As I get ready for my Southern family’s traditional Thanksgiving celebration, which this year will overlap our celebration of Hanukkah… well, there’s been all this talk of “Thanksgivukkah,” but right now it’s the annual menu that’s on my mind.
Thinking about all the foods we eat, and how this night too is “different from all other nights,” I realized this holiday needs its own four questions:
1) On all other nights, we eat only one carbohydrate. Why on this night do we have sweet potato casserole with a gooey marshmallow topping, mashed potatoes, bread, cornbread dressing, stuffing, and rolls (oh, those many, many delicious dinner rolls)?
2) On all other nights we eat raw, steamed or sautéed vegetables. Why on this night do we serve our green beans in a casserole that loses nutritional value with a can of cream soup and crunchy onion rings on top?
3) On all other nights, we don’t dip our chicken, turkey or meat in gravy. Why on this night do we generously smother everything in gravy?
4) On all other nights, we eat sitting upright. Why on this night do we eat and eat and eat, then eat some pie and recline in front of a football game?
Of course, this year, in addition to the regular old Four Questions of Thanksgiving, we have another one: On all other Thanksgivings, we don’t light a menorah. Why on this night…
Well – that one has a really clear answer, at least.
As for the others, well, the holiday in the United States began as a feast and giving thanks for a good harvest. Today, the holiday has become about families gathering around a table and giving thanks for being together – which isn’t an excuse for the overly-decadent food.
So there may not be a truly satisfying answer to each of the 4 Questions of Thanksgiving, but the overall answer is that we do it to celebrate with our families, enjoying what we have and hopefully also remembering those in need and sharing in the bounty.
And as for all the carbs and calories, well… it’s only once a year, right?
Whenever I get ready to go on a long research trip, I put together a detailed itinerary, listing each library, synagogue, and cemetery I plan to visit, as well as the people I will interview or with whom I plan to meet. I make sure to add addresses, contact numbers, and hotel and rental car confirmation numbers. Once all this information is compiled, I start working on my favorite part of the trip: figuring out where I am going to eat each day.
It’s not unusual for me to spend twice as much time combing through reviews on Urbanspoon or Roadfood.com than reading through libraries’ online catalogs. Of course, I spend far more time in the archives than in restaurants, but one of the perks of my job is the chance to become an expert on regional southern cuisine. For me, this opportunity has become a serious responsibility!
Whenever I’m on the road, I try to find out about the unique regional specialties, from hot tamales in the Mississippi Delta or dry rubbed beef brisket in central Texas, to burgoo in western Kentucky. Once, when I was visiting Laredo and other Jewish communities along the Texas-Mexico border, I spent hours figuring out precisely which Mexican restaurants offered the most authentic and tastiest version of the local cuisine. I would hate to visit a town and miss the best place to eat.
But sometimes, I must take into account other considerations. When I recently traveled to western Kentucky, I was faced with the prospect of eating mutton barbecue for three days straight. Since I’ve entered my 40s, I knew that such a schedule would wreak havoc on my archive productivity (not to mention my digestive system!). So I mixed in an occasional salad and bought fruit at a local grocery store for healthy snacks. Finding green things to eat can be a challenge on the road.
One of the effects of the Immigration Act of 1965 – the most underrated federal law of the past 50 years, if you ask me – is the spread of Asian immigrants to cities and towns around the country. I have learned to scout out Asian restaurants in unusual places. I have had amazing Vietnamese pho in Oklahoma City and great pad thai in Paducah, Kentucky.
In preparation for a trip to Virginia two weeks ago, I was most excited to eat at Peter Chang’s, a new restaurant recently opened by the famous peripatetic master of Chinese cuisine, whose sudden disappearances and movements have been tracked by foodies across the country, including Calvin Trillin in the New Yorker magazine. Chang has recently opened restaurants in Charlottesville, Richmond, and Williamsburg – three cities I just happened to be visiting.
While I can assure you this was a coincidence, I’ll happily admit that his restaurants graced my itinerary three times over a four day stretch.
What are your favorite Southern specialties? What about out-of-region surprises?
So there’s this website called Pork Memoirs.
Dedicated to sharing “personal stories about a complicated meat,” the site explores personal identity relative to the consumption or avoidance of pork.
The site has drawn contributions from Jews who don’t eat pork, Jews who do eat pork, Muslims who don’t eat pork, bacon enthusiasts, vegetarians, those who slaughter pig, those who have pet pigs. It made me start thinking.
What’s with all the pork punditry of late? Especially within the Jewish world, where it’s a traditionally-off-limits nosh? It’s made me think, once again, about this most beloved and forbidden of flesh-foods.
Even if you eat shrimp—even if you love a cheeseburger—there’s just something about pork that seems less kosher than everything else out there. Maybe it’s just because everyone knows it’s not kosher. Maybe it’s because there are other cultures where pig is forbidden, while the shellfish or dairy/meat or other rules aren’t in place. Regardless: it is the pinnacle of treyf.
Forget Mary. There’s something about pork.
Which brings us to my own pork memoir. My own answer to the “Got Bacon?” question.
Which would be “No … ish.”
See, I’ve never eaten pork. Not really. But after a decade of living in the South, I can assure you that it’s hard to over-emphasize how much this region loves its pig products, and how often pork is infused into non-pig-dishes … like, y’know, green beans.
That can make keeping kosher in the Bible Belt a challenge. Doable, certainly, but depending on where in the South you live, it’ll require some thought, planning, and either the willingness to go veg and/or the establishment of a buddy system with folks who travel to places like Atlanta, New Orleans, or Memphis where you can get kosher meat.
I don’t “keep kosher,” but I do aim for ”ethical eating,” and have been some shade of vegetarian since I was 11. So I’ve never really eaten pork … but I know I’ve inadvertently (or even willfully ignorantly) ingested the stuff.
When I first moved to the South, I was a stricter vegetarian, and was taken aback the first time I saw little animal bits floating in my greens at a local buffet. It made me pay more attention, for sure – and being intentional about what we eat and why seems significant.
It became a quandry: should I stop eating all foods that might have hidden hog, likely limiting where I can eat? Always ask the question “is this vegetarian”? Or, especially when invited into someone’s home, do I just not look too closely and eat my delicious greens?
For me, the pig journey became less about the traditional laws of kashrut and more about other Jewish traditions, ones I was raised to value and live out every day. Traditions like hospitality. Being a good host, and also being a good guest. Folks have made me meals in their home, or insisted on taking me to their beloved restaurant to experience their local culinary favorites. Favorites which may or may not have
pork some sort of meat lending flavor to the veggies. So, to question? Or to say thanks, and eat? Ultimately, I adopted a don’t ask, don’t tell policy. Those who know me well avoid serving up the meat they know I don’t eat. But in general, I simply accept hospitality. If I don’t see meat, I eat the meal, and am grateful to whoever prepped the meal for sharing it with me.
That’s my own choice, and certainly not one that works for everyone. But for me, a truly important part of this process was the engagement. The fact that I, like everyone else sharing their pork memoirs, thought about this very deeply – and knowing that all of this, somehow, has something to do with my identity. It wasn’t an easy or thoughtless decision. It was one I had to take seriously, because what we eat does matter, not only for our physical health but also for our mental and spiritual health.
At least, that’s true for me. And wherever you ultimately land on what you will or won’t eat, I think the contemplation-factor resonates for a lot of Jewish folks. We feel a connection to all food, and especially our individual acceptance or rejection of pork. Playing with your food may be rude, but wrestling with it, well – that seems pretty Jewish.
Beth Kander will be just fine in the coming A-Pork-Alypse. Will you? What are your thoughts about this tempting but taboo treyf treat?