Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Rights and Freedoms

A recent post on Amar’s World was directed at gay teens, with the message that there is hope and they are not alone. A very inspirational and needed message and, in that post, Amar provided a link to a site called "Give a Damn". This site represents a network of people, gay and straight, dedicated to equality and gay rights. For anyone who feels alone or that no one cares, this site is an excellent source of hope and inspiration. I however had a different reaction to the site. What it showed me was that, even though there are many people who are caring and accepting, there is still far more hatred out there than I realized. Of course I know there are many homophobes out there and we still have to deal with hatred in many ways. I suppose what really surprised me was how little legal protection there is in the United States. The cases of workplace discrimination were especially jarring. Apparently in more than half the US states, discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation is still perfectly legal. That means you can be refused a job, or even fired, just for being gay.

I am very lucky to live in Canada. Here we have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which offers a very broad spectrum of legal protections against discrimination of almost any kind, including race, religion, language, colour, age, sex and mental or physical disability. While not explicitly stated in the original version, charter rights are understood to apply to any group with traits that cannot be changed or should not be reasonably expected to change to get equal rights (such as religion). Sexual orientation is understood to be included in these rights and this has been confirmed by case law since at least 1998. It has the legal force similar to the Bill of Rights in the US - any laws have to respect the charter, otherwise they are ruled unconstitutional. It is because of the charter, at least in part, that same-sex marriage is legal here. Since many rights are reserved for married couples, the supreme court ruled that not allowing civil marriages to a couple based on sexual orientation was a violation of the charter and essentially compelled the government to do something to remedy the situation - the easiest way being to legalize gay marriage. Another important effect of the charter is that it prevents employment discrimination. If an employer does fire you for being gay, you can sue them and it is quite likely that you will win. The charter has been in effect since 1982, with the equality provisions taking force two years later, so I have no knowledge of how things were before these protections were available. This is why I was shocked by the lack of protection in the USA. It is doubly difficult because in many of the states that lack protection, there is also a deep current of hatred and bigotry that runs through the population. I am horrified at the large number of stories of parents who reject their children who come out. I understand that it may be a disappointment to you, maybe even a shock, but your child is the same person he/she always was. And NO, your child did NOT choose this, it just is. That might be the real danger of believing homosexuality to be a choice; parents may see their kid being gay as disrespect.

I also learned that the toughest time to be gay seems to be in high school. I certainly understand why and I know that, even though things are more tolerant here in Canada, I don’t believe it would make it easier for a gay student, as high school students are cruel pretty much anywhere. The only difference is that I would hope the school authorities are more likely to respond appropriately when homophobic bullying is brought to their attention. Personally I was not out during high school, and was not even aware of my orientation in a conscious way. High school was still a difficult time for me, since I was not very social and a bit of an outcast. I can only imagine how much worse it would have been to be openly gay as well. I am actually glad that I waited until an older age to come out. I had more confidence and was in a situation where I was more able to control who knows about it. In school, if somebody knows, then everyone knows. At this stage, very few people in my real life know - apart from my parents - and have decided that I will only come out if the topic is broached. Otherwise I don’t think my sexual orientation matters all that much in my relationships with family and friends.

I do not necessarily gear my blog toward a youth audience so I’m not sure if I have any young gay readers, but if I do, I would like to add my voice to the several already voiced and tell you that you are not alone. There are plenty of people out there that do care and will support you. It can really help to talk to someone. Ideally that someone could be your parents; if you don’t feel comfortable telling them just yet, try someone else you trust. It can be a friend, a relative, a teacher or counsellor at school - anyone that you feel comfortable with. I am publishing a few links here - others can be found on the sidebar at Amar’s World.

Give a Damn:
ChadzBoyz: - a Canadian-based support site
PFLAG Canada: - Parents For Lesbians And Gays

For more information on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, visit: - The Official legal document - virtual tour of the charter, including explanations and case law

In closing: just yesterday I purchased a book I first heard about over a month ago about being gay and Jewish. I have only started reading it and am already blown away. I will be writing more about this once I have finished reading it, but for now I will simply mention the name, author and that I would highly recommend this book to any of my readers.

Mourning and Celebration: Jewish, Orthodox and Gay Past and Present. By K. David Brody
visit the author’s website at:


To end this post on a brighter note, I found another link that has nothing to do with today’s topic. It is highly entertaining, especially for writers and those who appreciate writing. Visit and enjoy!

How to Write Good:

Friday, September 24, 2010

My Best Fried Chicken - So Far

I love fried chicken, but I have to say, the colonel just doesn’t cut it. If I’m going to have fried chicken I have to make it myself. This means I don’t make it a lot, because it takes a lot of time and effort to do it right. That’s probably a good thing, since fried chicken is not the healthiest food around. I usually eat it during the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana and Hanukkah. Rosh Hashana because I often eat it with honey, a traditional food for the holiday and Hanukkah because at that time it is traditional to eat foods cooked in oil.

This recipe has been developed over several years and is still being modified. The most recent addition was a couple weeks ago, the last time I made it. One of the most famous aspects of KFC chicken is the secret recipe behind its seasonings. Likewise, my recipe will not be quite as detailed as some others. For one thing, I don’t KNOW the exact recipe. I change things around quite a bit and never measure spices. What I will tell you is all the ingredients, just not the exact proportions. That way, you still have enough information to make a great fried chicken and, since you will have to choose your own proportions of certain things, you can claim it as your secret mix! I swear, I won’t mind! In any event, this recipe is more about technique than ingredients, so I will walk you through the process.

Fried Chicken (makes 10 pieces)

1 whole chicken - under 2 kilos - small is better (I try to find birds about 1.6 kilos)
½ litre Buttermilk

Spice Blend 1
salt & pepper
fresh chopped garlic
smoked paprika

peanut oil (at least 1 full bottle)
matzoh meal

Spice Blend 2
salt & pepper
smoked paprika
granulated garlic

large cast iron skillet
deep fry thermometer
baking sheet or oven safe dish lined with paper towels
3 large plates/dishes, 1 bowl

Step one is preparing and marinating the chicken. I have already lectured once before on the quality of the chicken you buy. For fried chicken I prefer kosher chickens, because the soaking used in the koshering process allows salt to seep into the flesh, making the birds more flavourful. To disassemble my chicken, I take the legs off first, then split them into thighs and drumsticks. Then I cut down each side of the backbone to remove the back, leaving the whole breast. Using a cleaver, I chop through the keel bone (the big thick bone running down the centre of the breast), then split each side of the breast in two approximately equal chunks. Then I remove the wings (I have cooked these still attached to the top piece of breast before, but this way makes for more even cooking). This is a total of 10 pieces. Sprinkle the first set of spices on the chicken and rub them in. Then pour over enough buttermilk to cover, and leave the chicken in the fridge to marinate for at least 4 hours (overnight is better).

You may have noticed one unfamiliar ingredient on the above list - matzoh meal. Matzoh is Jewish unleavened bread, similar to a cracker. You can buy matzoh meal in the grocery stores if your area has even a small Jewish population, but I prefer to make it myself. This is because matzos are mostly eaten during Passover, one week of the year, resulting in half-empty boxes of matzos on a top shelf gradually getting stale. Simply take several sheets of matzoh, put them in a food processor, and process for about 2 minutes, or until almost the consistency of flour. There should still be some small pieces mixed in with the finely ground parts. This is good for texture.

When you are almost ready to start frying, set up your kitchen for deep frying. Most people try to dissuade home cooks from frying in anything but a home electric deep fryer. Usually they are the best tools for frying, but not this time. For one thing, frying chicken requires more width than a home deep fryer can provide. Second, as the chicken does not have to be fully submerged in oil, you can use less oil if you cook in a skillet. Finally, frying chicken releases more debris into the oil than other frying. This means your deep fryer will be a nightmare to clean afterwards. For fried chicken, I recommend a large wide cast iron skillet. I would not recommend a lightweight pot for this. The only difficulty with the skillet is regulating the frying temperature, very important for this recipe. Without the automatic temperature control of a home deep fryer, you will need a deep fry thermometer. Add approximately 2 inches of oil into the skillet and heat it on medium to medium-high heat, until you reach a temperature of 325-330 degrees F and preheat the oven to no higher than 200 degrees. If it can be set lower, like 150, even better. Meanwhile, assemble your breading station. Set out 3 large plates and 1 bowl. Fill the first plate with flour and add some of the second set of seasonings. In the bowl, crack 2-3 eggs, add brandy and beat lightly. Fill the second plate with a mix of flour and the matzoh meal, and add more of the seasoning mix. This mix should be more heavily seasoned than the first. Have the third plate ready to hold the breaded pieces of chicken. Line a baking sheet or oven safe dish with paper towels for holding the cooked chicken in the warm oven (don’t worry - the oven will not be hot enough to create a fire hazard).

When you are almost ready to fry, take the chicken pieces out of the buttermilk and dry them carefully. Only bread a maximum of three large or four small pieces at a time, since the fryer will not take more than that at one time. Coat the chicken in the flour, then dip in the egg mixture, then coat in the matzoh meal - flour blend and place on the final plate to wait for the fryer to be ready. When the oil reaches 330 degrees, carefully drop the chicken into the oil. The temperature will drop fairly quickly at this point. After it drops, it will begin to rise, but not to the original temperature. You are aiming for a steady temperature of 300 degrees. Fry 10 minutes per side, turning only once. If you are unsure about doneness use a meat thermometer to check (155 degrees F in the breast, 170 degrees F in the dark meat - I am undershooting because I don’t want them to overcook in the oven).

When done, drain on paper towels and keep warm in the oven while frying the next batch. I can promise you the kitchen will get messy. Bread the next batch of chicken while the previous batch is cooking on the second side (you still have 10 minutes). Just watch your hands often. Fried chicken is very good with a honey-based dipping sauce. I like to keep it simple. Warmed liquid honey alone is quite good, but sometimes I will infuse it with an herb or a spice. Thyme is a good choice.

As a side dish, I usually make mashed potatoes. Since buttermilk is usually available in 1 litre cartons, you will probably have some left over after marinating the chicken. Use this in place of milk in the potatoes. I simply boil or steam potatoes, either skin on or skin off, until tender. Then I drain and add a fairly large amount of butter and mash it into the potatoes. Then I add milk or buttermilk, salt, pepper and other seasonings. Nutmeg is a very good spice to add. It is best to heat the milk before adding it, but I have skipped this step before and still got a good product.

A final note: Most of my recipes make very good leftovers. Fried chicken does not work so well. Once the chicken is cooled down, reheating it results in a dramatic reduction in quality. The best results are probably to reheat in the oven, but the crust will not cling to the meat the way it should have when the chicken was freshly made. Also, the breast meat tends to dry out a great deal.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Can't We All Just Get Along?

This post is not quite what I intended. It rambles a little and goes in a few different directions. It is in part a window into how my mind works at times and a testament to how tired I am right now. I have become much busier at work and had my work schedule completely changed. Until I get accustomed to my new schedule, I don’t know when or how often I will be posting, but I will find a way that works for me. I am enjoying this too much to stop now. But anyway, the topic of the post is interfaith and intercultural understanding,

We go back once again to my trip to Washington D.C. I don’t want to go into too many details, but one thing that made the trip very interesting was the wedding itself. The groom (my relative) was Caucasian and Jewish, the bride was Korean and Catholic, so there was a mix both in ethnicity and religion. Another interesting point was that the couple had been together and serious for almost a decade before finally marrying. I found the wedding to be very enjoyable and an enlightening experience. The ceremony took place in a Catholic church, making this the first time I have ever attended a service of any kind in a Catholic church. It was officiated both by the priest and a rabbi as well. While the service was mostly based on Catholic practices, many of the Jewish wedding traditions were added and explained by the rabbi. Also, the homily offered by the priest was seemingly tempered to be accessible to the many of us there who were not Catholic. Later, as part of the reception, they had a variation on a traditional Korean Paebaek ceremony, an ancient Korean wedding ceremony where the bride is introduced to the groom’s family. It ended up being rather amusing, since the bride was Korean and the groom’s family was not. Most of our family weren’t really sure how this worked, but the bride’s family was very good-natured (also I think many of them were not fully familiar with this old custom).

The point of this story is that the cultural mix actually made for a very memorable and enjoyable wedding and everyone had a fantastic time. It made me wonder why they waited so long. While I do not know that much about the real reason, I assume they were worried about the reaction to a mixed marriage from either or both sides of the family. Turns out there was nothing to worry about (or did the extra time give some people time to accept the union a little more?) And in a more general sense, why do we not make more effort to understand and interact with people of other cultures, faiths, or other differences? I understand that most people are more comfortable initially interacting with people of a similar background to their own, but with only a little effort, interactions with different people can be just as comfortable and better for society as a whole.

In the case of religion, many people have very deep affiliations with their faith, which often specifically discourages mixing with people of other religions, unless you are trying to convert them. This is one aspect of religion I deeply dislike. There was a time when Jewish families would disown a child who married a non-Jew or even would consider the child “dead to them”. I am certain this took place in other religious communities as well. This fear of other religions leads to ignorance of others, which generates hatred. At one time in the deep south, people commonly thought that Jews had horns. Really. This came from many religious leaders literally demonizing Jews and, since very few Jewish people lived there, many people’s only information about this group of people came from the church. If Jews are tools of the devil, they must look like the devil, horns and all. This is the direction we can go if we do not develop an understanding. While this belief is now dead (at least I would hope no one still believes this absurdity), there are many cases in modern times of fear built upon ignorance.

In the United States and, I would say Canada as well, many Caucasians have a very real fear of people of a different skin colour, especially black people. I do see how this can happen, and I must admit that I have, on occasion felt uncomfortable when around a group of black people. I know there is no reason for this and is merely due to my lack of understanding and interaction. Remember though, that saying the reaction is understandable does not mean it is acceptable. I just hope that, with a little more contact and understanding about each other, we can start to hate a little less and become more civilised people.

Which brings me to the hot button issue of the moment, the current anti-Muslim hysteria that has been raging in the US for almost a decade now. The racism and distrust certainly existed earlier, but the events of September 11, 2001 really pushed the nastiness to the fore. Even this past weekend, as we passed the 9th anniversary of the terrorist attack, the biggest news story is about some lunatic who calls himself a preacher wanting to “commemorate” the attacks by burning copies of the Qu’ran, claiming Islam is “of the devil”. One of his particular problems is supposedly the mosque planned near ground zero. I will not get into the stupidity of the protest surrounding this issue, other than to say it is a prime example of ugly attitudes that come from complete ignorance. Most of the “information” surrounding this story was supplied by Fox News and similar thinking right-wing commentators who just repeat that this is “a slap in the face” until people start believing it. I find it particularly distressing that part of the purpose of the establishment is an education center that would be open to the public. That would actually be a good thing and might have the potential to increase understanding and reduce hostility. While the Qu’ran burning did not actually take place, there were demonstrations by other hotheads on September 11.

Honestly, how hard is it to simply keep an open mind? And even if you can’t, what about the Golden Rule, to which I referred a few posts back? Treating others as we would like to be treated does not only apply to people who look and think exactly like you. If it did, it would be a rather meaningless maxim, would it not? The whole point is that, while it may not be the easiest or the most innate reaction, it is the right thing to do. Further, it will be beneficial in the long run, for when you are good and civil to others, they tend to be good and civil in return. If we take this as our starting point, then we can emerge from our comfort zones a little more, by actually learning a little something about others. Last month, I learned something of Korean customs and attended a Catholic church service. At the same time, other people attending the wedding learning something of Jewish wedding traditions. The world didn’t come to an end, and everyone had a great time. I realize I am being more critical than usual, but I think too many of us are letting intolerance take hold and everyone, even those who try to always be understanding, could use a smack upside the head every once and awhile, myself included. Despite all the good feelings at the wedding, there was still not a large amount of interaction between the two wedding parties. I realize this probably happens at weddings of same race/religion as well, since the guests will obviously prefer to spend time with their pre-existing relatives over people they likely don’t know well, if at all. Still, I wonder if the racial difference had something to do with this divide.

I fully understand that we will not end prejudice and racism by telling everyone it’s wrong and we shouldn’t do it. Caution and fear of others is ingrained and I’m sure it will never go away. As the Jewish new year begins, I know I will try a little harder to be more open to intercultural communication. For everyone else, as we remember the events of September 11, do not let the lessons of the event be forgotten. It was hatred of others that inspired the terrorists; if you respond with hatred towards Muslims this does not solve anything. Not only are you stooping to the level of the terrorists, it fuels the fire of hatred on the other side, increasing the risk of escalation.

A final note: This post was written over about two weeks. During this time I have read some thought provoking pieces on other blogs and followed the news leading up to the 9/11 commemoration. From what I remember, the original intent of this post was not the same as it is now. I could have just shelved the piece until a later date, but after reading what else has been written I felt I should publish my thoughts on the issue. After all, one of the great things about having a blog is that I can always write and publish that nice uplifting piece I originally wanted some other time, and I will still have my little piece of cyberspace waiting for it.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Shana Tovah!

Today is Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. I have been thinking a great deal about religious issues lately. The next ten days are the Days of Awe, the holiest days in the Jewish year, leading up to Yom Kippur, the most important day in the Jewish year. I have some special posts coming up (if I can get them the way I want them). Today’s post is about Rosh Hashana and will be somewhat shorter.

I’m sure many of you do not know what Rosh Hashana is about. In some ways, it is similar to any other New Year observance: we make resolutions as to how we will conduct ourselves in the year to come and review what we have done in the year just ended. And of course we celebrate as well, but perhaps not as raucously as on December 31. I have always understood Rosh Hashana as having many parallels to the beginning of the school year. This was an easy leap to make, since Rosh Hashana falls somewhere in the month of September, when most schools resume after summer break and everyone advances to the next grade (unless you failed - in that case, sorry). Jewish tradition on Rosh Hashana tells of the Book of Life, which can be thought of as the records kept by God. On Rosh Hashana our deeds of the past year are recorded and is a form of annual judgement. A frequently used greeting on Rosh Hashana is “L’shana tovah tikatevu” which translates to something like “may you be written down for a good year” (this may not be well translated - my source is not the best). So just as in each school year you are judged before you go on to the next grade, God is said to judge each of us before we continue on to the next year.

When I started school each September, I was encouraged to make the coming year one of improvement, where I would abandon the bad habits of the last year and adopt good new ones. Unfortunately, most times, these efforts were about as successful as most people’s New Year’s resolutions. The major difference between the new school year and Rosh Hashana, is that the “resolutions” are normally in relation to spiritual matters. However it is also common in the Jewish tradition to also reflect upon interpersonal relations, in addition to one’s relationship with God. This is because how we interact with other people is in fact an interaction with God (since we are created in God’s image). In the coming weeks, I will be expanding on the themes of how we interact with others in a couple different ways.

The greeting I mentioned earlier, while used frequently, is more commonly shortened to “shana tovah” which means simply “good year” and this is probably the most common Rosh Hashana greeting. Here’s to a sweet new year and Shana Tovah to all.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Mussels - Easy and Impressive

Recently an online friend wrote a post saying he wanted to learn more about cooking for himself, but was intimidated. I thought that some of my recipes should be simple ones for people that are intimidated by cooking. This is difficult for me, because I want everything I make to be the best it possibly can be, with no shortcuts or compromises. I am also not about to post and endorse a recipe that I do not prepare for myself. I believe the recipe that follows satisfy both the need for simplicity and excellence.

For anyone who is uncomfortable in the kitchen yet still wants to prepare a fine meal, I strongly recommend cooking with mussels. They are easy and quick to prepare, do not need a lot of additional ingredients to taste great, and are inexpensive to boot. They will also impress the hell out of anyone you are cooking for. There are so many ways mussels can be prepared but what follows is the simplest method and one of my favourites. The recipe was adapted from the Les Halles Cookbook by Anthony Bourdain, but changed substantially. This book contains several different recipes for cooking mussels.

Moules Marinieres
4 lbs cultivated mussels
3 tblsp butter
2 red peppers, cut in strips
3 french shallots, sliced
2 cloves garlic, sliced thin (optional)
½ cup white wine

That is really all you need. First, the mussels.

While they do need cleaning, it is not difficult. Most mussels are not harvested from the wild, but are cultivated on farms. This means they arrive at the store very clean. Simply wash them with fresh water and check for any with broken shells or open shells. Throw away any broken shelled mussels and firmly tap any open mussels. If the mussels do not close right away, throw them out.

Once that is done, cut the shallots, peppers and garlic if using. The recipe is prepared so fast, everything needs to be ready to go before you start cooking.

Heat butter on medium-high heat in a stockpot large enough to contain all the mussels. When the butter foams up, add all the vegetables and cook until the shallots are softened.

Then add the wine and the mussels. Cover the pot and raise the heat to high. Cook for five minutes. Many chefs advise you to shake the pot during the cooking. I do this, but I’m not sure if you really have to. After five minutes, uncover the pot. If all the mussels are open, they are done.

You can serve this as fancy or as simple as you wish. I personally like to eat them straight out of the cooking pot. If you want to be somewhat more civilised, pour everything into a big serving bowl and dig in. You can also serve in individual bowls. Just be sure everyone gets mussels, vegetables and liquid. The only other thing you need is a good loaf of crusty bread.

Variations: Too many to mention. Curry powder is a nice addition, you could add cream. Other possibilities include adding more or different vegetables or changing the liquid. Just don’t use anything with too much salt, because the mussel broth provides its own salt. The basic rule is to start with cooking the vegetables, then add liquid and any spices, then the mussels. Chopped parsley is a frequent addition - that would be added at the very end, after cooking.