SLOW FOOD FROM THE PAST
For the last year I have been organizing very special, one-of-a-kind dinners based on aligning people’s origins with the seasons. I take people on a slow, thoughtful journey back in time, to the cuisine of their grandparents and great-grandparents, as a way of telescoping time between several generations of people and bringing food history to the fore, informing someone’s personal history with time and place, ancestry, geography, religious tradition, and culture.
A personal history of food is both unique to us as individuals and not unique to us in that it is often shared by others who lived in those times, places, and shared circumstances. My idea is to create dinners that braid together several culinary traditions of an individual’s personal history into a single meal that somehow shares the story of who we are and how we came to be here with others we care about. The story unfolds in food and in conversation between people at the table.
A NEW KIND OF THANKSGIVING
Perhaps it is the American in me that wants to make dinner a place to tell stories of how we came to be in North America. But because Thanksgiving isn’t a story most people I know can or want to relate to, I want to create tables where we can celebrate cuisine and culture as it pertains to diverse family histories, while acknowledging the complicated role persecution, genocide, colonialism, and slavery play in moving families from place to place. Sometimes people assimilate their food practices; sometimes they don’t, and manage to hold onto their traditions. I think both are interesting. Because of the pressures of assimilation, eating a meal one’s grandparents or great-grandparents might have eaten is a curious and new experience for some Americans. It is this tension – between tastes that are in turns familiar and somewhat foreign – from foods we are separated from by only a few generations – that makes tasting the food of our ancestors so interesting.
JEWISH FOOD FROM RUSSIA, POLAND, LITHUANIA, AUSTRIA, FRANCE
Last night I created a special biographical dinner that braided together the strands of a friend’s ethnic heritage to represent the corner’s of her life – her Jewish parents, one of whom fled Poland during the Holocaust to live secretly under assumed identities in Austria and France, and another side that left the pogroms of Lithuania and Russia for South Africa and England before coming to America.
I was interested in the Jewish diaspora of her parents and grandparents from Eastern Europe, living in country after country; sometimes with hope, sometimes in fear, absorbing languages and influences of each. Because my friend is vegetarian, I also chose to focus on foods that would be both respectful of animals and appropriate for the season.
SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
It took a lot of research to make a dinner that was both authentic to the world of her grandparents and contemporary enough for modern tastes, translating this Old World Jewish food into a dinner experience people in San Francisco would find palatable and interesting.
ODE TO THE CABBAGE
As it evolved, the dinner became – in my words- a veritable journey of the cabbage, the beet, and the potato – as they traveled between cuisines of Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Austria, and France, picking up different influences along the way.
As my friend’s family emigrated, so did the cabbage.
For this reason, cabbage showed up in four ways on the dinner table that night – stuffed, fermented, made into cutlets and fried, and even baked into a pie – reflecting cabbage recipes from Poland, Russia, Austria, and France, respectively. In this way I was able to show how a humble Eastern European staple made it’s way from the earth to the oven, from the root cellar to the pickling jar, and from the garden to the frying pan, in cities, in orchards, and on farms, in many, many ways, though many countries, over several centuries, to end up in our modern kitchen.