The Grapefruit Spoon Makes Life Easier

We had two grapefruit spoons when I was growing up. Stragglers, clearly, from somewhere. They sort of scared me: With their sharp teeth, they were the sharks of the silverware drawer. Since only my parents ate grapefruit, only they used them. My parents had grapefruit spoons because their parents had grapefruit spoons, but those came with more pomp: They were sets of eight, sterling silver, each lying peacefully in its own slot in a felted wooden box. Whereas our serrated, stainless steel duo lived unceremoniously, jumbled among the teaspoons. Every so often I’d accidentally grab one and get a good cheek-graze with my Honey Nut Cheerios.

Once I had my own home, and my own silverware, I forgot all about the citrus spoon, even though I came to love grapefruit. Instead, I painstakingly cut through the membranes with a versatile paring knife, until each wedge was wrested free. Using a grapefruit spoon to eat a grapefruit seemed akin to using an umbrella in a drizzle. A little ridiculous. Dainty. I was tougher than that. More practical, too.

Like fine china, specialized silverware seemed so antiquated. One-off utensils of yore. So Emily Gilmore-esque effete. So superfluous. Just more stuff in a drawer — in a world! — already cluttered. My kitchen had what it, and I, needed, and nothing more.

Until I met my mother-in-law, the queen of obscure, single-use culinary gifts of the inexpensive, unrefined kind: plastic-square pan scrapersstrawberry de-stemmersapple slicers — she’s sent them all from across the country, with love. It was the pasta scooper that sold me. Serving spaghetti had always been more of an unruly spoon-fork-lift affair for me — and now here I was! Filling bowls like a boss, not a strand astray. It began to dawn on me: By dismissing such humble, hyper-specific inventions, I was actually making my kitchen more complicated.

But while the pasta scooper made me a single-use convert, there’s no Grandma Ida Kitchen Item I’ve loved more than the peanut butter knife. With a sturdy, thick, red handle and perfectly curved 7-inch stainless steel blade, the $12.99 utensil gets to the bottom of the jar, “saves your knuckles” from getting gooped (per the website), and spreads flawlessly. Its official name is the PB-Jife, and it has its own rather catchy jingle, or (ahem) jam, written and recorded by PB-Jife founder Landon Christensen. “It’ll change your life,” the lyrics promise.

Or at least change your mornings. As someone who eats peanut butter toast for breakfast five or six days a week, it has changed mine. Especially those mornings when I pull my toast hot out of the toaster (oven, always) only to realize I’ve got a brand-new jar that needs stirring, fast. And efficiently, sans the oily spillage that inevitably comes from a simple butter knife, or what I used to use: a backward-facing soup spoon. (Not a bad option, but it’s no PB-Jife.)

Of course, the PB-Jife is not some priceless family heirloom, some marrow scoop passed down through generations. It’s not a relic of another time. It evokes no nostalgia. Single-use silverware itself, on the other hand, does. Consider the Ortiz anchovy fork. That cute, dollhouse-sized prong that comes affixed to the jar of olive oil-packed filets, to keep your fingers from smelling like anchovies all night. A treat taped to a treat, since 1891.

Occasionally, I’ll keep the Ortiz fork for a stint. To use with the cheaper jars, the lesser jars, that come without a fork of their own. I go through a lot of them. For six years running, I’ve been a jar-carrying member of an Anchovy Supper Club. Every dish must feature the bottom feeder, or its friends. My friend Samantha gussied up our most recent socially distanced backyard meal with a rare form of vintage fish flatware: a sardine fork. The squat, multi-tined symbol of Victorian refinement was used by oh-so-sophisticated people to horizontally support the slick and slender tinned fish. As did we, unpolished people, using it to bestow potato chip after potato chip with one marinated anchovy after another.

A collectible utensil, a single sardine fork can fetch upward of $900 on auction sites. Samantha found hers, etched and elegant, on Etsy for $30. A luxury, yes, but a little one. It left us swooning. Amortized over all our Anchovy Club years to come, we concurred: The fork was a worthwhile investment.

Did we need this wide-mouthed little-fish fork? Of course not. Specialized silverware is never necessary. That’s what makes it special. A simple, affordable, and, yes, superfluous pleasure smaller than a bread box. (Also nice, but non-essential).

The point is: The blissful functions of these forks and spoons and knives far outweigh both their price and the kitchen space they take up. Life is hard; single-use silverware makes it infinitesimally easier. It also makes me realize that maybe my grandparents, with their precious felted boxes, knew best.

One winter, a few years ago, I was reintroduced to the grapefruit spoon, and more specifically to its simple genius and true joys. My friend Lisa showed up to a shared Airbnb bearing breakfast fixings — bagels and cream cheese and coffee beans, and not only organic grapefruits but, being the overachiever that she is, a Ziploc of grapefruit spoons. All the freaking gear involved in packing for a family ski weekend, and this saint of a woman packed grapefruit spoons, too? “You can’t eat grapefruit without a grapefruit spoon,” she said, matter-of-fact.

She was right. The ease! The effortlessness! The neatly scraped rind! All that sweet satisfaction without an ounce of exertion. (And only $5.99 for a set of four at Bed Bath & Beyond.) She accidentally left them behind. They’ve lived happily among my teaspoons ever since, but lately I’ve been thinking they deserve better.

The other day, over a family text thread, I learned that my mother-in-law ate a grapefruit every single night for decades, until her cardiologist told her to stop. She never used a grapefruit spoon, though, she said. What! Why not? I asked. “Why would I?” she responded. “I had a grapefruit knife.”

Rachel Levin is the coauthor of EAT SOMETHING (Chronicle Books, 2020), and STEAMED: A Catharsis Cookbook for Getting Dinner and Your Feelings on the Table, which comes out in May, from Running Press.

The Cut: Can I Interest You in a Dogshare?

Maybe I’m a monster, but all the posts of pandemic puppies have annoyed me. As have the calls from friends that precede them. “I’ve got news!” no longer applies to just engagements and pregnancy but rescue mutts and $4,000 bernedoodles. It’s not that I don’t find all these new dogs adorable — I do. It’s just that with everyone I e-meet, it feels like I’m one step closer to succumbing to my family’s command: that we get a dog, too.

Thirty-one days into quarantine, they ambushed me after the 31st dinner I’d cooked in a row, with a PowerPoint presentation entitled “WHY WE SHOULD GET A DOG,” littered with pictures of irresistible pups and prayer-hand emoji. My sweet little 11-year-old daughter poured her heart and soul into these slides and argued her case like an extra-small RBG, and still: Being the cold-hearted mother I guess I am, I remained unconvinced. And told her so. And made her cry.

I didn’t want a dog pre-COVID, and I don’t want one post-COVID, though I admit I can see the appeal of a dog mid-COVID.

The begging continued. My kids told me I’m “ruining everything.” In the heat of quarantine bliss my husband said he wants a dog so that when we get divorced he has someone who loves him. Around Day 120, I semi-acquiesced: Okay. We can get a dog, I said, on one condition — and one word: DOGSHARE. Part-time. Splitsies. A cuddly King Charles or bark-y beagle, maybe even a giant Newfoundland (please God, anything but a golden retriever) that will shuttle evenly between two loving, likeminded homes, like the child of an amicable divorce. My friend Samantha is onboard. She lives by San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Our urban dog would have a beach house!

It’s an idea I’d been chewing on for a while. It sounds dreamy. All that puppy love and affection for half the price. The pros appear plenty. Week on, week off. No $35/hour dogsitters. No pleading with friends to pleaaase watch Wobbles. We could hike any trail! Loll on any beach! Rent any Airbnb. Fly back east to visit family without spending money to board a dog and a plane. The cons seemed nonexistent, until I started talking about it. “Once you have a dog, you’re not going to want to share her,” warned Nina, snuggling her new Cockapoo the other night on Zoom. “It won’t know its true owners,” counseled Maddy. “The dog will get confused.” Bullshit! (Which, I declared, I don’t want to pick up either.)

I rang a professional dog person. “Am I being selfish?” I asked Clive Wynne, a behavioral scientist, founding director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, and author of the 2019 book Dog Is Love. “Oh, I don’t think so,” he assured. “Dogs experience strong emotional connections, but they also come into and out of relationships easily.I see no reason at all that a dog couldn’t find it tremendously satisfying. I bet the dog would be thrilled!”

In his three-decade career, Dr. Wynne has never known anyone to dogshare, he said, but it sounds like a decent antidote to the modern ill of dog loneliness. In normal, non-quarantined times, “We bring dogs into our busy lives, then treat them like Wii consoles,” he said. “Alexa doesn’t get depressed if you don’t speak to her for a week, but a dog does.” A dog shared across two parties, he reasoned, is better than a dog too often ignored by one. After all, what will become of all the pandemic pups once the pandemic ends (if it ever ends) and their owners get back to their busy lives?

After mulling it over, Cameron Woo, co-founder of long-running magazine The Bark, agreed. “The traditional concept of the nuclear family has been turned upside down … What we consider a traditional dog’s family could, too.”

Woo certainly has a point.Why, in a world where we share cars and houses and clothes, hasn’t this clearly win-win notion of dogsharing caught on?Services like Copuppy and Let’s Share a Dogcropped up several years ago, allowing strangers to enjoy a furry fling for a walk or a weekend, but neither ever really took off. Breakups often lead to embattled co-custody of pets, and the legal contracts that go with it. So why not two families willing to share a Fido — forever — from the get-go?

“It’s not the dogs, it’s the humans,” said Dr. Wynne. Consistency is key for dogs, which calls for agreement among people. How many walks a day? Is the dog allowed on the couch? At the table? Is that $7,000 surgery necessary? Dogsharing wouldn’t work for everybody, he warned.

It works for Heather McIlhany. “It’s the freaking best,” said the D.C.-based marketing executive. She and her ex-boyfriend share two Jack Russell mixes, swapping every week and splitting all expenses. Just because she loves having her dogs half time doesn’t mean she loves them any less, she points out.“A dog shouldn’t be treated like an end table. When I’m with Cora and Crash, we go for long walks. But they also puke on the couch, bark at every falling leaf. If I had them every week, it might feel like a burden.” Sure, she gets “a little pang” watching the dogs run into her ex’s house, nary a look back, and since the pandemic began it’s been lonelier. But then they’re reunited and it feels so good. “I tell everyone they should set their life up this way!”

Not all experts think such a set up affords a good dog life, though. Crossing town every two weeks would be “disruptive” for all but the most resilient dogs, said Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, a veterinary behaviorist at Tufts’ Cummings Medical Center. “You have to think not just how it’s going to be for you — but how it’s going to be for the dog.”

For Lulu, a French bulldog in San Francisco, it’s been fabulous.“She has two families,” said Suma Gona, a psychiatrist. For the last ten years, they’ve split the week with another couple. “I thought it was crazy, but they just fell in love with Lulu. They take her to acupuncture! She has this whole other life!” At 14, it has also been a long life. No doubt due, in part, to all the attention that’s come from their unique arrangement — which will likely expire with Lulu. “The kids want to get another dog, but I don’t know …” said Dr. Gona, considering the full-time commitment. “That would be a lot.”

My fear exactly. Dogs are work! I whined to Dr. Borns-Weil. “Well, I also have a ball python,” she offered. “They like to wrap around your arm and you only have to feed them once a week.” (Albeit “a defrosted medium-size rat.”) I floated the option to my family.

They prefer a dog. “But I’ll take a snake,” said my 8-year-old, “if we don’t have to share it.”

Challah giving sourdough some competition

Sourdough may be the celebrity loaf of #quarantinelife — and it is delicious and deserves all of the love and care and at least half of the amateur photos it’s getting — but it’s not the bread I’m suddenly baking.

Instead, every Friday since San Francisco mandated we shelter in place, my 11-year-old daughter, Hazel, and I have been making challah. Sure, I spent eight weeks every summer at Jewish camp, lost the limbo at my bat mitzvah and was hoisted in a chair at my wedding — I even recently co-authored a Jewish cookbook — but confession: baking challah is not something I often do. Now it’s the only constant of our amorphous week. I’m not religious at all, but there’s something comforting, even moving, about this part of the Shabbat ritual. Perhaps because, in a way, it feels like we’ve all — regardless of religion — been tossed into a secular sort of Shabbat. An endless Shabbat.

The Sabbath, as the more pious call it, is intended to be a day of rest. A time when time seemingly halts and we slow down, ditch our cars, go for walks, cook and eat, and focus not on work but on what ultimately matters: the people we love, the present. As 20th century German philosopher Erich Fromm once wrote of Shabbat: “By not working — that is to say, by not participating in the process of natural and social change — man is free from the chains of nature and from the chains of time, although only for one day a week.” Typically, Shabbat lasts 25 hours. (No, not 24, an hour after sundown on Saturday, and all.) Right now, though, it feels like we’re honoring Shabbat seven days a week, every week. It’s like the Jewish version of “Groundhog Day” (starring Billy Crystal instead of Bill Murray?).

Shabbat, too, comes with rules and restrictions. They are different than those of the coronavirus, but restrictions nonetheless. Both come with family time. (So. Much. Family. Time.) And wine. So much wine.

Even before our collective lockdown, the ancient tradition was trending. In her 2019 book, “24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week,” local filmmaker Tiffany Shlain urged modern families to turn off all devices for 24 hours and take what she calls a “technology Shabbat.” Ashton Kutcher was lighting the Friday-night candles and racking up tens of thousands of likes. My gentile friends in Fairfax were “Shabbat-ing” amongst themselves (and, yes, turning it into a verb). A WASP-y mother of three in Potrero was powering down at the end of the week, bringing her kids together around the table. Millennials were hosting group dinners with OneTable, a social dining platform with a challah hotline and the tagline: How do you Friday? Everyone taking a collective pause on a Friday night over roast chicken (or fried chicken, shumai or shrimp tacos) and calling it what it is: Shabbat.

In COVID-19 times, Shlain has been baking challah every Friday with her daughters — and a hundred or so strangers online (hashtag #zoomchallahbake). OneTable turned its Friday dinners virtual with a new tagline: “Shabbat Alone, Together.” And recently, Wise Sons launched a $110 Shabbat meal kit, including schmaltz-roasted potatoes, candles and a pre-made challah of its own, that’s quickly proven popular.

Pop star Katy Perry, raised an evangelical Christian, told a reporter not long ago: “I wish there was a thing like Shabbat for the whole world.” Well, Katy Perry, now it seems there is.

When this unprecedented, virus-induced reality was foisted upon us, something about it felt vaguely familiar. Like other times in life where it was upended in an instant and rearranged into something unrecognizable. In the beginning, I’d tried to pinpoint it. Sept. 11. The sudden death of my old boyfriend. The slog and fog and existential anxiety of new motherhood. The times when I’d wander the house and streets in sweats, forget where I parked, venture into the world only when I had to, warily. Times when the new normal was unwelcome, wrapped in a bubble that would eventually not so much burst as slowly blow away like a lost balloon, until I could see it only in the distance.

And then, the other day, as I sat in the backyard reading with my son, waiting for the dough’s second rise, I realized there was something else this quarantine reminded me of: Shabbat.

Around Passover, everyone was calling this 21st century pandemic our 11th plague, and — far worse than lice and frogs ever were — indeed it is. But it’s also been 14 weeks and counting, of an endless Shabbat. All the days blend together, but not Fridays. It was a few hours before sundown, and Hazel and I rolled and braided and brushed, like Jews have done, in some form or other, for thousands of years, through persecution and pain and perhaps times harder than this, and yet still: come out OK.

As does our challah. Warm and soft and sweet, made with flour and oil and eggs and honey and, unlike sourdough: yeast. (Which was not easy to find during this pandemic, but I had a connection.) An improbable sign of hope? It gets better each week.

Rachel Levin is the co-author of “Eat Something: A Wise Sons Cookbook for Jews Who Like Food and Food Lovers Who Like Jews” (Chronicle Books).

The Great Schlep: Florida

WHEN MY GRANDMOTHER died in Delray Beach, a few weeks shy of age 97, I was sad, of course. And then, as we ushered the final shiva guests out the door and into the monogrammed golf carts they’d arrived in, I realized a silver lining: A Florida without Grandma Frances, as unfathomable as that was, was a Florida I no longer had to visit.

Schlepping to the Sunshine State to see your grandparents is as much a Jewish tradition as eating Chinese food on Christmas—one highlighted by Sarah Silverman during the 2008 presidential campaign in a YouTube video (aptly titled “The Great Schlep”), in which she urged us to go see our bubbes and zaydes, and convince them to vote for Obama.

East Coast Jews have been making the trip for close to a century now. So religiously upheld is the ritual that the flight routes between New York and Florida have garnered such nicknames as the Hebrew Highway, the Kosher Clipper and the Bagel Run.

Florida and Jews wasn’t always a thing. But after the “No Jews. No Blacks. No Dogs” signs came down in the 1940s and the A/C came on, the “chain migration” of snowbirds began. As seniors set south, they realized they liked palm trees and putting greens better than snow, and decided to stay. At least until spring.

Today, Southern Florida is home to the country’s third largest Jewish population (behind New York and L.A.), with hundreds of communities lining the multilane boulevards with the same lifestyle, if varying levels of luxury, behind every gate.

My Brooklyn-born grandparents, Frances and Samuel Rubin, found their slice of retiree heaven in 1972 at one of the first, the Fountains, in Lake Worth, a series of low-slung, stucco apartments set on three golf courses, with communal swimming pools, a clubhouse and cul-de-sacs boasting exotic-sounding names like D’Este, Trevi, Tivoli.

My sister and I grew up making an annual Bagel Run from Boston during winter break. As a kid, I loved everything about Florida: The sweltering days spent under chlorinated water, timing our handstands; the candy dishes; the clink of the mahjong tiles; all those wizened women and their perfectly painted toes.

Every night, as the sun dipped behind the 13th hole, we’d devour grandma’s “Swedish” meatballs. (“How many bawls do you want?” she’d call from the kitchen). We’d nurse our sunburns, watch “Wheel of Fortune,” then wake up excited to do it all again. If we ever left the Fountains, it was only for the Publix supermarket, where I’d bask in the Arctic chill and beg for Entenmann’s crumb cake.

In my 20s, when I started traveling to truly exotic places, I began to dread the obligatory Florida Trip. So much about the place suddenly made me cringe. The sterility. The homogeny. The canasta scene. And yet, lately, I admit: I’m beginning to get it. For many secular Jews, “Boca” is a bond. My Jewish generation may hate Florida, but we also love to hate Florida. Everyone loves to hate Florida! Political strategists. Larry David. Buzzfeed’s annual “32 Unbelievable Things that Happened in Florida” lists are always a viral hit.

But for us, it’s personal. Our roots run deep. When my Canadian officemate and I first met, in San Francisco, and realized we were both descendants of the Fountains’ D’Este court, we had an instant connection, an immediate understanding of where we came from, of who we were.

I like to think of Florida’s gated Jewish communities as the modern-day equivalent of our ancestors’ Eastern European villages. Maybe the gates themselves were erected not so much to keep others out, but to keep Jews in, as August Wilson might say. Together, in a world where we are otherwise spread thin.

My cousin Emily calls Florida “God’s Waiting Room.” At 44, she’s an aspiring resident. Not me. I prefer skiing to water aerobics, seasonally-driven restaurants to multistation buffets. Still, I admit: There’s a familiar rhythm to the gated community vacation I find comforting. In its Seinfeld-meets-Truman Show way, it’s a place where nothing really happens and nothing really changes. Until, of course, it does.

Last winter, my mother reminded me: I may no longer have to visit my grandmother—but my daughter still has to visit hers.

My parents swear they never saw it coming, but somehow they succumbed to Florida’s generational pull and became snowbirds, too. “This is it,” I informed my mother. “You’re the end of the line. My future grandchildren will never step foot in Florida,” I insisted, as we watched 7-year-old Hazel do her 27th handstand in the pool. My mom and I sat with our legs outstretched, our toes painted the same exact shade.

My Accidental, Alcohol-Drinking Pregnancy Adventure

“What a day…” I said to my new husband, Josh, uncorking a bottle of cab before bed.

On my commute home earlier that evening, my best friend Madeleine had called from Portland, with News, out of nowhere. “I’m pregnant!” she cheered. I was happy for her, if overwhelmed by what it implied for me. The fact that Madeleine was having a baby meant that someday sooner than later, I might have to have one, too.

I hung up and dashed into a Thai restaurant, where my friend Kimmie was waiting—with more News of her own. Meanwhile, my little sister back East was well into her second trimester.

“I can’t believe this is happening already!” I cried to my husband, an aspiring father himself, as I curled into the fetal position on the couch with my goblet of red. “Why is every human I know pregnant?”

A few nights later, he and I went out for Mexican food with Kimmie and her boyfriend to celebrate. The three of us non-pregnant people toasted with tequila shots, followed by ginormous margaritas, while Kimmie clinked her sparkling water with lime and tried not to glower at us.

A month, maybe more, passed. My sister emailed me photos of her bulging belly. Madeleine and Kimmie’s pants grew tighter. I continued to pop my birth control pill every morning.

And my urban professional, semi-hedonistic, happy child-free life in San Francisco carried on. Josh and I went out for our weekly sushi fix, complete with sake and Sapporos and more nigiri than you’d expect a normal hungry couple to consume. I drank a double-shot latte every morning and a glass or two of wine, sometimes three, more nights than not. I ate soft cheese. I ate raw cheese. I ordered a processed turkey sandwich from the deli counter pretty much daily. I skied at 11,000 feet. I lolled in a hot tub or two. Once, home solo on a Friday night, I discovered a leftover joint in the coffee table, lit it, and looped reruns of Sex & the City.

Then a good friend who likes good food was visiting from Manhattan and we went out for what I now jokingly refer to as my Last Supper: a four-hour Michelin-starred meal, which kicked off with Prosecco and ended with port and had at least seven courses and as many wine pairings in between.

The next day my head hurt. But, oddly, my breasts hurt more. I recalled Kimmie complaining about a similar symptom and rang her immediately.

“Maybe you should take a pregnancy test,” she advised.

“Why would I do that? “I said. “I am on the pill!”

But, then I remembered: I am also irregular. So, just to rule out the possibility, I swung by Walgreens and grabbed one of those purples E.P.T boxes I’d always assumed were for other people.And then, home alone in my bathroom, I watched as a fuzzy blue + appeared. Like Juno, I remained unconvinced, and frantically took another test. There it was again: +. WTF.

As soon as Josh walked in the door, I showed him this strange cotton strip of an intrusion. Stunned, and late to meet friends, we tabled it and adjourned to dinner, where I didn’t touch my glass of wine. As if it matters at this point, I thought. My mind did a rapid rewind of the past few months. I had no idea how pregnant I was, if I really was pregnant. But either way, wasn’t the damage already done?

The next day, I demanded an appointment with my doctor. She was on vacation and I was redirected to a white-haired old man I’d never met. A younger woman in a white coat sat by his side with a notepad, apparently a resident, there to learn the ropes. Trying to sound like the intelligent, responsible person that, up until then, I’d thought I was, I spilled my story, in between sobs. The pill… The tequila… The wine… Kind of a lot of wine, sometimes…

I tried to make light of my predicament and put it in perspective. “I mean, aren’t there babies born to crack addicts every day who turn out fine?!” I said smiling weakly, waiting for him to tell me, Yes, yes, of course it’s fine. But instead he just gave me a strange look and said, deadpan, “No, those babies are generally not fine.”

But I didn’t smoke crack! I reminded him, realizing he wasn’t getting my bad joke—or me. “Do you think this baby will be okay? I mean, should I not keep it??” I asked, searching for some sort of affirmation. He said nothing. I looked to the female resident; she remained silent.

I sobered up from my hysteria. “Wait, are you telling me that because I drank alcohol, I should have an abortion?” I asked.

“It’s your decision,” he said flatly. I walked out of the office and into the crowded elevator, wailing.

I felt like one of those hapless 16-year-olds on that TLC show, “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant,” except I was 33 and newly married and fully employed and primed—by societal standards, at least— for motherhood.

Later, at my first ultrasound, I was told I was 13 weeks, six days pregnant. Further along than both Kimmie and Madeleine, much to their amusement when I later broke my news. Somehow, a baby had invaded my body and I managed to sail through my entire first trimester—typically a trying, anxious time— without even realizing it. I have to admit, ignorance was indeed bliss. Had I known, I would’ve been like every other pregnant person out there: overly preoccupied, paranoid, and occasionally, insufferable.


Women today are subject to a whole laundry list of worries regarding what not to ingest and not to imbibe and not to involve themselves in when pregnant. After the first article on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome was published in the Lancet in 1973, alcohol eventually made its way to the top of the list, dropping into “occasionally okay” territory, whenever a report was released that said “light drinking” during pregnancy contributes to better behaved boys or some-such.

More recently, it seems, the restrictions have intensified. I mean, bury yourself in’s “Pregnancy Safety” section, and you may spiral into a virtual state of paralysis: Is it safe to take a bath? Is it safe to ride the bumper cars? Is it safe to use a smartphone? Is it safe to sleep in a waterbed? (Wait, does anyone even still sleep in a waterbed??)

And now, last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took it a step further—by declaring what women ages 15 to 44 who are not pregnant should not do: Namely, drink alcohol.

The backlash was, of course, rampant. Tweets and op-eds and rants posted all over the place calling the (albeit well-intentioned) suggestion condescending and unrealistic. (A favorite was from Kalyie Hanson who called herself the “pre-pregnant” national communications director for NARAL. “Okay, CDC. It’s not my glass of rose that’s the problem. It’s a culture that doesn’t respect women or trust us to make our own decisions.”) A friend of mine told me how someone on her Facebook feed linked to a news report saying the CDC recommends all women not on birth control abstain from alcohol, and she added the comment, “Oh yeah? Well I recommend you go suck a bag of dicks you sexist douche bags.”

I prefer the way Rebecca Solnit put it. But hear, hear to the Internet’s collective outcry. Plus, instilling fear in an entire population of people who may or may not—or may never even want to become pregnant at some point is kind of absurd.

I agree that the American Academy of Pediatrics’ current position makes good logical sense: the standard for pregnant women should be no drinking at all, since alcohol-related birth defects and developmental issues are “completely preventable when pregnant women abstain from alcohol use,” as a report released in October stated. But I do think, like many others, that the level of panic surrounding pregnancy has become overblown.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is real and tragic— and yes, completely preventable. For alcoholics, of course, it’s a serious problem. For frequent pregnant drinkers, it probably is too. But, I don’t know… if, once in a while, a pregnant woman waddles into a bar for a beer, is it really such a big deal?

There’s this strange idea that from the moment a woman is impregnated she’s supposed to, somehow, avoid all risk. But a pregnant person is still a person—and, as people roaming the planet, we are constantly taking risks. When we cross the street (could get hit); when we go to the movies (could get shot); when we eat at Chipotle (if we ever eat at Chipotle again…). I commuted two-and-a-half hours a day in California traffic while I was pregnant. I wonder, really, which posed a greater threat: the wine I drank or Highway 101?

Being a responsible pregnant woman, or parent, doesn’t mean eliminating risk —but managing it. Is it responsible for someone who is actively “trying” to drink four shots of bourbon or shoot-up heroin? Obviously not. But it does seem like a reasonable level of risk for a 30-year-old woman who is having sex and not on the pill to split a bottle of wine with her boyfriend at dinner. Who invited the CDC to the table?

 A lot of OBs will quietly tell you what mine —one of the most respected in San Francisco— did (once I finally got an appointment to see her). That this “no drinking while pregnant rule” is really in place because, well… if it wasn’t, some women would probably go nuts.I get it. I realize with the advent of the 44-ounce Super Big Gulp and the $9.99 all-you-can-eat buffet, Americans have lost a little credibility in the self-policing department. Still, whatever happened to the Socratic motto, “everything in moderation, nothing in excess”?

When I got pregnant with my second kid, I knew it from the get-go. And, yes, I curbed it like a normal person. Still, during a weeklong vacation to Paris, while seven months pregnant with my son, I drank one glass of wine a night. (Despite the fact that, for the record, according to my server, French women actually don’t drink wine when they’re pregnant.)

I’m not advocating women booze their way through their first trimester. Not even through their thirdMy story is just one data point in an amniotic sea of overwrought 21st century anxiety. Maybe it will move one newly pregnant woman to live a little and put lox on her bagel.

Back in the Mad Men era, of course, pregnancy was considered a nine-month inconvenience at most, barely a reason to alter one’s lifestyle. Expectant mothers swilled martinis and smoked cigarettes, even swallowed diet pills if they’d gained too much baby weight (doctor’s orders!). A vodka-and-OJ was essentially a welcome cocktail at some hospitals, believed to prevent premature labor. In the 19th century, physicians apparently suggested champagne to ease morning sickness.

We’ve all guffawed over these outdated anecdotes. I clung to them constantly during the second half of my pregnancy, as friends consoled me with tales of their mothers’ gin-and-tonic habits that put my glass of wine or two to shame.

My mom never drank, she still doesn’t, but she did smoke a pack a day while she was pregnant with me. (“The doctor said I could!” she reminds me, adding that they’d share a Parliament at every appointment.) I was four pounds and a month premature, but otherwise apart from seasonal allergies and non-pregnant neurotic tendencies, I’m alive and well.

And so is my daughter.

Friends told me I was lucky. To have so easily gotten pregnant. To have avoided worrying about every little thing, like they did. And though I felt anything but lucky at the time, looking back now, I realize of course I was, for so many reasons. Number one being now seven-year-old Hazel— a witty, sweet, little girl with wild curls and a wide smile— who dodged every obstacle I’d inadvertently thrown at her in utero, including a pill intended to prevent her very existence. And yet she emerged on that clear October day, a healthy, blue-eyed, tiny triumph.

How Was Your Day … Last Coast Miwok on Tomales Bay?

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Merrel Rocca
Marshall, California

I’ve been in my Winnebago all morning watching Buffy (Season 6). My daughter bought me the entire VHS set for my birthday and I’ve been burning through it. Not much else to do. I roll my own cigarettes, I fill them with pipe tobacco. I’m a smoker. I’ll smoke anything. I don’t have a phone. No email. People knock on my door or leave a note if they want to find me. I’ve lived here on Tomales Bay for 61 years. I don’t like to mention it to everybody, but I have.

Usually sitting here outside in this La-Z-Boy I got from my neighbor. He said he slept in this more than his bed and I believe him. God, is it nice. This spot is protected from the wind. So I sit here, smoke, and look at the water. Watch the tourists speeding to the oyster farms. I’ve got my own oysters, growing on the dock across the road. When the wind blows, a lot of the times one of the Hog Island sacks will break away and they’re floating, and I just pick them up. Free oysters.

A while back, I worked at the Bohemian Grove up in Monte Rio, splitting wood and driving around members. Like Ronald Reagan and Clint Eastwood, and a retired Supreme Court judge who gave me $400 for picking him up. Now I drive old people around, a few locals from here. I drive my neighbor, he’s about 100 years old. I take him over the hill, to Trader Joe’s, doctors’ appointments. Last time I drove him all the way to Novato for an ear test. Five hours and he only paid me 20 bucks.

My son and his wife live in this house 5 feet away. I’ve got my trailers. My grandfather came from Italy all the way to Ellis Island and then here, to Tomales Bay. There were a lot of Italians here. He was a rum-runner during Prohibition. My grandmother grew up in this A-frame across the road, it was built in 1864. I didn’t even know my grandmother was half Indian, Coast Miwok. She never mentioned it until she was on her deathbed.

Then she filled out all the papers, so now we’re connected with the new casino they built in Rohnert Park. We got two free days there before it opened up. Me and my friend were invited to the opening party. We got to eat all the food that was in there. They brought it to us, we didn’t have to move. God, they brought these pot stickers … the Indians throw fun parties.

I don’t know much about the Coast Miwoks. They ate the little oysters, the Olympians. After they finished shooting us and doing all the crap to us, there were only about 15 of us left, as far as I know. They say there were more Indians here years and years ago than there are white people now, which must have been a lot. They said they owned more land than anybody too, all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge and way up north. Now we don’t own crap. Now we’ve got a casino.

I asked them, “How much do you think my share will be after we pay back the government?” About $10,000 or $12,000 a month. Jeez, after I got up off the floor, I said, “You’re going to put me in a higher tax bracket.” I just want to collect one share and go to New Zealand. And if I die after that, I’ll be happy. Did you see Lord of the Rings? All that land was New Zealand. It’s beautiful … but I’d go just for Hobbiton.

They asked me if I wanted to move; they are going to build us a rancheria and they asked me if I wanted to live on it. I don’t know why they call it a rancheria — it’s a reservation. They asked me if I wanted a house. Why would I want to live there when I can live here?

I’ve been looking at this bay for years and years and years. Sometimes I take it for granted, but usually when I’m gone and I come back, it’s like, wow, like new again. That’s a good view. And one of these days, they’re going to charge me for it. Don’t laugh. They do that.

As told to Rachel Levin

How Was Your Day … Quadriplegic Dad?

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Les Peer 
Stowe, Vermont

Well, I stay in bed more often than not lately. Getting up doesn’t happen very quickly. I’m on a ventilator. I need round-the-clock care. Sometimes I’ll sit at my computer or go into town for lunch with my wife, Marion, but I can’t eat much anymore. I used to love a good steak, foie gras, homemade popcorn.Now I drink Ensure.

I also used to be a skier. It’s been 33 years since my accident. I wasn’t supposed to live this long. At 69, I’m supposedly the longest surviving quadriplegic, but I don’t know for sure. I moved to Vermont back in 1965 to ski — and to go to college. Goddard was one of those avant-garde schools, you know, where anything goes: coed dorms, plenty of dope, your own self-designed curriculum and class schedule. You took what you wanted, when you wanted, and I arranged it so I had plenty of time to ski.

I worked as a bellhop at the Lodge at Stowe and got free lift tickets. I skied pretty much every day. I loved the snow, but I liked adventure better than school. A year later, I went to Iceland and worked on a fishing boat … then I went off to London and worked as a waiter at the Playboy Club. I actually tried to get into England’s Royal Academy for acting, but when that didn’t work I went back to being a busboy and a ski bum in Vermont, in the Mad River Valley.

I was footloose. I became a ski instructor and a bartender; I was a pretty popular one, I’ll admit. It was Sugarbush, in the ’70s, and everyone dated everyone. In the winter of ’71, I met a beautiful woman named Barbara; we dated for three, maybe four months. She was a ski instructor, too. It was a fling; and at the end of the ski season, she just disappeared.

After eight years as a ski instructor, I took a job as a sales rep, pedaling skis for Elan. I was pretty good at it so they sent me everywhere: the Midwest, NYC, the Lake Placid Olympics, Colorado. One day, in Aspen, in 1982, I was out skiing with a couple of friends — and, all of a sudden, I just fell. When I woke up I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t feel anything. I was numb. And I just knew.

I was paralyzed from the neck down. I was 36 and single and I would never ski again.

Marion and I had dated for a bit back in Vermont, in 1981. When she heard about the accident, she came out to Colorado to visit me. She came a few times over the years, and eventually we started dating again. She had two young boys at the time. I had my condition. And I proposed. We got married in 1992 and moved back to Vermont, to Stowe. I ended up adopting her children later. I remember the judge asked, “Do you have any other children, Les?” I’d laughed. C’mon, I couldn’t have kids.

Then in the fall of 2008, the phone rang. Marion answered and hooked me up to the line, and the woman at the other end asked if I knew someone by the name of Barbara. I said, yes, I used to. The woman said she was calling from an agency in New York, that they’d hired a private detective to find me. She said there was a child. A child that could be mine.

It was mind-boggling. We did all the tests and blood work, but when I saw the picture, I knew.

A month later, this smart, beautiful, 36-year-old woman from San Francisco named Katrina walked in our door. She was a gift from heaven. Truly. A skier, too, raised in Manhattan. And she looked just like me. Her first words, she joked, were: “Can I borrow the car?”

I’d remembered I’d seen Barbara, once, in the ski line, a few years after we’d broken up. We just nodded at each other through the crowd. I don’t know why she never told me. I wish she had.

Katrina moved to Vermont a few years ago. To get to know me, she said, which made me feel like a billion dollars. She lives down the road now. Still, I am very sorry I missed something so huge in my life. And in hers. I would’ve given my right arm to watch her grow up. I would’ve given both arms, actually. They’re dead weight at this point.

As told to Rachel Levin

This Is The Day Before 40

“July 18th” read the email that appeared a couple of weeks ago at the top of my inbox, so bold-faced and full of promise.

Ah, the day before my 40th birthday, I thought; Josh must have something fun planned for My Big Middle-Aged Moment. Dinner at State Bird? A weekend in Big Sur? Ooo, a Billy Joel concert?

Back when 40 sounded as far, far away as 50, I had all sorts of plans, too. Oh, by 40 I was supposed to have been a New Yorker staff writer; a Kenyan-level marathoner; an unselfish mother. (I mean, if a mother at all, which was not so much on my “To Accomplish List” as it was on my “To Put Off Until the Last Possible Moment and My Husband Makes Me List.”)

I was supposed to be the mature adult I’d always avoided being, but by the time I actually turned 40 presumed I’d just naturally, you know, be.

But now here I am, a day away from the birthday every female dreads—despite Tom Junod’s recent backhanded ode to women even two whole years older—and I’m 0 for 3:

The New Yorker once paid me $1,200 for a short piece, but then it never ran. I haven’t run 26.2 miles since the year 2000. And as for the unselfish mother thing… weeeell, I just took a two-week solo trip to Bhutan, the other happiest place on earth, and left my two little kids at home.

Which brings me to my less, shall we say, lofty goals. You know, the stuff I just expected to havegotten around to by the dawn of my fourth decade. Like, learn to ride a bike. (Yup, pathetic, I know. 0 for 4.)

By 40, I was supposed to have done something about my hair. I was supposed to have put my wedding photos into an album and read Moby Dick and purchased matching bath towels and prepared for the earthquake. I was supposed to have stopped ordering take-out Thai food twice a week and drinking wine six and started calling my grandmother once and having sex with my husband at least every other.

I was supposed to have stopped buying airplane movies like Awkward Moment and watching The Bachelor and, according to my friend Katie, waltzing around in bikinis. I was supposed to have remembered my nieces’ birthdays and been a prompt thank you note writer and started making my own tomato sauce instead of spending nine bucks on a jar of Rao’s. (But their Arriabata is just so damn good.)

I was supposed to have cured my allergies and done Invisalign and finally booked a dermatologist appointment to make sure I don’t have melanoma, because—after early years spent lathering on the Baby Oil and later years pretending my Neutrogena SPF 15 face lotion counts as sunblock—I bet I do.

I was supposed to have been nicer to my mom and calmer when crossing streets and cooler when mingling at cocktail parties. I was supposed to have learned to make decisions (wise or otherwise) and love beets and pull-off white summer pants and spell “rhythm” right on the first try.

I was supposed to have mastered a softer laugh and slower speech and conversational Spanish and an ability to intelligently discuss Middle East politics.

I was supposed to have worn shoes other than flip-flops or clogs, and have a closet full of appropriate clothes for every occasion, not a closet with a slight mold issue that recently turned my sole pair of leather boots fuzzy with green stuff.

I was supposed to have stopped eating four slices of pizza in one sitting and “carrying the one” when adding a tip on a credit card slip. I was supposed to have started doing yoga and taking shorter showers and checking for lumps. I was supposed to have rid my dresser of holey socks and shrunken wool sweaters and totally stretched-out lacey Hanky Panky thongs, all of which I still wear. Which begs the question: Should 40-year-old women even be wearing thongs?

I know: most 70-year-olds would give up their weekly canasta game to be 40 again.

I know: I’ve lost people I’ve loved before they even made it to 30. I know being Forever 29 isn’t, really, any fun.

I understand the alternative: You either turn 40 or… you don’t.

Still, I don’t know. By now, my Billy Joel obsession not withstanding, wasn’t I supposed to have felt even a little more like… an actual 40-Year-Old?

It wasn’t until I opened Josh’s email that I actually kind of did.

“July 18th, 8:30 a.m.” wrote my sweet, thoughtful, balding husband of seven years. “I made myself a dermatologist appointment—and made you one, too.”

I’m 1 for 40, just in time.

‘Fraidy Cat Lady

There are cat people and there are dog people and then there is my mother. She once brought home an aging wheaten terrier and tried to be a dog person, but it didn’t really pan out. The rest of her life she’s spent being actively anti-cat.

Not in a pro-bird way. But, like Gareth Morgan, the Kiwi economist who called for the elimination of cats in New Zealand, and Audubon contributor Ted Williams, who caused a recent uproar for suggesting poisoning cats with Tylenol, my mother, too, wants a world free of felines.

It’s not that she’s worried about being mauled or scratched or even sneezy. The 66-year-old woman is terrified that a little kitty will “rub up against [her] leg.”

Or worse: Land next to her schnitzel in Tel Aviv. I remember it clearly. My mother standing on her chair. Arms flailing, tears gushing, mascara smearing, “Do something, Danny!” she frantically screamed at my father. “Do something!!!!!!”

Nothing objectively traumatic ever transpired between my mother and cats. It all started, she says, with the hedges in Jersey City, N.J., where she grew up. “I’d be walking home from school, and the alley cats would jump out of nowhere!” she recalls. “At night, their screeches sounded like wailing babies.”

By high school, her fear had unfurled into a full-on phobia. Her best friend had two cats. “Get this,” my mom tells me now. “One was named Pussen. And the other was Boots. You know, like Puss ‘N Boots. How gross is that?”

“Ughh. Disgusting,” agrees her mom, my 94-year-old grandmother. “I can’t even watch them on commercials” she says, wincing. I recently learned that her mother, my great-grandmother, felt the same way. Turns out, ailurophobia is the closest thing we have to a family heirloom.

My mother was a realtor. I remember listening to her make appointments to show houses. “Now, are there any cats?” she’d routinely ask, twisting the kitchen phone cord around her finger. She lost more than a few listings.

Finally, in 1992, she went to see a shrink, who tried his best, but unfortunately he wasn’t as successful as the Russian hypnotist who’d cured her addiction to cigarettes.

Which, is why I got to go to Cuba in January.

My parents were packed and ready to go—until mom Googled “Cuba and cats” and discovered that Havana has a “severe” stray cat problem. In Marbella, Spain, she’d once seen “hundreds of cats dripping from the roof” of her hotel. “I will not go through that again, Rachel,” she said, when I told her she was being ridiculous. “Now you’re not going to travel!?” I asked, totally annoyed.

“Just not to Cuba,” she said. “Or to Puerto Rico. I won’t go anywhere with narrow streets. Then there’s no escape,” she explained.

“You really should see someone,” I said. “Your phobia has officially taken over your life. No it hasn’t,” she said. “I’m fine. So what if I walk in the middle of the street instead of the sidewalk? So what if I don’t go into antique stores? So? I miss Havana …” she said. “There’s always Helenski. I Googled it. No cats.”

So Julie and I joined our dad—and the Siegels and Rosenblatts and Rosenthals—on a bus tour of seniors from the Boca JCC for a week in Havana. While mom happily stayed at home, secure in her gated golf community, where she occasionally sits on her back patio with a squirt gun. “Just in case a cat comes by.”

“I understand your mother,” says her friend Estelle Siegel, as we stand in Plaza Vieja surrounded by pigeons pecking at breadcrumbs. “I feel the same way about birds.” She pinches her face and inches closer to her husband. “It’s the flapping.”

As we wander Havana’s (indeed narrow) streets, sip mojitos by the rooftop pool, eat in al fresco paladares, we’re on the lookout for cats. Motivated not by fear, but by schadenfreude. Look, mom! No cats! We want to come home gloating.

And, lo and behold, we see not one. Instead we see a shell of a once-regal Caribbean capital, gorgeous Baroque architecture begging to be restored. A moving museum of ’54 Fords; peeling billboards advertising the perks of socialism; leathery men smoking on stoops and lipsticked ladies topped in tangles of fake flowers. And dancers and artists and musicians, so many musicians, shaking maracas, banging on drums, belting “Guantanamera.”

On our final morning in Cuba, Julie and I stroll back to Plaza Vieja for the best coffee in town. As we swat flies and sip our café caliente, a black-and-white kitten with cloudy gray eyes and a thimble-sized nose tiptoes towards us. Soon, a fat cat appears out of nowhere, as if it rose from beneath the cobblestone, and crawls over to its baby.

“Look, they’re cuddling,” Julie points out. “That’s cute,” she says, shifting her chair to the left. The cats nuzzle and purr and move closer. As we rehash the highlights of our trip, I feel soft fur gently graze my ankle. Like grass in a summer breeze. I sling my camera over my shoulder, and without saying a word, my sister and I stand in unison, leaving our glass mugs half full, and slowly walk away.

Soup with Everything: A Freaky All-American Party in Northern California

Where is this place? We tilted the handmade map every which way, reread the directions a fourth time and made yet another U-turn on a gorgeous dirt road lined with craggy oaks and broken fences. We’d driven four hours from San Francisco into the golden hills of Northern California with a sack of jalapeño peppers, and were nervous we wouldn’t make it before the welcome gate closed.

For years, I’d been hearing about Soup — a five-day retreat from the doldrums of daily life at a 400-acre homestead, off the grid and blissfully in the middle of nowhere. Inspired by the fable of the stone soup, in which a traveler unites a hungry village so that it can feed itself, the Soup celebration gathers 250 people, by invitation only, who come bearing organic vegetables (and herbs), as well as creativity, costumes, consciousness-raising conversation and extraordinary musical talent — to commune in honor of, well, community.

What began in 1994 as a hippie-pagan outgrowth of the Grateful Dead tour has evolved into a family-friendly feel-good festival of eco-entrepreneurs and nonprofit executives, lawyers and doctors, Pilates teachers, politicos — and, at last count, 45 kids, happy to be dragged along to their parents’ party. Eighty-dollar passes are as hard to score as Willy Wonka’s golden tickets, and all proceeds are donated to a local charity.

Last year, two recycled-paper tickets depicting smiley pink Buddhas arrived in the mail, inviting my boyfriend and me to “Lucky Soup 13.” As a buttoned-up Boston native, I’d always decided Soup was not my thing; but, for a second, I felt as if I’d won the lottery. Then I remembered a college friend: “I was totally into the massage circle,” he had said, “until this big, shirtless, hairy guy squeezed in front of me. It was hot; he was sweaty. It wasn’t pretty.”

We rolled in at dusk to a sea of Westfalia campers, Subarus plastered in anti-Bush bumper stickers, biodiesel Mercedeses and a few shiny new BMWs.

As if sensing our unease, our sole Soupster friend materialized, with a woman wearing angel wings. “Where were you guys?” he asked. “You just missed the Midsummer’s Eve wine tasting in the garden.” I pictured pink fairies and men in loincloths flitting about. I was bummed. Wine would have been a good start.

Set up like a sukkah was the welcome gate, or “luck activation portal,” a metal structure with hanging hula hoops covered in multicolored cloth. “Leave your troubles behind,” the sign said. As I stepped through, a gorgeous woman dressed in a flowing, all-red “I Dream of Jeannie” outfit appeared.

“Spin the wheel and select your tribe!” Jeannie instructed. Four of clubs. My boyfriend got seven of diamonds. “You’ll be separated during tribe time,” she advised. Tribe time?

Inside, a medieval village mixed grassy lawns with shady pines, rock walls, a small pond and a fully rigged stage. Tents dotted the hillside. Drums beat faintly.

We set up above the pond, our neighbors just inches away. A dinner bell rang. We lined up for a locally grown organic veggie meal and filled up with Dragon’s Drool: fresh-filtered water that drips from a stone dragon’s mouth. We were encouraged to sit anywhere, per the pre-Soup e-mail message: “Cliquey can be icky. … We’re all in the same broth.” We grabbed a seat next to the one guy we knew.

As I was scraping my plate into the compost, yet another glowing woman in wings tossed glitter on my face. Showtime.

We shared a hay bale with a psychiatrist from New York. “I try to come to Soup every year,” he said. “It’s that good — to the last drop. Way better than Burning Man.”

The entertainment began. A pair of newbies performed a hilarious skit about getting lost, just like us. A Soup veteran warned the attentive audience against FOMO (“fear of missing out,” since there’s so much to do at Soup). And then a familiar-looking folk singer walked onto the tiny stage: Kris Delmhorst. “No way!” I said to my boyfriend. As her soulful, carefree voice filled the starry sky, there was nowhere else I would rather have been.

A series of Bay Area-based bands played: JP*Orbit, Hot Buttered Rum, New Monsoon. People poured onto the hay-strewn dance floor. I looked up at the hot tubs perched on a hill and saw a gaggle of naked folks rocking out. Two descended to the floor to slow-dance. One guy in a skirt twirled wildly in front of the stage.

Morning dawned with fair-trade coffee, fresh fruit and announcements. Up jumped a barefooted woman: “At 1 p.m. in the lounge, I’ll be holding a playshop on alternative menstrual products.’” (I skipped it but learned later she was talking about an environmentally safe natural gum rubber cup called the Keeper.) “Two o’clock under that tree,” said a skinny guy in glasses, “I’ll be discussing a loophole in the U.S. tax system. You don’t have to pay the military portion.”

Not true!” a lawyer yelled from the lawn.

A 7-year-old named Rose was offering a fun one: “Yummy Smoothies You Can Make.”

“Let’s hit it,” my boyfriend said.

It was too hot and sticky to take advantage of the massage tent. Still, all the tables were occupied. The pond was filled with float tubes and frolicking naked bodies. I wallowed like a pig in the mud, but the water was too warm, so I opted for the outdoor shower instead. Standing under a cold stream, trying to maintain eye contact with a six-foot male model, I thought about my summer camp days, when I refused to shower with two other 10-year-old girls.

Over at “Noodles,” the 12-and-under Soupster set was captivated by the EarthCapades, a husband-and-wife juggling team clad in rainbow-colored leotards and singing about how to save the planet. After dark, we were equally captivated when they transformed into buck-naked, back-bending flame-throwers.

Saturday night, everyone dressed in their ’80s best for the junior high dance, under our hand-painted stars. There was a photo collage of Soupsters from their awkward years; there was spin the bottle, too. I helped myself to a cup of spiked punch, bopped to “Borderline,” and lo and behold, my boyfriend was break-dancing on stage.

The true meat of every Soup is the Ritual. At Soup 13, it was a silent walk in the woods. After being blessed with burning sage, all 250 of us followed a belly-dancing Princeton grad, Pied Piper-style, along a winding path. A lovely stroll, but the point was lost on me.

Still, Soup doesn’t really end when the party does — it continues all year in various forms, with moonlight hikes and music jams, progressive potlucks and political campaigning. Soup is larger than the limited number invited to the party, bound only by the Ladle listserv and a feeling of family.

Back at camp, drums beat. The sun began its descent, casting that lazy late-day glow across the lawn. A crew of cooks had already begun chopping, grilling and stirring. A ginormous grate was covered in yellow peppers and Yukon gold potatoes, purple eggplant and corn on the cob, zucchini, squash, Swiss chard.

The pot was just like the one I imagined in the fable. It simmered for hours, manned by multiple stirrers, until finally the Soup was served. I looked around my bowl for our jalapeños. “Sorry,” one of the cooks said. “Too spicy for the kids.” The Soup was tamer than I’d thought.

The next day, I sat on the grass, listening to a speaker from the nonprofit organization Challenge Day, the beneficiary of last summer’s Soup. As he talked about his own isolation and his commitment to stopping gang violence by helping teenagers connect with one another, I was moved to tears.

In just a few short days, I’d become a Soupster — at least enough of one to return for Soup 14, which began on Wednesday and continues through this weekend.

“Part-community celebration, part-freaky summer camp, part-grassroots fundraiser, part-private party, part-Utopia,” wrote David Minkow, one of the founders of Soup, in a later e-mail message to the Ladle listserv. “Whatever it is, we’re lucky to experience it.”

Agreed. There’s something to this soupy subculture and the community it’s created; a physical, tangible community — the kind you’ll never find surfing MySpace.

Passover Goes Gourmet

Why was this night different from all other nights? For starters, there was a bar. And not a bottle of Manischewitz behind it. Guests were actually drinking wine — good wine — before the first of the traditional four glasses was poured. Little-known fact about Jews, namely East Coast women over the age of 50: they don’t drink. No religious explanation for this, they just don’t. And, honestly, most of them really should.

Secondly, people were dressed in jeans. My mother never let me wear even my very best Jordache to Passover Seder. Dresses and tights that would sag around my ankles only. Now, almost three decades later — with “you can’t wear that” ringing in my head — I swapped a pair of faded cords for a stylish purple number and heels. I hadn’t felt this overdressed since I wore a bathing suit to the Big Sur hot springs.

But above all, this wasn’t my grandparents’ house in a manicured suburb outside of Boston. My scary old aunts and crazy second-cousins-once-removed were clear across the country. There was no whiny Cousin Gary, who once gave me a trashcan for my bat mitzvah. Or puffy Cousin Linda with cankles as thick as Cottonelle Ultra. There was no kids’ table. Or Welch’s white grape juice. Or lengthy conversations-cum-arguments about what route everyone took to get there.

Rather, this was a Seder of total strangers. Fifty folks here voluntarily — not because their parents forced them to come. Jews and gentiles, gay boys and a sprinkling of grandmas, all gathered under the soaring roof of a mod-white warehouse-café in San Francisco’s Mission District. The real draw: the food.

Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom were cooking, not Grandma Hannah. Two twenty-something college buddies turned artisanal Deli Guys who launched Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen last year as a weekly pop-up. They had an immediate cult following — and just opened a real-deal restaurant in February. Last April, their first-ever public Passover Seder sold out within minutes by word of mouth.

Imagine, the promise of Gefilte fish that good.

Candles were lit. Communal tables were set. Sparely. No lacy-white tablecloths or blue Danube china. Playing silently on a screen overhead was the ‘50s classic film The Ten Commandments. I mean, Charlton Heston’s low-tech parting of the Red Sea is the kind of Seder entertainment I really could’ve used as a kid.

I loved my grandpa Orrin, I really did. He was a kind, lanky doctor in a knit-tie and corduroy blazer — but the Seders he led were by-the-book snooze.

Here was fresh-faced, 26-year-old Leo! With waist-length dreadlocks pulled back in a ponytail, he had a cool, confident command over the room that would no doubt make his own grandfather proud. “What kind of cigarettes do Jews smoke?” he asked to kick things off. “Gefilt-ahs!” guests groaned. After the blessing over the wine, servers presented plates of matzo–it was blistered, cracker-thin, imperfectly shaped. And not from a box, but made by Blake Joffe of Beauty’s Bagel Shop — with more than just the requisite flour-and-water. If all it takes is a little sea salt and olive oil to enhance matzo’s typically dry-mouth taste, then I vote for a minor overhaul of tradition.

Still, this was a legit Seder. Everyone had a photocopy of a Haggadah, the book of prayers, songs, and biblical tales that recount the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery.

Yeah, it’s a good story. But as a kid, taking turns around the table reading the.entire.freaking.thing meant we didn’t eat for hours. I’d steal sprigs of parsley from the tabletop (long after we’d dipped it in salt water) — and sit, starving, and bored as hell. Grandma’s dense-as-rocks matzo balls and gray, leather-tough brisket weren’t any prize. But by the time dinner was actually served, they were edible.

“Tonight, we’re going to move through the Passover story pretty quickly,” announced Leo. “We’ve got eating to do!” Amen to that.

And so it began: The explanation of the Seder plate. The Four Questions. (Typically the youngest person at the table is charged with tone-deaf singing this integral part of the evening. But on this night, the lone ‘tween was too shy; instead we were treated to a woman who actually had a beautiful voice.) The Ten Plagues. By “Dayenu” we’d lost count of glasses of wine and were all one, big, actually happy family–singing, clapping, exchanging smiles. At one point, a black, Caribbean born, non-Jew named George turned to me and exclaimed: “I love this! I’m with my people!”

Before we knew it, dinner was served, family-style: Pickled heirloom carrots and bulls blood beets. “Mock liver” mashed with organic peas and blue lake beans. The prettiest, most perfectly pungent, hand-grated fluorescent-fuschia horseradish I’ve ever had. (Note to Wise Sons: jar that stuff!) The soup was a clean, flavorful broth buoying matzo balls as God intended them to be: feather-light and fluffy. The Gefilte fish was a custom-grind of carp and whitefish in a fennel-thyme fumet and a far cry from the congealed liquid you see every season at Safeway. And the brisket… Not gray! Not tough! But fork-tender shreds of peppery-sweet meat.

One woman at our table sent her husband home to grab some Tupperware for leftovers. “I swear I don’t usually do this, but it’s just sooo good and I can’t eat another bite!” Not me. I was a member of the Passover clean-plate club for the first time.

Down to the last sips of Madeira, matched with a creamy-rich Guittard pot de crème (single-handedly bringing kosher desserts back from the dead), there was laughter; career-advice-giving; gossip about embarrassing wedding toasts and bad break-ups about people we didn’t know. No barking between relatives or “help-clear-the-table” mandates from mom. But hugs good-bye. And sincere cries of: “Next Year — with Wise Sons!”

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