Culinary Jews – People of the Kitchen
By TED ROBERTS, the SCRIBBLER ON THE ROOF
We Jews are often called the “People of the Book”. But our detractors call us the People of the Kitchen. I consider that a compliment. Even our courting habits are affected. “Hey, can you cook?” asks the potential groom. This was not a frivolous question. “You oughta taste my matzoh balls,” replies the hopeful bride.
When I first married, my mama would smuggle breaded veal chops wrapped in the morning paper into our honeymoon cottage. Her firstborn – me – might starve under the culinary influence of the new bride. In those years it wasn’t money hungry grooms – gold diggers – that posed a threat, but the seeker not of money, social status, or even love – but of a life-long chef devoted to her kitchen and the nourishment of her legal spouse.
We do practice a menu different from our Christian friends. It must go back 3000 years when we were ordered by the strong hand and outstretched arm of our Deliverer to segregate ourselves from those pagan Canaanites who worshipped wrong and cooked wrong, too. If our rules banned pork and cheeseburgers, you couldn’t frolic with them at the riverside picnic. It was a great obstacle – very effective.
Of course, three millennia later that didn’t help my social status in the 6th grade when my Christian playmates talked about food and that other topic that 6th graders obsess on. (I always tried to steer the topic to that “other” topic.) Snowden Junior High wasn’t exactly Canaan.
“So, Teddy, what did y’all have for supper last night?” How was I going to explain Gefilte fish or Lutchon kugel or rolled cabbage to a gang of juvenile friends who worshiped bologna sandwiches, fried catfish, and baked pork chops. They didn’t even understand the charms of chopped liver.
“Well, first you take a carp – pulverize him, add matzoh meal. Bake it for twenty minutes at 350 degrees.”
They’d never understand.
My social status suffered. I was looking for integration, not the segregation of 3000 BCE.
Sometimes I was tempted to untangle the twisted gastronomical knot and simply say, “Oh, we had delicious bologna sandwiches with lettuce, tomato, and mayo.” Just like y’all, I’m thinking. The basic difference between me and my social ambitions – you know how kids crave popularity – was the difference between frying pans and baking dishes. At my house the frying pan was used occasionally to scramble eggs – not a serious instrument. It was considered a second-class tool for juvenile cooks. Ah, but that baking dish – a necessity.
So, I struggled against a wave of Philistinism such as deep-fried chicken, which my classmates boasted of. You’d think it was the basis of their mother’s love. Chicken…fried? Not baked or broiled? Dusted with flour? Certainly a Canaanite dish akin to bacon. Disgusting. And that was the main challenge to my social acceptance in the sixth grade.