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May 8 2014

Which Foods Best Represent American Jews?

By at 12:06 pm

rugelach

My first job was in Brooklyn, in a school building where the students were mostly from the Caribbean. The neighborhood restaurants reflected the community. It was there that I was introduced to beef patties and Pepper Pot. Strangers on the street were probably surprised to see a petite Jewish woman snacking on rice and peas with a side of fried plantains, but I never cared. I love all kinds of food.

It started with my father. He tried to get all of his children to try different dishes. When one of us looked at him, eyebrow cocked, unwilling to try what he offered, he always responded the same way: “How bad could it possibly be?” We took bites to appease him. I realized that my father was right, and learned that everything had the potential to be delicious.

With the notable exception of skydiving at 19, I’m not the adventurous type. I drive the speed limit. When my husband took me hiking on Camelback Mountain in Phoneix, I had a small panic attack. But food is different. I will try almost anything once. It was always my way to experiment and to learn about people. Food is easy. Food is fun. Food always tells a story.

Every day my students share their stories with me. They allow me into their lives, and let me help them take their next steps into the world. But I don’t forget that I am a guidance counselor, and I have to set myself slightly apart. Yet in a few weeks, I get to introduce part of who I am to my students. My school’s annual Multicultural Feast will be held at the end of this month. Teachers and students were asked to contribute a dish that represents their ethnic background. I volunteered to participate, but I am at a loss on what to bring.

I’m a good cook, and my Jewish dishes are usually my best. (I once made chicken soup for my book club. They still talk about it, two years later). But is that truly illustrative of my life as an American Jew? I have strong ties to my history, and I’m proud of those that have come before me. How can I communicate that using an entree? And while self-expression is very nice, I don’t want my dish to sit untouched. What will appeal to a group of teenagers that might never have seen this kind of food before?

A sweet noodle kugel might work, though in the past, Italian friends of mine have been confused by the presence of cream cheese or fruit in their pasta. My South and East Asian students will probably be puzzled.

Maybe tzimmes? There are rarely any vegetables at these events; carrots might be welcome additions. And anything sweet and cinnamon-y and will interest most kids. I know this is more of a Rosh Hashanah dish, but the theme of a sweet new year will be relevant to seniors, as they plan for their lives after high school.

I’m tempted to make rugelach. I know it means a lot of prep: the dough has to set, and once the dough is rolled out and filled, it has to chill again before baking. But who wouldn’t love a cookie? It would make a sweet introduction.

A challah? I’ve never made one before, though the Kveller recipe options are impressive. Cholent? Too expensive to make for extra large groups. Gefilte fish? Doubtful. Even the other Jewish teachers would run.

Is there a single dish that truly represents American Jewish life?

Help me, Kveller readers! What should I bring?

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