As we embark upon another new school year, I’m delighted by the excellent timing of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Perhaps because my oldest is heading into her first year of middle school, I’m feeling the transitional impact of September more keenly than ever. The Jewish high holidays, in which I participate with my husband, his family, and our children (I’m not Jewish myself), echo well the emotional duality of starting a new school year after summer’s long hiatus: celebration and anxiety, endings and beginnings. There’s excitement for what the future brings—sweetness, we hope—and an acceptance of what’s past. Perhaps because I wasn’t raised with these traditions, or because we celebrate them from a largely secular wish for heritage and continuity, these holiday rituals fascinate me. As usual, the culinary aspects have a particular allure: I immerse myself in special foods and traditional ingredients, and I love the opportunity to share meals with family and friends in a way that too often eludes us at non-holiday times.
My holiday preparations this year coincided with beginning Michael Pollan’s latest book, “Cooked,” about the essential role of cooking in human history and culture. He wants to convince us—and he’s as persuasive a writer as there is—that we need to rediscover a place (and love) for cooking in our too-busy, attention-scattered lives. He argues even the most harried can reap profound rewards if they make the time for more cooking in their lives. There are health benefits, of course, as more home cooking—real cooking—equals fewer prepared and processed foods, but there are spiritual ones as well, and this is the aspect of cooking that’s always rung a deep chord in me. I don’t cook because I think it’s healthier for me or my family (and if you know what I cook, you’ll see I’m not one for dietary restrictions): I cook because of the deep satisfactions that lie in conceiving and producing a good meal. And if that meal connects us to another culture, opens new taste horizons, or celebrates a tradition from our heritage, so much the better. I do happen to believe, like Pollan, that if more people cooked, some of our nationwide health woes would improve as a result. But I don’t cook out of guilt—that’s never been a useful motivator for me, especially not for the long-term. It’s far more pleasurable and sustainable to cook from a sense of tradition and for friends and family, feelings which are happily heightened at holiday meals.
Preparing for the holiday while reading “Cooked” made me think about the people who don’t cook, and how to encourage them to start (or start again). My own non-cooking friends say they “hate cooking,” or don’t have time for it, or don’t see the point at all. Like most things, you can’t like it until you do it—and cooking definitely becomes both more proficient and more pleasurable with practice—but the it's difficult to start what you don’t like in the first place. There are, of course, many activities we tackle over the course of our lives even though they are hard and unpleasant at first: learning an instrument, studying a foreign language, beginning a new exercise regimen. We endure the initial unpleasantness because we have our eye on the prize, and that’s enough to push us along. So why has cooking, hardly as disagreeable or as difficult as some of other skills we’re willing to learn, and with such tangible rewards, fallen so far down the list of priorities? While there are many answers to that question, from the availability of processed foods to the explosion of women in the workplace and the end of traditional divisions of labor, one important reason is that it’s become fatally disconnected from our culture. Reconnecting to culinary traditions and holiday meals is one way to revive that connection, and in turn bring cooking back into our lives.
How high is the percentage of Americans, if asked to name a traditional meal, who would name the same one? But as I’ve written before, “Turkey Day” (see, we’ve even lost the gratitude part) is a once-traditional meal with big problems. It’s come to represent so many things besides food traditions, from overeating to football to holiday shopping stampedes. It’s become the anomalous meal, the weird one we reluctantly spend with our extended families, rather than the ideal one representing what we aspire to the rest of the year. Furthermore, it’s one meal. Only one, out of the thousand we consume every year. However “traditional” you make your own Thanksgiving, one meal alone can’t reboot the dropped connection between American food and culture.
Asking people to rediscover or recommit to their own (probably distant) food traditions might sound idealistic, but my own experience here may be instructive. Despite my personal lack of connection to Jewish food traditions, I’ve come to value them over the years, and to understand their spiritual and cultural significance. I love that the dishes at the High Holidays are sweeter than usual, to represent the sweetness we wish for in the rest of the year. I love that the challah and other dishes are round at these meals, to symbolize wholeness and good fortune. I admit to being somewhat superstitious, but even a skeptic unmoved by honeyed dishes has to admit to the clear pleasures and benefits of eating a delicious, home-cooked meal with family and friends.
My wish for all non-cooks in this new year, Jewish and/or academic, is to find a food tradition to call your own. It can be religious or cultural or even a brand-new one, as long as it means something to you. Use that meaning, whatever it may be, as inspiration to spark a commitment to do more cooking of your own. In a family or amongst friends, your efforts will be appreciated and rewarded, and you will feel good about it yourself. Cooking is as worthwhile as joining a gym, probably just as good for you, and certainly more fun. All the cool kids are doing it (well, or they will be). L’Chaim!
What I cooked this week:
For Rosh Hashanah:
For Yom Kippur Eve: