill in them the religious youth group’s dual values of Torah v’Avoda (Torah and work). We imagined them singing Naomi Shemer songs under the stars, near a grove of eucalyptus trees. We thought they would be learning valuable lessons about Judaism and Zionist thought, about Israel and mutual responsibility.
What they really learned was how to make a fire. And how to barbecue.
And boy, did they learn how to barbecue.
Not like we used to do in Denver – on a George Foreman propane grill, with grates and heat plates and covers and cooking grids – but really barbecue, like the cavemen did.
I thought they were learning about Herzl and Rav Kook, when they were really just learning how to cook – on the fire, in the fire, under the fire. Literally.
On top of the fire they made hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks and chicken cutlets. In the fire – in a cast-iron pot thrown directly onto the red-hot coals – they made poyka: chicken smothered with beer, wine, water, Coke and any other liquid available.
And under the fire they made matfuna, a Beduin dish I never heard of until one of my sons came home after midnight one night and raided the pantry in a noisy search for potatoes and onions.
“What’s that for?” I asked, awakened by the noise of ruffling through our vegetable bin.
“Matfuna,” my son answered.
“Who is Matt Funa?” I replied. “And why does he need all our vegetables?” Only then did the lad explain the art of digging a hole, wrapping a chicken filled with onions, potatoes and carrots in aluminum foil, placing it in the hole, covering it with charcoal, and cooking the concoction for a couple of hours.
The children would come home reeking of smoke, every piece of their clothing – from the kippot on their heads to the sandals on their feet – dumped on the porch to air out before being allowed into the washing machine.
And even when their Bnei Akiva days ended, the offspring’s obsession with fire and cooking continued to burn. Our annoying where-are-you-off-to parental questions still frequently elicit one word responses such as “mangal” (barbecue), “poyka,” or “matfuna.”
For years I failed to understand this fire fascination, or what it was good for.
Until last month, during Hol Hamoed Succot, when the family went on a short getaway to a kibbutz guest house.
There, with my own eyes, I witnessed the value of all that accumulated fire-making knowledge, as well as the culinary skills the children developed from years and years of Bnei Akiva cookouts.
I watched open-mouthed as my three sons – one after the army, two just prior to going in – attacked the barbecue as if it were a military operation.
One kid hunted for wood, another lit the fire and fanned it furiously, and the third moved some of the coals to another pit better suited for baking pitot. Me, I sat there awestruck that sons of mine – one of them the first Keinon in 2,000 years with a license to drive a tractor – were able to start a fire without using lighter fluid.
And then they tackled the food preparation.
Meatballs were lightly spiced with parsley and coriander, the steaks were salt-and-peppered to perfection, corn on the cob was placed spit-like on the fire after being dipped in hot chili sauce. All the while my daughter made her own dough, liberally spiced with garlic, for pitot to be made on a taboon placed in that other pit better suited for baking pitot.
I looked at the scene, scratched my head and thought, “Where the hell did all this come from?”
Not from the male side of my family, I can assure you.
My father, a wonderful man, is not among the world’s top chefs. It was different back then, he tells me every time I ask how he has made it through life without knowing how to make an omelet.
Simple, he answers, he never had to.
Back in the 1950s, when my father first got married, the women did all the cooking. That’s just the way it was: moms cooked and cleaned; dads shoveled the snow and checked the car’s oil.
“Your first mistake was when you let your wife know you could cook,” he told me in earnest soon after I got married.
But let on I did, because – after all – The Wife and I have one of those honest marriages, and being able to cook is something tough to hide. So over the years my children have seen me in the kitchen, usually on Fridays getting ready for Shabbat, making a cholent or a roast or some Hungarian potatoes.
But they never, ever, saw me cook with the joy and gusto and panache with which they take to the skittle. My oldest son makes his own s’hug, and the youngest prides himself on preparing pasta in creamy wine sauce with Portobello mushrooms.
“What do you eat when we are not here?” my oldest asked, as I ate a stir-fried dish he whipped up for lunch.
“Peanut butter and jelly,” I mumbled.
“No wonder you like it when we come home,” he replied.
And he had a point. My kids like to eat, and don’t mind cooking. So when they come home, and the kitchen cupboards are full of supplies, they go to town. And I benefit.
This all makes me feel a bit guilty. It seems kind of backward. Here they are – the children – at home for a couple days or for a few hours, and instead of me making their meals, they’re making mine.
But I quickly overcome that guilt: they might be doing the cooking, but I’m still the one paying for the provisions.
And, besides, I’m also the one who paid their Bnei Akiva dues for all those years.
A collection of the writer’s “Out There” columns
, French Fries in Pita, is now available at www.herbkeinon.com and www.amazon.com.