I Connect to Judaism Through Food Because of My Mom.
How cooking Jewish food brought me close to Mom.
There was one time every week when the kitchen was off-limits to my brother and me: 6 pm on Sunday evenings when The Splendid Table aired, and when my mother called to us that she was, I quote, “getting chicken-y.” This would inevitably come after the silly chicken dance my mom would perform, holding the chicken by the drumsticks over the sink, and the smell of roast chicken and herbs would waft through the house for hours. We knew that, after the bird cooled and the “chicken-y” warning came, she would be out of commission for shoelace tying or any other form of help we might request as she used her hands to pull the cooked chicken off the bones in small pieces for our lunches and snacks throughout the week.
Perhaps it was because my mom was such an eager and thoughtful cook that I didn’t learn to cook until deep into the COVID-19 pandemic. Life had always presented its reasons not to; I was too busy, living in a city where it was too easy to pick up a fast-casual bowl of something to be eaten on the way to my next meeting or meet up. Suddenly, life in 2020 was confined not to an office and metro car in D.C., but a 450 sq. foot unit in my partner’s parent’s backyard in semi-rural Maine. There were no coffee shops, Chipotles, or bodegas within walking distance (let alone 20 minutes by car), and I was getting bored of quesadillas and grilled cheese. Fast.
thought maybe that trying my hand at cooking traditional Jewish foods might help me channel the love and focus that came naturally for baking to savory cooking.
Meanwhile, like so many others during the pandemic, I picked up baking as a hobby and stress-reducer. I relished the moments when my hands were covered in flour, rendering me unable to doom-scroll through the news. Soon our tiny unit was overflowing with cookies, bread, pies, and cake, but still, nothing that constituted a real meal. I thought maybe that trying my hand at cooking traditional Jewish foods might help me channel the love and focus that came naturally for baking to savory cooking. I bought several Jewish cookbooks, including Claudia Roden’s iconic Book of Jewish Food. I poured over these books but just couldn’t understand why the patience and attention I readily bestowed on baking couldn’t translate to brisket or mafroum.
Almost two years later, when my mom could finally visit me in my new permanent home in Maine for the first time, she asked, “What should we do while I’m in town?” I knew she meant where should we hike or go out to eat, but what I really wanted to do was go to the closest Hannaford grocery store (20-minute drive away) and pick up a whole chicken so she could teach me how to roast it.
Mom hugging a giant Lobster on her visit to Maine
Her visit was too jam-packed to cook at home; she had never been to New England, so we checked out all the touristy spots and stuffed ourselves on the local foods, forgoing our chicken roasting plans.
Determined, the next time I went to the grocery store, I looked past my familiar pre-cut boneless, skinless chicken breasts, and picked up my first whole chicken, tightly nestled in its wrapping. Upon Googling “how to roast a chicken,” I was enticed by the promise of a shorter cook time and decided I would spatchcock it: a process of cutting out the backbone and laying it flat to cook more quickly. In the years leading up to my bat mitzvah, I was a vegetarian, which helped my efforts to keep kosher in Oregon — a state with a Jewish population of <1%. As I stood there facing the chicken, not entirely sure which side had the backbone or breast, the former vegetarian in me almost won out.
Feeling faint but still determined, I knew what I needed: Mom. For years as a child, I stood by my mom’s side as she called her own mother for a type of call dubbed in my household as food-question-calls. These were the days before computers were household features and our phones were smart or small enough to fit in our pockets. Without the all-knowing internet to turn to, the women in my family would call each other, asking “what’s the best temperature to make cholent?” or “what do you do with excess chard?” Between my stunted experience in the kitchen and ability to Google any food question that came to mind, I realized as I waited for her to pick up that I had nearly made it to the age of 30 without making a food-question-call of my own.
Me and Mom
My mom was overjoyed as I told her the purpose of the call, telling me with equal parts excitement and authority to feel for the spine. Feeling spineless myself, I poked at the bird, trying to locate the backbone I was supposed to be dismembering. By the time I hung up, the chicken was spatchcocked, and I had picked up several excellent suggestions of herbs to roast with it.
That night, long after we had hung up and my partner and I had feasted on the (if I do say to myself) perfectly crispy and juicy thighs with schmaltzy onions that had layered the cast iron beneath the chicken as it roasted, it was time to figure out what the heck to do with the rest of the bird. After filleting the breast with a knife, I gave up on trying to delicately cut the rest of the meat from the bone. It was – as my mother would say – time to get chicken-y. Carefully, I picked each piece of meat I could, just as my mother had done when I was little; no piece was too small to save for lunch the next day. As I stripped each bone, the former vegetarian in me subsiding, I suddenly felt closer to my mother, despite the 3200 miles between us. How many women in my family had stood here as I was now, ensuring every piece of the animal would be used to feed ourselves and loved ones? I had baked countless hamantaschen and loaves of challah, but neither had infused me with this undeniable connection to my Judaism and family that I was now experiencing.
As my confidence in the process increased, I soon amassed enough bones in my freezer to tackle a new kitchen venture: chicken stock. It was time for another food-question-call. My mother walked me through covering the bones in water and which herbs to add in addition to the onion scraps I had been saving in the freezer for this moment. Soon my new home in unfamiliar Maine smelled just as ours had in Oregon growing up: chicken and parsley filled the air, along with the sounds of The Splendid Table from my Podcasts app.
While I don’t need to call my mom every time I make stock now, playing around instead with intuition and cilantro, I will absolutely be calling her with a food-question-call if I ever get brave enough to approach the final chicken frontier from my childhood: chopped liver.