Last weekend in Los Angeles, Carolyn and I helped our son with a project for his summer anthropology class at Pasadena Community College. It involved a beloved family recipe and offers a lesson that should be familiar to Americans but too often isn’t.
Yosi had to make a short video and write up a report on an ethnic food. He chose potato kugel, an Ashkenazi Jewish potato pudding. He used the recipe passed down from his great-great-grandmother Chifre Horowitz to great-grandma Minnie Horowitz Finkle to my mother Blanche Finkle Perlstein to Carolyn.
Note: In 1969, my mother flew to San Antonio to meet Carolyn. This well-dressed, opera-loving New Yorker brought her future daughter-in-law a potato grater (it’s in Yosi’s video) and a jar of schmaltz (chicken fat). My mother and Carolyn developed an instant bond.
Carolyn told the above story when Yosi interviewed us on video. I explained the family roots of the recipe and the different Ashkenazi-Jewish dishes my mother cooked. Then I videoed Yosi preparing the ingredients—potatoes, eggs, white bread to help bind the kugel, onion, salt and pepper. The kugel went into the oven.
Yosi mentioned that he had to read at least one article on the subject. He commented that other Ashkenazi Jews had the same memories of potato kugel (noodle kugel also is a great dish). I responded that our family was hardly unique. Ashkenazi Jews share many common memories and experiences. So do Sephardi (descendants of Spanish Jews), Mizrachi (Jews who never left the greater middle east) and all other Jews.
Importantly, all people cherish such memories.
The love of cooking and eating spans every race, ethnicity and culture. The foods may be different, whether this involves at-home meals or holiday celebrations. A Passover brisket is not an Easter Ham, Eid kebab or mud carp for Chinese New Year. But food universally triggers both joy and memories. Eating Yosi’s kugel—delicious, like grandma/mom used to make—along with chicken and vegetables from an Israeli vegetarian restaurant, Mazal, I felt transported back to Rego Park in the 1950s.
Of course, we’re not bound to only our own culture’s food. Most Americans demonstrate a cross-ethnic palate even when they don’t realize the source of their meals. Burritos, bagels, pizza, dim sum and Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches represent common fare. And while differences exist, barbecue in the styles of Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Texas, California and elsewhere help us cross internal boundaries.
Debating which ethnic/regional foods are better proves pointless. Different doesn’t represent a moral judgment. Dishes we enjoyed as kids—from lutefisk (Nordic) to ribollita (Italian) and kimchee (Korean) to chopped liver (Ashkenazi—maintain a special place in our hearts.
Yosi’s kugel ties him to past generations of Finkles (my mother’s side of the family) and Perlsteins, and all Ashkenazi Jews. His anthropology project also serves as a reminder of the diversity of Jewish cooking influenced by our living among Russians, Germans, Persians, Arabs, Indians and others.
But always, the bigger picture comes into play.
Food, whatever the recipe, offers a taste of both of our specific heritage and also our common humanity. We’re all different just the same. Acknowledging what we share rather than our differences can widen our world and narrow barriers that too often—and needlessly—separate us.
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