In my family, holiday food traditions are never about what you might think of as traditional holiday food. Yes, we have matzah on Passover and apples and honey or Rosh Hashanah, but the traditions go deeper than that. At our Passover seder, we must have potato kuglets, made each year by different members of the family. No matter what else on the menu changes, the kuglets are how we know it is Passover, and not another festive meal. Before the fast of Yom Kippur, our traditional family food is honey chicken and noodles. Nothing else will get us through the fast, and no one thinks to suggest anything else. And then there is the Ten Commandments Cake on Shavuot.
There is power in traditions surrounding food, and there are numerous educational moments in every tradition that are built around food. First, our food traditions, like any other family tradition, keep us together even when we can’t physically be together. I know that next year, when I am not with my family for Yom Kippur, honey chicken will be on both our menus. There is comfort knowing that although we will be apart, the food of our family will keep us connected.
Food traditions also provide opportunities for both Jewish and nutritional learning. There has been lots of research and numerous articles touting the benefits of having kids in the kitchen. Children who cook healthy food are more likely to try it, leading to a life of healthy eating. Children who learn to cook in a kosher kitchen or who are exposed to the rhythm of Jewish life through food get the kinesthetic sensation of the Jewish year before they are old enough to comprehend all of its rules and patterns.
In our house, one of our most central food traditions is the Shavout Ten Commandments Cake. Now this cake may not win points for nutrition, but in our family it is not Shavout without this cake. We make it, and then we bring it to our synagogue picnic and share it with all our friends. Each year, we discuss which strawberry on the cake stands for which commandment and it becomes a review of what we have just heard read aloud in synagogue.
Making this cake is simple. You make a box of chocolate cake mix in a 9×13 inch pan (you could also make your own chocolate cake, if you were so inclined, but it is important that it be chocolate). You then carve the cake into the shape of the two tablets and frost it with vanilla icing. It is important not to be too neat, since the idea is that the crumbs of the chocolate cake will mix with the vanilla icing, creating an effect that looks like stone. Right before you are ready to serve (the cake will get soggy otherwise), cut some strawberries into small pieces and use them to outline the edges of the cake, and to make a line between the two tablets. Finally take 10 whole or half strawberries, depending on the size, and place five on each tablet.
Bring it to your local Shavout picnic and share it with friends. It will be a hit, even if there are no kids around to appreciate your new tradition.