Eating and Mourning

People are kind. Incredibly kind.

I've taken an extended break from my new practice of blogging in order to mourn the passing of my father. I don't plan to write about this loss here, except to say that food seems to be integral to the mourning process. Jewish practice is for mourners to be served a "meal of consolation" after they return home from the funeral. This meal frequently features hard-boiled eggs as eggs are almost universal symbols of new life, whether the meaning be fertility, resurrection, or the cycle of creation. However, almost any round food will do. While this meal is imbued with symbolism, this practice also serves as a way to make sure that the mourners eat something, as they might not feel hungry during their grief. I will say that personally, I ate a ton during shiva (the week-long period after the funeral). Partially, this was due to feeling incredibly sad and being convinced that my pain was physical. Not being able to determine what was wrong with me, I just assumed I was hungry. I attempted to fill the void with traditional Jewish soul food: deli and Chinese. No, really. All I wanted was pastrami, wonton soup, and Singapore noodles. And people brought so much food. But it turned out, despite my massive consumption of carbs and salted meats, I was not hungry. I was just sad.

One of the most jarring features of the shiva was being in my mother's house and not seeing her cook. Not once. She barely used the stove to make her constantly brewing moka pot of espresso (a neighbor lent us her Keurig). I like to say that I come from food. And from cooking. And that all comes from my mother's warm and hospitable kitchen. And I know that cooking makes her happy. But when you're mourning a loss of a loved one, you can't do things that make you happy. And so this post includes no recipes.

Have you any associations with eating and mourning? Any cultural traditions? Sad or funny stories?

Fasting and Feasting

Jews talk a lot about eating, but this post is [mainly] about not eating.

The Jewish ritual year calls for abstention from food on six occasions, the most well-known and observed fast being that of our upcoming Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. According to the latest National Jewish Population Survey, 60% of American Jews fast on Yom Kippur, a number that is significantly higher than those who belong to synagogues (47%). Among those Jews who are affiliated, the number is higher (79%) a percentage that comes close to the 83% who light Chanukah candles and dwarfs the lighting of Shabbat candles (48%).

Why is this particular observance so popular?

1. Fasting on Yom Kippur can be redefined as a physical purification akin to the contemporary “cleanse” detox diet. Or it can be spiritually purifying on a variety of levels. While many people fast as a repentant effort to have God hear their prayers, others may take advantage of this day of hunger to think of those who have no food. 2. Fasting on Yom Kippur—unlike adopting a strictly kosher lifestyle—is a twenty-five hour annual experiment. When it’s over, you don’t have to look back. Plus you usually do it with your friends and family. Which brings us to

3. Other Jews are doing it all over the world at the same time. Fasters may feel linked to their ancestors and their community through this annual shared experience.

My parents never fasted, without apology. My sister and I have often reminisced about the difficulties of attempting to fast on a particular Yom Kippur morning with the delicious smells of breakfast wafting upstairs. Due to my own spotty observance, the first time I fasted on Yom Kippur—I mean really fasted—was six years ago when Pakistan was hit with a tragic earthquake which killed tens of thousands and left even more homeless. The quake hit during the fasting month of Ramadan and I kept hearing news stories of survivors continuing their daily fasts as the world fell apart around them. I thought, a bit sheepishly, if they could do it under those conditions, I—in my comfortable house in Connecticut—certainly could do it. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught that “saying grace is an act of the greatest importance….We do not recognize the miracle this represents because we live in a world which, for the moment, has plenty of everything, and because our memory is short. Yet those who live in less fortunate countries understand that to be able to satisfy one’s hunger is the marvel of marvels…” Similarly, the ability to choose to fast when others go hungry not by choice is an important lesson in privilege and inequality.

In my class on foodways, I spend some time discussing Ramadan. My students are usually split on their responses to the fasting and feasting that occurs during that auspicious Islamic month. “Are you really thinking of the poor when you are preparing to party after sundown?” they ask. Ramadan is in fact a time when many Muslims increase their regular practice of


, or alms giving. While there is a tradition of celebrating grand iftars well into the night, those who have nothing are remembered more keenly in light of the celebrations of plenty. Similarly for Jews, we should remember the Talmudic passage that declares that the “The merit of fasting is the charity [dispensed]” (Berachot 6b). Many synagogues do host food drives during the month of Elul, so we should think of the food we are not eating on Yom Kippur and donate the money we likely would have spent on food to the poor.

My students are usually appeased when I explain that the purpose of Ramadan is actually closer in spirit to Christmas than Yom Kippur as it commemorates the literal word of God being given to the world as manifested in the Qur’an, much as Christians are celebrating the birth of Jesus. In fact, for many Catholics and Orthodox Christians, Christmas Eve is a fast day followed by the celebratory feasting on Christmas Day. Despite these historical precedents, there remains discomfort for some with the idea of celebrating after a day of fasting.

Discomfort aside, the late twentieth century has seen a rise in such celebrations among American Jews. The first Break Fast I hosted fell during Ramadan. Coincidentally (or maybe not), my guests were all families with one Jewish parent and one Gentile parent. As a gesture to my Muslim brothers and sisters, I chose to serve apricot juice and dates—the traditional iftar foods. My good interfaith intentions fell by the wayside however when a dear friend showed up with some really good-looking smoked fish and ice-cold vodka. Immediately the juice and dates were moved to the kids’ table. In a recent New York Times


, religion reporter Mark Oppenheimer explores the Break Fast rituals in America and quotes Alana Newhouse saying that the best part of breaking the fast “is breaking the fast on some kind of liquor. It’s better than any hallucinogenic drug. It’s a European tradition. It is the closest I have come to a mystical experience.” I concur with Newhouse.

The new American Break Fast Feast as it is now observed, I submit to you, fills a need not just for those of that are hungry after 25 hours of self-denial, but also for those American Jews who have been able to engage with the Jewish ritual calendar mainly through the embrace of secular symbols such as dreidels and potato pancakes. So what are we celebrating when we eat our bagels and whitefish after sundown? That we made it through the day? I think that we are offering a thanksgiving for our ability to share food with our loved ones and our community.

Rosh HaShanah Recap

Happy New Year! It is now officially 5772 and we are in the midst of the countdown to Yom Kippur (more on that to come).

Well, I kept up with my southern-themed feast as planned and have been happily eating leftovers of barbecued brisket and greens for the past two days.

Additions to the plan:

Signature Cocktail

I adapted a cocktail recipe from


in honor of the new year. It is a gingery,


, apple cider concoction spiked with bourbon. I'm a big fan of the rum-spiked hot cider in the fall season, but this was something special and lovely. It needs a festive name though: any nominations?

(photo by Todd Coleman)


1 cup sugar

2 tbsp. whole cloves, crushed

1 3″ piece fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced

1 cinnamon stick

3 oz. apple cider

1½ oz. bourbon

1 tsp. fresh lemon juice

Apple slice, to garnish


1. Boil 1 cup water in a small saucepan. Remove from heat; stir in sugar, cloves, ginger, and cinnamon; let sit for 1 hour. Strain and chill syrup.

2. Mix ¾ oz. ginger syrup, cider, bourbon, and juice in a shaker with ice; shake to chill. Strain into a martini glass; garnish with apple.

The Man (which I will be referring to my partner as until I come up with a snappy enough code name) and I went apple picking today with the girls and two dear friends. We loaded up the car with Cortlands and Honey Crisps (and fry cakes) and the world smelled of cider the whole ride home.

Pull-Apart Challah



For years I made challah with a recipe from a cookbook writer I


And for years, it came out awful. It was very tasty, but somehow it never cooked through in the right places. One day, I thought, maybe it's not me. Maybe it's actually the recipe. So a few months ago, I switched it up and adapted a 1976 Sweet Challah


from the New York Times. I used half whole wheat flour instead and substituted honey for the sugar, but otherwise followed it. I'm not sure if it's the substitutions, but the challah came out a bit hard to braid and ultimately less aesthetically pleasing. However, totally delicious and perfect texture.

On Wednesday, however, I decided to jump on the "pull-apart challah" bandwagon that's sweeping the nation.


has been taking me so long? Lightly oil a cake pan, roll the challah into a small, evenly sized balls (some do twelve for the twelve tribes of Israel), throw it into the pan, let rise, brush w/egg wash and voila! Beautiful challah. I stupidly did not photograph it (am still getting the hang of this blogging thing), but it came out perfect (the recipe above makes two).

A sweet and happy start to the New Year was had in the Culinary Converter's household. How was your meal?

Rosh HaShanah; New Year, New Blog


So this is the first post for this blog, which is fitting given the time of year.

It's the New Year in the Hebrew Calendar and my family is determining the menu with which we will greet the year. When discussing symbolic foods, I mentioned black-eyed peas, which are eaten by Jews on Rosh HaShanah but are also eaten by southerners on New Year's Day (for luck). My husband then suggested we make this vegetarian version of Hoppin' John from a favorite Chapel Hill restaurant (Crook's Corner). We figured we would make a traditional, southern bbq plate with slaw (but we'd substitute beef brisket for the pork). And this year I swear off honey cake for good. It's not my thing, it's never great, and I need to own that. Besides, if you were to have a honey-based dessert wouldn't you want Greek loukoumades or Italian struffoli? I would.

So the menu this year is tentatively as follows:

The ubiquitous apples and honey,
Slow-cooked BBQ Brisket
Crook's Corner's Hoppin' John
Rick Bayless' Hickory House Sour Slaw
and some sort of greens, possibly collards
sweet honey fried something like the aforementioned deliciousness.

A specialty cocktail is in the works. What are you cooking?