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My Husband's Food Reeducation, One Knish at a Time

Let me begin by making a confession. I grew up on Long Island and although I have not lived there since leaving for college, it left an indelible mark on me. It made me a horrible Jewish food snob.

I always had good Jewish food close by. The proximity to excellent bagels, corned beef, knishes and black and white cookies left me quite jaded. It's not so much that I was a great cook of Jewish food--merely a consumer. Since leaving New York I have lived in many cities, and while all of them were lovely and had solid Jewish communities, none compared when food was involved. To this day, my parents still have to bring me New York bagels on every visit.

montrealer bagel
Jewish food snobbery knows no boundaries--a Montreal-style bagel with lox. Photo: Flickr/Helen Cook.

My husband and I met nine years ago when I was living in Pittsburgh. Not only is he not Jewish, but I was the first Jewish person he had ever dated. Before we met, his knowledge of Jewish food was limited to bagels and cream cheese. Now, ever since I left New York I had met people like him who did not have same appreciation for/knowledge of Jewish cuisine. One roommate in college did not know the difference between sour cream and cream cheese (a nuance that is important when preparing breakfast). Others spoke of CH-allah with a "CH" sound that hit that little spot in the back of my ear.

I tried to be a resource on all things related to Jewish cuisine, but I did not have a vested interest in whether my friends liked pastrami. If they did not want to try something, so be it. However, when I met my husband and it became clear that we were in this for the long haul, I realized I could not go through life without kosher deli. When he started coming to New York with me to visit my family, I noted that he needed a quick primer course in Jewish food.

My husband has come a long way in our time together. His education progressed in three stages: basic, intermediate and advanced. At each step his appreciation has broadened and now he has some serious Jewish cuisine understanding. Here are three steps in my Catholic, Midwestern husband's reeducation.

Basic

After dating for a few months, we took one of our first trips to New York. I was craving matzah ball soup and corned beef so we went to a local kosher deli. On the way there, I had already established that there would be no ham and cheese, in fact no cheese at all. However, while I had taught him some basic rules, I had not gone into some of the nuances. Matzah ball soup, check--ordered without a hitch. Corned beef sandwich! He was ready to try anything. "Can I have that on white bread?" It was as if time stood still. My mom and I both visibly winced and shook our heads. We informed him that rye bread was the only way to go. My mother also mentioned that mayo was unacceptable and it had to be mustard (she sensed he was headed in that direction). He enjoyed the sandwich and has had many since. Now, he even knows to ask for lean corned beef. What a pro.

Intermediate

As we started to celebrate Jewish holidays together, Aaron and I began to talk about how most holidays have some type of symbolic food involved. Apples and honey, matzah and whitefish salad (a traditional and symbolic break-fast food on Long Island)--each had some meaning and were not just foods that you ate. He began to anticipate certain foods on certain days such as haroset on Passover and latkes on Hanukkah. Luckily, he is an adventurous eater and willing to try new things. While not everything has been a hit, he definitely developed an appreciation for Jewish cuisine.

Advanced

My family introduced him fairly early on to bagels with cream cheese and lox. It is our traditional weekend breakfast food. Aaron took to this right away; it was a huge hit with him. One time, we were sitting in my parents' kitchen, about to chow down on our bagels and lox, when he said, "You know, it would be great if we had some tomatoes, onions and capers to go with this." My jaw dropped. He had apparently been to enough weddings, bar mitzvah parties and other Jewish events to have memorized the lox platter. Now, he was turning into a Jewish food snob, slightly disappointed by my mother's lack of lox accompaniments. I was shocked and impressed at the same time. The reeducation was complete.

My husband is proof that enjoyment of Jewish food can be acquired. You need a combination of good food, an adventurous spirit and a desire to learn to appreciate the cuisine of other cultures. While he is not eating pickled herring anytime soon (then again, neither am I) he has been a willing participant in many Jewish culinary adventures. Now, when I see him and our daughter eating bagels together on a Sunday morning or sharing blintzes, it makes me love them both even more.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Derived from the Hebrew word "cheres," which means clay, it's a mixture of fruit, nuts, and wine eaten as part of the Passover seder. Symbolizing the mortar that the Hebrew slaves used to build the cities for Pharaoh in Egypt, it's one of the symbolic food items on the seder plate. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover.
Sara Masri

Sara Masri is the Director of Major and Planned Gifts at Meeting Street, an organization serving children with special needs. She lives with her husband and daughter in Providence, R.I. She is still looking for a great Rhode Island bagel.

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