Dr. Jerry Parness stood in his Squirrel Hill kitchen fastidiously scraping and squeezing, trying to extract the last juices of the just-concluded festival of Sukkot.
He cracked open the sealed lid of his glass canning jar. As the citrusy smell escaped, Parness quickly deposited the freshly grated etrog rinds. The yellowish white peels sank, rose, and began to float alongside the other ingredients: coriander, cardamom, cloves, fresh ginger, cinnamon bark and vanilla.
Parness then closed the jar. Pointing to the clear liquid, he said, “The beginning ingredient is there, vodka.”
Parness first tasted etrog liquor on Simchat Torah in Fairlawn, N.J. He asked for the recipe, noted its simplicity and determined to make a better product.
“There was nothing unique about it,” he recalled, “and I wanted to make it unique.” Inspired by the rich flavors of Art in the Age Craft Spirits, Parness began experimenting. “I’ve never done anything like this before, but I’m a scientist, I’m used to concocting things, and I love to cook,” he said.
A bona fide connoisseur, Parness knew what he was after.
“I have a good imagination of what tastes good together,” he said.
After scouring numerous recipes, he reached out to friends. In days, he collected 17 etrogs. The other ingredients he already possessed, along with decades of culinary experience.
Since college, where he eschewed cafeteria food, Parness has been a regular in the kitchen. After graduating, he moved around the world and experienced different cuisines.
“In Birmingham, Ala., I learned about southern fried chicken,” he said, “and in Israel I was exposed to Moroccan, Yemenite and traditional Russian foods.”
But despite tasting diverse dishes, Parness claimed that all of them failed in comparison to one. “My mouth still waters at [my mother’s] cholent, and my coronary arteries are also still spasming.”
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Growing up, cooking was key in the Parness home. Around the age of 10, he remembered not being able to bathe for three days before Pesach because the bathtub was filled with clear glassware, swimming whitefish and carp. In other areas of the house, his mother (now 90 and still cooking) ground her own meat for stuffed cabbage, while his father made herring and gefilte fish.
“My mother and mother’s mother were phenomenal cooks,” he recalled, “and my father learned to be resourceful while stuck in Shanghai during World War II.”
For Parness, Shanghai and Sukkot have a special pairing. On the second day of Sukkot, in 1939, Phillip Parness (then Pinkus Papierczyk) escaped from a German prisoner of war camp, while using a visa supplied by Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat. After escaping, the elder Parness journeyed across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to Japan and Shanghai.
“Even though [my father] died in Tamuz,” the younger Parness said, “I tell his story not on his death, but on the date of his rebirth.”
That date, the second day of Sukkot, has remained a special time in the son’s life. For 22 years — every year since his father’s passing — Parness has marked the day by telling the story of his father’s rebirth. In sukkas around the country, he has annually performed the practice.
“I’ve done it everywhere I’ve lived,” he said.
As such, the memory of Parness’ father has continued on for decades after his demise.
Several months from now, well after Sukkot has ended, Parness predicts his etrog liquor will be ready. He hasn’t decided what he’ll do; he might have a tasting in his home, he might include it in Purim baskets to friends.
However it ultimately gets dispersed, recipients will certainly appreciate Parness’ spirit.
(Adam Reinherz, who writes about life in Jewish Pittsburgh, can be reached at email@example.com.)