I am a Jew. Once upon a time people used to scoff at that statement because all they could think about was a Hasidic diamond merchant…because that’s not stereotypical…Others treat me more like a religious guest worker rather than a “citizen” of the People of Israel. I am an African American. Lord, if I had a dime for every time someone tested, questioned or tried to qualify that identity. (What makes you so African? Well you’re not an off the shelf, all-American type! You should think of yourself as Black second, American first…) Please be advised that NONE of this advice was ever solicited.
Food is my sanctuary. Food is a proving ground for identity both for the maker and the consumer. Food is about ancestors, memory, and the passing on of secrets. Food is the place where I can be in dialogue with all points and corners of what its meant to be of African descent or be Jewish in both American and international contexts. Food is where people shut up because they are too busy chewing and don’t have time to pass judgment, say insensitive things or expose their ignorance. Food, glorious food: Thank you for being my anchor and my peace in the storm, my means of cooking out my frustrations and the ground on which I stand.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—Passover is my favorite holiday. I am a spring baby—and a gardener. I identify with the spiritual rigor that spring brings with it. I believe with my whole heart in renewal and rebirth. I keep my confidence in wooly willows and forsythia and pray after I touch the first dogwood and azalea blossoms of the year—because my Grandmother of Blessed memory did. I have wrapped my soul in the lessons and narratives of Passover on top of all of this spring fever because Pesach is an eternal temporal monument to the idea that freedom is simply the act of leaving a narrow space for a wilderness of opportunities built on uncertain faith.
No message is clearer in its gifts to both sides of this weird black and blue yin-yang that I’ve given my life over to. Passover is the holiday where the enslaved go free, where the sour and the puffed up are tossed to the wind, burnt to a crisp, trodden underground for a new, uncomplicated and uncomfortable hardtack. The ancient Israelites asked for freedom, and G-d gave them bread (matzah) and water (the splitting of the sea of reeds) and everyone looked around and said, “That’s it? This is what we’ve been waiting for?” In a similar way the Kotzker Rebbe told the story of a non-Jewish guest who was invited to a seder (Passover ritual meal) and promised a sumptuous feast with wine. The guest felt teased by the initial morsels of herbs and potato and cups of wine and finally stormed out when he felt he had enough. The next day the Kotzker explained, the stuffed satisfied Jew knocked on his neighbors’ shutters and told him, “Had you waited just one more minute, you would have had the feast of your life!”
When I first started my journey, I didn’t have patience for the way people were confused and often annoyed with my path. I didn’t understand that the narrow place I felt captive to was not forever and that a wilderness awaited me. I didn’t get that I had to have patience and be ready to start all over again. Now I do, the lessons of life are always holistic, always cyclical, self-informing, and devastatingly harsh in their simplicity.
I don’t know what people think Jewish food is. I think there is still a linger in the culture that sees Jewish food as a mass of things that goes on rye bread, cannot possibly be pronounced without gagging or producing mucus, is blessed by a rabbi and smells like fish, cabbage, harsh condiments and old people. Some even read some sort of sinister Kabbalistic workings into our recipes. I can tell you none of this true—Jewish food is a matter of text expressed on table. There is something truly profound about a cultural moment like Passover where this is made manifest, a moment where you are obligated to debate and discuss some of the most important questions and issues of human condition while debating and discussing the execution of your family’s heirloom recipes.
One of the reasons I am madly, passionately, head over soles in love with Judaism is unrestrained passion it has for questions, analysis, study, review, revision and that dance it seems to revel in between tradition and intellectual anarchy. This process is not always done with a book. Sometimes it’s lived out through folk and material culture, and with food—the scriptures of Torah and Talmud give a uniquely Jewish life and law to what could just be a means to suppressing hunger and hours later, a reason to read a magazine for ten minutes with your pants down. I am crazy about the fact that almost the entirety of the Jewish people will sit down tonight to discuss and debate the ancient lessons of slavery vs. freedom while using an edible Torah to process those lessons in their bodies—through all senses available to the eater. Doing this for 3,500 years is nothing short of a miracle.
There is a sweet used to convey the idea that the mortar for the bricks of the storage cities of Pharoah called charoset. Some people make it with apples. Apple orchards the oral tradition tells us are where the nurses Shifrah and Puah hid the maie infants during the slaughter of innocents that led to Moses being set adrift on the Nile. Like Moses hidden in bulrush, matzah balls sometimes conceal a bit of chicken or cinnamon or ginger or other stuffings—in my case turnip greens. Why whip each other with green onions during the Seder as many Mizrahi (Eastern) Jews do? Because they remind us of slavery, of onions longed for when manna was the only delicacy of the desert, because there are puns and numerical games for which those onions have centuries worth of secrets to tell.
Passover is an excuse to be creative in the kitchen because you can’t use gluten. No yeast, no gluten, no grain that has not already been made into an unleavened bread. For some that means no rice, no corn, no soy, no beans, no peanuts or any derivative product. For others it means no unleavened bread products whatsoever—so not even matzah balls. I am not in that number—Passover is all about rice, corn, soy, legumes, peanuts, and matzah and matzah meal soaking up as much stock, schmaltz and sop as they can muster. I don’t think I’m too far off when I say there’s a special irony to the fact the holiday that celebrates freedom from narrow places puts you in a very narrow confined list of possible ingredients while all the while liberating you to figure out new and exciting ways to make each Passover seder and the 7-8 days of meals thereafter brand spanking new.
I am not suggesting that there is no such equivalent on the African and African American side. In fact, that’s my modus operandi for all that I do in terms of Black culinary history. I’m trying to divine a text out the scatterings from which our lives and our civilization as a people with shifting freedoms have presented. Passover was one of my inspirations to go back and fetch the medical, spiritual, emotional, familial and ethically didactic texts found in the foods of the continent and the Diaspora. Our history is told in the food our ancestors used to sustain themselves and survive the heartbreaks and disaster that enslavement, colonization and oppression brought for half a millennia.
Some of you supported and are still following the developments and lessons of The Cooking Gene Project. We intend to go on more Southern Discomfort Tours this summer and beyond to discover the relationship between the journey from Africa to America and from slavery to freedom in creating both American cuisine and the African American people. That whole spirit—“now we are slaves,” and “next year in Jerusalem,” both the immediate empathy with the people who suffered for our sake and the hope that full redemption will come if we dedicate a year’s cycle to the mysteries we learned while questing and questioning the story of Passover are my raison d’etre for the larger journey I’m on to unravel and reveal my African American heritage. In the narrow places (for Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim—meaning a Narrow Place) Black culture was born, liberating a people’s minds and souls despite restrictions and restrained expression.
This 3,500 year old ritual meal inspired me to truly own and be inspired by the journey of my Ancestors. The genealogy research is maddening. The traveling on the road gets to be beyond mundane. The word “ennui” don’t cut it when the surprises and stimulations fail to deliver. And then as this Cooking Gene Project grows and weaves its own nest I realize the story never really gets wrapped up. We are still looking for Jerusalem. We will always be looking for it.
The black eyed pea will always be magic to me. It is a Divine eye, it is the guardian of our tradition, a botanical jewel symbolizing fertility against drought and barrenness. Rice will ever sing of legends of seeds in hair—inaccurate historically but spiritually correct. Tomatoes will speak to the legacy of the Bamana, and onions to the Dogon. Sorghum is what my great-Grandfather made into syrup in the Carolina upcountry and the same crop that feeds millions to this day in Africa. What I’m speaking of are recovering the narratives across time, connecting all of us into one idea—that our food has not just been fodder for our journeys, it embodies the journeys themselves.
Enjoy your Pesach. Enjoy each other. Enjoy being free. Enjoy your Easter and other commemorations. Enjoy the wilderness. Chag Sameach v’kasher!
Menu for Last Day: (Note I’m Sephardi)
Eggs Boiled in Bissap/Hibiscus Tea dipped in Preserved Lemon Brine
Turnip Green Stuffed Matzah Balls in Lowcountry Style Pot Likker
No Flour! Cornbread and Sorghum Syrup
Matzah Meal Fried Chicken
Roasted Asparagus and Green Garlic
Charoset Sweet Potatoes
Barbecued Lamb, the Antebellum Way
Matzah Stuffing, Southern Style
Sweet and Spicy Caribbean Compote
Peach Matzah Kugel