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It's All About the Food

Republished October 22, 2010

We fell in love over vindaloo in London, and married over Szechuan in New York. We still share a passion for exotic ethnic cuisines from Afghan to Yemen, but when it comes to the more mundane variety, it's easy to see which one of us is the Jew and which one of us is, well, not.

Larry was born in a cozy little Baltimore suburb, the only child of a Catholic couple in a Catholic world where multiple children were the norm. His father died when Larry was nine, leaving him in a single parent home when two parents were the norm. His mother had to return to the work force, leaving him home alone by age 11, when stay-at home moms were the norm. He went to the local parish grade school, Jesuit high school and college. He served a couple of years as an altar boy. He never even met a Jew until he was in high school.

I was born in Brooklyn, the oldest of what would be three kids, in a noisy but stable two-parent home with a mother who stayed home until I was in my teens. I went to public schools and knew I was Jewish although we did not celebrate the holidays or attend synagogue. Although we had something of everything in our public housing project, in 1950s New York everyone was at least a little bit Jewish, even if they weren't, if only by osmosis.

All this and more I knew about the differences between my beloved and me, but we liked the same things--more important, we valued the same things. We were living together after a brief courtship, and married--in a ceremony in Central Park, performed by a leader from the American Ethical Union--a year later. Seventeen years on, we are still living happily ever after. Mostly.

The first flutter of discord came very early on, when I wanted a bagel. "I don't see what the big deal is about them," said my loved one. "They taste like cardboard." The path to true love was quickly resmoothed, though, when it was determined that the only "bagel" Larry had ever eaten came out of the supermarket freezer case. Upon eating the real thing, he quickly became a convert.

Matzah was next up. Although he preferred egg-and-onion to my purist plain, he handled both well, and even occasionally made some for himself--a little nosh (snack). Chicken soup with kreplach (a Jewish won-ton) was acceptable, a reasonable reaction for someone who doesn't eat much soup anyway. Life was good.

Deli was more problematic. He disdained New York corned beef in favor of the Baltimore variety, which to my palate tastes like boiled ham. He liked pastrami, but sans rye, and rarely enough to justify the cost to his accountant's mind. He preferred roast beef --with mayonnaise. Italian deli was no better. His mother, an otherwise lovely woman, taught him to celebrate Christmas Eve with a dinner of cappicola (one of the many and varied forms of ham found in every good Italian deli) and provolone on a sub roll--buttered.

Things slowly got worse. Larry found no redeeming value in knishes (typically, seasoned mashed potatoes wrapped in dough and baked or fried, or can be filled with equally yummy other stuff) or noodle pudding. Kishke (think of it as a baked sausage of cow's intestines stuffed with flour, spices, and chicken fat) drew a blank stare. Never a fish eater, the sight of lox sent him running, and the thought of gefilte fish made him ill. I cannot begin to imagine what he would do if faced with a nice, oily whitefish.

He ate his hamburgers with mayonnaise.

He would not kiss me after I'd eaten chopped liver--but he will eat raw beef and onions.

He prefers Wonder white bread to a good bakery rye or challah, and has never touched pumpernickel. Bialys leave him cold.

Neither stuffed cabbage, blintzes, nor borscht move him. He does not understand why I will travel a half hour to the supermarket in the Jewish area for farmer cheese. He will, however, eat blue cheese right out of the wrapper.

Once we watched a TV show. A young Jewish boy had a crush on an Irish-Catholic girl. His family, led by Grandma, agreed to meet hers in the neighborhood Chinese restaurant. "Watch," I said. "The girl's family will order lots of weird-sounding stuff. Grandma will carefully review the entire menu and order chicken chow mein." When events unfolded exactly as I had predicted, Larry wanted to know how I knew. "You're looking at my life," I smiled.

I still shudder when Larry chooses mayonnaise or butter with foods that clearly require ketchup or mustard, but I manage to remain silent. Larry continues to find pressing business elsewhere when I make chopped liver or lox omelets, but will drive miles out of the way on New York trips so that I can get those necessities of life that are unavailable or inedible in Baltimore. Together we will find Indian, Thai, Middle Eastern, Tibetan, Greek, Mexican, Italian, and Ethiopian restaurants that appeal to both of us.

So we will keep each other, I think.

Yiddish for "stuffed fish," a patty made of ground up varieties of fish, matzo meal and spices, boiled in fish broth. A popular dish on Passover, sometimes served on Shabbat and other holidays as well. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Plural form of the Yiddish word "krepl," dumplings filled with meat and usually cooked in soup. A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover.
Sue Feder

Sue Feder was born Jewish, but didn't start to figure out what it really meant to her until the half-century mark. She is now active in the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah. Larry Miller is a "cradle Catholic" who will still, every now and then, take Communion.

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