First look at Jewish Book Fest lineup; talking with Dorothy Firestone

Dorothy Firestone

Ellen Futterman

Dorothy Firestone called last Friday morning to talk about a concern of hers. She’s worried that families don’t spend enough time around the table eating dinner together. 

“I know families are so busy today running in so many directions, with work, sporting events and extra- curricular activities,” she said. “But meeting around the table over food is such an important bonding experience. I just don’t want to see that lost.”

Then Dorothy suggested that if I wasn’t too busy, I come to her Clayton home for lunch so we could talk some more. 

Prior to the Friday phone call, I knew Dorothy more by her reputation as a longtime food writer for both the Jewish Light and the Post-Dispatch. But I also knew enough to know that when Dorothy invites you to lunch, you go. Her cooking is legendary.

So over bowls of yummy homemade gazpacho, we talked about food, writing and families. Her passion for all three shows no sign of slowing down at age 87; in fact, watching Dorothy dart around her tidy kitchen she could well be the poster child of a “balabusta,” the Yiddish expression for champion homemaker. 

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

She told me how she and her husband, Billy Firestone, made sure that they sat down to dinner each night with their three children when they were growing up. “I always made sure to set the table with real, cloth napkins,” she said. “My children learned to like vegetables because they weren’t leaving the table until they finished them.”

I laughed at that memory because my mother did the same thing. “Don’t even think about getting up from the table until those peas are gone,” she would say. When she got up for a minute or wasn’t looking, I’d carefully sneak each pea from plate to napkin, before crushing them mightily. Luckily, at our house, we used paper napkins.

Toward the end of our lunch, Dorothy brought out a couple of cookbooks she had self-published. The first, in 2007, called “Table Talk,” contains many of her favorite recipes that first appeared in the Light and Post-Dispatch. It also is something of a memoir, with stories about the various recipes as well as food memories as they pertained to various Jewish and secular holidays and her family’s travels. 

The second, “One Family’s Cookbook” published last year, is noticeably thinner but every bit as worthy. For this one, Dorothy had the genius idea of asking family members to send her their favorite recipes so she could include them in a book. She cast the net wide, inviting not only immediate family to submit but also distant and step-relatives, and wound up with 21 responses and about 50 recipes. She tested all of them – Dorothy is a stickler when it comes to making sure a recipe truly works – and then went about rewriting them so they were step-by-step easy.

“Recipes have to be written correctly, which to me means in order of ingredient use. I number the directions to make it easier,” she explained. “And I don’t use abbreviations.”

As she talked about this project, it hit me: What a great idea for a family Hanukkah present.  Dorothy agreed, suggesting that if I, or any Light readers, were interested, we get going on it right now. 

“It took me all of last summer to collect, test and rewrite the recipes,” Dorothy said. “When I was done, I went with my laptop to Office Depot and they told me how to put everything on a zip drive so I could give it to them ready to print and bind.

“They were so helpful I even wrote to the manager to say thank you.”

Dorothy’s advice is not to worry about making the book balanced; in other words, if there are more dessert recipes than vegetables, who cares? What she found is another type of balance that emerged “between young and old, men and women, and between those no longer here and the rest of us.”

Besides, any cookbook devoid of recipes with peas is fine by me.

Book this

Scott Berzon, director of the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, shared its preliminary line-up and I’ve got to say, it looks pretty darn good. Even before the two-week-long festival officially kicks off Nov. 6, a trifecta of big-name author events in October are likely to impress. They are: Geraldine Brooks (”The Secret Chord: A Novel”) at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6; Al Roker and his wife, Deborah Roberts (“Been There. Done That: Family Wisdom for Modern Times”) at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 8 and Jennifer Weiner (“Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing”) at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19. 

As was the case last year, two keynote speakers will take the stage on consecutive Sundays at 7:30 p.m.: best-selling acclaimed fiction author Scott Turow Nov. 6 and Rabbi Harold Kushner Nov. 13. Other highlights include a special concert by the St. Louis Symphony and Leonard Slatkin, at 3 p.m. Nov. 13; a Cardinals Sports Night with Howard Megdal (“The Cardinals Way: How One Team Embraced Tradition and Moneyball at the Same Time”) and Light Trustee Gary Kodner (“St. Louis Cardinals Uniforms and Logos: An Illustrated History”) with an introduction from Bill DeWitt III, owner of the Cards, and a Women’s Event Reception followed by author, chef and comedian Robert Rosenthal at 6:45 p.m. Nov. 16.

A full schedule of the festival will appear in next week’s Light.  

Local Garment District workers unite

As many of you can attest, downtown St. Louis was once an American hotspot for fashion design and manufacturing. Its Garment District along Washington Avenue was home to some of the nation’s most prestigious brands, many with Jewish roots, including International Shoe, Knickerbocker Clothing, Fashion Square, Kitty Kay Gloves and the Bee Hat and Cap Co. But by the 1980s, the last of the factories had moved out.

Today, with the establishment of the Saint Louis Fashion Fund, the hope is to re-establish downtown St. Louis as a vibrant center for textile innovation by creating a local fashion incubator. In late August, the first class of “fashion fellows” will be announced — up-and-coming designers with resources to establish and grow their businesses. Six to eight of these “designers-in-residence” will be given space to live and create, along with opportunities to showcase their designs during St. Louis Fashion Week and other fashion-related events. 

In conjunction with this renaissance, Susan Sherman, chairman of the Saint Louis Fashion Fund, is looking to interview those with strong ties to the St. Louis Garment District in its heyday for a video that her organization is producing. Anyone who fits the bill and is interested, should email [email protected] or call 314-726-5652.