When I was 12 years old, I approached my Mum in the kitchen and earnestly asked her if I could try some facon (fake bacon). She turned to me with her hands crossed over her apron and looked at me amused. Being Jewish and growing up in a Kosher home meant constant restrictions on what I could eat, bacon being top of the forbidden food list. I explained to my Mum that watching bacon in cartoons, sizzling in a pan and eaten by kids for breakfast, I desperately wanted to try it myself.
It wasn’t so much that I wanted to know what bacon tasted like, but my addiction to TV meant that cartoons informed an image of how I thought my life should look, and as I saw it, being Kosher meant I couldn’t participate in this ‘normal’ life. I wanted to be like any other kid that had bacon and eggs in the morning or ham for dinner. I realise now that behind my request to try facon, I was really asking: What is the point of a food so regulated and ritualised that essentially ‘others’ me from mainstream society?
Being Jewish and growing up in a Kosher home meant constant restrictions on what I could eat, bacon being top of the forbidden food list.
It was during the holiday season that I came to appreciate the richness and value of Jewish food. My family has very specific traditions around Chanukah (22 to 30 December); my Dad blasts Adam Sandler’s ‘Chanukah song’ through a CD player, we light the menorah together every night, adding a candle for each additional day, and my family comes together to feast on a meal dutifully prepared by my grandmother.
My cousins and I don’t so much as sit around the table but hover over it, vying for the crispiest latke (fried potato cake) and slapping each other’s hands away from the ones we have our eyes on. Our lips coated in oil, we spend the rest of dinner engaging in our annual argument over whether latkes are best sprinkled with sugar or salt.
This emphasis of food at our dinners is emblematic of Judaism’s centralisation of food in Jewish expression and ritual. Jewish food isn’t simply a cuisine of certain flavours or dishes. It’s a transmitter of tradition and story - a prop used in festivals that connects us to historical events or themes. During Chanukah we eat oily foods such as donuts and latkes to remind us of the oil used to light a Menorah that was only supposed to last one day but lasted a miraculous eight.
Our lips coated in oil, we spend the rest of dinner engaging in our annual argument over whether latkes are best sprinkled with sugar or salt.
Judaism is an intricate religion – for every rule, there’s commentary on the rule, and commentary on that commentary (not to even mention the exceptions). Jewish food and the rituals around it instruct us how to act and the mood we’re supposed to feel. The phrase ‘they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!’ can be used to summarise most Jewish holidays. Likewise, on days of collective mourning we fast to connect to our pain, evoking hunger pangs to reflect our spiritual soberness. It’s fitting then that the warm, comforting food of Chanukah mimics the hamish memories I have of sharing this food with family. Chanukah reminded me of the power of Jewish food to help me feel connected – to my family, to my heritage, to my traditions. And I’m appreciative of this connectedness more than any potential it has to ostracise me.
When I eventually tasted the ‘facon’ my Mum bought at the Kosher butcher, it was too salty and smoky - too unfamiliar to me. I actually didn’t like it at all. When I want crispy, oily food, I now reach for a latke.
Illustration by Antoine Corbineau via The Illustration Room.
This story is the second in a series titled A Festive Perspective, which showcases personal stories of food and culture during the festive season through varying multicultural lenses. The following articles will be published throughout the month of December, 2019. You can read them all here.
With fresh bounty in hand from the farmers’ market, this recipe practically wrote itself. I combined kohlrabi (which is white inside, by the way), carrots and beetroot with some beetroot leaves to create beautiful, jewel-toned latkes that are even tastier than they are colourful. My husband brought a pan of the crispy-fried latkes to a business meeting and they were gone in seconds. He came home with rave reviews and a generous offer to take me back to the farmers’ market!
Crisp sweet potato pancakes paired with hummus and a moreish salad of kale, cucumber, preserved lemon makes a perfect little entrée or light meal. It’s also pretty impressive picnic fare – just keep the latkes, salad and hummus separate and let everyone assemble their own.
Latkes are a popular fried potato snack traditionally eaten by Jewish families during the Hanukkah festival. The process of deep-frying the latkes in this symbolic ingredient ensures the fritters are moreish and crisp.