Life on the Other Side: Culinary Customs

Passover has passed. Shavuot is still to come. Food, food and more food!

As I sat at my friend’s seder table I was surprised at how different our customs were. We had a roasted shank bone on the seder plate, she used a raw bone wrapped in aluminum foil. We made charoset from walnuts, apples, cinammon and red wine. Hers was composed of nuts and dates. No gefilte fish! No matzah ball soup! But there was mafroum (potatoes stuffed with chopped meat) and chicken with artichokes. What’s going on here?

The issue of different culinary customs brought back some funny memories. I started to think about the way I was raised – and what “we” did and didn’t eat. Did you know that white bread is not Jewish? What about Brussels sprouts? Pumpkin pie? Blue cheese dressing? We Jews definitely didn’t eat those foods!

Sound ridiculous? It is, but that’s how I grew up. We did not eat certain foods, not because they weren’t kosher, but rather because it just didn’t seem right. Those were the foods eaten by the gentiles and we ate differently from them.

Growing up in New York, we Jews ate rye, pumpernickel or challah. And slathered on it was butter or cream cheese, maybe mustard and a slice of salami. Non Jews? They were smearing their white bread with mayo and on top of that – bologna!

We ate tuna mixed with Hellman’s mayonnaise; they used Miracle Whip. We ate gherkins and garlic half-sours; they ate bread and butter pickles. We had tuna casserole, they had tuna stroganoff. We ate American cheese and muenster, they ate gouda and cheddar.

A friend reminded me of how far this mishegas could go. “They ate butterscotch candies, we ate sour cherry balls. When we had sore throats we went to the box of Ludens cough drops, they had Smith Bros. – although the two guys on the box sure did look like rabbis.”

I can’t write those words without feeling that I’m committing some awful politically incorrect sin. The thought that food was abstained from because it wasn’t associated with our people rings absurd.

All these years later, the differences among folk of the same religion are still out there. People like to stick with what they know, and there seems to be a fear of venturing too far from the familiar. Here in Israel, its very obvious.

I, for one, dislike bamya (meat and okra stew). No amount of kitchen skill will convince me to forfeit my okra aversion. Does that make me anti-Sephardic? I also dislike ptshah. Does my gag reflex when seeing jellied calves’ feet make me anti-Ashkenazi?

You know what I think? To hell with it all! Let ’em eat cake! And bamya! And white bread with mayo! Mix it up. Just jump in and try that food you’ve seen but never tasted. It’s time to step out of our culinary comfort zones. Go on a gastronomic journey and live it up. Life is short – learn to say, “We do eat that!”

Anne Kleinberg, author of Menopause in Manhattan and several cookbooks, left a cushy life in Manhattan to begin a new one in Israel. Now she’s opened a boutique bed and breakfast in her home on the golf course in Caesarea. For details, visit and


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