In 9th grade global history, one of the universal, all-encompassing answers that gets you at least partial credit on any question is ‘cultural diffusion’, or the process by which different groups assimilate the other’s practices and beliefs into their own milieu.
On Friday evening, as the scent of lemon pledge radiates from every surface of our freshly cleaned home, all four members of my family sit down to what is often the only meal in a given week where we are all present. Shabbat dinner is immutable in our family, and as the table groans beneath the weight of my mother’s cooking, the content of her dishes testifies to the third and fourth generations who struggle to maintain a balance between our American and Jewish identities.
To me, the American melting pot has never been more evident than at our table, where the culinary diversity of the universe is manifested in a medley of seemingly incongruous dishes, comprising what I’ve dubbed ‘ethnically confused meals’. This past Purim our Seudah consisted of enchiladas, borekas, and quiche. Though most of what we served was not ‘traditional’ Jewish fare, the amalgamation of our ideals and the cuisine that allowed us to celebrate the richness of other cultures created a more powerful Purim experience.
My family’s dabbling in foreign foods came after my then eleven-year-old brother embarked on a tirade critiquing the homogeneity of our meals. Though his complaints lacked the ingenuity of previous culinary related protests, such as dressing up like a Native American and dumping tea into the Boston Harbor, it was nonetheless effective.
My mother, though slightly miffed that her Eastern European fare was not enough for his voracious appetite, heeded his cry, and began to incorporate a wider variety of foods into our Shabbat dinners. Roast chicken gave way to turkey meatballs made with either an Italian, sweet and sour, or chili sauce. We had my mother’s interpretation of Chicken Paprikash, Moroccan style carrots, and my personal favorite, turkey chili.
Finding new recipes became a democratic process, and our new dishes reflected our interactions with the secular world around us, adapted for the kosher kitchen. I’ll never forget the day when we sat down to chicken lo mein, Italian style meatballs, and curried chicken with almonds, and I proudly noted how diverse our table was. A Jewish ritual has transcended its roots in our quiet corner of the Bronx, and allowed us to experience Judaism at a globally-inspired meal.
So whether we sit down to pea soup or pastrami and paella my family pays homage to the delicate balance between the religious and secular that has become a facet of American Jewry: firm adherence to the traditions of your people, with some assistance from the world around us. We practice our own cultural diffusion, and it’s delicious.
Turkey Meatballs (Italian Style)
Serve this over quinoa, couscous or pasta.
1 pound ground turkey
1 cup bread crumbs or matzo meal
2 eggs, beaten
1 crushed Telma vegetable soup cube
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon spicy paprika
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 can crushed tomatoes
½ can of water
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon basil
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon thyme
3 teaspoons sugar
3 dashes hot sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
1) Mix up meat with spices.
2) Prepare sauce in a large pot, and then bring it to a slow boil.
3) Wet hands and ball up meat (about tablespoon size), and then add the meatballs to the saucepot.
4) Simmer for about an hour on low, leaving the pot covered.
Note: spicing is dependent upon individual preferences.