Thursday, February 26, 2009

Keeping up with the Steins: How to Throw a Jewish Food Party

Have you heard the one about the Nigerian, the WASP, the Indian girls, the southerner, and the Chinese guy who walked into the Jewish deli?

To figure out the punch line, I decided to host a diverse set of friends for a Jewish food party. But this wasn't just a bad joke. And it wasn't just a great excuse for me to devour salty gefilte fish, the fresh vegetables and lemon juice dressing of an Israeli salad, and other Jewish treats. The party was also a chance to reaffirm my Jewish heritage and atone for over four years of avoiding temple. What better way of keeping up with the Steins and getting back in the good graces of Yahweh than to introduce a bunch of non-believers to matzah ball soup?

In planning the party, I started with the basics: I asked for help from another Jew who hasn't been to temple for an even longer time than me. In the Jewish hierarchy of needs, being able to share your guilt with someone else comes right after securing food and shelter. Enter my girlfriend, Marcy.

The menu came together easily enough – we picked the tastiest dishes from our favorite Jewish holidays. Among other recipes, an apple noodle kugel sprinkled with raisins and cinnamon; fried, oily pancakes, or latkes, made of sweet potato and egg, and topped with apple sauce; and poached fish patties called gefilte fish, made from a mixture of ground deboned white fish and carp.

And, of course, we also chose a few of the delicacies that no Jew can survive more than a few days without, holy day or not: lox and bagels, challah, and sour pickles – mainly thought of as New York icons, but Jewish in origin, as well.

Setting the ambiance was more challenging. It being the month after Hanukkah, the World Market and Party City were sold out of Jewish-themed decorations. I even gave Elli Chai's One-Stop Judaica Shop a try, but I forgot they would be closed on Friday evenings (did I mention I'm a bad Jew?). I felt like I needed a private investigator just to track down some Jewish paraphernalia, but Marcy reminded me that Peter Falk of Detective Columbo was probably busy observing the sabbath. We regrouped and located dreidels and gelt in Pikesville.

As we finished cooking the food, the guests started to arrive and their inquisitive nature took over almost immediately. First came the easy questions, like, "Why do you guys celebrate Hanukkah again?" but then they graduated to some real stumpers. For example, my Chinese friend, Dan, said he knew someone who celebrated Rosh Hashana by eating the head of a fish, and wanted to know why. We had prepared for just this moment. I smoothly reached for Marcy's copy of The Jewish Book of Why and quoted the Code of Jewish Law, which says: "May the coming year help us to achieve leadership; may we be the head and not the tail." Safe to say, we had thought of everything.

Secure that our friends didn't think we were completely ignorant about Judaism, we focused on the food. As it turned out, our diners hadn't been exposed before to many of our Jewciest dishes, and it was pretty entertaining to watch them take their first tastes:

1. Our bubbes would have been proud of us for our sweet potato latkes. Oily and just crispy enough, and studded with salty scallions, their excellence was unanimous. My friend Keith said he'd choose potato casserole over potato latkas any day, but he's from South Carolina, so I discounted his grits-centric view of the world. And for anyone who agrees with Keith that country cooking beats Jewish soul food, last time I checked we don't eat fried pig intestines.

2. Regardless of the continent they or their families originally came from, our guests loved Manischewitz. Historically, the Jews had to sweeten this Kosher wine just to make it palatable because of the limited grape selection in the areas where they settled. The nectar struck a chord with our group; over the course of the night, we guzzled two 48-ounce bottles. The biggest fan was my friend from Nigeria, who was so drunk that he openly admitted that he couldn't think of any alcoholic drink from his home country that was as good.

3. When we said we were making gefilte fish, my friend Rupa's eyes grew wide with fear, as if we had proposed to beat her about the head with the Torah. She grew up in an Indian household, so her only exposure to gefilte was working in a law firm where one of her many Jewish co-workers used the office refrigerator to store a jar of pale gefilte balls, suspended in a slimy broth for months on-end. Traumatized, she thought we were about to serve her something out of an anatomy display at the Natural Museum of History, or maybe Christian Bale's freezer in American Psycho. But, like the stereotype of the Jewish mother relentlessly shoving food in front of her child's face, we insisted she try it - "Have you lost weight? Eat something, bubelleh!" And when she saw other people enjoying the fish, sitting so appetizingly in a bed of lettuce, horseradish sauce and a slice of tomato, she threw off the shackles of her post-traumatic gefilte fish disorder. Soon she was raving about how good it was. That success was short-lived, though. Maybe the Manischewitz had impaired our friends' short-term memories, but we had to explain what gefilte was at least three times. When we thought that we had thoroughly explained the concept of mixing together two or three different types of fish, Dan asked, "So it's like spam?" Not the kind of reaction that earns you an honorary membership in the Tribe.

4. They were also a little confused by kugel. A sweet dessert made with noodles and topped with cornflakes? How much Manischewitz did the Jews have to drink before they came up with this crazy idea? It was so unique that they couldn't think of any analogy to kugel from their own ethnic cuisines – which was a point of pride for the two Ashkenazis in the room. Overall, the kugel got good marks, but not before my caucasian friend Lolly said that Jewish food has way too many carbs.

But when the dust cleared and the dreidels stopped spinning, we'd won a lot of converts. Our sauced guests snatched up the last mini-bagels with lox, and, despite the comment about spam, I celebrated our interfaith friendship by officially welcoming them to the Tribe. Maybe next weekend I'll take them all to temple.

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