Essay selection from the 2010 issue
“Tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you who you are,” said Brillat- Savarin, the famous French gastronome over 200 years ago. The truth of those words escaped me as I labored in my mother’s kitchen, trying to create kugel, a luscious Jewish noodle pudding, for my family who relished grilled Spam on Wonder Bread and revered Jesus, his hands raised, on the window ledge above the kitchen sink.
As I whipped eggs and stirred the steaming pot of noodles, I was certain that if my parents liked the kugel, they would also warm up to Rich, my Jewish boyfriend, who had captivated me with his easy laughter, rapid-fire intelligence, love of good food, and adventurous palate.
One glorious weekend, our culinary expedition began at Junior’s Deli in Brooklyn, where we devoured potato knishes—golden domes of flaky crust covering a piping hot mashed potato interior dusted with salt and pepper. And then, a pound (or so it seemed) of thinly sliced turkey nestled between twin slices of tangy rye bread and slathered with creamy, slightly-sweet Russian dressing. At Kwong Ming’s on Long Island, we demolished slithery strands of lo mein threaded with crisp Chinese cabbage and slivers of carrots and mushrooms. Finally, in Manhattan, Aloo Palak, a fiery spinach and potato curry, flared in my mouth and left me gasping for air. It was a culinary revelation.
If food is the universal language of hospitality and acceptance, I felt immediately drawn into Rich’s family who placed food at the center of the day. Dinners at their house were hardly the restrained, polite meals I was accustomed to. Conversation darted around the table as quickly as their hands reaching for another slice of his mother’s tender corned beef glazed with Grenadine or a scoop of her legendary noodle kugel. In Rhoda’s kitchen, I began to define what made food appealing and delicious. And so, wanting to share my culinary happiness, I had asked Rhoda for her kugel recipe.
It had turned out perfectly—the noodles baked in a custard of whipped eggs, creamy cottage cheese, vanilla, and plump raisins, topped with a golden crust of crumbled cornflakes, sugar, and cinnamon. But with her first bite, my mother pursed her lips as if she wanted to spit the kugel into her napkin. “It’s all right,” she said after managing to swallow it. “It’s very sweet.”
“It’s rich,” my father said putting down his fork.
I did not know what to say. For days, the kugel lingered in the refrigerator until my mother threw it out. I had hoped my parents would be more open, more willing to expand their culinary horizons. Besides, they had married outside their cultural boundaries—blending my mother’s Irish background with my father’s Italian, but I had underestimated their willingness to venture beyond their comfort zone.
Like many people born in the Depression Era, they were raised along rigid lines—religious, cultural, and gustatory. Boundaries were enforced in neighborhoods, schools, and even in church. Like many of their generation, they raised their children within those same delimiting confines. So, my mother cooked food that her Irish mother made—simple roasts and steamed vegetables dotted with butter. Her arsenal of spices contained nothing more powerful than salt, pepper, garlic salt, and parsley flakes. To this repertoire, she added meatloaf and pasta after marrying my father.
De Garine’s research into food prejudice indicates that food can be used to signal group identity, but can also justify discrimination. I grew up hearing my Irish relatives whispering about my father’s family —those “eye-talians” who cooked “with all that garlic.” Without exposure to other ethnic groups and self-education, food prejudices are inherited and persist.
Despite my parents’ objections and threats, I married Rich and claimed my happiness. After a decade of estrangement and silence, we met them for dinner at a restaurant near Miami, not far from where they had moved. Conversation was polite, restrained, and during the long silences, I ached to hear their words of apology and regret, which were never uttered. I have no recollection of what I ate, but I remember wondering how many meals and memories we had lost over the years and could never make up.
When our son Alex was born, my parents flew up from Florida for his bris and lingered long enough to eat some lox and bagels. Over the years, we have maintained an uneasy truce. Alex continues to be our common bond and our joy. Not surprisingly, he shares his parents’ passion for good food. From an early age, we exposed him to a world beyond chicken fingers, so at 4, he was eating sushi and at 6, he included Chicken Biryani and Paratha among his favorite foods. I am relieved that he has grown up in a different era, in a liberating culinary atmosphere, which has systematically torn down the walls of food prejudice and opened up new gastronomic vistas. Again, Brillat- Savarin’s words ring true: “The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star.”
This gives me hope.