Yesterday was the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. With many of my friends getting ready to go to temple and observe, their preparation got me thinking about food. Not just the foods relevant to the holiday like apples and honey (they symbolize sweetness in the upcoming year), but all of the Jewish foods I grew up eating and loving.
No, I'm not Jewish, not even close. In fact, I'm Jamaican American, as well as a native New Yorker. Which I think makes me an honorary Jew.
I grew up a block away from an amazing Kosher bakery, so I was no stranger to rich, warm challah bread. My mother would go early in the morning before she went to work to pick up a fresh loaf for morning toast and another to get stale for weekend french toast. Around Purim time, there was Hamantaschen, the three cornered jam-filled cookies that represent the tri-cornered hat of Haman, the villain in the Book of Esther. sticky, buttery, and so crumbly-sweet. They'd make baby ones and HUGE ones the size of my 8 year old head. I would beg my mom to buy me the "super taschen" and she'd always refuse me.
On Sundays, my mom would make a bizzare egg-matzoh concoction for her breakfast: she'd whisk up eggs, and stirr in broken pieces of matzoh, and fry it in butter and olive oil. Sort of like a omlet. She'd spread it thickly with jam and serve it with, ugh, gefilte fish. The sight of these jiggling corpse-fish was enough to send me running, but she would dig into it with gusto, giggling at me while I made noises of disgust.
When I used to work on the Lower East Side, loads of people would come into the shop I worked in raving about Katz's Delicatessen's pastrami on rye. I could care less about that sandwich (I don't like pastrami), what I went there for was the latkes....oh dear God. Crispy, greasy, and just under the size of a dinner plate. Encased in a layer of tangy sour cream and applesauce, this was one of my favorite comfort foods, along with their chicken noodle soup, which was almost as good as my mother's. Almost.
I'm not sure exactly why I love these foods so much. Obviously they taste good, but there's something more. Maybe it's the history behind each dish, their origin stories. Or the perverse love I have for holiday meals. I think the real culprit is that it connects me to really good memories of my childhood; when I was full in my stomach, I was also full and warm in my heart.
Just don't try to feed me the gefilte fish.