By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
Jewish summer food has been on my mind now that the hot weather has hit – or rather the lack of food that could be called that. The only specific Jewish summer food I remember from my childhood is the cold borscht my father used to eat: the beet soup turned a beautiful pink color when he added sour cream. No one else in the family ate it, including my mother. I have no idea if it was any good: I think I refused to taste it. Funny, because now I like beets: cold, raw ones are great in a salad, although I usually buy canned ones, drain them and marinate them in salad dressing.
The big summer food in my house was fruit, at least for me and my mom. We both love watermelon. Now, my mom would always graciously let us kids have first choice in food, except for that specific food. She made that very clear, saying, “There is no mother-daughter relationship when it comes to watermelon.” Those were the years when watermelon was only available in August so you needed to “eat fast” – at least, according to my mom.
Every summer, I also look forward to cherry season. Thirty years ago, there was a very short season for cherries, especially if you didn’t want to pay a fortune. They were only plentiful for about two weeks in June, and my mom and I could eat dozens of them at a time. When I was on a medically restricted diet in rabbinical school, I was only allowed to eat 10 cherries at a time. You have no idea how hard it was to stick to that. While I wouldn’t go past that limit, I did break another restriction: I was only supposed to have fruit two or, at the most, three times a day. I spread the cherries out and ate them at least three or four times each day.
When I spent 10 months in Israel during rabbinical school, the big treat was mangoes – inexpensive mangoes, that is – that were available for most of the year. I think I ate more mangoes during that time than I have the rest of my life combined. Another Israeli staple that also worked for summer were salads made of tomatoes and cucumbers. I had three Israeli roommates and they ate some variation of those with each meal. I could never figure out how they were going to chop those veggies: each meal seemed to yield a slightly different version of the dish.
I know people think of barbecues as summer food, but they didn’t grow up with my father. He hated cookouts: “The food is always burned on the outside and raw on the inside!” My mother would periodically buy a grill and try to cook out, but that never seemed to work out. A friend used to grill food for my mom and me during the summer months when we had dinner at her house: my mom is a vegetarian, but Portobello mushrooms are great cooked on a grill. As for me, I also enjoyed the chicken she grilled. (I’m a big chicken fan, but don’t cook it. The reason for that is a story for a different column.)
Of course, tuna salad and veggie salads work for summertime and, while we might not specifically call them Jewish food, a lot of Jews eat them. The same friend I mentioned above used to make us a summer salad with tuna, cold potatoes, cold green beans, lettuce, tomatoes and olives. That was a good one-dish hearty meal. I’ve read about a Russian variation of this salad, but I’m not sure if that’s where her recipe came from.
But my summer favorites will always be fruit. In addition to watermelon and cherries, I love a good peach. You know, the type whose juice runs down your arm when you bite into it. A really good peach can be hard to find here because too many of them are mealy inside. I miss the days when a different friend lived in New Jersey: we would stop at a fruit stand and buy the best peaches you’d ever want to eat. Oh, those peaches were so good even thinking about them makes me drool! But whatever fresh fruit or veggie you like, make sure to have plenty of them during the summer. It’s one of the best parts of the season.