In preparation for Super Bowl Sunday, all the morning shows are touting recipes for pulled pork sliders, Velveeta queso dip, and barbecued cola meatballs – for epic snacking on the biggest football day of the year. Our menu is a little different. We made a special trip to Lipkin’s Bakery in Northeast Philadelphia to buy kosher knishes, because when it comes to celebrating, we prefer Jewish food.
Inmates in Florida’s prison system prefer Jewish food, too. While there are only about 300 Jewish prisoners, requests for kosher meals have skyrocketed to 4,400. Prison officials don’t take kindly to these chazers. Kosher prison meals cost almost twice as much – as anyone who buys an Empire kosher chicken rather than a goyish Frank Purdue chicken knows. Who wouldn’t want to eat roasted chicken, glazed carrots and mashed potatoes on a Friday when the prison alternative is a mystery meat supplement known as PVT? (We don’t know what this stands for; we’re guessing “Pretty Vile Tasting.”) Dealing with this upsurge in “observant Jews,” prison officials are considering asking each man to recite a little bit of his Bar Mitzvah parshah before he gets his kosher dinner.
Being confined and eating bad food makes us think of a prison of another sort – being stuck in a narrow coach seat on an airplane. We’re old enough to remember when flying was a treat, when they trusted passengers in the main cabin with metal forks and knives to cut up the hot cheese omelet that was served for breakfast by a smiling young stewardess. These days in coach, you only get fed if you shell out $8 for a icy cold, pre-packaged “snack box.”
As experienced travelers, we knew the trick of ordering a special meal in advance. The kosher one was reputed to be the best of the lot – a slight upgrade from TWA’s beef bourguignon. Airlines still offer this option but only on “select flights” – which means almost never – unless you’re flying business class. Along with kosher, choices include Muslim, vegan and gluten-free meals. For Hindus passengers, American Airlines suggests “our delicious vegetarian choice.”
Pope Francis knew he had to provide kosher meals when he recently hosted a dozen Argentine rabbis at the Vatican. Rather than doing the cooking himself, he did what Jewish women have done for years – he called a caterer. He turned to Ba’Ghetto, an Israeli-owned Roman restaurant for help. Then they had to kasher the Vatican kitchen so they could reheat the food when it arrived. They spent days scorching, scouring and sterilizing before covering the countertops with aluminum foil, just like Fayge Silverman does in her kitchen in preparation for Passover.
The Pope’s menu had a lot of fish offerings: baked sardines with endive and tangy grilled zucchini, gnocchi with tomato and pine nuts; and little twists of pasta with sea bass and tomatoes. But they also served beef filet with a Barolo wine reduction. Dessert was a parve variation on the Pope’s favorite pistachio mousse. To keep things kosher – which means no milk if you’re serving meat – it was made with soy-based creamer imported from Israel.
If Jewish food can be found at the Vatican, is it any surprise it was spotted at a local Catholic hospital? Nazareth Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia is part of the Mercy Health System, and at a recent medical staff meeting one of our husbands was thrilled to be able to nosh on lox and bagel. He was happily surprised to see it on the buffet table alongside the scrambled eggs and waffles.
Jewish restaurateur Danny Meyer (owner of The Shake Shack and Gramercy Tavern) grew up eating lox and bagels. Like us, he notices when Jewish food turns up on mainstream menus. “Greek diners are selling matzah ball soup and ersatz corned beef,” he explains. “I think those places created a bridge.”
That’s how Jewish food moves out of the neighborhood. Bagels were the first to go (Now you can find pumpkin bagels at a Panera in Kansas). Matzah ball soup and potato pancakes are following close behind.
When you think of traditional Jewish food, Manischewitz comes to mind. The company has plans to jazz up time-honored Jewish foods so they’ll appeal to new markets. They’re thinking of tempting non-kosher consumers with cumin-laced Moroccan gefilte fish and white chocolate-covered egg matzos.
We don’t think they need to go there. We enjoy old-fashioned matzah ball soup just the way it is, and so do a lot of other people. Why mess with a good thing?
On Super Bowl Sunday, we won’t be too wrapped up in the game. We don’t care that much about football. We’ll be watching the commercials, hanging out with friends, and cheering for the potato and mushroom knishes.