I know that I have spoken often about what a cultural mish-mash my own culinary background is. With one side of our family from Bavaria, Ireland and the Netherlands, and the other side a concatenation of British immigrants and Cherokee, with an influx of the Mediterranean, it is no wonder that my own formative experiences of food were varied enough to instill in me a never-ending curiosity and willingness to experiment in the kitchen.
This morning, after putting a final coat of paint on the door to my upstairs teaching kitchen (I was painting yesterday–hence–no post), I came downstairs to read the New York Times, and found this lovely article in the food section about kugel.
For those who are not familiar with kugel, it is a Jewish casserole that is from the Eastern European tradition, which is most often made with noodles or potatoes. It can be sweet and dairy-based, with creamy cheese, raisins and cinnamon, or it can be savory, with onions and black pepper. In kosher homes, it depends upon whether it is being served with a meat or milk meal–if it is a meat meal, then no dairy products are used in it; instead the kugel is bound with eggs. In non-kosher Jewish homes, however, dairy-based noodle kugels are often served at Rosh Hashana along with meat in a celebration of gustatory goodness that often includes matzoh ball soup, chopped chicken liver and smoked fish pate.
I first tasted kugel knowingly at my in-law’s home a couple of years ago at Rosh Hashana, and found it to be delightful–a lightly sweet, creamy noodle casserole or baked pudding that was intensely satisfying. However, I think that years and years before, during lunch at school, I had tasted some that a Jewish friend had brought in her lunchbox. She offered me a bite, and when I reacted favorably and asked what it was, she said, “It is just the way my Mom makes noodle casserole.”
The only noodle casseroles I had tasted before were the scary ones that involved tuna and canned cream of something or another soup, so I could really get behind the way Sally’s mother made noodle casserole. I wish she had told me it was kugel, though–then, I would have known what to order when I went into Jewish delis in later years.
What I found most interesting about the article, however, was the little fact that the legendary Mama Dip, the doyenne of southern soul food cookery, made several different kinds of kugel and served it to her family at holidays. Not only that, but she was going to include recipes for it in her new cookbook.
She had tasted kugel at interfaith suppers and so liked it that she asked how to make it. Then, she went home and started riffing off of it in her own kitchen, producing for her family a dish that no doubt will be passed down through the generations and become rooted in her grandchildren’s culture.
That is just beautiful to me.
We are very lucky to live in a free society that is made up of such a myriad of vibrant cultures and ethnicities, where people of different faiths and national origins can sit down and share meals together. When we eat dishes cooked from different cultures, we are sharing, viscerally, each other’s very selves, and in that way, bonds between people are created. The “us” and “them” mentality begins to vanish as we taste the product of each other’s work and ways of life. Boundaries are erased; differences become a joy of discovery, not a reason to mistrust.
At the table, we become one people.
“E pluribus unum.”
From many, one.
I am reminded of the Hungarian dishes that my Grandma whose family was a mixture of Germanic, Scots-Irish and Cherokee, used to make. She often served goulash and chicken paprikas at holiday dinners, along with the usual turkey, ham and roast duck or beef.
I remember asking her one time where she learned to make these dishes if no one in her family was of Hungarian descent.
She told me that during the war, there was a Hungarian immigrant family who had the farm next to Grandpa’s up in New York. And the husband worked in the munitions factories with Grandpa, and like Grandma and the kids, it was up to the mother and children to run the farm. She and Grandma, like many farm wives, met, and became friends. A morning or two a week, they would share coffee and cake after the children were on the schoolbus and the morning chores were done.
While they chatted, which was difficult at first, because the Hungarian lady didn’t know much English, they shared recipes. And the ones that Grandma liked best and remembered were for goulash and paprikas.
I asked Grandma what she taught her friend in return.
Yorkshire pudding and hot cross buns–two staples from British culinary tradition that had been taught to Grandma by her Welsh mother-in-law. Apparently, the Hungarian family loved those dishes and they entered their own family traditions, the way goulash and paprikas became part of our food traditions.
And so it goes–culinary cross-pollination. Cultures meet at the table, and bits of tradition go skipping off into other families; flavors born of distant lands weaving their way into the the lives and memories of those who once had been strangers, but now are friends and brothers.
It is yet another illustration of my central philosophy–food is love made manifest, and the more that we share it with one another, the more understanding and gentleness there will be in the world.
Peace is created at the table.
I feel very priviledged to live in a time and a place where sharing of food from different cultures can happen so easily; in an open society like the United States, we are very lucky to have neighbors from across the globe. In welcoming them and embracing them as our own, we are strengthening ourselves, our country and all of mankind.
We are truly becoming, from many tribes, one people.
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