A banquet recently held in New York City's historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue caught the attention of many foodies. The fact that 20 of the attendees got violently ill from the food is still under investigation, but even that was not the big news. The menu consisted of what was billed as a "halachic" dinner, and had foods that are thought to be not often consumed, such as poached brains, oxtail, chocolate-covered locusts, and beef heart. Clearly, this was a menu chosen for shock value for all of the senses, both taste and emotional.
Our cultural experience with food is well documented, and readily accessible by all Jews. We are closely tied to our countries of origin through the foods we enjoy and gravitate towards for holidays and family gatherings. Of course, Sephardic recipes are just as satisfying and rich in taste as they are in history. If you think about it, many of the foods we love to eat at Thanksgiving are skillfully adapted for the Passover seder with little variation needed. Turkey, brisket, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, roasted root vegetables, stuffing (bread or matzah), and many other Thanksgiving foods find their way to the Passover table. All of these foods are included for very practical reasons. First, these foods take time to cook and will feed a large amount of people. Second, these foods speak to our collective memories and are as much a part of the holiday experience as what happens in our sanctuaries. Finally, these foods are a big part of the overall American holiday experience and we are easily able to relate to our non-Jewish friends and relatives by providing recipes that they can all safely look forward to eating. As we have seen with the "halachic" banquet, some of our historically Jewish recipes did not survive the cut.
Jewish foods are born out of necessity. Jews are experts in taking a part of an animal or ingredients that give many cooks difficulty and turning them into opportunity. Take a cut of meat that would have been thrown away, or that is otherwise tough to eat; soak it, salt and spice it, cook it slowly, and you have pastrami gold. Take the organs from chickens responsible for filtering out all the toxins in their bodies, and fry them with fat and onions, add some egg, salt and pepper, and you have chopped liver (or paté if you want to get fancy). For those who have never thought about bagels, you must know that they were first baked in the original shape of a stirrup in order to be portable on long journeys.
Perhaps most important is the simple notion that the best-tasting foods did not need to come out of five-star kitchens. If I were to ask you to think about your favorite meals of memory, they probably did not happen in a restaurant, but rather in a dining room, where you were surrounded by family and the people who lovingly prepared those dishes. The foods we favor or crave the most are the ones that have a "secret ingredient" in them: love. It may sound silly, but it is so true. "Just a pinch" is different for every family, and if you dig deep enough you'll find that measuring vessels did not always mean just any cup, but rather a yahrzeit glass or the empty plastic tub saved from the frozen schmaltz. (And yes, it will change the taste.)
By thinking about the foods we eat, many are becoming experts in health, nutritional content, and lasting effects on our bodies. We ask, is it good for us? Can our bodies digest it anymore? Is it safe for our children? Of course, the scary reality is that many of the Old World foods we know and love are from a time when people were more active - they worked long, unforgiving days in physically demanding jobs and their bodies needed different sustenance. Now we need to pay closer attention to nutritional labels, and key ingredients that might make us ill.
The future of Jewish foods is certainly wide open. As many Jews choose to eat all kinds of foods their ancestors might have forgone, the holiday tables are ever changing. Hopefully when you eat a food that you crave, it is connected to a pleasant memory of other times you have shared that food with people you love - even more than food!
B'tayavon! (Hearty appetite)