Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Something Other Than Ourselves

I read a wonderful op-ed yesterday morning. In mid-December, 1933--the grimmest of the Depression years--an anonymous individual in Canton, Ohio posted a piece in the local paper encouraging those in need to write in their requests and explain why they needed money. In return, the donor, who called himself "Mr. B. Virdot," would mail them a check for their needs, enough to get them through the holidays. Men, women, and even children sent hundreds of responses, requesting items as basic as a pair of shoes.

In the week that followed, checks began arriving at the homes of needy families all over Canton. The anonymous donor never revealed his identity, and no one bearing the name of B. Virdot was ever found.

Think about that for a minute. How incredible is that? When is the last time that you did something without hoping for a little recognition? Okay, I'll go first. I can't recall when that was. I like to be noticed for doing good things. I think that we all do.

I also cannot keep a secret to save my life. If I had been Mr. B. Virdot and had possessed enough self-control to keep the secret until I died, I would have paper-clipped a little note to my will: Oh, by the way, I selflessly gave away hundreds of dollars to strangers in December 1933 when no one had a dime. You're welcome.

Yet Mr. B. Virdot chose to remain anonymous.

I won't spoil the rest of the story, because you should read it yourself. The donor's grandson, who authored the op-ed (and who discovered his grandfather's secret by chance), writes that his grandfather experienced enough hardship early in life to make him truly understand the value of kindness. Having "been robbed at night and swindled in daylight," by others, he chose to treat other people much more generously than he had been treated.
Try it for yourself. In the next few days, share some of your holiday spirit with someone who will never know who you are, and don't tell a soul about it. You will learn something about yourself.

Happy Holidays, everyone.

Potato Latkes with Homemade Applesauce
Adapted from Gail Simmons' latke recipe and Gale Gand's pear-applesauce recipe, both featured in Food & Wine

For the pear-applesauce

4 large apples, such as McIntosh or Ambrosia, peeled, cored, and quartered
2 Bartlett pears, peeled, cored, and quartered
2 cups of water
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon of honey
1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon

For the potato latkes
4 large baking potatoes, scrubbed, peeled, and quartered
1 large yellow onion, peeled and quartered
1/2 cup of all-purpose flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons chopped dill
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
Canola oil, for frying

To make the applesauce
In a large, heavy saucepan, bring the apples, pears, water and lemon juice to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring frequently, until the fruit breaks down to a thick, chunky puree, about 30 minutes. You may need to mash the fruit with a spoon. Remove from the heat and stir in the honey and cinnamon. The applesauce may be served warm or chilled.

For the potato latkes
Set a large strainer over a bowl. In a food processor fitted with the shredding disk, shred the potatoes and onion in batches. Add each batch to the strainer and let stand for 5-10 minutes, then squeeze dry. Pour off all of the liquid in the bowl and add the shredded potatoes and onions. Stir in the flour, eggs, dill, salt and baking powder. Scrape the mixture back into the strainer and set it over a bowl; let stand for another 5-10 minutes to drain.

In a very large skillet (not the non-stick variety), heat 1/4 inch of canola oil until shimmering. Spoon 2 tablespoons of the potato mixture into the canola oil for each latke, pressing slightly to flatten. Fry over moderate heat, turning once, until the latkes are golden and crisp on both sides, about 7 minutes. Drain the latkes on a paper towel–lined baking sheet. Serve the latkes hot with a spoonful of applesauce on top.

You should know (if you didn't already) that raw potatoes turn black in a matter of hours and fried latkes only stay delicious while they are crisp and hot. This means that latkes are not really a "make ahead" food. Someone out there may have a good suggestion for making them in advance of your event, but I don't really have any pointers to offer in that respect.

Makes: 40 small latkes and 4 cups of applesauce


melissa said...

I've read that story. I loved that story.

It's an interesting lesson, one in which I have read many quotes from many religions - to act with kindness and to do it truly with no selfish motive. No recognition, no hope of kindness returned, but just to do it compassionately for its own sake. I think it's a hard place to really get to.

*Sigh* I want my mom's potato pancakes. I guess I'll have to make my own this year.

High Plains Drifters said...

i know a guy who is far from wealthy who has a similar christmas ritual. he takes $100-200 in twenties (depending on his own fortunes) and drops it without fanfare into tip jars. small gestures are the ones that get the best mileage sometimes.

Chris Stevens said it best:

Christmas reveals itself to each of us in a personal way — be it secular or sacred. Whatever Christmas is — and it's many things to many people — we all own a piece of it. Kinda like Santa's bag, inside there's gift for everyone.

Grace said...

terrific post, sarah, and very appropriate for this time of year, when it's easy to let selfishness get the best of us.
happy holidays (and great latkes)!

Foodycat said...

I've never had a latke! Happy holidays Sarah.

muddywaters said...

Great post. We all need touchstones like this to remind us of how we should live.

I recently read an article in Men's Journal magazine about author Peter Matthiessen. I have never read anything by Mr. Matthiessen, but in the interview they asked him, "What's a skill that all men should possess?"

His response: "Empathy and the will to help others. Someone said that the point of life is helping others to get through it, which I like very much."

I like this too. ". . .the point of ife is helping others to get through it.

Thanks for sharing, and Happy Holidays.

Sarah said...

Melissa: Anonymous giving is the best kind there is, and the hardest to accomplish. I've clipped the op-ed and I'm going to read it every now and then to remind myself how important it is. I know you'll make some great latkes :) If I can do it well enough to make my husband's two grandmothers happy, anyone can do it!

High Plains: What a great thing! I hope that he keeps up the great work. Love the Chris Stevens quote too; it really sums up the seasons.

Grace: Thank you! Latkes are so delicious; I look forward to them every year. Considering that they are fried, though, it's a good thing that I wait all year to have them!

Foodycat: Thank you and I hope your travels have been wonderful!