There was something for everyone at the tenth annual Limmud NY conference last weekend: from guided meditation to bluegrass music to late-night improv, this year’s three-day gathering devoted to Jewish learning in all its facets filled the Stamford, Conn. Hilton Hotel with rabbis, scholars, historians, and…foodies.
Of course, no discussion of Jewish-ness is ever complete without at least a passing reference to—and ideally a more in-depth conversation about—food: after all, we love our nosh. The Limmud program schedule this year was an attractive one for passionate cooks and eaters: it included a Friday night cocktail-making tutorial; a discussion of the kosher meat marketplace; and a cupcake-decorating competition.
On Sunday morning, the weekend’s food-centric activities were capped off by a discussion between three prominent Jewish foodies of diverse backgrounds. “The Food Panel: Fusion Foodies Talk” brought together Shannon Sarna, the Italian-American author of the blog The Nosher; Michael Twitty, the African-American author of the blog Afroculinaria; and Rabbi Mary Zamore, the editor of the 2011 book The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic. In a chat moderated by Limmud NY board member and Jewish educator Jennifer Altman, the three writers reflected on their personal dietary practices; cherished family recipes; and the validity of the traif-iest matzo ball ever to float in a bowl of chicken broth.
“To me that is very cool,” said Sarna in defense of the dish served by “Top Chef” season two winner Ilan Hall at his L.A. restaurant The Gorbals (pork braised in Manischewitz has also made an appearance on the menu there). The knaidlach has been stirring up controversy ever since its debut in 2011, but to Sarna, the dish is less about a blatant flouting of tradition and more about the fun that experimentation can bring to a kitchen.
“This is about letting go of fear,” she said.
Twitty, too, could see the good in a dish like a bacon-wrapped matzo ball, which, although strictly not traditional, still has the power to attract non-Jews to Jewish cuisine and get them interested in it.
“Take Mile End Deli,” he said, referencing Noah Bernamoff’s ever-popular Jewish-by-way-of-Montreal-style Brooklyn restaurant. The restaurant’s “smoked meat”-style pastrami; its housemade pickles; its chopped liver: though far from kosher, Twitty said, these dishes’ presence on a hot Brooklyn restaurant’s menu keeps the Jewish tradition alive and well—and even trendy.
“And that’s still important,” Twitty said.
Differing from her somewhat younger peers, Rabbi Zamore said she wasn’t quite comfortable with the idea of a bacon-wrapped matzo ball—wondering, even, if such and idea could be considered anti-Semitic. But after listening to Sarna’s and Twitty’s arguments, she conceded that the difference of opinion could be “a generational thing.”
“Whereas I might call a bacon-wrapped matzo ball ‘inappropriate,’ the younger generation might be more inclined to simply deem it ‘awkward,’” she said.
But there was one point that the three very different panelists agreed on: when it comes to Jewish food, there’s no such thing as “authentic.” Take the speakers’ home recipes as an example: Sarna makes a craft cocktail with gin, prosecco, and Manischewitz syrup; Twitty likes his hummus made with black-eyed peas; and Zamore, whose husband is Norwegian, eats kransekake, a Norwegian almond cake, each Chanukah.
“The less we can say ‘this is authentically Jewish,’ the better off we are,” said Sarna.