Culinary Cross-Pollination

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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  1. I never had Kugel but sounds interesting, Barbara.

    Comment by Indira — September 28, 2005 #

  2. I’ll have to up and make some now that i have written about it, Indira. I have only eaten it, not made it yet.

    Zak is voting that I put fried apples in it to make it a sort of Nouveau Hillibilly version.

    Sounds pretty good to me.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — September 28, 2005 #

  3. Of course, then the question is – to what extent will we be able to preserve the traditional recipes and ingredients. Purists probably fear our becoming a big “fusion” society with watered-down, fusion kitchens. Others welcome the opportunity to taste flavors from all over the world. Where are you in this controversy, Barbara?

    Comment by Hadar — September 28, 2005 #

  4. As is typical of a Libra, I straddle the fence.

    One of the reasons I am an avid collector of Chinese cookbooks in English is because I want to document the history of Chinese cookery in the English-speaking world, and I want to help preserve more “traditional” ways of cooking Chinese foods. Currently, Chinese cookery and eating patterns in China are undergoing a period of rapid change, and younger generations are turning away from the traditional foods and holidays and are getting into Western style cooking and fast foods. I want to help preserve the beautiful, ancient traditions of the Chinese kitchens and help people recreate those dishes here in the West.

    On the other hand–culinary arts are always changing and growing–new foods are continually being added.

    When the Europeans came to the “New World,” it changed the face of culinary arts around the world. Tomatoes came to Italy, and marinara sauce was born. (Can you imagine Italian food without the tomato? Few can, yet, until tomatoes were brought back from South America–Italy had a vibrant set of regional cuisines quite merrily bubbling along–sans tomato.) Chilies came to India, Thailand, China, Korea and Vietnam, and inveigled themselves so deeply into the kitchens of Asia that some Indians will tell me that chilies were always there.

    Yet, they were not.

    Potatoes came to Ireland and became a staple of the diet. Corn went to Italy and became polenta.

    Meanwhile, the Spanish colonists introduced pork, beef and dairy products to Mexico and completely changed the corn-based foodways there.

    If you think about it–many cuisines that are now traditional, we could say are fusions. When cultures come into contact, food is one of the first exchanges that are made, and people’s eating habits change. And they change very rapidly.

    I could write an entire essay about how both Thai and northern Mexican cuisines could be called fusion cuisines if one looks examines their foodways and traditions through the eyes of an anthropologist or historian.

    Thai food, for example, has elements that came from southern India via trade, and from China, via trade and colonization. These elements were fully integrated with the already extent cookery and myriad of foodstuffs to create a very diverse, wide-ranging cuisine. And then, once the chile pepper arrived from Mexico–the cuisine was changed irrevocably–and the ingredient of a third culture is added to the tri-cultural fusion.

    So–what do I think?

    You cannot stop culinary sharing, nor can one stop cookery from developing and changing over time. It is impossible. It is human nature to see a cookpot and wnat to know what is in it and what it tastes like. It is also part of the natural way of human culture that it changes over time into unpredictable ways–some subtle, and some sweeping.

    On the other hand–I do not like to see that which is beautiful and good about a culture be lost to change that is not wholesome. I don’t like fusion food that is badly executed, with no respect to the cultural heritage that the foodstuffs came from. I don’t want to see kitchen history lost to a tide of fast food and plastic cheese.

    So, I hope that we can strike a balance, and keep our traditions, and share them, and let them develop over time without losing them utterly. I hope that we can share, and learn and grow, while still enjoying at least some of the traditional foods our forefathers and mothers ate in their day.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — September 29, 2005 #

  5. Lovely post Barbara! I think it’s wonderful how recipes can cross tables, borders etc that way. Do you have Joan Nathan’s [i]Jewish Cooking in America[/i]? She’s got several kugel recipes, but my favorite (the creamiest, lol) is the one served at the embassy in Rome (or some such name.) I sometimes add dried or fresh cranberries too.

    Comment by Katie — October 3, 2005 #

  6. Welcome, Katie–I am glad you enjoyed this post.

    I don’t have many Jewish cookbooks at all–just a couple of ones of historic significance. I should pick some up, though, so I can learn to make more of Zak’s ancestral “soul food,” though to be honest lots of it I like better than he does. He will not touch gefelte fish or chopped liver, both of which I think are delicious. Nor does he like nova lox–which, of course, I adore.

    In fact, I cannot think of a smoked fish he likes, whereas, I love most of them.

    He doesn’t even like latkes. How someone can -not like- latkes, I have no idea. I think he is a bit musheggeneh for it, but what can I say?

    I will have to look into that cookbook–if nothing else, so I can cook the Jewish food that I like, even if he won’t eat it. 😉

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — October 3, 2005 #

  7. Not like latkes? (gasp) … lol, they are so good, though! 🙂

    Jewish Cooking in America is one of my favorite cookbooks to read. She’s got so much history and so many stories in there–as well as many good recipes–that it’s fun to just sit and read on the sofa.

    Comment by Katie — October 3, 2005 #

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