Nearly 70 renowned New England writers gather round the table to talk food and how it sustains us—mind, body, and soul. A collection of essays by top literary talents and food writers, Breaking Bread (Beacon Press, $30) celebrates local foods, family, and community, while exploring how what’s on our plates engages with what’s off: grief, pleasure, love, ethics, race, and class.
Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to co-editor Debra Spark and contributor Melissa Senate about how their Jewish backgrounds impact their relationship to what they eat.
YZM: Tell us the backstory here: what gave you the idea for the project and what you hope it will accomplish?
DS: The idea of the book was not mine but Deborah Joy Corey’s. She runs a hunger nonprofit in Maine called Blue Angel. Its mission is to get fresh food to families in need. She partners with local gardeners and farmers to deliver produce boxes to families in need. Deborah is a writer herself, and she hates to fundraise, so the idea came about as a fun way to support her organization.
When Deborah was finding the anthology project a little too much work, given her other obligations, she asked if I would co-edit. I was delighted to do so, given the cause was so good, but also because it gave me a really engaging project to work on during the first part of the pandemic.
YZM: Maine is not known as having a big Jewish population; was it important to you to find the Jewish stories and bring them out into the light?
DS: I did have a goal of representing BIPOC authors in the anthology. Maine is the whitest state in the country, and yet we have a substantial indigenous and refugee community here, along with others who have come to the state for work.
The Jewish community is super small, too, and ironically, and maybe because I am Jewish, I wasn’t consciously thinking about representing Jews when I asked Melissa to write an essay. I was thinking more about how much I like her and how I thought she’d come up with something good for the collection. As she did! Her essay got at the loneliness I certainly felt as a Jew when I moved to a relatively small town in Maine. My (now 22-year-old) son was always the only Jew is his classes and bringing in a dreidl in around the holidays seemed almost exotic, which seemed like such a throwback to my own childhood in a largely Irish Catholic/Protestant town, where being Jewish was treated as a real oddity.
I think things have changed in Maine in the 21st century, and in no small part because of people like Rabbi Rachel Issacs, who I mention in my essay in the anthology. She directs the Center for Small Town Jewish Life and does a great job of creating community in more sparsely populated areas.
YZM: You’ve written about how making and eating knishes gave you a sense of comfort and familiarity during a difficult time in your life. What, in your view, is the Jewish attitude toward and connection to food? Was the relationship colored by being in a place that did not have a sizable Jewish community at the time?
MS: Food and culture are so intertwined. From the matzoh ball soup with one baseball-sized soft matzoh ball and cut carrots that my grandparents served every Friday night for dinner at their apartment in the Bronx to the Sunday afternoon cold cuts board my parents set out for lunch (pastrami and corned beef) along with bagels and herring and white fish salad and chopped liver eaten in lettuce folds, certain foods are so supremely Jewish to me. When I eat a knish, when I drink a chocolate egg cream, when I butter a board of matzoh, I feel connected to my heritage and generations of my family.
That comfort and familiarity was important to me when I moved to Maine from New York City in 2004; Maine was unfamiliar but I could cook the foods that reminded me of home and far-away family and Jewish holidays and feel immediately connected. Knishes are still my comfort food all these years later.