Jewish Cooking… a nod to my ancestors
By Amy Leszman
“The stove is the shrine where I convene with my ancestors.” – Unknown
At a doctor’s appointment I had this week, the doctor asked me a peculiar question: what are your hobbies? Although I was thrilled that my medical care team was invested in my whole person (a blog post for another time!), I quickly ran through the activities I enjoy most: exercising and cooking and baking (and eating!). Just that morning, I was nibbling on the last of my homemade hamantaschen (jam and poppyseed fillings, of course) and it led to a funny thought: how each Jewish holiday seems to be marked by a certain food, and how those cultural markers have grown in importance to my Jewish sense of self over the years.
Now, let me start by saying that I did not spend a lot of time in the kitchen as a child, and only began cooking and baking when I was in college, away from my mother who diligently cooked dinner every weeknight. My diet consisted of lots of instant ramen, grilled cheese, and quesadillas: college kid food.
Then Julie & Julia, a movie based on the novel by Nora Ephron, debuted in movie theaters. The film contrasts the life of chef Julia Child in the early years of her culinary career with the life of young New Yorker Julie Powell, who aspires to cook all the recipes from Child’s cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in 365 days. In the movie, there’s a scene where Julie cooks Julia’s boeuf bourguignon: she pours red wine to deglaze the pot, the wine mixing with the meat and pan juices, reveling in the aroma. I had never attempted such a complex dish in my life, but I was captured by that scene and had to experience the smell for myself. So, I set off on my cooking adventure.
It took me the entire day to make the stew, and I followed every step faithfully: if I recall correctly, I think it took an hour just to cook the mushrooms because Julia advised that we were not to crowd the pan! Reader, it was a labor of love, and I was so proud of the end result – it was delicious. It was in that moment that my love for cooking was born. Over the next many years, I began cooking more and more, dabbling in more complex recipes, and plunging head-first into learning new techniques and skills.
There was one area I had never touched, however: the traditional Jewish food my grandparents and parents had always prepared. When the pandemic hit, I realized I needed to prepare my Passover seder completely by myself. I had never made my own matzah ball soup, or any chicken soup from scratch for that matter, nor cooked my own brisket. Luckily, I did have the charoset under my belt! I had one of my favorite chefs, Alison Roman, to guide me and so I embarked on cooking my first-ever Passover seder meal from beginning to end. Was the soup as good as my grandmother’s? Yes. Was it the same, nostalgic experience? Absolutely not. (It is worth noting that my mother has since taught me how to make my grandmother’s matzah ball soup and that I learned that matzah balls will double, if not triple, in size as they cook!)
It was yet another a-ha moment: I realized that these traditional foods I had, up until then, depended on my elders for were also within my reach as a home cook. There was always something so special, so sacred about consuming particular holiday foods: latkes and sufganiyot (jelly donuts) on Chanukah, breaking my Yom Kippur fast with a bagel and lox, and hamantaschen on Purim. As I’ve grown older, marking Jewish holidays through food feels like a nod to my ancestors, to the Jewish community we have built, knowing that Jews around the world are consuming the same foods as we are at the very same time. Through these traditional foods, I feel more connected to the traditions we have participated in for thousands of years and it’s when I feel the most “Jewish.”
At Judaism Your Way, we recognize that there is no one right way to be Jewish. For me, it’s not services or studying text that brings me into my Jewish identity and community, but food. If you would like to join me in marking the upcoming Passover holiday with food, I hope you will join me for Rabbi Caryn and Sasha’s cooking class this Sunday, April 3 at 4pm on Zoom. Register here.
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