My journey rediscovering Ashkenazi food during the pandemic

Like many people stuck at home during the pandemic, I have turned to cooking to keep busy. While I usually like trying new recipes from all over the world, this time I tried things a little closer to home. 

A few years ago my uncle created a catalogue of our favourite family recipes and everyone got a copy. The catalogue included meals that my dad’s bubbie and zaide used to make. They ranged from dishes like kugel and cabbage rolls to chicken fricassee and mamaliga.

My great bubbie and zaide’s cooking was heavily influenced by the homes of their parents in Romania and Belarus so the foods they were used to often had paprika, dill, and other Eastern European ingredients. I didn’t eat these foods as often as my dad and uncles had, but looking over these recipes and with nowhere to go during quarantine, I was inspired to learn more about my family’s culinary roots and bring a bit of Romania and Belarus into my kitchen in Toronto. 

Cabbage rolls
Cabbage rolls. (Gemma Johnson)

Soon my home was filled with the smells of rye bread in the oven and matzo ball soup on the stove. Pickles are now a specialty of mine (any parallels to newly released pickle-related films on North American-Jewish identity are purely coincidental) and this new routine has introduced me to different cooking techniques and helped define my connection with my family. 

I was able to tap into cultural and linguistic traditions that otherwise weren’t part of my daily life. Many of these family practices have slowed down or simply stopped with each generation, and I told myself I never had the time for it. So with quarantine’s endless weekend and a desire to try something old, cooking helped me connect to my late grandparents and great-grandparents’ experiences. I usually describe my Jewish identity as leaning heavily on the -ish. And as I kept cooking I was surprised to learn that my family’s approach to Ashkenazi and kosher food were as variable as trying to define Jewishness.

Pickles. (Gemma Johnson)

Specifically, is this or that recipe truly Jewish because it’s kosher or because my family made it? The more I learned about my family’s approach to food, the more it seemed that breaking kashrut was also a normal part of how they ate. 

My dad’s bubbie always kept a kosher kitchen, but when I see her old dairy spoons with a D stamped into the handle I’m also reminded of the contradictions. She diligently followed the rules at home but she also loved shellfish. Once a year she would make an exception and go to The Lobster Trap in Toronto for a lobster dinner. My elter-zeyde would have fish.

Later, my own bubbie’s expression of her Jewishness fed into how I experienced food with her. This unsurprisingly included her habit of breaking the rules. This was around the same time that she introduced me to the delights of both homemade noodle kugel and bacon-wrapped scallops. And I remember her telling me BBQ pork was kosher on Christmas Day! She had a great affection for some of the Ashkenazi foods of her childhood that she made for me, kugel especially, but for my bubbie rules and tradition existed alongside rule-breaking.  

Gemma Johnson
Chopped liver. (Gemma Johnson)

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think about these stories and then make traif versions of chopped liver by adding lard or dairy (especially when schmaltz tastes so much better), but I still appreciate her different approach to food norms. 

At the same time, I don’t worry about making kosher versions of Ashkenazi foods or agonize over tradition when I use a new recipe. Instead, when I make her kugel at home, I omit the raisins and add new ingredients like baked fruit and a lot more dairy. I’ve even been adding Middle Eastern and Asian spices to old recipes. My bubbie never liked her mom’s version of chicken and tzimmes because she always found it dry. But thanks to other young Ashkenazis who are making new versions of the recipe, I was inspired to start adding ginger and cumin to the dish and it’s my new favourite thing!

While it’s breaking from family tradition, it also feels like I’m doing exactly what I’m meant to do. Whether it was my bubbie, her mom, or me, every generation made modifications to recipes to suit their tastes and values while still keeping to tradition by continuing to make these foods.  

Finding a one-size-fits-all definition of Ashkenazi food is not going to get me anywhere, but if I had to pin down what my family’s food was, I would call it Ashkenazi-ish, kosher-ish, and Jew-ish.

To read the second part in this three-part series click here, and for the third part, here. 

Header photograph courtesy of Gemma Johnson.

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