by Rabbi Rachel Esserman
What do I think about when I’m trying to fall asleep at night? Far too many times it’s something to do with The Reporter. At least one recent night, it was something interesting. I’m not sure why the fact that goose was the more important source of protein for rural Jews in Europe popped into my mind. It was only in the U.S., where it was easier to keep chickens, that chicken replaced goose. Before you ask, that information came from one of the numerous books about Jewish food I’ve read although I can’t remember which one. The fact stuck in my mind because I always wanted to try goose – not because it was a Jewish food, but rather from reading Charles Dickens’ novels that featured goose as part of festive meals.
These thoughts didn’t help me fall asleep. Instead they made me think of holiday meals past (sorry, couldn’t resist the Dickens way of saying that). Some readers may be too young to remember that before all the emphasis on healthy eating started, holiday meals were anything but healthy. No meal was complete without at least two types of meat and some featured three or four meat dishes.
The reason I know we had chicken and brust is that my aunt cooked them in the same pan, which meant they tasted basically the same. Before people tell me I should be writing brisket, brisket is not actually correct. To make certain I was spelling brust correctly, I looked it up online and, according to thekosherbachelor.blogspot.com, “Brust is Yiddish for breast. Deckle is a thick, fatty part [of the] meat from the ribs, or in this case, the breast. Typically you’ll find it as chuck deckle, or, in a kosher butcher shop it may actually be called brust deckle. Because of its fattiness it’s usually a cheaper cut of meat than the brisket, about $7.99 a pound.” I had absolutely no knowledge of those details until I decided to check the spelling. I figured the term was a mispronunciation, or that I’d heard it incorrectly, and so was looking for the real term.
Back to the meals at my relative’s house: in addition to brust and chicken, my mother would make chicken fricassee. When checking the spelling for that word (I don’t think I’ve ever written or typed the word fricassee before), I discovered something very different about my mother’s version as compared to the recipes online. Not only didn’t my mom’s version have a cream sauce (my grandparents and aunt’s house were kosher), but it included meatballs. Yes, even that one dish managed to have two different kinds of meat. I haven’t had my mother’s chicken fricassee in at least four decades, but I believe it had a tomato based sauce. That was usually my favorite High Holiday dish, so much so that I can’t tell you anything about the rest of the meal.
Well, I do remember one thing: my parents made me drink a lot of milk at home with every meal, but, since these holiday meals took place in kosher homes, there was always soda on the table. If given the choice, I might have just had soda as my entire meal since it was such a treat. In fact, when I went to college, I had to laugh at friends who thought drinking alcohol was exciting. To me, the forbidden drink was soda, although I did limit myself.
But excess – whether in food or drink – is part of a holiday celebration. Saving the best for Shabbat or a holiday is a well-known theme in Jewish stories. So, since meat was expensive and scarce in the Old World, it’s not surprising that our ancestors decided to celebrate holidays in the New World with as many types of meat as possible. I am not suggesting that we return to that custom, but rather to make certain we celebrate our holidays in as great a style as possible.