As a French girl speaking about food, I have no other choice than to start with Proust’s Madeleine. Sense memory is one of the most potent ways to keep the past alive within us so it can surface at times when it’s least expected. Nothing’s more transient than the food we consume, and yet nothing is more enduring than the way it shapes our experience of the world. Each of us has a unique relationship with food. As members of ethnic groups, we also have a collective relationship to culinary traditions. However different these traditions are, growing up as a Jew is inevitably linked with enjoying — or sometimes loathing — this or that specific food item.
Culinary traditions are not merely a matter of taste or of local influence; they often carry a symbolic meaning linked with the liturgical calendar or with our life cycle. It’s well known that round-shaped foods, such as olives, eggs, and lentils, evoke the cyclical nature of life, death, and eternity. To remind ourselves of this cycling, we often consume circular food in a mourning context.
But being in the month of Adar, harbinger of joy, let’s concentrate on merry foods. Esther’s fast itself is but one episode in the process of salvation, and the Book of Esther is ripe with banquets from the doomed banquet where Vashti is repudiated, to the joyful mishteh (Purim banquet), prescribed to the Jews in memory of their deliverance from the evil designs of Haman.
In my Moroccan family, for the mishteh, we traditionally eat Buyoss (round challah) with a hard boiled egg (shell still on!) embedded inside. The custom at the table is to break the shell of the egg with a fork which, as my grandmother says, is like killing Haman ourselves by plucking his eyes… going after enemies who want you dead is not always a peaceful process!
In our common heritage, a few times a year, sedarim (other banquets, such as Pessah, Roch Hachana) teach us the symbolic meaning of food: the head of the fish at Roch Hachana (“may we always be at the head and never at the tail!”) or bitter herbs at Pessah (to remind us of the bitterness of slavery times). However, ethnic Jewish traditions can be even richer in meaning than that: my grandmother taught me that when preparing cakes for a wedding, bar mitzvah or another simha (joyful ceremony), you always start with a specific kind of cake, the masspan. You start baking on a Monday or a Thursday, at the time when the Torah’s being read.
Other symbols are less obvious, like the custom of putting the Mimuna (Moroccan celebration at the end of Pessah) table ful (fèves, small edible treats) together with flour and oil as symbols of fertility and prosperity. Ashkenazi traditions are also rich in meaning. For instance, my youngest brother was given a homemade chocolate Hebrew alphabet to eat when he had his first haircut at the age of three so he could have a good and sweet relationship with the Hebrew language throughout his life.
Food is a language that the heart and the senses continue to speak even once the observance or meaning has evaporated. It remains a strong link to our past, anchors us a individuals, and reminds us that we are but one part of the Jewish people.
From The Times of Israel, adapted from The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking by Phyllis and Miriyam Glazer (Harper Collins)