Why I care about food

19 Feb

I’ve often wondered why food is so important to me for reasons other than basic sustenance. Then one day, it hit me. I can’t help it. I’m Jewish. And to Jews, food is priority #1.

Ask any Jew about any Jewish holiday and she won’t tell you the significance of the holiday or even when it is. She will tell you about the food. Ask about Passover, and you’ll be told “ugh, matzah! And we don’t get to eat until midnight!” Before Purim look for statments like “oh, yeah, that’s the one with hamantashen. But eat the apricot ones, not the prune.”  Hanukkah’s definition sounds like this: “Presents, potato lakes and gelt.”

Then there’s the holiday de resistance for a Jew–Yom Kippur. That’s the one where we fast. You want a Jew to repent for his sins, take away the ability to eat food. But don’t think that will stop us from relentlessly talking about what we’re going to eat when we break fast or what we wish we were eating that day. Seriously, thoughts about food become all consuming. Your stinky neighbor at temple? Eventually he starts to smell like chocolate cake. And after a while even gum sounds like a delicacy.

Our obsession with food stops at doesn’t stop with holidays. Oh, no. Ask any Jew about any wedding, bar/bat mitzvah or other major event and the response will sound like this, “The bride (bat mitzvah girl, whomever) looked beautiful. But the food, oy, was it delicious (or horrible or dry or overcooked)!”.  The measure of whether an event was successful or not is for how long after the event guests still talk about the food.

Food isn’t just important during happy times. Food is also important during sad times such as death. In the Jewish religion, when a person dies, the family sits shiva. People will pay their respect to the family at the “shiva house” (it is of utmost importance to know which is the shiva house because that is where all the food goes). After most funerals, you will hear “where are they sitting shiva?” (I’m convinced this has two purpose–being respectful and being hungry.)

Upon making a shiva call, after expressing sympathies and condolences to the grieving family, people make a literal beeline for the deli platters, pickle trays and mounds of potato salad and coleslaw. If you’re lucky, you’ll show up on the night when the family received kosher chicken! To be a fly on a wall while a family is sitting shiva not only means you’ll get to feast but you’ll overhear coversations like “this chicken is delicious. I wonder where it came from.” “Oh, I think it came from Ben’s.” “Ben’s, really? I didn’t think Ben’s was this good!”  Sometimes the conversations even involve both the deceased and food (“Murray loved chicken from Ben’s!”) The grief buffets lasts long after the family is done sitting shiva but it’s often filled with the stuff that no one wants to eat (to this day, I still don’t understand why 90 pounds of kasha varnishkes was delivered after my grandfather passed away. I think I’ve met 3 people who like it). Yet somehow, all of that food disappears.

The disappearing food might have something to do with the cornerstone of the relationship between Jews and food–Jewish mothers (and grandmothers, aunts, etc). There is something about being near a Jewish mother that makes you want to eat. I’m not sure if it’s the guilt (“do you know how long it took me to make this?!”) or the fact that most socializing in a Jewish home takes place in the kitchen (I’m positive this is carefully calculated) but whatever it is, Jewish mothers have some sort of witch-like ability to make us want to eat.

My own mother and grandmothers have passed this trait on to me. Whenever someone comes to my house, I have an uncontrollable urge to feed them. I can’t help it. It just comes out, like a loud burp. A visitor could walk into my house carrying an entire grocery bag full of food and I will not be able to stop myself from saying “can I get you anything?” Some may think this is being a good host; I think it’s akin to being a drug dealer. Except instead of pushing drugs, I’m pushing baked goods.

The relationship between Jews and food is one that could be explored in volumes of research books and perhaps several thousand therapy session transcriptions. But that relationship has helped shape who I am and what I value. And I’m OK with that.


3 Responses to “Why I care about food”

  1. mom February 19, 2010 at 11:55 am #

    as a jewish mom i appreciate what you wrote


  1. It’s Passover! « The Empty Kitchen - April 5, 2011

    […] I’ve mentioned, food is really important to Jews. One would think we’d come up with a way to make holiday food taste better. Sorry Jamie […]

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