So many of my childhood memories revolve around food.
When I think of holidays, I think of my family crowded around the dining table at my mom and dad’s home, enjoying course after course of foods like matzo ball soup, gefitle fish, brisket, latkes, and more.
When I picture my mom in the kitchen, I remember her making chopped liver, baking plum kuchen, stuffing a turkey, and cooking up a big pot of chicken soup.
To this very day, I remember the first time my grandma served me a bowl of borscht, and her tales of how her own mother would make homemade gefilte fish.
Each memory is priceless, and I think of them often whenever I shop in a Jewish bakery or deli, think of the holidays, or sometimes even just when I smell chicken soup.
It’s priceless – and something I want to share with my sons, too.
But, I have to tell you. I think I need to do better when it comes to forging the connection between culture and food.
Strengthening my sons’ cultural connection to food
Just the other week, I suggested my family go to a Jewish deli and bakery in Skokie, just north of Chicago to get a snack after my son’s visit to the eye doctor.
There were so many other places we could have gone, with chain restaurants and stores lining the surrounding streets.
But, how could we not go and get a “taste” of our culture when we were so very close?
So, we did. But, all didn’t go as planned.
As we got out of our car and headed into the deli, our older son asked, “What’s a delicatessen?” It took us a moment to understand what he was talking about because he had pronounced delicatessen as “deli-cate-a-sen.”
As the son of a New Yorker, I couldn’t believe it.
How did he not immediately know the word? Had we not said it enough?
Then, after perusing a bakery case filled with ruggelah, kichel and so many of the other cultural sweets I enjoyed as a child, my younger son demanded… a butter cookie with M&Ms.
Yes, he hardly gave any of the Jewish bakery items I remembered from my youth another look. He just wanted that cookie.
I know it’s just a cookie. But, for some reason, I took it hard.
I suddenly found that I was sad that my sons wanted cookies – and none of the favorite sweets I enjoyed as a kid.
So, what did I do? I demanded they get something else.
Okay, so it wasn’t my finest parenting moment. But, I wanted them to enjoy some of the same things I did as a kid with my mom and my grandma (who they never had the privilege to meet).
I admit that my actions were based on emotion – and not exactly logic.
So, with sudden ache in my heart, I made my sons get ruggelah. Chocolate ruggelah, apricot ruggelah, raspberry ruggelah, and strawberry ruggelah. I didn’t care what varieties they chose - I just wanted them to get ruggelah.
And, then, as fate would have it, the woman behind the bakery case sweetly asked if she could give my sons a “treat.”
What did she offer them? The very same small butter cookies with sprinkles and M&Ms they had discretely begged us for just a few moments ago.
That’s life right there, isn’t it?
I was over the whole thing by the time we paid for our goods and our sons bite into their “complimentary” cookies. (Yes, they choose to eat the cookie first. Are you surprised?) But, the whole experience stayed with me, and I couldn’t get it out of my head for days.
I try to learn from everything. And, my takeaway from the whole “deli-cate-a-sen”/cookie vs. ruggelah experience is this – I need to step it up and strengthen my sons’ culinary ties to their culture, and allow us to forge new cultural food traditions as a family, too.
Defining our own cultural foods
As someone who often celebrates holidays through cultural traditions versus religious ceremonies, food has become a part of me and who I am. It’s come to connect me to my family, my roots, and my culture. So much in fact that it’s intertwined with so many of my memories.
But, I can't just rely on the connection to come through meals enjoyed at my parent's dining table. I need to make it more a part of our own meals and traditions, too.
But, what should I focus on? What foods are part of my culture? What recipes do I want to pass on to my children so that someday they’ll want to share them with their children, too?
You see, I’m Jewish. And, being Jewish is an interesting thing. It’s a religion. But, it’s also a culture and ethnicity, too. Jewish foods are sold at Jewish bakeries, Jewish delis, Jewish restaurants and Jewish grocery stores. And, I don’t know if you can say the same thing about other world religions.
So, yes, I’m Jewish, but I’m so much more than a religion.
My roots can be traced to Germany and Romania. And, that’s just on my side.
My husband’s family has roots in Romania, Russia and Scotland.
And, so, together, as a family, we’re multicultural, and the foods of our family should reflect that, too.
I love that I can walk into a Jewish bakery in Chicago, New York City, Paris, Rome or London and immediately picture going to ones I shopped at as a child - and I can instantly feel at home. And, the same can be said for sitting down and dining at a German restaurant, too.
And, that to me is what it’s all about - feeling a cultural connection through food no matter where we are in the world.
Pulling out our family’s recipes to preserve and pass on
I recently pulled out a folder with family recipes that I had stashed away for safe keeping. I haven’t gone through them in several years. But, they need – and deserve – to be dusted off so I can share them with my family.
Some of the many recipes included in my folder are for foods like the meringue cookies my husband loves, the apple cinnamon baked french toast my mother makes for brunch, an applesauce-sour cream coffee cake I used to make for Hanukkah, and brisket that my mother-in-law makes for Rosh Hashanah.
There also are a few new ones like a recipe for triple chocolate cake from my cousin and mondel bread from my grandma's sister - my great aunt.
And, I even found a whole packet of Passover recipes my aunt put together for me that includes her own "tried and true" recipes and one from one of her close friends, too.
So, beginning over the holiday break, I plan to dust off these recipes and to start making them again for my family, and to wholeheartedly infuse our cultural traditions, memories and even travel experiences with food.
In doing so, I hope that our sons also will feel a connection to the foods of our collective culture and feel happy and proud to enjoy them and share them with others, too.
What dishes do you like to make for your family’s celebrations? What recipes have been passed on in your family? How to you preserve your multicultural recipes to pass on to your children? Please share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.
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