Every year I go home for Thanksgiving, and almost immediately, in place of the traditional “hello,” my Grandma leads with the following formality: “Why don’t you shave that beard? And you’re too skinny. You need to eat more.”
She probably got this concern about my weight from her mother, and then passed it on to my my mother. I’m about to visit my mom, and she keeps calling to ask me what I want to eat – next week.
This obsession with other people’s eating habits is a very common stereotype of Jewish mothers. How did they get this way? It’s probably something passed down through generations of Jews getting kicked out of one place or another, losing everything, and at some point in their lives or their ancestors’ lives, not knowing when their next meal was coming.
Perhaps this is also why Ashkenazi Jewish (from Central and Eastern Europe) food is almost uniformly terrible –the kind of heavy, bland dishes where flavor takes a backseat to sustenance. Ashkenazi food traditionally called for ingredients like schmaltz (rendered goose or chicken fat) and lays claim to dishes that are upsetting to look at, let alone eat – like gefilte fish (just look at the photo below).
The cuisine is not helped by Kosher law, which, among other things, means you can’t mix dairy and meat in the same meal. Even though most Ashkenazi Jews these days eat very little Old-Country fare, as Tevye famously let the world know in “Fiddler on the Roof,” we still like tradition. So, during the holidays, our meals tend to be underwhelming at best. There are, however, a few bright spots.
So, in honor of Chanukah winding down, sufficiently gorged on latkes, here is a completely arbitrary (but totally true) list of the eight best traditional Jewish holiday foods and when to eat them:
8. Hamantashen (Purim)
Hamantaschen – cookies filled mostly with various types of jam – shaped in a triangle to remind us of the tri-cornered hat of Haman, the villain of the Purim story – are decent. They taste almost like a slightly less sweet and more crumbly sugar cookie with jam, or (at their best) poppy seeds, packed between the hat’s folds for extra flavor.
While one of the more exciting holiday foods, hamantaschen are the least exciting part about Purim, which is basically (and I’m just summarizing here) God-sanctioned Halloween, New Year’s and Thanksgiving all rolled into one. You’re supposed wear costumes, eat heartily, give charity, and get so drunk “you can’t tell the difference” between Mordechai, the hero of the Purim story, and Haman, the villain. Not so fun the next morning.
7. Bagels (Yom kippur)
This one largely depends on where you live, considering there are only two cities – New York and Montreal – that actually know how to make bagels (I’m sure other cities can claim a decent bagel shop or two, but it’s an anomaly). The bagel’s low ranking here has less to do with the bagels themselves – which are delicious when fresh and properly made – and more to do with the fact that they’ve become the go-to food for “breaking the fast” on Yom Kippur. After 24 hours of putting no food or water in your mouth, bagels and cream cheese just don’t really offer up the kind of gluttonous satisfaction one tends to be looking for.
6. Kugel (Rosh Hashanah)
This noodle casserole was always the highlight of any Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year’s) or Yom Kippur when I was a kid. It’s traditionally made with egg noodles, and in my house it was always baked with milk and cottage cheese and topped with cornflake crumbs and brown sugar to give it a consistency that was similar to baked mac and cheese. It’s crispy and crusty at the top, and sweet and almost bread-pudding-like in the center. People also make apple kugel and potato kugel (largely for Passover), but noodle kugel is kugel at its best.
5. Matzo pizza (Passover)
Somehow, Passover – a holiday centered around the rules about you can’t eat – is responsible for some of the most exciting Jewish holiday foods. It feels almost like this holiday, during which you can’t eat bread for eight days, was created to make us pay (it wasn’t) for those eight days of presents we allegedly get (we don’t) during Chanukah. Matzo, while dry and bland, is inexplicably addictive even on its own. It’s even better when covered in butter, fried with eggs, or – a childhood favorite – topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, and baked in the toaster oven. It’s kind of like the Jewish answer to the pizza bagel – which, now that I think about, is also kind of Jewish.
4. Potato latkes
The Jews aren’t exactly responsible for potato pancakes, but if we just call them by their Yiddish name – presto, we’ve got a new invention! To be fair, I’ve had “potato pancakes” before at Eastern European restaurants, and they’re just never as good as the latkes at my grandma’s or the Jewish deli or whatever random Chanukah party I end up at.
Regardless, there are few better ways to eat potatoes than mashing them up with onions and tossing them in unhealthy amount of bubbling oil. Mushy on the inside, crispy and greasy on the outside, with applesauce on top for some hot-cold/sweet-savory balance is pretty perfect. It’s about the only time it’s totally acceptable to eat potatoes as the main course.
3. Matzo ball soup (Passover/when sick)
I’m mostly putting this here out of obligation. I don’t particularly like matzo ball soup, but many people will argue it’s the apex of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, and “Jewish penicillin” is a great contribution to Eastern (European) medicine. More or less chicken soup with a big ball of unleavened bread in the middle, it’s savory and hearty and soothing if you’re feeling sick or nostalgic.
2. Chinese food (Christmas)
The greatest traditional Jewish meal is one that’s not Jewish at all: Christmas. There is an abundance of flavors that goes well beyond carbs; instead it’s all MSG and wok-fried everything covered in sticky-sweet-umami sauces; and there’s no guilt attached because you didn’t fast, or because “Brad, aren’t you going to at least try the gefilte fish?”
Instead the guilt comes from arguing with your family about what movie you’ll go see, and why you all have to see the same movie instead of splitting up and seeing what you want, because, “C’mon mom, I know you want to be with your children, but it’s not like we’re going to talk during the movie anyway.” It’s also probably the food on this list that Jews eat the most frequently all year round.
1. Challah (Shabbat and every other day)
The top spot on this list fittingly goes to yet another carb. Whether round and knotty, long and braided, sesame or poppy seeded, or one of those giant challahs they have to wheel out on a table for real-life and movie-versions of Bat Mitzvahs and Jewish weddings, challah is perfect. Its golden brown crust is perfect; its cloudy, yellow interior is heavenly, and its twisted shape was made to have pieces ripped off and eaten by hand. Challah is the savior of any bad Jewish meal, and it’s almost always around (except during passover), but it’s probably at its best in either grilled cheese sandwiches or French toast. In fact, I challenge you to find a better bread for either of those dishes – it’s impossible.