The Jew And The Carrot

The Unlikely Beginnings of a Jewish Cook

By Rhea Yablon Kennedy

  • Print
  • Share Share
Bill Cox
Members of the Videofreex collective pose in a Manhattan loft circa 1970. The author’s father, Chuck Kennedy, stands in the top row, second from left. Photoshopped from an original by Bill Cox, courtesy of Videofreex.com.

More than anything else, I can thank a salmon dish for bringing me into this world. It was that take on a fish ubiquitous to Jewish tables that nudged my Yeshiva-educated mother to fall for my lapsed Catholic dad.

“This is impressive!” My mother exclaimed upon her introduction to the salmon and other tasty wonders on her first date with a new guy. “Who catered this party?” She asked.

Her date, the long-haired, bearded technician for the Videofreex video collective shrugged. “Oh, I cooked it,” he said.

My mother is still blown away when she tells this story. My father’s dedication to good food has stayed alive all those years and traveled with me thousands of miles.

The Videofreex had a lot to do with my father’s epicurean passion. In the early 1970s, the 10 “Freex” moved into a rambling former rooming house in Lanesville, N.Y. There, they documented the anti-war and civil rights movements and ran a pirate television station known as Lanesville TV. An upcoming film will document this adventure and two Freex have written books on the topic, but I have been on a fact-finding venture of my own. I wanted to know how they ate.

I learned that the Videofreex garden I had heard about growing up sprawled over a quarter acre of the house grounds, known as Maple Tree Farm. In between shooting the legendary 1971 May Day protest and interviewing the likes of Fred Hampton and Abbie Hoffman, my father helped to grow peas, corn, squash, cabbage, watermelon and herbs — both culinary and otherwise. The Freex took turns cooking for each other and guests.

These video artists did not take to large scale cooking smoothly. During one infamous dinner, their client Lily Tomlin had to chow down on jaw-shatteringly tough corned beef. Pop’s cooking usually involved copious amounts of fat and bordered on too far out, the Freex told me. He once made a batch of split pea pancakes that, as one member recalled in a recent email, “were a ‘once in a lifetime’ meal and not repeated.”

The Videofreex served peerless java, though, when they received enormous bags of green coffee beans from a drug rehab center in exchange for some video work. Each morning, my father filled the house with the smell of roasting beans before he ground them in the blender and brewed aromatic cups of creative fuel. During the spring of 1978, the last one they spent on Maple Tree Farm, a few Freex tapped the trees and boiled the sap into a deep caramel syrup.

My father’s love of food continued as I was growing up, infusing my weekend visits to his New York City stomping grounds. He introduced me to the sweet rabbit stew of Astoria’s Greek restaurants and the salty crunch of Coney Island boardwalk fries. I ate seaweed salad and oxtail soup at an age when many kids cling to plain pasta.

In his small kitchens in Brooklyn and Queens, Pop would make breakfasts of rich, greasy Scrapple slathered with maple syrup. For dinner, he would tackle a piece of fish roe as big as my hand or cook up his signature spaghetti with meat sauce.

My dad still took chances with meat. I’ll never forget the time he left a steak marinating in garlic and soy sauce in the back of the refrigerator. “Either this will kill me, or it will be the best damn steak I’ve ever eaten,” I remember him saying when he discovered it. He tried it and, well, he survived. We always had vegetables, even if they sat to the side.

When I started eating kosher style and then vegetarian at 14, I cooked more for myself. My repertoire took in the potato latkes and kasha varnishkes inspired by my Jewish upbringing. I would later go on to write about Jewish and sustainable food professionally.

My father died in March of 2004. Though not an intentional memorial, that very spring my roommates tilled the back yard of our Washington, D.C. group house and planted a garden. We grew tomatoes, peppers, squash, and other tasty crops, just like at Maple Tree Farm — though we limited ourselves to the standard herb garden of basil, dill, and rosemary. A few months after that, I started a part-time private chef service. I even catered a party, though no one asked me who had made the food. It was pretty evident as I ran around the small nonprofit office rolling crepes with sweet potato-ginger filling and stacking last-minute plates of sushi rolls.

I do not cook with the finesse of my father at that party long ago, but his cooking spirit has often visited me. I see echoes of him in my signature un-chicken soup and deep-fried sufganyot-style cupcakes. Pop’s food fearlessness emboldens me to eat adventurously in my travels. When I make challah, I remember his advice to bring ingredients to room temperature for baking. And every year, my community garden plot bursts with inspiration for new dishes.

Rhea Yablon Kennedy has written about food, culture, and sustainability for *The Washington Post’s On Faith blog, Washington Jewish Week, Examiner.com, and Edible Chesapeake magazine. Rhea lives in Washington, D.C., where she teaches at Gallaudet University and grows more vegetables than she can eat.*


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.