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The New Jew Food?

I’ve been doing a lot of cooking lately. In comparison to the stereotypical “I use my oven as an extra shoe closet” New Yorker, I’ve
probably always cooked a lot for this city. But since I started freelance writing two days a week last summer, and especially since the New Year when I renewed my commitment to preparing my own meals, I’ve found myself spending much more time in the kitchen.

I’ve also discovered that there’s lots of time to think when one cooks – even if NPR is playing in the background. As I’ve tinkered with various types of cookies and tried out new recipes from my favorite Chanukah present, Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook (thanks Mom!), I’ve started to wonder, “what makes food feel Jewish?”

Yes, there are the old standbys – Chicken soup with matzah balls, fresh challah, pastrami on rye. And then there are the mysterious, and often severely unappetizing foods that you find in the “kosher food” section at the supermarket – gefilte fish, pickles, Manischewitz, and Tam Tam crackers. Honestly, I can only imagine what folks who aren’t familiar with Jewish eating must think when they see a supermarket shelf of glass jars filled with gelatinous objects suspended in a bunch of different colored murky liquids.

But when I fast forward to THIS century, and I start to think of all my amazing Jewish (and Jewishly committed) friends – friends who are worldly eaters, friends who are vegetarians, pescatarians and ethical meat eaters, gluten-free, local-food advocates, friends who are both Ashkenazi and Sephardi – the supermarket borscht just doesn’t seem to capture the breadth of their eating habits. So, does that mean that my Jewish friends just don’t eat “Jewish food,” or does it mean that the typical understanding of “Jewish food” hasn’t caught up to the Jewish people who eat it?

Two weekends ago, I made a Shabbat dinner for friends. I made vegetarian three-bean chili in my slow cooker, whole wheat challah, and a jicama and tangerine fruit salad, and an apple pie with a crumble-top crust for dessert. We ate it with store-bought hummus, pickles jarred by my friends (local Jewish farmers) and
artisanally-crafted cheese. Except for the challah and pickles, my bubbe probably wouldn’t recognize any of the foods I made as “traditional Jewish foods.” But to me, the meal couldn’t feel more Jewish – it was homey, and warm and brought friends and family around a table to celebrate Shabbat.

I think that the definition of Jewish food is changing – or needs to change – to include the way we eat today. Perhaps the iconic foods will stick around and my children will someday serve potato kugel to their families, but I truly hope that the spring vegetable matzah lasagna, or the roasted root vegetables I make in the winter make for Passover make it into the canon as well.

Rabbi, Chef, and food historian Gil Marks described what he thinks makes food Jewish on a recent PBS special on American Jewry. He focused mostly on tradition and the time-tested recipes our mothers and grandmothers made throughout history. I’m a big fan of Rabbi Marks, but I also think that defining Jewish food in this century is up to all of us. So – I’m wondering – what makes food feel Jewish to YOU?

–Leah Koenig

© 2011 Lilith Magazine