With 5777 upon us, and as I stand in my kitchen, I look to the past and the future. Both directions offer inspiration and a deeper knowledge of how Jewish food traditions continue to impact my life.What were the holiday tables like in Siedlce, Poland -- the home of my maternal family? How did their food customs travel with them to America? My ongoing research and treasured recollections visualize images of life in the shtetl and memories of our tiny kitchen in the Bronx, NY where I grew up.
Through the years, I have grown to understand that food plays an important part in Jewish life (at least it does in mine). It binds generations and connects past with present. I believe that the language and memory of Jewish food is one way we hold on to our heritage, our identity and our history.
One very personal food memory was actually shared in Barbara Cohen’s 1972 children’s book “The Carp in the Bathtub” (wish I had written it!). In the Bronx, prior to Rosh Hashanah each year, my mother and my aunt would go to the fish market, buy a live carp bring it home, and it would swim in the bathtub. Yes, it swam in the one bathtub in my aunt’s apartment. And then mysteriously, after a few days, and just when I thought the fish was my pet, it disappeared. I discovered years later, that it was actually the gefilte fish at the Yom Tov table.
This tradition of preparing fresh gefilte fish arrived in America with my family directly from Siedlce… as did the scrumptious kreplach, which my mother spent whole days preparing, sweet lukshen kugel, schmaltz (which was out of favor for a while), eggelach, fricassee (braised chicken feet, necks, pupiks and various gizzards), chicken soup, cholent, kishke, potato kugel, apple strudel, borscht, kasha, and chopped liver. Nothing went to waste in the shtetl kitchen, and as we are aware, this trend of “no waste” is back. Then there were those shtetl foods for which I never developed an affinity, nor have I ever made, such as “P’cha”, which is calves feet jelly, and schav (cold sorrel soup). Yes, our ancestors cooked fresh, seasonal, and local. Menus were filled with inexpensive easy to grow or easy to obtain meals using local produce. Poultry and meat were saved for Shabbos, Yom Tov and simchas.
As Gil Marks, the James Beard award winning author and Jewish food historian wrote: “Jewish cookbooks did not exist until the 18th century. Much of Jewish food tradition and recipes have been handed down through generations. So many of us treasure the time we spent alongside our mother, grandmothers, or aunts as they cooked.”
Food is an essential part of the collective memory that connects Jews to their ancestors. Each time we prepare some foods or eat them, they remind us of our past, especially those foods associated with Yom Tov and Shabbos. As we dip our apples in honey or when we eat matzo and drink Seder wine, we connect and continue the food customs of those who preceded us, and we transmit these cherished memories (and recipes) to our children and grandchildren. By our food we proclaim who we are, who we want to be and how we fit in. It is said that the first direct command given to Adam was “from all of the trees of the Garden you may eat” and we have not stopped eating ever since.
May we merit a sweet 5777 filled with the blessings of good health, peace, spiritual growth, joyful connection with family and friends, and delicious, meaningful meals. Shana Tovah!