I've decided to go Sephardic. I grew up eating mandelbrot and pushing gefilte fish around the plate, vaguely discontented with my culinary lot. Then, I stumbled across a book called "The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews" by Edda Servi Machlin, and fell in love. This marvelous cookbook, which chronicles the Jewish cuisine of Pitigliano, a small town in Tuscany, begins with the amazing Italian adage, "Vesti da Turco e mango da Ebreo," which means, "Dress like a Turk and eat like a Jew."
That Italians of all people could commend Jewish food as the pinnacle of good eating came like a bolt out of the blue. Clearly, they weren't talking about cholent and kishkes, or even chicken soup, bagels and cream cheese, blintzes and borsht. What a joy to discover that Jewish cooking embraces artichoke omelets, sourdough Tuscan bread, pumpkin ravioli, and fior di zucca fritti –fried squash flowers.
Although American Jews have been enthusiastic participants in the national embrace of international cuisine, most of us have yet to understand that we can lay claim to dishes and flavors far more exotic and varied than the shtetl (small village) food most of us associate with the Jewish holiday table. People who have spent time in Israel have fully assimilated the fact that falafel and pita are authentically Jewish foods -- but that's just the tip of this iceberg. Claudia Roden's encyclopedic "The Book of Jewish Food" devotes 166 pages to the cooking of Ashkenazim – Eastern Europe, Russia, Poland. However, it takes 417 pages to scratch the surface of the Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern customs of the Sephardim, which includes India, Morocco, Syria, Italy, Iran and Greece.
Still, even with this much documentation in hand, it's not easy to get out of the Eastern-Euro-centric head, which is marinated in a not-too-subtle distrust of food: boil the chicken until you're sure it's dead; don't use too much sugar in the cookies or you might run out. The underlying suspicion that food could become downright idolatrous was expressed by a 13th century German rabbi writing about the Jews of France. "Gross overeating is as dangerous to the body as a sword, besides that, it bars one from occupation with the law of God and the reverence due to him." (Never mind that German Jews were stuffing themselves with herring, dumplings and goose fat.)
The Ashkenazic distrust of culinary pleasure – and a general tendency toward asceticism that is absent in balmier climates – also bought us the notion that rice and corn are hametz, and thus off-limits during Passover. There have been times in Ashkenaz when garlic was declared hametz. Garlic! Without which dinner is virtually pointless.
The Sephardic table is, by contrast, far more tolerant. Lamb is served at the seder (Passover service) and rice is eaten throughout Passover. And all year long, cinnamon, rosewater and lemon pervade the meat course as well as dessert. Baklavah (a Greek pastry) is as Jewish as rugelach (an Eastern European pastry) – what a concept!
Of course, choosing to go Sephardic doesn't mean I have to repudiate bagels or my mother's mandelbrot. So maybe Jewish food could become a model for a broader notion of respectful communal pluralism? Now there's an idea we should all sink our teeth into.