The Delicious Story of the Jewish People, Connected by Food, and Ever-Evolving
By Shannon Sarna
[This is the third article in a series about the connection between Jewish identity, food, and the natural environment, written by grantees and partners of The Covenant Foundation.]
As the child of an interfaith marriage, I grew up with a combination of Jewish, Christian, and American holiday traditions. We went to church with my mom, we went to synagogue a few times per year with my Jewish grandparents, we had a Passover seder, and we had a Christmas tree.
But with a diversity of cultural and religious traditions also comes a serious variety of food: Eggplant parm was a favorite dish I learned to make with my mom, my dad lived for tongue sandwiches and kasha varnishkes at Ben’s Deli in Queens, and my favorite breakfast from my Tia Clara were Colombian arepas topped with queso blanco.
So it should come as no surprise that when I started to explore my own Jewish identity, the first thing I did was try to cook Jewish food. While I didn’t have any muscle memory around attending synagogue each Shabbat or traveling to Israel with my family, I did have the memories of my grandparents’ holiday meals: the smell of my grandmother’s chicken soup; the crispy tops of my grandmother’s noodle kugel with raisins; and the spicy tickle of horseradish I enjoyed each Passover, while simultaneously pushing away that jarred gefilte fish on my plate.
That was 20 years ago, when there was no IGTV, YouTube, or Facebook groups where I could turn for challah braiding tips or advice on how to get my dough to rise. There were also very few online communities. To find fellow Jews, I had to do it largely in person. As I chased more knowledge about Judaism, I had to actually—gasp—talk to people.
As I explored Jewish communal life, and intentionally made more and more Jewish friends, I found that the cultural experience of Ashkenazi comfort foods and holiday meals connected our identities.
Food eventually helped me find my place in the Jewish community. In fact, food has also guided my professional life—I am now the editor of The Nosher, a Jewish food site from 70 Faces Media, and the author of the cookbook Modern Jewish Baker. Through my work, I have found that food is a relatable and low barrier entry for Jews of diverse backgrounds. And since we, as the Jewish people, are ever-evolving, the story of Jewish food is far from stagnant, making it exciting and relevant.
As we see every day on The Nosher, food allows people to embrace their Jewish identities in ways that are unique to them. While they may look to our site to provide the best tips for making brisket or where to find the best falafel in Tel Aviv, we also offer our readers the opportunity to connect with diverse food narratives and, therefore, identities. Cuban-inspired matzah ball soup is consistently one of our most popular recipes each year. Recipes like Chinese-Jewish Food Network star Molly Yeh’s scallion pancake challah, African-American Jewish food scholar Michael Twitty’s matzah meal fried chicken, and even my own pizza-inspired rugelach allow our readers to see themselves reflected in a new generation of Jewish voices and the myriad ways that Jews express themselves through food today.
Time and again, I am reminded that food is not just a means to feed ourselves, but a visceral connection to our culture, carrying on memories and traditions that tell the delicious story of where we’ve been, and where we’re going.
Shannon Sarna is the Founding Editor of The Nosher, a contributing writer to Kveller.com, and co-host of the podcast Call Your Mother, all part of the 70 Faces Media group. Shannon grew up in upstate New York immersed in performance and music as well surrounded by diverse culinary experiences: Her Sicilian-American mother loved to bake, her Ashkenazi-Jewish father loved to experiment, and her grandfather was a food chemist who patented Tang among other products. Her writing and recipes have been featured in Bake from Scratch Magazine, Parade Magazine, Tablet Magazine, JTA News, New Jersey Monthly Magazine, Vinepair, and Modern Loss. She graduated from Smith College in Northampton, MA with a degree in Comparative Government and Spanish Language and Literature and lives in South Orange, NJ with her husband, three children, two rescue dogs, and a bunny named S’mores. Her first cookbook, Modern Jewish Baker: Challah, Babka, Bagels and More, was released in September 2017 by Countryman Press. Follow her on all the platforms @shasarna.