Friday, October 20, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Eat, Survive & Celebrate

Heimishe Essen/Jewish Soul Food 
“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”
“A sated soul tramples honeycomb,
but to a hungry soul all bitter is sweet.”
Proverbs (Mishlei) 27:7

One of the greatest pleasures of life is eating. Truly. It is a mekhaya and few would disagree, certainly none of the Jews that I know. Food plays a central role in the lives of Jewish families, regardless of their level of religious observance. Friday night Shabbos dinners as well as yontif (holiday) meals are often large family gatherings, with plenty of food on the table.

No one appreciated a good meal like my father, who enjoyed a good bowl of soup, even in July. My father rarely talked about his years growing up in the inter-war years in Poland, or in the war years or in the immediate post-war years in Europe, but he did tell me one story when I was a yingeleh, which I translate roughly from Yiddish: “I was walking around for days looking for food, for something to eat; I finally found something in a garbage bin, which I ate because I was hungry. You don’t know what hunger is, Perkeleh,” using the diminutive form of my name as a term of endearment.

No, not really, but I have been hungry, but for no longer than 25 hours. Growing up as I did, I now like to have our fridge packed with food. It’s a feeling that many children of East European Jews share. I have no plans on finding first-hand  out what my father and his landskayt from Poland faced during the war (“the krieg” or “the milkhume”), but I would like to know by words of knowledge what he experienced.

I have a desire to understand. My father is long gone from my presence, as are his friends, so this seems unlikely. So, I read about the experiences of others more famous, contemporaries of my father (who was born in 1911), to gain some understanding. There are other ways, filled with meaning. Fasting for Yom Kippur is not the same, but the 25-hour fast comes the closest. What joy there is in breaking the fast and having that first bite of challah or matzah ball soup. It tastes better than usual, better when you are not denied food. Even writing about this is whetting my appetite.

In our family, as is common with many Jewish families (and immigrant families, in general, I suspect), “wasting food is a sin.” Such was the message; and as much as I like my boys to not “waste food,” I do not make them guilty about it. There is no good reason to do so, and, moreover, I would like them to remain open to trying different kinds of foods—not always easy with younger children. But, there are surprises, like my two boys’ love of sushi, which my wife learned to make at home.

Now, I have eaten foods prepared from different regions of the world, but when I want to eat something that brings comfort, I turn to my long-time favourites: the heimish foods of the Askenazic or Eastern Europe Jews; beet borsch (sometimes with flanken), matzah ball soup, chicken soup with lokshen, beef brisket, varinikes, holishkes. The list is seemingly endless. Over the years, I have come to enjoy Sephardi and Israeli recipes like baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, tomato soup with Israeli couscous, lubiya, and Sephardi spiced chicken rice with lemon and mint relish.

These recipes are found in many good Jewish cookbooks, but the one that I and my wife use as a valuable reference guide time and time again is Jewish Cooking: the Traditions, Techniques, Ingredients, and Recipes (2002), by Marlena Spieler; she writes a message of comfort in the “Introduction”:
For Jews, eating is a celebration of survival. A meal enjoyed with family, friends and community means “we are alive”, and we are grateful. A basic tenet of the Jewish table is that good food is a gift from God. Jews take every opportunity for offering thanks and appreciation, with blessings for the food and also for the good health that allows them to enjoy it. However different, culturally, Jews might be, we are united by beliefs and laws, as well as an interwoven history—in the way we pray, speak, eat, drink and celebrate life; the laws of Kashrut that guide what we eat and how we prepare it, and the prayers that sanctify it all. Our food is more than just a cuisine represented by recipes; it is part of the glue that holds us together. (p.7)
Now, this is geshmack writing, especially the part about health, prayer, gratitude and survival—each of these words is worth thousands more, telling a tale of who we are and what we can and wish to beWe continue to discover and learn, even as we return to the old familiar foods of our past. The taste is both the same and different.

—Peretz ben Ephraim, October 20, 2017

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