A steaming bowl of matzoh ball soup. Mouthwatering brisket. Crispy potato latkes. For many of us, these foods and more evoke wonderful memories that have shaped our palates, our histories, and helped define our culinary pasts and presents.
For Alexa Manos and her extended Greek family, no Christmas celebration is complete without a full spread of Jewish deli. From corned beef and pastrami on Christmas Eve to lox and bagels Christmas morning, Jewish deli is a regular part of their holiday experience.
"It all began when some family friends brought Jewish deli food to our Christmas party. They knew my dad loved it--it was a big bag from Once Upon A Bagel [in Highland Park]. At the end of the day, most ethnic groups are the same--we all believe in family, hard work, and education." And apparently good deli!
The appeal is straightforward, according to Andy Kalish, owner of Sam & Gertie's, a popular vegan Jewish deli in Chicago. "Just think about the corned beef sandwich--warm, thinly sliced corned beef, on crusty rye with yellow mustard. It's audacious in its simplicity and yet, I don't think there is a better sandwich in the world. So, along with a
, and some
, I think the lines at Jewish delis clearly indicate peoples' preference for good food and a great sandwich."
When Christina Weisbard and her Jewish husband got married, she wanted to cook for his holidays. Her foray into Jewish cuisine began with a cookbook someone gave them. "It started with Passover; we found a recipe for Yemenite
We knew the standard dishes from being with family. But we started to look online for different recipes, like parsnip latkes-things that had a little twist." Her cooking has now become a mixture of everything-traditional fare like rugelach and kugels for holidays-and also those interesting variations she finds on Epicurious.
Bret Olson grew up in Wasau, Wisc. and hadn't met too many Jewish people before he attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It wasn't until he moved to Chicago that he even tried lox and bagels, which he now loves. And then his colleague introduced him to the wonders of brisket when he would bring leftovers after Passover. "I even tried gefilte fish, but I'm not a big fan of that," Olson said.
Sprite (who goes by only one name) grew up Catholic and became familiar with Jewish cuisine while working in catering as a teenager. Like many non-Jews who are drawn to Jewish foods, Sprite said, "My favorite thing is not a particular food but just the ritual. It's a focus on family and sharing. It's just such a wonderful experience. That, in a way, is a flavor." Although she loves macaroons and also likes brisket, lox, and sable, it's clearly the feeling that resonates the most.
And that is a common theme.
Jimmy DeFalco comes from a strong Italian background with a mother who is known amongst her family and friends as an outstanding cook and family matriarch. "She just cooks and it's her happy place. It's where she de-stresses, where most people stress."
Even before DeFalco met his Jewish wife, he was a fan of Manny's Deli and periodically went there for a pastrami sandwich, matzoh ball soup, or even a potato pancake. However, he never associated Manny's with Jewish food. But after he and his wife got married, he was introduced to many more Jewish specialties. His favorites are brisket and matzoh ball soup.
But what he likes the most about Jewish cuisine and really any cuisine, "is being around the family. That's all part of it, that's part of the food. Just like Italians and our traditions. Tradition is very important when it comes to food."
Rochelle Newman Rubinoff is a freelance writer living in the northern suburbs of Chicago.