The Food of Great Fiction

March, 31 2012

Here a Roth, there a Stein, everywhere a Kafka—Jews are the people of the book, a group that has long prized its own erudition and literary prowess. And with good reason: It’s nearly impossible to list the most important writers of our time, or any other, without dropping some Jewish names.

But one could also say that Jews are the people of the food: here a brisket, there a kreplach, everywhere a bagel. A fervor for food is often a trope of Jews in literature, a sort of shorthand for membership in the Jewish people. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby, the Jewish no-goodnik Meyer Wolfsheim is introduced at a tony restaurant with the following description: “A succulent hash arrived and Mr. Wolfsheim…began to eat with ferocious delicacy.” The tone is set from the beginning: Wolfsheim is a man of appetites, epicurean and otherwise.

James Joyce, too, noted the dietary habits of his iconic part-Jewish leading man, Leopold Bloom of Ulysses. He “ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.” Bloom, though he is uncircumcised, converted to Catholicism to marry his wife, and has been baptized no less than three times, is still considered a Jew by those around him; like the whiff of urine on his breath, his Jewishness follows him. That he eats, even delights in, offal is surely no accident—he is a man apart, outside of the mainstream.

The use of food to highlight the otherness of some Jews isn’t limited to non-Jewish writers: Bernard Malamud, in his short story The Magic Barrel, writes of an elderly male Jewish matchmaker who “smelled frankly of fish, which he loved to eat.” The old man is strange, engaging in a mystical sort of matchmaking, disappearing and reappearing at his young client’s doorstep without any notice. And he is engrossed with thoughts of food, asking always for a sliced tomato, a cup of tea, a sandwich. Even his name—Salzman, German for salt producer or salt seller—casts him as a man primarily concerned with his palate.

Philip Roth’s 1959 novella, Goodbye, Columbus, depicts food as a social wedge, separating the Jewish haves from the Jewish have-nots. The main character, working-class Neil, stumbles upon the secret refrigerator of his upper-crust girlfriend’s family—filled to the brim with “greengage plums, black plums, red plums, apricots, nectarines, peaches, long horns of grapes, black, yellow, red, and cherries, cherries flowing out of boxes and staining everything scarlet. And there were melons—cantaloupes and honeydews—and on the top shelf, half of a watermelon, a thin sheet of wax paper clinging to its bare red face like a wet lip.” The sensuousness of the description betrays a yearning on Neil’s part, a desire to be part of a world beyond his reach. Ellen Golub, professor of communications at Salem State University in Massachusetts, says, “The land of Israel is flowing with milk and honey—that’s the way it’s described—so this whole notion of an abundance of food is what Jews want. They want to be allowed into the land so they can grow their fig trees and have plentitude.” Indeed, Neil marvels over the bounty of the hidden refrigerator and understands himself, a kid from Newark, to be ever outside the promised land of Short Hills; his girlfriend’s sister, he says, talks to him “in such a way that it seemed to place the refrigerator itself out-of-bounds, if only for me.”

The stories of Anzia Yezierska, a Polish-born writer who immigrated to Manhattan’s Lower East Side as a child, often use food as a symbol for the immigrant’s yearning to be part of the mainstream. In the aptly named story, “Hunger,” a young Jewish immigrant named Shenah Pessah goes to a restaurant with a man who orders herring and onions. “Ain’t there some American eating on the card?” asks the young woman, whose intense anxiety about her immigrant status manifests itself in repeated references to herself as a “greenhorn.” Pessah says, “There’s something in me—I can’t help—that so quickly takes on to the American taste. It’s as if my outside skin only was Russian; the heart in me is for everything of the new world—even the eating.” Yezierska’s stories, writes University of Maryland in Europe professor Tobe Levin, in “How to Eat Without Eating: Anzia Yezierska’s ‘Hunger,’” “equate assimilation with the adoption of American foodways, thus making the table carry the burden of plot and theme.”

Sometimes it’s the American thrust back into the old country who stands out. In Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel,Everything Is Illuminated, a young American man on a search for the shtetl from which his family emigrated admits to his Ukrainian hosts that he is, of all things, a vegetarian. “What is wrong with you?” asks the Ukrainian driver, after confirming a list of all the meats the herbivore won’t eat—pork, steak, chicken, veal, sausage. “It’s just the way I am,” answers Jonathan, the iconoclastic American.

And of course, there is the Jewish mother, a crazed, neurotic figure, consumed by the intersection between food and her maternal role. In Roth’s seminal 1969 novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, protagonist Alexander Portnoy is harangued by his mother for the consequences of his perceived infractions: “If all you ate was what you were fed at home, you wouldn’t be running to the bathroom 50 times a day,” berates Portnoy’s mother. “You go to Harold’s Hot Dog and Chazerai Palace and you eat French fries with Melvin Weiner. Don’t you? Don’t lie to me either.” Food, here, is tied intimately not only to Jewish ritual but also to the ideas of Jewish guilt. According to Golub, the connection between Jewish mothers and food is a psychological mirror of the biblical relationship between God and the Jewish people. “The God of the Bible is more maternal and relates to the Hebrew nation as a mother might relate to a child. One of the ways we see this is through the oral stage of development, where the mother feeds the child.”

Obsessions with food aren’t limited to the American Jewish literati. In Israeli writing, the appearance of fictional food represents a shift in the way sabras think about themselves. In his 1994 novel, The Loves of Judith, in which the young protagonist Zayde learns about his family history through four meals with a paternal figure, Meir Shalev describes the experience of eating in luscious detail. Zayde remembers a childhood tasting of the Italian custard dessert zabaglione this way: “Words can’t describe that sweetness, which I haven’t managed to achieve again to this day. Many years have passed since that first meal, but the memory of the dessert still caresses my palate and is so strong and clear that sometimes, when I pick my teeth with a toothpick, I still extract from between my molars a sweet grain left there from back then.”

The emphasis on food, says Nancy Berg, professor of comparative literature at Washington University in St. Louis, marks a changing view of the Zionist enterprise itself. “The Zionist ethos wasn’t about indulgence,” says Berg. “It was about leaving the indulgent bourgeois society behind. There’s a rise of the gastro-narrative, which really signaled a normative invasion of the society and the literature—that it didn’t always have to be about the Zionist narrative. Previously, a character who was really indulgent in food would’ve been a figure to be critiqued if not ridiculed and be considered against the Zionist ethos.” In recent years, the literature of Israel has expanded to make room for characters such as Zayde, whose primary preoccupations are not the existential place of Israel, but rather their own existence and all the trappings of daily life—food included.

The connection between Jews and food in the literary world shouldn’t come as a surprise. Even in the Bible, the forebear of all Jewish writing, plots sometimes hinge on moments of gustatory weakness. Eve is tempted into sin with an apple. Moses hits the rock to bring forth water. Esau sells Jacob his birthright in exchange for bread and a bowl of lentil stew. Food is a seducer, a primal need humankind is literally unable to resist—the stuff, in other words, of great fiction.

Recipe: Kidney Stew

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