I decided to begin this blog not just to explore Jewish cuisine and get better use out of my Nikon camera, but also to delve into the Jewish experience at large – the deeply rich anthropological aspects of Judaism. I’m so excited to begin transforming Jewish cuisine not just because it’s the food of my heritage and of my adventure, but because it is rich, diverse, eclectic and delicious, and because it is often dairy-heavy, it’s challenging. Jewish cuisine synthesizes the ingredients and styles from all the diverse lands where Jews have lived over the centuries – from the Middle East to Africa to Spain to Eastern Europe to China. You might want to ask what makes these foods specifically Jewish if they are also Middle Eastern, African, Spanish, European AND Chinese?
My answer to that is that these foods are Jewish because they were molded, minced, and marinated by the hands of displaced Jews. Our ancestors, wherever they were, put these foods through the sifter of kashrut. Halakha and Jewish values helped to literally shape these foods. Challah rose with love, in anticipation of the world to come; kugel baked in recollection of miracles; and matzo ball soup bubbles popped for redemption.
All these foods take me around the world, and yet, they also help me to build my home.
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I began my Jewish journey a few years ago – attending classes, meeting with rabbis, reading the Torah in its entirety, going to services (sometimes!), and, of course, trying to make Jewish foods to internalize it all. My first challah was a great success — it browned, it rose, it smelled of honey and pride. I bragged about it on Facebook, in real life, on the telephone. But then my Yom Kippur Jerusalem kugel was a total failure. I must have said, “but it burned” with no connecting thoughts before or after that 10 times. And I couldn’t get over it. I wanted to throw it away, but my boyfriend ate it in front of our guests and, further, he swore he liked it. You could actually hear the crunching from across the table – like he was eating chips to break the fast. And, basically, he was eating chips – kugel chips. Since then, I have decided that my kugel failure was not only okay, but, in retrospect, actually desirable. That kugel, for sure, is still Jewish and is, also for sure, totally mine.
Though it would be a lie to say that the failures and the successes in the kitchen don’t impact my feelings of Jewishness as I trek through the wilderness of what it means to be a Jewish woman; they very much do – this cooking has the power to make me feel more authentic, and, sometimes, less authentic as a Jew returning to the community and to faith.
About a year into my journey, I decided to become vegetarian for relatively simple and underdeveloped moral reasons. I had deeply struggled with kashrut, with what I considered to be patronizing and controlling rules. Partly, I decided to become vegetarian to make thinking about the laws by default unnecessary. I began cooking, learning, and eating a lot of fresh foods. Vegetables became rich and delicious in a way that they never were before. And almost overnight, once I saw that it was not only possible, but fairly easy, and completely delicious, there was no other way to be for me, but to become a vegetarian-turning-vegan Jew. I began to think of it more seriously, study it, even. The whole idea actually consumes me.
In a world where our food supply is built into the assembly-line culture, where we streamline our processes to the determent of our sanity and our health, making new choices while strolling down the grocery store aisle seriously matters. What our world is becoming is a scary thought. (I recommend the documentary Food, Inc. and the book Eating Animals for more information about the system, the dangers, and the immorality behind it all).
Though it’s scary, I know that everyone has a choice – to study where our food comes from and to make informed decisions – be them for more humane meat, or for vegetarianism and veganism. Actually, it’s not just A choice. We all vote every day, three times a day; we are constantly making choices that lead us to a better system, a better, cleaner, more moral way of life – not just for ourselves or our families, but for our global community, our future, and – as I see it – also for our ancient and beautiful past.
Over the centuries, the rabbis grappled with ideas in the Torah stemming from not mixing a kid in its mother’s milk. The rules of kashrut are complex, certainly, and (sorry to any rabbi reading this), frankly, really boring – so let me just say – the rabbis took a few lines and then they adapted, elaborated, and sealed a number of rules that dictate cooking procedures, time between meals, and the mixing of certain ingredients – not to mention slaughtering, processing, and preserving foods. It was an ongoing, mindful process – to create these rules – over centuries. It’s a process. We are invited to join.
Though – just as we move forward in our thoughts on mindful eating, we also move backward. The foods of our history are important, they bring and hold us together at the table, across time; they are quite literally our fodder, our sustenance as people. Jews especially value memory – those powerful gossamer threads binding us to each other and to our world. In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer begins to discuss this – the evocative power of the food on our tables during holidays. An especially stimulating example is turkey on Thanksgiving. I think it’s safe to say we all recognize the time together as a family, giving thanks, by the turkey on our table. So the unavoidable question is: Is Thanksgiving still Thanksgiving without the turkey? As one of my favorite rabbis says to many questions posed in Jew class… “Yes!………No!…yes…yes…”
With that said, I welcome you to the adventure I have decided to make public –welcome to my house, my kitchen – my successes and my failures. Through this blog I plan to explore these questions with my whole being – in gathering, cooking, and sharing the food of my ancestors. Reinvented. Stay tuned for upcoming Jewish-adjusted-vegan recipes, food histories, and modern relevance.
Below is my first made-up vegan recipe — zucchini coconut cinnamon maple syrup nutmeg breakfast muffins — and the success that gave me the courage to begin this project. 🙂 In that sense, these muffins have taken on a Jewish significance.