Last night, a group of friends from the History Department (and my partner, in English) got together for a Jewish dinner potluck. Each of the contributors brought dishes they remembered grandmothers or godmothers or mothers cooking when they were children--matzoh ball soup, sweet and sour brisket, latkes, kasha varnishkes, carrot ring, mandelbrot, and so on. (There was a lot of food for a group of less than ten people.)
Jewish social and spiritual life is often characterized by a series of rituals based around the twin tasks of worship and eating. The new year begins with services and a meal, and is followed after ten days by a day of atonement--fasting followed by the equally important breaking of that fast. In the case of Passover, the meal and the worship are formally and fully intertwined in the seder. Purim is marked, for many, as much by hamentaschen (cookies in the shape of Hamen's hat) as it is by the recitation of the Book of Esther.
The dishes my friends and I brought were thus often tied explicitly to particular memories of particular times and particular groups of people--family, religious community, etc. And that got me thinking about food as a way of building community and managing time. There is, of course, an extensive body of scholarship about the history and culture of food. The University of California Press has a whole series on the topic.
But last night, as we shared food, we also shared both tips for making it--roast the chicken and vegetables first to get a richer stock--and memories about how those tips were learned--several attendees' grandmothers said blood or skin are key ingredients in latkes, since you must grate the potatoes by hand or suffer the pain of soggy potato pancakes. In some ways as important as the food itself were the recipes and the oral traditions surrounding the recipes. Together, they are passed through families, tying them together through both food and ways of thinking about food (taking sides on the dense vs. fluffy matzoh-ball debate, for example).
It seems to me, then, that recipes become not just information but a sort of information technology. Recipes and food-related oral traditions become a way of preserving data (passing it down), restricting access to it (secret ingredients, unspoken rules, and gendered restrictions), networking and circulating it (culinary initiation rituals after marriage), and so on.
This seems particularly important among Jews, who have a long history of oppression in general and of having information artifacts destroyed, in particular. Jewish books have a way of ending up burned, but despite the efforts of countless anti-semitic regimes to snuff out Jews entirely, many Jewish oral traditions and foodways have remained largely intact, thanks--it appears to me--to a fascinating combination of decentralized distribution and emotional attachment.
But it is certainly true in other ways in other communities. The importance of the casserole to upper-Midwest Protestantism, for example, or the ways that food becomes such an important way for immigrant communities to assert collective, transnational identity in new contexts. Recipes are just the information but a tool for making that information work in particular ways.
In the interests of playing around with this idea, and to use newer technologies to open up access to my own family's food traditions, I bring you my godmother's recipe for "carrot ring." This dish was first made more largely available in a community cookbook produced by a synagogue in Washington State in the mid-twentieth-century, and it is one of my most vivid sense-memoreis from childhood. It's not too sweet and is, in fact, meant to be served as a part of dinner, not after it. (See, there's one of those things you wouldn't know unless I explained it.) Enjoy!
1.5 cups Crisco (you could substitute lard to avoid the trans fats, but that wouldn't exactly be kosher)
1 cup brown sugar
2.5 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
2 Tbs cold water
3 cups grated (by hand!!!) carrots
juice of 1 lemon
Cream Crisco and brown sugar. Add all other ingredients. Pour into well-greased bundt or spring-form pan. Refrigerate overnight. Bake for 1 hour at 350 degrees.