Meals as Midrash: Telling Stories With Food
Earlier this month I hosted a Tu B’shvat gathering for our havurah focused on the shivat haminim — a seven species — “deconstructed” seder. With 25 kids, we opted for heavy on the deconstructed, light on the seder and decided to have a potluck where each family brought a dish incorporating one or more species of Israel. Ideas, recipes and questions about the ingredients flew back and forth on Twitter and Facebook prior to the gathering. For many, this was a new concept and people wanted to know: What are these items? Where does the Torah make reference to them? Which of these are locally grown here in Georgia? What in the world is date honey, and did they even cultivate bees in Ancient Israel?
If every food has a story, every meal can be an opportunity for reinterpreting and retelling that story in a culinary form of midrash. In a very literal sense, midrash is a reinterpretation of Jewish text — both biblical narrative and legal passages. In a similar way, modern Jewish cooks and chefs are looking at traditional ingredients, dishes and recipes and reinterpreting them to fit more contemporary values, tastes and regional influences. In our Jewish tradition, the Passover seder is the most literal form of mealtime storytelling, but Shabbat, holiday and daily meals can also spark investigation, interpretation and retelling.
This kind of mealtime storytelling is further emphasized through the communal and participatory culture of a potluck. Mirroring our group’s values, everyone in our havurah contributes something that reflects their personality and strengths, making the experience that much more diverse. Just as Jews throughout history have taken the teachings of the Torah and applied them to their lives, so can cooks look to recipes and reimagine the meals we share with our Jewish families and communities.
What really struck me was the level of thought, creativity and inventiveness behind each creation, and the ways in which one’s approach to Jewish cooking echoes their approach to Jewish living. Someone taking a more literal approach to Jewish cooking and life may seek out a traditional recipe and follow it to the letter. But, I prefer to interpret it. After reading that “the land of milk and honey” actually referred to date honey, which is produced near me, I sought out a recipe to recreate the sticky sweet goodness to share and authentically represent the sweet treat on our table.
My friend Joel took the ingredients at hand, poured over cookbooks, food blogs and articles, absorbing all the knowledge, teaching and techniques and created something completely his own and incredible (in this case, a cocktail — the “Tu’be shot” — made from a syrup of six of the seven species and mixed with gin).
At the other end of the spectrum is Ana, whose creativity and courage in Jewish life and in the kitchen knows no bounds. She may cast aside a recipe all together and cook up something beautiful and tasty that no one has even thought of before, like a pomegranate-studded layer cake. It is with this same inventiveness that she creates Jewish education programs for our children and fills them with wonder and inquiry around all things Jewish.
All of these cooks have their place in our kitchens and in our Jewish communities. It is in this way that we can continue to strive for the new and bold, while maintaining our tie to history and culture — and pass down our recipes and teachings to future generations. Every meal we prepare and share is a way to reinvent and reimagine our Jewish lives, especially when we come together with our friends and family.
Naomi Rabkin is an educator, organizer and food enthusiast who lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband and two children. She is Executive Dirrector of Limmud Atlanta+SE and the founder of the Jewish Food Alliance, a coalition committed to building awareness, skills, knowledge and community around food access, sustainability and culture.