Thursday, 3 December 2009

Comfort Food

I once asked my mother, who suffers from more food induced stomach ailments than this space reasonably has time to describe, if she could eat one food without fear of it making her sick, which delicacy would she choose? Given the fact that it has been decades since she has been able to digest entire food groups, I expected her to chime in with dairy laden dishes like rich chocolate ice cream or four cheese pizza. But, instead my mother's comfort food was a hot plate of french fries and a peanut butter and marshmallow fluff sandwich. I shouldn't have been shocked by her answer. My mother, like so many of us, has always resorted to food from her childhood when searching for that which will soothe from within. Food plays a much greater role in our lives than the simple nourishment of our bodies. What we eat also nourishes our souls.

My paternal grandmother fancied herself a wonderful cook. She really wasn't, but nobody in the family ever had the guts to set her straight. She was a formidable woman who, as an adult immigrant from Poland in the late 1920s, was already a young married running her own household when she stepped off of the boat and made Canada her home. Her culinary style was one that is still familiar to most Ashkenazi Jews. She served up a diet that was heavily laden with starches, schmaltz, and whatever kosher meat was available at the best price from the local butcher. The fattier the meat, the better it was!! Colourful vegetables were a rarity on my grandmother's table, (unless one counts dill pickles as a vegetable!) and heavily boiled or stewed carrots were about the only produce served in a semi-natural state. My father has often joked that he never knew that vegetables were green until after he got married. Everything was thrown into the same pressure cooker and emerged with the same hue-a sort of off-colour taupe. It tasted taupe too! Salads, unless marinated, were non-existent. Ancient recipes handed down for generations were staples, and often inedible. Honestly, who really can stomach ptcha? (For lack of a more appetizing description, this gelatinous mess is a hybrid of jello, garlic and cow's feet. My Bubby used to add hard-boiled eggs to it in order to give it a lift. I am gagging at the very thought of it, and it has been more than 30 years since I have seen or sniffed it.) The crazy thing about my grandmother's cooking and as unappealing as I still find it to this day, is that my dad considers it some of it the finest food he ever ate. Why? Because it was his comfort food. It brings him back to memories of his mother and his childhood. It is extremely difficult to separate the food from the reminiscence.

None of us are any different from my parents. Holiday images are all tied up with memories of Bubby's Passover brisket or Grandma's Christmas ham. We cannot even vaguely envision family gatherings without the baked chicken from this cookbook or the roast lamb from that one. To alter the model, alters our consciousness and our sensory memory. Changing one's diet radically to include a vegetarian lifestyle, changes our history, our culture and dismisses some of what came before, and in all honestly, makes me a little bit uncomfortable. If we enter into a paradigm shift on eating and we move the dialogue forward to the point whereby our families can accept the choice, can we develop new dietary traditions that will work within our cultural heritages?

Jews are all about the food. There cannot be a gathering of Jews without noshing. Having a meeting? Who is providing the snacks? A rehearsal? Where are the cookies? Holidays are more than simple family gatherings. They are about commemoration through cuisine. Observance through eating. It's Rosh Hashana? Break out the honey cake recipe. Channukah? The latkes. Shavuot? I want my blintzes!! It is impossible to separate our Jewishness from our Jewish food, and there is an element of that eating that is tied up with meat consumption. We have come close to hand to hand combat in my family over the additions or deletions of certain Passover recipes at the seder table. It is a true demonstration of the passion that our food can engender. Could my family envision a wholly vegetarian seder? I honestly think that many of them would rather return to slavery in Egypt. The reconciliation of my history with a new norm is part of the struggle that I am having.

I have always maintained that eating is more than about calories. Nora Ephron has a wonderful passage in her book I Feel Bad About My Neck. She writes:
"Here are some of the questions I am constantly noodling over: Do you splurge or do you hoard?....Do you work as hard as you can, or do you slow down and smell the roses? And where do carbohydrates fit into all this? Are we really going to spend our last years avoiding bread, especially now that bread in America is so unbelievably delicious?"

She has a point. We cannot effectively separate ourselves from the emotion that our food decisions conjure within us, nor should we attempt to. My efforts to make ethical eating choices need to blend seamlessly with my emotional requisites, my likes and dislikes, and especially my history and heritage. I don't want to always think about what I am eating. Every so often I really want to join my mom in a steaming plate of french fries. Dad can keep his ptcha all for himself!

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