By Al Shams | Business Sense
It’s hard to believe six years have passed since my sister Arleen was murdered on the first day of Rosh Hashanah at the hands of an indigent person she was trying to help.
While going through some old records, I found this article Arleen wrote in 1965 for The Southern Israelite. It depicts her life in Pensacola, Fla., in the 1950s.
My development began in a kosher Sephardic home. My family enjoyed the Middle Eastern cuisine that my mother cooked so well. It seemed that the mothers in my parents’ families were each better cooks than the next.
My father owned a grocery store and sold nonkosher meats, which no one in the family ever ate. My father used to enjoy occasionally complaining about the poor quality and high prices of kosher meat in Pensacola. No one ever took his complaints seriously. Even when we ate lunch at the store, mother brought kosher food from home.
My Syrian background was different from the other children I went to school with. Before entering the first grade, my mother informed me I was kosher and would always have to bring lunch in a bag. I grew up with separate dishes for milk and meat as well as separate silverware. This did not seem different to me.
At lunchtime, I first noticed that the other schoolchildren always kept their rice, vegetables and meat separate. At home we mixed everything together with a topping of sauce. The schoolchildren ate tiny portions of rice. We ate almost every meal beginning with a large bed of rice. I had to watch many times before concluding that I was different from most other children. The children at school ate their rice with a fork, while at home we ate the mixture containing rice with a tablespoon to accommodate the gravies.
In grammar school, I realized my family was unlike most families because we never ate pork products. One day in the third grade I noticed the rice at school never contained noodles. Mother’s rice always was made fluffy with browned noodles like the present-day Rice-A-Roni. At first I thought the cook had forgotten the noodles.
During Passover the normal sandwiches I took to school were not allowed because they contained bread. I had to take sandwiches using matzos. Only jams did not crumble with matzos.
Each day I sat down to eat with a different group of students. Each day someone asked me what I was eating. I usually said, “These are crackers which I like.” This ended the explanation. If I had fully explained myself, I might never have had time to eat during lunch break.
When I was about 15 or 16, my father (through business contacts) secured for me a part-time job on weekends selling pork sausage and nonkosher wieners. The job entailed cutting up small samples, cooking them and giving the samples to customers to sell the products.
The job paid well, and I enjoyed talking to customers. By this time, I was well trained in handling customers from my father’s store. I was the best saleslady the company had ever had.
In time I remembered the comments of customers about the meat. I learned to repeat their comments to other new customers. Once in a while a customer would say, “Why don’t you eat some?” I would reply, “I have been eating all day.” That seemed to satisfy them.
One day the company decided to send me to a nearby town. I was too young to drive, so they hired a man to chauffeur me. At lunchtime, without asking me, the gentleman came back with a box of nonkosher fried chicken. The man was so proud of himself. I said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t like chicken.”
I could not tell him I was kosher and lose the job. After this incident they may have figured out I was kosher anyway. I don’t remember working after that incident. It was fun. Thank goodness the rabbi never saw me.
While in college I decided to get a degree as a home economics teacher, and it was no longer possible for me to keep the kosher dietary laws. I only slowly learned to try nonkosher products. The coursework was challenging and interesting. The problems came in my senior year.
I had to pass two programs to get my degree. One was to complete the home management house, a two-story house occupied with about 10 senior home economic students each taking turns with a different job each week.
When I was being interviewed by the director, Miss C., I told her gently that I might have some difficulty cooking Southern food because of my kosher Middle Eastern background. She didn’t want to understand and reprimanded me. The tears flowed down my face in puddles. However, I was not about to give up.
For breakfast, the cook of the week awakened at 5:30 to prepare a full breakfast for all. The meal had to be cooked, eaten and cleaned up in time for our 8 a.m. class. As a further challenge, when I was cook, I had a class that did not let out until 11 a.m. The food for lunch had to be on the table by noon. That necessitated running across a football field to arrive in time. I am not sure whether I ran faster than the football players because I never had time to look back.
One day I planned vegetable soup for the menu. I had some leftover chicken and ham but didn’t know what happened when you mixed the two in a soup. I asked my knowledgeable roommate what to do. She said, “Take all your leftover food out of the refrigerator and mix everything in a pressure cooker.” I did just that and saved the day.
To my great surprise with proper coaching, I also successfully cooked a ham for the school homecoming. All the other students were very experienced cooking Southern cuisine. One student’s father owned a restaurant where she gained much experience.
All the floors and tables within the house had a multitude of layers of polish from each successive class. The dining room table had so much polish that if water fell on it, the water became beads of moisture. The floors and tables were hand-polished by each class every week and sometimes daily.
Miss C. never liked me, but we respected each other, and I passed the home management program with a C, which I was grateful for.
In student teaching, the professor assigned me to teach home economics in a rural school outside Tuscaloosa, Ala. One of the first lessons I instructed the students on concerned homemade biscuits. I think every student knew how to bake biscuits except me. I stayed late the day before my biscuit class to practice. The janitor was surprised to find me there at 4:30 p.m. with flour everywhere.
My real challenge came next: We were to prepare pop-overs (similar to éclairs without the cream filling), which were shaped like muffins. I had never seen or heard of a pop-over, much less knew how to bake one. This time I was not able to practice beforehand.
I told the class, “Students, you and I have reviewed your book on pop-overs. I am sure you will do a good job on this lesson. Good luck with the pop-overs.” That lesson may have taught the students and me best what not to do.
I later learned my supervising teacher evaluated me as more likely to succeed in an urban community rather than a rural community. To my surprise, my first successful teaching assignment was in the rural community of Pace, Fla., outside Pensacola.