It’s chilly out now, at least here in the northern hemisphere, and thoughts turn to warm things—human relations (even pet relations) and, for me at least, food. Aside from the very concrete pleasures of greenmarket shopping and festive meals, I’ve had intellectual pleasures with food this season too, triggered by my participation in a highly entertaining and illuminating conference on historical Jewish food in Washington, D.C., which Lilith co-sponsored—”Are We What We Eat? American Jewish Foodways, 1654-2004.”
There have always been interesting connections between Jewish women and food, but they are too rarely explored, except by comedians. So when Joan Nathan, perhaps the best known Jewish food personality (and the instigator of this conference) convened our planning committee, I was determined that gender issues get onto the menu. In a session entitled “Gender and Jewish Food,” I shared a few of the tantalizing connections that have interested us at Lilith over the years:
Who controls kashrut? Though it has been men who have codified and interpreted the laws of kashrut—which foods are acceptable to eat and which forbidden, how many hours to wait between eating a meat meal and one containing dairy, and so forth—women have been the ones to enact these laws in daily life. So, in whose hands does the real power lie? We’ve heard about women keeping kosher when no one else cared, and women, angry at their husbands, who circumvented these laws as a kind of insurrection (like the woman who traded everyday dishes with a neighbor and claimed to her husband that the unfamiliar china was a Passover set.) Kaslirut observance opens a window on family politics and power in the kitchen.
What about the larger politics of food as business? Because women were often the ones shopping for the food as well as preparing it, they’ve been in the forefront of consumer activism—for example, the kosher meat boycott on the Lower East Side in the early 1900s, which forced retail butchers to lower their prices. A current expression might be those women lobbying for no hormones in kosher beef, or the more humane treatment of the calves raised for veal, or vegetarianism. Here’s our window onto food as a vehicle for political activism.
The strange sociology of recipes and relationships. If and when they marry, Jewish women marry later than any other group in the US. That means that there may not be opportunities for the intergenerational healing or connecting that can happen routinely when women recreate aspects of their mothers’ lives as they become mothers (or “homemakers”) themselves. What we’re seeing instead (at least at Lilith, where we run an occasional column called “foodculture,” which is increasingly about young women looking back on the kitchen products of their mothers and aunts) is a desire to connect through recipes.
In fact, we titled Lilith’s most recent food article “How Recipes Reconcile Us.” It was all about a 25-year-old Syrian Jewish woman from Brooklyn whose own branch of this large family no longer keeps kosher or makes the family’s dishes. The woman gives us her storycum- recipes, and in the process re-weaves a frayed family connection by mastering the traditional dishes of her relatives. She goes back to her aunt in Brooklyn, determined to claim her rightful part of the family’s food legacy by learning the sacred traditional recipes—while not revealing to her cousins that she eats pork, dates non-Jews, and goes out on Friday nights. (As Letty Cottin Pogrebin once said to me—”I don’t keep kosher. I just keep the guih!”).
Cookbooks! Beware of what some of them transmit about gender roles and food. How they can shape the consciousness of a generation. Just think about The Settlement Cookbook. I grew up with this on my mother’s kitchen counter, its subtitle announcing “The Way to a Man’s Heart.” The frontispiece photo identifies the author: “Mrs. Simon Kander.” Side note: A very smart and well-educated Jewish woman who lived next door to me in Winnipeg gave me a Betty Crocker cookbook as a bat mitzvah gift many years ago, inscribing: “Use it well, for more than anything else, this can bring you satisfaction and please those you love throughout your whole life.” Even at age 13, while 1 did occasionally like to play at cooking, 1 thought there was something darkly unsettling about this promise.
And then there is shabbat. All that emphasis on the serene setting, the delighted family, the perfect meal. And all those male rabbis touting how wonderful and peaceful it is to return home after Friday evening services to a house aglow with shabbat candlelight and see a beautifully set table, children smiling—all, of course, with nary a suggestion of the toil/toll it takes to create this little tableau. Did elves do it while the missus was at her law firm?
So how do the traditions get adapted to current social realities in a historical moment when even Orthodox women with children work fulltime. Is it that men are cooking more? Has cooking become a family bonding experience? Simplified traditional recipes? Better take-out? (1 have been saying for years that all those .Jewish institutions with kosher kitchens— JCCs, day schools, etc—should make it easier for families to have a shabbat meal at home together by offering kosher takeout on Friday afternoons, as some Hillels now do.) Log onto www.Lilith.org and share the news, if you or anyone you’ve eavesdropped on has adapted the experience or expectations of the Friday-evening meal in some other way.
Ambivalence about eating. Jewishwomen- and-anorexia is an old story. We’ve been covering it for years. One problem is our own perfectionism; we have a double dose from the messages of an immigrant people needing to succeed and from a culture in America which encourages female frailty through skinniness. Jewish holidays encourage eating and the ambivalence of the instructions we get from our elders: “Eat! eat!” “Diet, diet!” At the food conference’s historical dinner (with dishes from recipes at least 100 years old), food writer Mimi Sheraton alluded to this ambivalence when she quoted her mother, who would first deliver the invitation to eat heartily, and then follow with the eye-rolling comment, “You’re such fresser!”
And eating seems to be especially fraught for some young Jewish women because of kashrut (as you’ll see in the article in this issue on scrupulosity). Anyone with a propensity for obsessive behavior can have a field day with the detailed constraints around food preparation and eating in Jewish law and practice.
Food as a way of connecting women. I always call my friends while I’m doing holiday cooking. Whatever their day jobs or other obligations, 1 figure for the day or so before Passover they’re in their own kitchens, with a phone under the chin like me. It’s a great time to talk.
Food (at least its preparation) may actually be the universal solvent. The attendees at the food conference included twenty something hotshot Washington lawyers taking a day off to play, retired couples, foodies from the Midwest, and academics exploring foodways as a key to social history. Food gives us a vocabulary that bridges the generations, even if the foods of our foremothers give us carb-anxiety today.