As a consummate foodie, my mind makes instant connections between food and people. It’s like I’m wearing Google Glass with an app that sends me food information about everything I see, whether I know it or not. The other night, for example, I was attending a function at a beautiful home in Beverly Hills and when I got to the backyard with a highly manicured lawn all I could think of was how many veggies I could grow with a lawn like that! In my mind’s eye I imagined row after row of chard, carrots, or tomatoes! The same type of thing happens when I think of my friends and family. Take my Bubbie for instance, I can’t listen to her voice or see her picture without immediately thinking, “stuffed cabbage!” It’s not because she looks like stuffed cabbage (I’m a nice Jewish boy) but because that was her favorite special dish to cook. She spent hours boiling down cabbage and stuffing them with rice, meat, raisins (I’m Hungarian) and spices. I’ve come to naturally associate her with the stuff – it’s how my brain works.
The same is true for other family members. My wife – burritos (black beans not pinto) It was one of our first date foods. My sister- Brussels sprouts-because she hates them. My brother – French fries- because of the way his finger guides them into his mouth like the crunchy potato stick was on training wheels.
When it comes to my pop, it has to be a well-done steak.
I was born in Alabama and grew up in Texas. If there was anything you should know about Texas is that BBQ is a serious thing. Kashrut aside, one of the most important places you can go out to dinner as a family is steak house. As a child I have very fond memories of going to a particular restaurant that sported a dance floor complete with a country band, a huge BBQ pit, and a two story slide. The walls were decorated with faux windows and signs with sayings like “General Store” or “Horseshoe Repair.” It was a bit like a strange Texas-themed version of Disneyland. (It get’s weirder but that’s for another time.)
Next to eating out, real Texans know how to grill at home. When we moved into our single-story ranch house in Plano I was enamored with the gas-powered built-in BBQ in our backyard. I approached it carefully and lifted up the lid to peer into the darkness that lay beneath. What amazing pieces of meat can we cook on this altar to the gods of cookery? To my utter dismay, my father pulled me away and shut the lid. He said to me, “Look here, son, we’re not going to use the gas BBQ. If you want to really BBQ, you have to do it right. That means we grill with charcoal. It’s the right thing to do.”
As he pulled out the little Weber grill and began filling the basin with briquettes, I learned one of many lessons from him that day. For my dad, being an idealist means living in a world where vision is important and goals are worth pursuing even if it means cooking on a smaller grill. I realize now that his ideology around BBQ’s is not that different from his legal profession. My father is a sole practitioner who has said repeatedly to me that his job is not to get rich, but to “make sure the legal system doesn’t hurt the poor folk.” I believe now that so much of my idealism as an advocate and a rabbi comes from the same place.
Now that I am the father of three I can’t help but think about what I’m teaching them. Just the other day my daughter locked her younger brother in a bedroom alone while she scampered off to play with the bigger kids during a recent play date. I pulled her aside after resolving the situation and said we don’t behave that way with our family because it’s just not the right thing to do. I felt the words form in my jaw and heard my dad’s voice moving quietly under my own. It was eerie like he grabbed a hold of me for a second and was addressing her directly almost like a ghost -except he’s not dead. He still lives in the same ranch-style house in Plano with the little Weber grill in the backyard.
It’s at that moment with my daughter in my arms that I learned another great lesson from 2,000 miles away. Our lives are never entirely our own. They have been shaped by those who came before us. It is our father’s hands guiding us when we play catch with our children. It is his laugh that we hear when we make our children chuckle, and their voices fill our mouths when we speak of important things.
I learned to BBQ from my father, but not to cook. For years, I thought that steaks needed to be charred to a crisp because that is what my dad always did. If it was tough like shoe leather, it wasn’t cooked. Now I hardly eat meat except for Shabbat and special occasions. I can’t help but wonder what food my son associates with me. Probably kale chips or tofu curry or some other locally sourced dish. But deep down because of him, the one who taught me how not to burn my eyebrows off when lighting the grill, to wait patiently until the coals are mostly white, and to use mesquite rather than hickory for smoking meat - because of my father - I will always smile when someone asks me how I want my steak. I love you, Dad.
Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino is the founder of Netiya, an L.A.-based network of Jewish organizations focused on food education for environmental and social justice. He can be reached at [email@example.com], and @RabbiNoah on Twitter.
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