If you’ve never lived in the South, you might not be familiar with King Cakes. The brightly colored yellow-green-and-purple treats start popping up in the weeks before Mardi Gras. Though most prevalent in New Orleans, they are popular throughout the South. They’re delicious, they’re often shared at offices and parties– and yes, it’s Catholic in origin.
The name “King Cake” refers to the three kings, or three wise men. It emerged as a treat associated with pre-Lent celebrations, connected closely to Easter. Sometimes, there’s even a little plastic baby hidden somewhere in the cake – representing that same baby the wise men went to visit.
So it’s understandable that a friend recently asked me: “Um… is it weird for Jewish people to buy King Cakes?”
When asked this question, I resisted the urge to laugh it off and instead did a little reflecting (while munching on a delicious cinnamon-swirl piece of this tasty treat). Does the symbolism behind a food mean it’s proprietary to a certain group? Putting aside logistics that would obviously factor in for some observant folks, such as the laws of kashrut or halal – should foods be avoided simply because they’re associated with someone else’s tradition?
I recalled a few years ago, when a local bakery in Jackson, Mississippi, began promoting their all-new seasonal specialty: Purim baked goods. Yes! Fresh-baked, made-to-order sweet hamentaschen in multiple flavors — and savory bourekas, too. I was beyond excited that my favorite local bakery was offering Jewish treats, and so were my Jewish friends… and so were my non-Jewish friends. We all went out and bought those Purim treats in droves. (And thank goodness – if only the small Jewish community of Jackson had shown up to buy the baked goods, that wouldn’t have been very marketable.)
But one person did ask me: “Um, is it okay for a non-Jewish person to eat those triangle Purim-cookies?”
I assured them, without hesitation, that they were welcome to a cookie.
The question is not ludicrous. Eating is sometimes related to a statement of faith, whether it’s by following rules as to what we do and do not eat, or accepting a communion wafer at a Catholic mass.
But there is a difference between foods with ritual meaning and foods with cultural symbolism. Eating hamentaschen doesn’t make you Jewish, but it does give you an opportunity to learn a delicious tidbit about Purim and the story of Esther. Sharing a King Cake with co-workers is a delicious opportunity to enjoy Mardi Gras and share in a communal celebration. It’s a sharing of cuisine that has become a low-barrier sharing of culture.
In fact, I think the story of Esther itself makes the case for sharing in the culture around us. Esther was a nice Jewish girl who managed to save her entire Jewish community, not by avoiding the culture around her– but by fully immersing in it. She married the king, held on to her identity, and stopped Haman. Let’s remember she also did this over an extended dinner party, and now we recall Haman’s defeat by eating cookies shaped like his hat and named for his ears. (Creepy.)
Lots of special-foods have stories unique to one culture or another. Learning about them is fascinating, and feasting on them is even better.
In other words, let all of us eat (king) cake. And yes, I promise, in a few more weeks… I’ll share my triangle Purim-cookies.
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?