Basket Case

That food package that says everything you want it to say

Consider the gift basket.

Stuffed with incredibly edible comestibles ranging from fresh fruits straight out of boutique orchards to artisan cheeses cured at dairies that exist in determinedly rural communities, it serves a multitude of occasions. The basket celebrates births and other Hallmark holidays, commiserates deaths, brings in money for raffles and charity auctions, is the ideal hostess present and an absolutely necessary holiday arrangement. Hell, it even packs a gourmet picnic, though I don't actually know anyone who goes on picnics anymore. Who wants to serve yourself for the same money it takes to be served? Especially when sand or dirt might be involved, under a sun pulsating so much radioactivity into our southern Florida atmosphere it's a wonder that even the fire ants, who seem to make an inordinately organized immigration line toward any unpacked foodstuff, have prospered?

One of my industry preparatory jobs at a delicatessen-cum-gourmet market called Don's included making up gift baskets to send to both joyous and emotionally incapacitated recipients alike. I honestly loved it -- the picking out of compatible goods, making sure they fit in both a culinary and artistic sense, and arranging them like birds' eggs in crinkly confetti to offset breakage. I especially liked melting the plastic wrap over them with a contraption that in sophistication, at the time, rivaled my then-hairstylist's blow dryer.

It's probably ironic, then, that "basket" is also slang term for a man's, um, package. I'm employing irony, because about three weeks ago my husband discovered a lump in his own shrink-wrapped -- I mean, generously proportioned -- basket. The size and consistency of a walnut in the shell, it was quickly diagnosed as a testicular tumor and almost immediately scheduled for removal (thus my absence from these pages for the past couple of weeks).

Yet even before his surgery, my family was abruptly on the receiving end of gift baskets, one more overflowing than the next, somehow rather poignantly pointing out the near-future, partial emptying of hubby's cozy little nest. I was almost mystically handed the first one before the diagnosis of cancer was even confirmed, delivered by the four-month-old Fresh Market in Aventura and courtesy of Hank and Harriet, good friends of my in-laws. They had heard the news even faster than usual, which leads me to believe that the real reason Jews have been prejudiced against over the years is because, when it comes to illnesses and the potential marriages of our children, we are psychic in the precognitive, what-can-we-do-to-prevent-such-a-catastrophe sense.

That same day, I was contacted by the Miami Shores chapter of the Cancer Association to donate, in wicker form, some of the gastronomic spoils of my oft-frivolous and frequently fortunate life. More irony, along with the fact that his disease coincided with the beginning of the Jewish High Holidays, which are supposedly a time for first celebration, then reflection, and finally atonement. I know my sins all too well -- Sauvignon Blanc and champagne, to name two -- but frankly I don't think my husband has any for which he needs to be punished (unless I'm holding the whip).

But in the end, I was glad of the refresher course I was receiving on how exactly a good basket should be put together. After all, that job I mentioned was about two decades ago. I was also delighted to be reminded of just where one can source, locally speaking, an appropriately themed basket. I'd sent only one in the past year, filled with handmade chocolate baby bottles and such, from Confection Connection in North Miami to welcome a Miami-Dade County parent to the club of exhaustion and never-ending piles of laundry. For out-of-staters -- new parents or otherwise -- I order online from my favorite site, igourmet.com, which features the best of small-production, agriculturally sustainable tidbits from all over the globe, ranging from buffalo milk yogurt from the Green Mountains in Vermont to the hazelnut-fig spread from Mt. Vikos in Greece.

For alternatives in chocolate, I can now consider the Sweet Tooth in North Miami Beach, which has the advantage of also being a dairy/pareve (read: kosher) chocolatier. My doctor and her practice sent a heap of goodies from there that were dressed with pink-hued chocolate Band-Aids. She rightly figured that swallowing white chocolate "aspirin" was a preferable way to celebrate the Jewish New Year instead of downing the proverbial apples and honey.

Apples, of course, came from the Fresh Market basket, along with perfectly ripe pears. One of the advantages of the Fresh Market is that you can shop for the goods yourself, then ask the staff to bundle them up and deliver them immediately. When we received them, even the Havarti with dill and Jarlsberg cheeses were still cool from the refrigerator unit at the store.

In observant Miami Beach circles, Fresh Market is the upstart when it comes to the legendary Epicure in South Beach. That haven for mavens provided some of our industry friends, from the restaurant PR firm of Terry Zarikian and Sheila Shapiro, the means to a very malodorous end. I do believe Terry and his partner Mikey bought out the entire department of ash-coated, noxiously scented, French blue and goat cheeses -- along with a wheel of the house favorite, Brillo di Treviso, a wine-washed cow's milk cheese from Italy -- and wine, crackers, sweets, and other treats.

Human edibles, including Fat Witch brownies and buckets of snacks from the Popcorn Factory, aside, flower arrangements have also been arriving, a fact that my five cats, who appear to particularly like nibbling on roses, Gerbera daisies, and sunflowers, have greatly appreciated. The flora have also been providing a couple of chuckles -- the arrangement from Larry Carrino and the Susan Brustman agency was delivered a day later than it was supposed to be because he had ordered it on Yom Kippur. "What," he asked the florist, "the flowers are religious?" Then there's the shock-and-awe factor, courtesy of Barton G, who sent over such a stunning yet intimidating orchard arrangement that we're not sure how to care for it.

In short, my chosen community has been unbelievably generous. And the outpouring of support has our gratitude. All we really needed during this dose of bitterness were the extremely kind phone calls, e-mails, generous psychic energy, and vacation time, thanks to my editors, though next time I'd rather take it in Manhattan. I'm also including thanks for the prayers -- I know my friend and fellow aficionado Father Chris said a mass for my husband and nearly every Boca Jew has fasted for at least four hours on Yom Kippur in his honor -- despite the fact that when it comes to religion, we're both just here for the food.

Still, there have been a few, mostly enemies or at the least, nemeses, who have been either startled or offended by my seemingly flippant approach toward my husband's cancer. But you know what they say: If you don't have your healthy sarcasm, you don't have anything. Friends and foes alike be warned, however: Even I have become sick of Lance Armstrong jokes. Mention him to me again, and I swear I'll kick you in the bicycle basket.

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