I’m not going to write about the countless ways food and fat are related or the countless ways they are not.
I am not going to write about the gross misconception that ALL fat people have an eating disorder.
I am DEFINITELY not going to write about diets, calorie counting or Kirstie Alley’s latest weight loss miracle.
I just want to talk about the food I ate while I was growing up, in all of its glory and schmaltz.
I was a red diaper baby. For those of you that are unfamiliar with that term, a red diaper baby is a child brought up by parents who sympathized with the United States Communist Party. In my part of the world, Queens, a borough of New York City, red diaper babies were frequently the children of atheist Jews involved in politics with a communist or socialist bent. As a child, this meant attending Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson concerts, learning pro-union songs and attending family summer camps in upstate New York or the Berkshires with names like Camp Kinderland and Midvale. Because they emphasized the importance of social justice and peace, these camps were considered subversive organizations in the late 1940’s and I attended both of them as a child. I have fond memories of music, marshmallows, swimming and being far far away from the blistering heat of Far Rockaway, my hometown.
Being a red diaper baby also meant that I had minimal involvement with religious Jewish rituals. I learned early on that there were Cultural Jews and Religious Jews. We were the former and hence my sisters and I did not miss the multitude of school days that the Religious Jewish children did, (BOO), nor did we have to attend religious school on the weekends, (YAY)! But thrice a year we passed over the line and joined the Religious Jews for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and one night of Passover.
My father was very clear about the reasons for these “visits.” They had less to do with god and religion and more to do with discrimination and oppression. In regards to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the holiest of holy days, he’d explain,
“If we were living in Nazi Germany they wouldn’t give a flying f*#k if we went to temple or not, we’d be killed just because we were born Jewish. Today you stay home from school to let everyone know that you are a Jew.”
It was an early life lesson about the irrationality of prejudice and an opportunity to watch weekday cartoons. Needless to say, we still weren’t fully in the camp of the “temple attending” Jews.
As far as Passover was concerned, that was all about pleasing my grandmother who had both feet firmly planted in the Religious Jew category and both hands firmly creating the most amazing potato latkes I have ever tasted to this day.
I want to talk about the food; the food that accompanies Jewish holidays. The food I grew up with that offered comfort, closeness, community and cohesiveness.
I don’t want to talk about the calories or the confusion that grew as I grew older resulting from being told to eat and then criticized for being fat. (I did write a blog about that last year and here’s the link if you are interested.)
Mostly, I just want to reminisce with some of you and introduce others to a world of flavors and textures that filled my senses. I didn’t know it then, but eating my grandma’s cooking was an exercise in mindful eating because in the world of mindful eating it is important to really appreciate food, to relish it, to conquer ones’ fear of it and to recognize satiety.
But satiety was not just about my stomach being full when it came to my grandma’s cooking. It was about my heart being full of her happiness that we were all together and my arms being full of loved ones and my small hands full of dough as I helped Grandma shape the knishes. Spoons and ladles overflowed as we fed each other tastes of the proverbial Jewish Grandmother chicken soup that, to borrow a metaphor from Ruth Reichl, was heaven “distilled in a spoon.”
kAnd her kugel, mouthwatering slippery egg noodles, buttery goodness, snuggling in between pillows of sweet pot cheese and a blanket of raisins. The top of the kugel was a comforter of crispy brown noodles. How did she get the top so crispy and keep the inside so soft, smooth, and velvety?? Miraculously there were leftovers and the next day we would eat it cold. To my delight, it was just as yummy but with a whole different array of textures on the tongue.
And as we would wait for the oven to do its job, she would cut a Macintosh apple in half, scrape out one side with a teaspoon and feed me instant apple sauce…and if her apple tunnel connected to the other side of the fruit without breaking the dividing core with the seeds, I would squeal with pleasure. Then her face, usually furrowed with worries that I didn’t understand, smoothed out, and was replaced with a look of satisfaction with her accomplishment.
Her knishes were flawless; the flaky pastry that my cousin Susan and I would help her prepare were filled…no stuffed, with spicy peppery potatoes and the crispy top was so alluring that I would burn the top of my mouth every year because I just couldn’t wait to taste one.
And then there was the tsimmis, the only dish that could transform a prune into a good time for anyone under the age of 20 and the brisket that evaporated on my tongue, if it got there, it was so tender it would often slip through the tines of the fork.
My grandmother had very old china and each dish was dedicated to a specific portion of the meal. A covered bowl was the vessel for the kasha varnishkes, health food before health food was health food…who knew kasha would later be a staple during my hippie days? Years later I would be living in a tipi in New Hampshire, where I was one of the only Jewish people around, cultural or religious, and shopping at the co-op one day, I found kasha living off the radar, safely hiding underground under the alias of groats!
So here it is, the week of the Jewish High Holy Days. And as I think about the food that accompanied my childhood years of celebrations, I find comfort in knowing that there are ways to connect with my family and other Jewish people that transcend our personal beliefs about god, or our worries about calories. Instead we sit down to a family style banquet that has to do with nurturing, and embracing our culture. I am satiated as I take in the smells, tastes, textures, memories and company, all ingredients of the holiday food that surrounds me.
Is there any wonder that it is called comfort food?