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Aug 24 2011

Packing Lunch: In Search of Authentic Culinary Heritage

By at 12:49 pm

Palak paneer/Shutterstock

Yesterday we asked about packing lunch for your kids. Here’s one mother’s struggle.

An Indian family I know gives there 11-month-old baby Indian food—lentils, palak paneer—every day for lunch. It’s what we had every day for lunch, they say, and it’s chock full of antioxidants and other healthy things for the baby.

Now, I’m a Jew of Eastern European descent, and I love that culinary heritage. When Shabbat rolls around I’m a sucker for a baked chicken and a succulent kugel. I’ll knock an old man to the ground to snag the last piece of pickled herring at kiddush. As a kid I savored a nice bowl of borscht at the dinner table from time to time. But when it comes to passing on my foodways to my children, I wonder if I’m falling short.

Our Shabbats are steeped in tradition, but our weekdays are a mishmash of Italian-Indian-Mexican-Asian-middle American whoosy-whatsy. From PB&J sandwiches to stir fry to pizza to taco night, we’re a virtual Ellis Island of culinary traditions. Everywhere they’ve lived, Jews have taken on the food stylings of the people around them—in America’s vast melting pot/salad bowl, this translates into massive food schizophrenia.

What if I wanted to offer the little ones some authentic Eastern European cuisine in their daily lunches? What would this look like? Obviously not even the old world Eastern European Jews had rich foods every day—these were Sabbath luxuries! So…Sunday potatoes, Monday potatoes, Tuesday potatoes? Or would I rather my 5-year-old become known as the stinky herring kid?

Black bread and vodka?

This is where I honestly hit a wall. I sometimes think that the answer is to leave my Polish/Russian roots behind…to dig deeper into my husband’s Hungarian and Romanian heritage, Sephardic traditions or modern Israeli cuisine. After all, those are all authentically part of the Jewish tradition.

But not my Jewish tradition.

In the end, I find some solace in the humble bagel. Authentically Eastern European, it’s our contribution to the melting pot, and occasionally takes the place of actual Jewish religious experience. (A good shmear can be transcendent.) Our children eat bagels before they even have teeth.

But beyond the bagel, what Eastern Europe Jewish foods deserve a daily appearance in my children’s lunchboxes? Are there any? Or should I just get back to work kosher-izing the latest ethnic fad cuisine? Perhaps that will be my true culinary legacy. Palak paneer, anyone?


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