A Southern Jew Tastes Another Country in New York
The author shooting cupcakes in Texas, before moving to New York and discovering, to her amazement, that there are bakeries devoted to traditional Jewish desserts.
They had poppyseed. They had apricot. And prune, almond paste, chocolate and chocolate chip.
I’m not in Texas anymore, I thought, quickly telling the lady at Bread’s Bakery that yes, I’d take two dozen.
She not only knew the word “hamentaschen,” but also worked at a special counter set up for the sole purpose of selling that particular holiday cookie.
In Texas, where I grew up and had lived until just a few months prior, people recognized bagels, but stopped just short of challah. (And if they did know challah, I’d inevitably have to endure them shouting “holla!” after we talked about bread.)
My boyfriend (and fellow Texas transplant) and I were on an informal hamentaschen crawl across the city, and at this, our third stop, I felt like I’d won the cookie prize. We escaped the madness of the storefront — Chocolate babka! Rugelach! Croissants — and had begun walking to our next stop when I opened the box. I couldn’t wait for the flaky crust and the decadent filling inside. My love of hamentaschen goes deep — so deep, in fact, that I even wrote a misguided poem about the cookies in college. I knew this was going to be a great moment.
I took a bite of a poppyseed one. Flaky cookie gave way to a solid chew, and the filling hit just the right notes, sweet but not cloying. It was great, but somehow not quite what I’d had in mind. The same thing had happened at Russ & Daughters and Zabar’s. Something was missing. I had eaten my way through the first poppyseed and an untraditional-yet-delicious almond-paste version and was on to a second poppyseed when a realization yanked me out of my thoughtful chewing: Where were the nuts and lemon in the filling? The hint of orange juice in the crust?
“Oh,” I thought. “Not everyone uses Great-grandma Sarah’s recipe.”
I quickly ran through all the hamentaschen I’d eaten in my life until this day and realized: I, personally, had made every one. Starting with my father and me baking in his kitchen and then throughout college and afterward on my own, I’d always dug out the family cookbook that Bubby put together and made the cookies from scratch.
Because in Texas, I couldn’t find them in a store. If I wanted ’em, I had to make ’em.
One year, I even made them for my grandfather (Sarah’s son), who apparently hadn’t had any others either. When he bit into one of my homemade cookies, I watched him flash back to being a kid in his mother’s kitchen. Over a plateful of hamentaschen, he told me stories about his uncles, who spoke Yiddish in the living room while his mother made sour-cream coffee cake in the kitchen. I had never heard any of it, and as he went on it became clear that he was talking about so much more than food. He was describing what it was like to be Jewish in the South in the 1930s and ’40s.
In New York, I began to realize, Jewish culture was not a side note, but rather it was baked into the city — this notion was truly revolutionary for my grandfather’s granddaughter, a Jew from the South.
In Texas, brisket meant beef cooked low and slow over mesquite and served with barbecue sauce; not your Aunt Minnie’s brisket roast topped with onions and apricot chutney. At our annual Passover seder in Texas, the most popular dish was Christie Miller’s Cornflake kugel, a white-bread delicacy topped with mini marshmallows, cornflakes and sugar — and definitely not kosher for Passover. You could buy matzo in stores during that week, but good luck finding Hanukkah candles in December amidst the mazes of Christmas decorations.
Yet in New York, everyone grabbed a bagel with lox in the mornings, closed their offices during the High Holy Days, and was dying to try the new specialty Israeli hummus restaurant. Jewish-Japanese food is a thing here, because Jewish food on its own isn’t niche enough.
After a few months, the strangeness of this new world began to fade. I got used to the fact that so many other people also had dark, curly hair and funky glasses, and that others looked like my uncles and aunts. Then one day in September, I rushed out of the subway stop in Sunset Park, late to meet a friend for dinner. We were going to some trendy small-plates restaurant that she wanted to try, and I, as usual, had underestimated how long it would take me to get out of the house.
“Have you heard the shofar yet this year?” a voice called behind me as I frenetically bounced down the sidewalk. Well, technically, yes, that calendar year I’d heard the shofar, when a random African-American dude in Midtown had, for some reason, played the traditional Rosh Hashanah calls on a metal shofar in January. As I turned to look at the Hasidic Jew talking to me, I figured that’s probably not what he meant.
“Would you like me to play it for you?” he asked. He was young, with a thick black beard, wearing a black coat. His friend stood nearby, leaning against a brick building.
“Sure,” I said. He led me through a blessing, which I bungled as if it were the first time I’d heard Hebrew. Then he put the horn to his lips and played. Loud, clear, trilling. I stood, listening, embarrassed for some reason, unsure of the right response. It was like a lightning bolt back to my synagogue in Dallas, which is to say that it felt like home — yet different.
When he finished, I thanked him and walked away quickly to meet my friend. As she and I sat eating collard greens sautéed simply with soy sauce and topped with a miso glaze, I thought about how far I’d come.
Megan Giller grew up in Dallas and now lives in Brooklyn. She writes for publications including Food & Wine and Slate and is currently exploring the world of American craft chocolate through her digital project Chocolate Noise. Read more of her work at megangiller.com and follow her on Twitter @MeganGiller