Jewish Food Traditions … in the beginning

Food and food traditions have been an enduring interest for as long as I can remember. Several times I’ve had opportunities to speak about Jewish food traditions, including an Elderhostel course. I’ve started reading a few Jewish food blogs, especially the Sephardic offerings, my particular interest. I’ve thought of offering to write a column about food history for the local Jewish weekly. I don’t because much of what I’ve gathered comes from secondary sources. So, I thought, why not give it a go here.

In my most inimitable way, I’ve made a list of topics to write about. Wow, this could go on for a long time, especially if readers contribute. One challenge will be the visuals to brighten this very grey text (a term learned in high school journalism class!). As I expand this topic, I’ll challenge my creativity to cook and add those photos. 

Let’s start with Shabbat as today is eruv Shabbat and also the first day of summer, June 21. So many customs are associated with the Jewish day of rest. Even the essence of the Sabbath is intertwined with food references as this day is “a foretaste of the world to come.”

Shabbat was the day for the best foods and the best clothes. Much of the traditional week was spent in preparation starting with shopping and cake baking on Wednesday and Thursday. Chickens and geese were plucked and singed on Thursday, too; in Eastern Europe a live fish was bought at the market and kept in the bathtub until it was cooked on Friday. Historically in many communities, a dairy meal was eaten on Thursday night and Friday noon to prepare the appetite for Shabbat richness. Friday was the cooking day.

Traditionally, three festive meals are eaten on the Sabbath, beginning with the Friday night dinner. The Ashkenazi/East European meal often consisted of broth with noodles, challah, chopped liver, and gefilte fish, salt herring, meat pies, boiled pickled beef or roast goose, stuffed neck, and noodle pudding. Specialties included pot roast (gedempte flaysh) or sweet and sour (essig flaysh). The Sephardic Shabbat dinner also included a chicken-based soup and a rich stew that could be kept warm for the Saturday lunch. Depending upon where in the Sephardic world, this would be a hamim or adafina. In both traditions, poultry was common because a shochet or butcher was not needed to kill the bird, the housewife often did the job. When we were kids, we lived in a century house in Congruity, Pennsylvania, east of Pittsburgh. I don’t remember this, Mom often recalled that she raised and killed the chickens which we ate egularly.

Fish also appeared frequently on the Shabbat table. Sholem Aleichem wrote that Shabbat without fish was, “worse than dying for if she had died it would be over and done with. But if she comes home without fish for the Sabbath, then she has to face her husband’s anger. And that’s worse than death.”

Coming next week, more about traditional Shabbat foods.

And I have to figure out how to insert the images!

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