Famiglia e il cibo

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No, I don’t speak Italian. But I couldn’t think of a more fitting language to use for this post, titled, for the English speakers among us, “Family and food.”

Family and food. What two subjects could be more inextricably intertwined than food, il cibo, and family, famiglia?

I am not Italian, but I am Jewish, and for us Chosen-But-Not-Special folks, food is as much a part of the culture as the religion itself.

Food receives star billing in Jewish culture both in its mention in Kashrut, the section of the Torah dedicated to distinguishing acceptable food items from their treyf counterparts, and in the role it plays in bringing families together for religious holidays and other such gatherings.

I grew up in a largely secular Jewish family, in which Hebrew school was a dreaded weekly commitment, but for whom a dinner of scallops and shrimp was also commonplace.

My father, on the other hand, grew up in a fairly religious family in a very Jewish area of Baltimore. His family kept strict kosher, and lit candles every Friday for Shabbat.

My father recalls an episode in which he first tested the boundaries of Kashrut. At age ten or so, on an evening when his parents were out of the house, he decided to experiment with mixing meat and milk. Plopping a slice of roast beef into the sink, he held a carton of milk at arm’s length over the beef. Facing away from the sink, with eyes clenched shut, he poured a bit of milk over the meat, bracing himself for the wrath of Hashem.

Needless to say, my father was not struck down with a bolt of lightning, and it might not surprise you that, after removing the evidence of such an experiment, he began to doubt the presence of this God he had been hearing about for the past ten years.

God aside, my parents decided that they would raise their children with an understanding and appreciation for their Jewish heritage, and so committed my younger sister and myself to six years of Hebrew school, with the occasional shellfish meal thrown in for good measure.

While slightly isolated in the overwhelmingly goyish state of Vermont, my parents did not let the Jewish holidays pass without celebration. Rosh Hashanah, breaking the fast on Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Passover; all were occasion to break bread (or, in Passover’s case, matzoh) with friends and family.

Growing up, Rosh Hashanah was my undisputed favorite holiday. Perhaps it had something to do with the time of year at which it fell. In the throes of fall, with crisp leaves falling all around, I loved the smell of the air that would for me define the Jewish New Year.

My love for Rosh Hashanah could also in part be attributed to the foods tied to my favorite High Holy Day. To ensure a sweet year to come, we would of course share bowls of sliced apples dipped in honey, moist apple cakes and noodle kugels sweetened with raisins and an abundance of sweet ricotta. An aromatic brisket would round out the picture of a perfect holiday meal.

Of course there was the excessive bagel-and-lox dinner to end the day-long fast for Yom Kippur, and the matzoh ball soup and flourless chocolate cakes for Passover, but for whatever particular reason, Rosh Hashanah still bested its peers.

What, might you ask, does family have to do with all this?

The link between the two pillars of my Jewish upbringing, food and family, is one that to me is almost self-explanatory. While a kugel need not be enjoyed in the company of others, it is the togetherness of the corresponding holiday that makes the dish so sweet. Simply put, the saccharine bliss of the holiday cannot exist without the loving presence of friends and family.

Food and family do not, of course, always exist in such perfect harmony. I am reminded of a reading I did for a course last semester on the psychology of women and gender. The topic of the article in question had to do with the manner in which immigrant families and ethnic minorities in the U.S. convey messages of acceptable body size to their daughters. While retaining sentimental ties to Old World cuisines and customs, these same families often press their young women to adhere to mainstream American body ideals. A young woman’s body, the piece continued, becomes the stage upon which an immigrant family’s anxieties about assimilation and “passing” play out.

My own Eastern European Jewish family is no exception. Fêting holidays with expansive spreads of rich foods, both sides of my family have managed to simultaneously absorb and subscribe to popular notions of what it means to be a “proper” American girl. A poor Ashkenazi Jew who has recently emigrated to the U.S. might not be able to disguise her beautiful if characteristic “Jewish nose,” but she is capable of hiding with some difficulty her accent and, more disturbingly, her ruddy immigrant physique. If only she is to attain the lithe proportions of a Gibson Girl, then might she pass for an acceptable and desirable American woman.

I think of my maternal grandmother’s family, who have perfected what I call the “Brin bite.” From great-grandmother to grandmother to mother and then regrettably to myself, we Brin women have learned to take “only a tiny bit,” to relegate our hunger and physical needs to a proverbial back burner. We have learned that full plates are for the men of the family, and that we women are to deny the extent and volume of our hunger. Containing our portions as we do ourselves, such is the sacrifice of the New American– always striving to “pass.”

I think of female relatives on both sides of my family who struggle with disordered eating. A great-aunt maintains that she has no taste for sweets, but her refrigerator says otherwise. Two aunts have disclosed past and present struggles with anorexia. The list goes on. Is it any wonder that eating disorders are as common as they are in the U.S., in this frenetic melting pot of Old World cultures?

Italian-Americans, Russian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Irish-Americans; we hyphenated Americans celebrate our ties to the culture and heritage that define us with spaghetti, borscht, brisket and soda bread. Simultaneously, however, we cope with the ongoing desire and need to assimilate by denying our appetites and the “otherness” therein.

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Welcome to my blog, fair readers! I am excited to join the blogging world, and hope that my writing will offer you something unique.

As for an introduction, here are the basics: I am a twenty-something Vermonter and Smith College student (yeah, Northampton!) with a passion for nutrition, delicious food, and living the best and most healthy life I can.

I have not always had the best relationship with food nor with my body. I have eaten too much and too little, starved my way to amenorrhea and anorexia, and consequently eaten myself into a body that I have yet to make peace with.

These days, however, I find that it is, for whatever reason, quite easy for me to view food for what it truly is– nourishment for the body and soul, rather than as a tool to manipulate my weight.

I see this blog as a way to chronicle my efforts to achieve once and for all a lasting peace with food and body, as well as a way to chart my journey from college senior to nutrition professional, with more than a few letters to follow my name 🙂

I will also share on this blog any interesting eats I come across, whether in restaurants or, more likely on this student’s budget, as created by yours truly. So please do “indulge” in my self-indulgence, and read along.

Bon appetit! Guten Appetit! Eet smakkelijk!