Food Brings Us Together

By Andrea Marks Carneiro

December 2, 2009

Rachel Pasch flickr photo of mandelbrot
These nice-looking chocolate-chip mandelbrot are doing what they do best: providing a yummy excuse for a friendly conversation. Photo: Flickr/Rachel Pasch

Many years ago my mother-in-law visited a psychic in her native Brazil. Among other tidbits, the woman informed her of the following: her son would marry, and though they would like the girl very much, they would especially connect with this girl’s family. Oh, and her mother would be an incredible baker. If only the psychic knew how right she had been.

To me, the funniest thing about this prophecy isn’t the familial connection–yes, my father and father-in-law play golf and we often happily share special occasions–but the spot-on prediction of the origins of that connection. Food.

For years the centerpiece of Jewish tradition and heritage within my home has been the dining room table. “Holiday Jews,” (as my mother likes to say) we were far from stringently observant growing up. Though I attended Jewish day school, was bat mitzvahed in Israel and sat through my fair share of High Holiday services, it’s really the holiday meals that are imprinted on my memory. So how did matzo balls and mandelbrot bring me closer to my Brazilian-born in-laws who are not Jewish?

I guess we have to start at the beginning. I met my husband, the deceptively named Gil, in high school. Though we were always friends there was never a romantic aspect to our relationship until we were well out of our teens. I spent the decade following high school up north, attending school and living in New York City. I never dated someone who wasn’t Jewish and didn’t entertain the thought of it, even for a second. But after a series of events led me back to Miami, I soon found myself face-to-face with Gil at a Thanksgiving party and the next thing I knew I had a boyfriend who wasn’t Jewish.

My parents were less than enthusiastic. Though they loved Gil they were concerned about my embarking on an interfaith relationship, much less marriage. We assured them that it was a point of discussion, that his lack of religion made him open to embracing Jewish tradition and that–should we get married–our home and children would remain firmly ensconced in Jewish culture and holidays. They were still unsure.

In the ensuing months of our relationship I found myself constantly baking. To this day, I have no idea why. Cookies, cakes, brownies … I couldn’t stop. Then one day, when my in-laws happened to be in town visiting, I brought them over my mother’s freshly baked mandelbrot. My father-in-law was instantly addicted. As they bit into the tasty cookies (“Jewish biscotti!”) I was bombarded with a chorus of “What is this?” “How do you make this?” “Can we have more?” It was love at first bite.

Though the Carneiros already had a good understanding of Jewish culture–their hometown in Brazil has a large Jewish population, as does their adopted hometown of Miami–it began to dawn on me that I could lure them further into my Jewish family with food. My husband adored my mother’s matzo balls, which, in turn, endeared him to her even more. My father-in-law raved about her mandelbrot, always a great way to build an in-law relationship. The cultural divide that my parents were so concerned about slowly washed away.

Of course, it worked both ways. While I introduced Gil to the joys of brisket, I was in turn introduced to what my brother-in-law laughingly informed me were “Brazilian mushrooms.” They were chicken hearts. My father poured my in-laws glasses of Manischewitz and they poured him glasses of cachaca. Even our eventual wedding reflected the merging of our cultures though food. After a traditional Jewish ceremony, complete with rabbi, chuppah and ketuba, our guests toasted us with caipirinhas.

That’s not to say everything always runs smoothly. Gefilte fish never truly made the crossover to my husband’s favorite things–OK, who can blame him? And I will never understand why my requests for plain toast (“No, I do not want meat or cheese in it”) and iced coffee bring looks of disbelief when I visit Brazil. But we manage. When my daughter was born on Yom Kippur, my parents and in-laws to shared a quick break-the-fast before rushing to the hospital together to meet their “Jewzilian” granddaughter.

Today our toddler daughter, whom we early on agreed would be raised in the Jewish faith, attends temple pre-school yet instantly recognizes futebol on the television. She sings Shabbat songs for my parents and thinks it is hilarious to hear my husband speak Portuguese to his. And her very favorite thing to eat? Challah.

Chocolate Chip Mandelbrot (Mandel Bread)

These cookies freeze really well. I always keep a couple of dozen in the freezer!

Prep time: 20 minutes
Baking time: about 1 hour

4 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
½ tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp almond extract
4 cups flour mixed with 2 tsp baking powder
12 oz package chocolate chips
2 cups cinnamon sugar (2 cups sugar to 1 tbsp. cinnamon)
1 ½ cups finely chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Beat eggs, add 1 cup of sugar and continue beating.

Stir in the oil and the vanilla and almond extracts.
Gradually add the flour and baking powder mixture and mix with wooden spoon or stand mixer.
Add chocolate chips and optional walnuts and continue mixing well.

Using your hands with a little oil on them form two or three long and narrow loaves of dough–they should resemble loaves of French bread.
Sprinkle loaves heavily with cinnamon sugar.
Bake 30 – 35 minutes or until brown.
Remove from oven and slice while still warm–you can slice them directly on the cookie sheet.
Put back into 275-degree oven for another 25 minutes.

Makes three dozen


About Andrea Marks Carneiro

Andrea Marks Carneiro is the author of Jewish Cooking Boot Camp: The Modern Girl's Guide To Cooking Like A Jewish Grandmother. She is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in regional and national publications and websites.