JEWS DON’T NEED FRYING PANS
A Jew growing up beneath the Mason Dixon line has a hard life. Especially when it comes to food. Looking back on my culinary life, it’s amazing that I grew up as normal as I did. A Jew in the South was as gastronomically out of place as stuffed kishke in an ice cream store. All around me, friends and neighbors were frying everything in sight; steaks, chops, potatoes, onions, okra. A Southern cook without a heavy cast iron frying pan was like a nightingale without a song. While at my house my mama was stuffing and roasting a veal pocket. I almost developed a neurosis.
School classmates: “Teddy, boy did we have some great fried chicken last night. Double dipped batter, you know. What did you have?
Honest answer: “Carrot kugel.”
Public answer: “Oh, we fried up a roast. Took a while, you know.”
Why did my mother insist on complicating my integration into 6th grade society? We were hopelessly divided by the kitchen wall. At school I ate the contents of my lunch bag in the coatroom. My Christian friends were fryers. We were roasters. It wasn’t bad enough that we went to synagogue on Saturday and they churched on Sunday. Or while I slaved in Hebrew school they played baseball. We ate weird dishes like tsimmus, kanadlach, stuffed veal pocket, Gefilte fish. And how could I ever explain Gefilte fish to my friend and neighbor Tommy Thompson, who thought a stuffed veal was a young cow who had eaten too much grass for supper. Another point of contrast between a shy, Jewish adolescent who wanted to pass as a native.
Grits was also a problem. They loved it. They even took cakes of it frigidly congealed in the lunch sack. My mother thought it was some kind of glue to patch the cracks in the sidewalk. “Oh sure we have grits all the time. I had two slices of bread smeared with grits before I went to bed last night.”
“On a what?”
“Uh, Colonial white bread, naturally. We love Colonial bread and grits” (not pumpernickel, the real receptacle of the nonexistent grits, which was really chopped liver).
Not only was I betraying my cultural roots, I was turning into a pathological liar. Next thing you know I’d be humming “Onward Christian Soldiers”.
My pals came to school bragging about the charms of fried catfish. What hope did I have of exalting Gefilte fish? No bones? Tell them that my mama served it with a neat circle of boiled carrot atop each lump? I was hopelessly alienated. How was I ever gonna be the starting 3rd baseman if I ate Gefilte fish for supper and didn’t dare reveal the contents of my lunch sack?
One odd place where my Jewish tummy joined theirs was chicken feet. At the local Chinese restaurant they were introduced to sweet, sticky, barbecue-flavored chicken feet. I leaped at the cultural connection. My bubbe (grandmother) had been making chicken soup with only chicken feet for years. Not quite the same dish, but an area where I could truthfully praise our similarities. Of course, I didn’t mention that Bubbe made a thin, watery gruel that resembled Chinese Dim Sum like dishwater resembled Clam Chowder. But like the book of Proverbs says or maybe should say, chicken feet is chicken feet.