Image: A platter of gefilte fish, topped with carrot slices. Photo by ovedc. Copyright via CC-BYSA 3.0.
If you live in a community with mostly Ashkenazi Jews, at holiday time you are likely to see a lot of traditional Ashkenazi foods. Gefilte fish is perhaps the most mysterious to those who didn’t grow up eating it.
“Gefilte” (geh-FILL-teh) is not a species of fish. The word is Yiddish for “filled.” Gefilte fish is a fish loaf: boned, minced white fish mixed with matzo crumbs, chopped onions and root vegetables, eggs and seasonings. (Think “meat loaf” only with fish.) Then it is formed into balls and the balls are poached either in water or more usually in fish stock.
Gefilte fish is served cold, often with horseradish and a carrot or egg garnish.
As with many Ashkenazi foods, gefilte fish developed in response to regional food availability and ritual requirements. Fish is an especially flexible menu item in a kosher diet, because it is parve, that is, it can be eaten with either flesh or dairy. Moreover, mixing the fish with crumbs of matzo or bread crumbs stretches the expensive protein.
However, fish is tricky on Shabbat, since boning it is viewed by many traditional sources to be a violation of the Sabbath. (Sorting or picking one thing out from another is called borer and is one of the 39 forbidden classes of activity.) Therefore the bones must be removed before Shabbat! Gefilte fish work nicely for this, since the boning happens before Shabbat, and the dish is eaten cold – one less thing to keep hot for the Sabbath meal.
I’ve been learning about vegan cooking. Many of my guests are vegetarian or vegan, so I find that it is helpful to have a few simple recipes for main dishes at the ready. However, a dish had better be tasty dishes, or my carnivorous family will turn up their noses!
This soup is on my stove right now, as I write. It’s very easy to make and quite delicious:
4 cups vegetable broth (I use ready-made)
26 0z canned tomato (pureed, sauce, doesn’t really matter)
2 medium onions
1 bunch celery, including the tops!
2 russet potatoes, cut into bite-size pieces
4-6 carrots, cut into quarter-inch rounds
1 cup chopped collards or other greens
Any leftover vegetables on hand
Pepper sauce (optional)
Ground pepper (optional)
Salt (on table, optional)
Put vegetable broth and tomato in soup pot over low heat.
Chop onions and celery, soften in a skillet over low heat in olive oil.
Add onions and celery plus any oil remaining to the pot.
Add other vegetables to the pot.
Cook over low heat for 1 hour after assembled.
Serve with pepper sauce on the table, also salt and pepper. Let folks add what they want.
Serve with good bread.
This can serve as many as 10, depending on how hungry everyone is and what else is on the table. Folks who want spicy soup can add lots of pepper sauce, folks who prefer mild can eat as is.
This is a good soup for freezing for later or for giving to friends who need some soup.
Over on Afroculinaria, Michael Twitty has some wonderful teaching about a traditional Sephardic food for Rosh HaShanah: black eyed peas! (Please go read that post – you won’t regret the time – a fabulous description of Sephardic food customs among other things!)
I ate black eyed peas on January 1 when I was growing up in the South. The custom was that if you ate the BEP’s you would have good luck and prosperity in the New Year. Michael Twitty does a great job of explaining why the Sephardim eat them – go read his article!
If you are unsure of what to do with BEP’s, get a can of them at the grocery store. If you are used to making dried legumes, you can go that route. Either way, once you have firm edible beans, you can mix them or serve them with rice for a delicious dish. Personally, I don’t do much at all to them, just serve with rice and a selection of hot pepper sauces. Let your guests choose the level of heat they want.
Some recipes call for meat in the peas. I make mine from dried peas in the crock pot, no meat, just water and beans and some chopped onions until the beans are soft. Then I season to taste with salt and pepper, spoon them over rice and serve. The tray of assorted hot sauces makes for some pleasant conversation at the table.
Happy whatever kind of New Year that you celebrate!
When I was nine or ten years old, not long after my family started to keep kosher, we went to a hotel up in the Catskills for Presidents’ weekend. It was a skiing resort, basically, and it was kosher. I’ve worked hard to block out the skiing portion of the trip because it was truly harrowing, but there was also an outdoor ice skating rink, and an indoor pool, and a theatre where the last gasp of the Borscht Belt came to perform. But most of all, there was the food. They made fake scallops from halibut, cut into rounds, and whenever they were on the menu, that’s what I ate. The waiters were convinced I was lying about my age, because I could have had a hamburger and French fries, or spaghetti and meatballs and I chose this?
But I’d grown up on seafood, at my best friend’s house…
Apples and honey are also a major item at Rosh HaShanah. Some say that has to do with the associations with Creation, and the infamous fruit eaten by Adam and Eve. However, apples didn’t grow in the ancient Near East; it’s more likely that the Biblical writer was thinking of a fig tree, so perhaps fig recipes are in order as well!
There is also the tradition of round challah for the holidays. You can add raisins or apple bits to the dough, but braid it into a round loaf instead of the usual oblong. For directions on how to braid a round challah, this YouTube video may help:
For interfaith families and converts to Judaism, Rosh HaShanah’s theme of sweetness offers a chance to import favorite treats from regional holiday menus. For instance, I grew up eating Chess Pie on December 25, but now that Southern favorite has become a Rosh HaShanah tradition for me. It’s super-sweet and rich, perfect for a Jewish New Year dessert.
One last thought – and link! – about Rosh HaShanah cooking: Kenden Alfond has written a wonderful piece for Kveller.com about the Jewish “tradition” of over-cooking for the holidays. The joy of the season is not enhanced by straining one’s credit or guilt-tripping others over food. It’s much better to fill everyone up with good feelings than to push a third serving of kugel at someone who doesn’t want it. (By the same token, can we all agree not to torture our relatives with diet talk and health trolling for just a couple of days?)
I wish all my readers fun planning your holiday menus, and joy around your holiday table!
But the following, which do bring up the cud or have true hoofs which are cleft through, you may not eat: the camel, the hare, and the hyrax — for although they bring up the cud, they have no true hoofs — they are unclean for you; also the swine — for although it has true hoofs, it does not bring up the cud — is unclean for you. You shall not eat of their flesh or touch their carcasses. – Deuteronomy 14:7-8
Have you ever wondered why the pig has become such a primary symbol for Jewish dietary laws? People who know little else about Jews will tell you that Jews don’t eat pork. Jews who are not concerned about cheeseburgers or shrimp sushi will still feel a twinge (or frisson?) of transgression when they eat a slice of bacon.
How did the pig, which is listed almost as an afterthought in this passage from Deuteronomy, become so important a symbol of all that is not-Jewish?
Richard Redding, an archaeologist at the University of Michigan, has made a serious study of the role of the pig in the ancient Near Eastern diet. Wild pigs were indigenous to the ancient Near East, and we know from archaeological remains that they were domesticated and eaten in Egypt in the Old Kingdom period, (2700-2055 BCE.) His research suggests that pigs gradually declined in use wherever water was scarce, because chickens provided more efficient sources of protein. This has led some Jewish thinkers to ask, is THIS the real reason that pig was prohibited in the Torah? We’ll never get the definitive answer to that, but it adds another theory for those who are interested in such theories.
(In case you are wondering: there’s no evidence in the Bible text itself that pork is forbidden for being unhealthy, because of trichinosis, or because refrigeration hadn’t been invented. The only reason for the dietary prohibitions in the Bible is that old standby of deities and parents over the centuries: “Because I said so.”)
However, the question stands: why did pork take on so much more significance than any other of the forbidden foods?
Redding mentions in his article that the consumption of pig meat began to increase in the region starting in the 2nd century BCE, with the growth in Hellenistic populations. Greeks brought pigs with them and cultivated them. Romans loved their pork. So just as rabbinic Judaism was beginning to take shape, the foreigners most despised by the Jews, the upstart rulers who profaned the Temple and imposed ruinous taxes also made that particular forbidden meat fashionable! So there’s one thing: Pork was the meat of choice of Rome and Greece. No wonder the ancient rabbis regarded it as particularly nasty.
Secondly, as Christianity separated from Judaism sometime around the end of the first century CE, it embraced the Gentile world and its diet. Among the attractions Christianity had to offer was the fact that one did not need to be circumcised or eschew pork to be one of the elect. Later, when it became the established religion of the Empire and later of Europe, the fact that Jews avoided eating pork became a “tell,” a hallmark of Jewishness.
During the Middle Ages, pork became not only a way to identify a Jew, but a way to humiliate and torture Jews. Jews were starved, then offered pork to eat. In Spain, those suspected of being hidden Jews were called Marranos (“pigs.”) In the 20th century, we know that in at least one camp the Nazis fed Jews dried pigs’ feet (Elie Weisel, Night.) Centuries of this association forged a strong connection between the non-consumption of pork and Jewish identity.
Many American and Israeli Jews today choose not to keep kosher, and they consume pork as well. However, even the most secular will attach a certain angst to pork consumption that they don’t attach to shrimp cocktail. Pig meat, an afterthought in Deuteronomy, became a potent symbol for Jewish identity. The reason? History.
When I decided to learn how to keep kosher, my rabbi pointed me to a woman in our Reform congregation who had kept a kosher kitchen for many years. Ethelyn Simon gave me a tour of her kitchen, and then we sat and chatted about it over a nosh. She reassured me that I could indeed do it – and then when she heard that I was about to relocate to Jerusalem to start rabbinical studies, she recommended that I wait and begin in Jerusalem.
“You can start with an already-kosher kitchen in your rental,” she said, “Israel is the easiest place in the world to learn how to keep kosher.”
It didn’t work out exactly that way, but close enough. My apartment did not have a kosher kitchen. I needed a ground-level apartment, and what I found was a basement office with a countertop, sink, fridge and bathroom in it. My landlord was a secular Israeli who thought that my whole project was pretty silly: a woman? Reform? in Jerusalem to become a rabbi? My desire for a kosher kitchen was just icing on the silly cake.
Undeterred, I cleaned the fridge thoroughly. I acquired a hot plate, a skillet, and two saucepans (one meat, one dairy.) I acquired two dish pans, and enough dishes to serve meat to two people and dairy to two people. I was horrified at what it all cost. Keeping kosher is not cheap, even if you buy the cheapest things you can find.
I lucked out: my nearest classmate-neighbor was David, now Rabbi David Novak of Vermont. David had kept kosher for years. My method of study was to have him over regularly, then he’d tell me where I was messing up. No cream in the coffee after a meat meal! Switch that dishpan, girl! He was very helpful. After a year of this in Israel, setting up a more conventional kosher kitchen in Los Angeles was a snap.
I kept strict traditional kashrut for six years. When I moved back to the SF Bay Area, I set my kitchen up to be kosher and quickly realized that with my family back in the picture on a daily basis, it wasn’t practical. A kosher kitchen requires buy-in from every member of the household. Very soon I was manufacturing a drama of self-martyrdom: “Oh poor me, I have to do all the cooking and cleaning, because no one else cares to keep kosher!”
I decided that my attitude was (1) stupid and (2) bad for my family life. I no longer keep a kosher kitchen, for reasons of shalom bayit, peace in the home. That seems to me to be an appropriate set of priorities. When and if the day comes that I can keep the kitchen kosher without the martyrdom shtick, I’ll go back to keeping a kosher kitchen. Right now I lack sufficient holiness for it.
I am glad that I learned about kashrut, and glad that I lived the lifestyle long enough that I can teach about it with authority. It’s an important part of the Jewish tradition, and an important part of life for many Jews. It taught me a sacred mindfulness about food that I would not have learned in any other way.
Nowadays I am more concerned with the sources of my food than with kashrut per se. Where did this food come from? Who grew it? How were the growers and harvesters treated and paid? Were animals mistreated? Is it sustainable agriculture? What kind of carbon footprint is involved? Unlike kashrut, which is very clear and straightforward, these ethical and moral questions are complex and require balancing. And – I should add this, lest I set up a false dichotomy – there are many Jews who keep kosher and worry about the complicated questions, too.
Bottom line: These days, my kitchen is easier to keep, but the shopping is complicated. I’m OK with that. Check back with me in 10 years and I will have learned more.