Recently, while on vacation, I devoured Padma Lakshmi’s 2016 memoir, “Love, Loss, and What We Ate.” The book inspired some very ambitious menu planning, and it also got me thinking about a lot about food, family, and the meaning of tradition.
Lakshmi tells the story of planning her daughter’s annaprashan, or first food ceremony. In Hindu families, annaprashan (anna = grain; prashan = eating) is a big family get-together that marks a baby’s introduction to solid foods, usually held when he or she is between 6 and 12 months. Babies are served their first bites of rice, often in the form of kheer (a sweet rice pudding). “We Hindus believe that the first thing you feed a child is incredibly important,” Lakshmi writes. Rice is highly symbolic across Indian cultures, linked to fertility, prosperity, and health. Feeding a baby rice connects her to thousands of years of tradition and introduces her to the flavors and ceremonies of her community.
Neither my husband nor I are Hindu — we are planning on raising daughter as a proud Ashkenazi Jew. But I was captivated by the tradition, and I began to wonder: What kind of first food could we give her that would connect her to thousands of years of diasporic Jewish history? What would give her a proper introduction to the foods and flavors of her people?
Since I basically subsisted on vanilla ice cream when I was pregnant, I couldn’t rely on her connecting with her heritage through the flavor of amniotic fluid, which retains the flavors of the mother’s diet, influencing a child’s food preferences as they grow up. Babies are most open to new flavors between four and seven months so I knew I had another window to steer her toward briny garlic-dill pickles or the smoky saltiness of lox on a bagel.
As our daughter reached the four-month mark, my husband and I began researching a list of traditional Eastern European Jewish foods that might be appropriate for a baby’s first food. It turned out to be a pretty short list — and it generated a certain amount of skepticism from friends and family. When I queried our pediatrician about whether or not I could feed my baby gefilte fish, she burst out laughing. When I looked at her quizzically, she gasped, “Oh I’m sorry! You’re not joking? I think it’s probably fine.”
A long-simmered Sabbath stew of beans, grain, and meat, a famous poet once extolled the virtues of cholent as “God’s bread of rapture.” In the pre-Instant Pot era, women placed all the ingredients into a sealed pot, then placed the pot into a hot oven several hours before lighting the candles on Friday evenings. The stew simmered until lunchtime the next day, transformed into a congealed, flavorful, porridge-like Jewish comfort food.
Pro: References to cholent in Jewish texts date back a thousand years, so it’s hard to argue with that kind of culinary tradition.
Con: Beans are a choking hazard.
Another classic, dating back to 11th century Alsace, chopped liver is the Ashkenazi adaptation of foie gras, made from chickens rather than geese. It’s elegant in its simplicity, basically liver, schmaltz, onion, boiled eggs, and salt.
Pro: One devotee almost guarantees that after taking one bite, “you’ll feel a connection across centuries of Jewish history to our forbears.”
Cons: Since chopped liver was served in America as a side dish, it became shorthand for “second best” – perhaps not the most auspicious beginning for a first food!
I confess to never having tried this delicacy of jellied calves’ feet. It is basically a beef Jell-O: a block of quivering, garlicky aspic flecked with meat, which one author describes as “savory and sour and satisfyingly mushy.” My husband was up for it, but I got, uh, cold feet.
Pro: Introduces our baby to “nose to tail” gastronomy and the Jewish principle of ba’al taschis (the prohibition against waste).
Con: I haven’t eaten a food that quivers since I tried my grandmother’s aspic salads back in the 90s.
The “Jewish meatloaf” is made of ground fish, onion, eggs, and bread, making it easy and economical. A person’s gefilte preferences can say a lot about where they came from: Scholars call it the “gefilte fish line,” which is literally a line traced on the map from the Baltic Sea to Hungary, separating Western and Eastern Ashkenazi Jews. If your family is on the Polish side, they like their gefilte sweet; on the Russian side, they like it peppery.
Con: My husband is a strictly Poylish partisan, and I preferred our baby’s first food to be savory, not sweet.
“The streets in New York aren’t paved in gold,” author Laura Silver says, “they are paved in knishes.” A truly New York Jewish soul food, a knish is typically potato and onions nestled in a cradle of dough. A humble immigrant street food, the knish exploded in popularity on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century, prompting the Great Knish Crisis of 1916.
Pro: As a sixth-generation New Yorker on her father’s side, my daughter should definitely be exposed to such a fundamental New York Jewish food as soon as possible.
Con: The perfect, pillowy knishes from the Lower East Side’s Russ & Daughters are the stuff dreams are made of — but at $12 a plate, maybe it’s worth waiting until most of the knish won’t end up on the floor.
Its golden color and fragrant aroma are immediately appealing, it is both savory and a little sweet, and it includes vegetables in baby-safe, soft consistency. Plus, it comes highly recommended by a Jewish doctor – Maimonides, in fact, who recommended its healthy properties in the 12th century.
Once we had chicken soup in mind, it was obviously the clear winner. So, on the appointed day, we sat my daughter at the table and dished out a bowl of homemade “Jewish penicillin.” After we ate a few bites ourselves (and blew on it to cool it down), our daughter’s interest was piqued. I ceremoniously handed her a tiny spoon and guided it to her mouth. She eagerly grabbed the spoon and slurped the contents, as her face transformed from surprise to dubiousness to thoughtful to…a smile!
“She smiled! She likes it!” I announced jubilantly to my husband. After a few more bites, she became much more interested in eating the spoon than its contents, so we officially ended our experiment, confident we had done our job as Jewish parents to instill in our child pride in her heritage, tradition, and culture.
Of course, now that she’s 9 months old (keyn ayin hore – no evil eye ) the joke’s on us: Her favorite food is now Bamba, the Israeli peanut-flavored snack made of peanut butter, corn grits and palm oil. While it’s neither especially healthy nor a cultural touchstone for us, Bamba has at least one major thing going for it: a recent study showed that Israeli children, who consume mass amounts of the stuff, have significantly lower rates of peanut allergies than their British counterparts. Not quite what we had in mind, but may she est gezunterheyt – eat in good health!