A Rye Look at the Things We Eat

When I was a kid back in the Old Country (which is to say, Baltimore), I ate a goodly amount of what today might be called "ethnic cuisine" but that I've always thought of, plain and simple, as Jewish soul food.

My mouth waters when I remember some of that succulent fare, such as the corned beef from Attman's Delicatessen, piled high on rye and sold just down the block from the row house where my dad was raised in a flat atop his father's bakery.

Other memories turn my stomach, like the dinner at my Aunt Faye's when I slathered schmaltz all over a piece of bread and took a big bite. (I'd mistaken her little yellow tub of pure chicken fat for butter.) Horrific, too, were those occasions when one ostensibly well-meaning relative or another would coax me into trying the translucent goo that sat alongside my grandmother's gefilte fish.

These recollections--the good and bad alike--danced along my taste buds as I read Erika Schickel's piece about her struggle to come up with a dish for the multicultural feast at her daughter Georgia's school ("The Potluck Crusader," page 22). When Georgia asks what food she might bring to celebrate her British roots, Schickel tells her: "Well, meat pies and blood sausage, haggis and jellied eels, and then there's black pudding"--a litany that evokes a shriek from the poor girl: "EEEW! That's disgusting!"

I can empathize. I still have a weakness for Jewish cooking: a Langer's No. 1 (pastrami, coleslaw, Russian dressing), a bowl of matzo ball soup from Nate 'n Al, a sinful spoonful of Gelson's chopped liver. But, alas, I am merely nibbling at the margins of my tribe's menu. The really hard-core stuff that my father devoured growing up--petcha, calf's foot jelly; helzel, the skin of a chicken neck stuffed with bread crumbs and spices; and chullant, which my dad describes as "poor man's stew"--is as gross to me as haggis and jellied eels.

In this sense, one aspect of my family's Jewishness has been diluted in a single generation, like soup gone watery. But at the same time, my eating habits have broadened in a way that's much more reflective of the gallimaufry that is America.

"That's one of the things that's so wonderful about the U.S.," says Darra Goldstein, editor of Gastronomica, a journal of food and culture published by University of California Press. "It is historically less rigid than other countries" in its culinary traditions.

Indeed, I consume all kinds of chow--Thai, Indian, Mexican--that my parents wouldn't touch with a 10-foot blintz. And here in Los Angeles, my own children are exposed to cooking that I never was as a youngster: Oaxacan, Korean, Japanese.

It's the unstoppable march of time: Hold the herring. Pass the sushi.

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