It was the Jewish New Year this weekend, one of two opportunities for Jewish food writers to freelance articles about the holiday. Newspapers only cover Jewish food twice a year: on Passover in the spring, and on Rosh Hashana in the fall. It’s kind of like specializing in stories on turkey, and therefore you can only be published on Thanksgiving. Does this make sense? No, but welcome to Jewish food writing.
And just like Thanksgiving, each year, food writers have to come up with something new. The distinguished Joan Nathan, America’s best known cookbook author on the subject, dutifully found an unusual angle for the New York Times last week: how actors in New Hampshire recreate early settlers’ celebration of Rosh Hashana. At the Washington Post, freelancer David Hagedorn told how to stuff a beef brisket and smoke it on a grill, rather than merely baking it in the oven. Mary MacVean, a staffer at the Los Angeles Times, suggested a Tunisian menu.
None of their suggestions worked for me. I held my first Rosh Hashana dinner in probably 20 years, and made brisket in the oven for my Ashkinazi (Eastern European) in-laws and guests. Even though I’m a Mizrahi Jew — my Iraqi parents came from China — I wasn’t going to fight American tradition and their expectations. (I did, however, rebel a little with a fabulous roasted butternut squash, pomegranate and walnut salad from Amelia Saltsman.)
It’s the same dilemma we all face when planning menus for holidays: how much to hew to tradition, how much to experiment. But no matter which meal it is, the bottom line is that Jewish cooking is only newsworthy when the holidays approach, and editors scratch their heads each year to come up with a story that is not the same-old same-old. I played the game too when I was a magazine editor. It’s just not that much fun on the other side. Writers who specialize in Jewish food can ply their craft all they want on blogs and in Jewish publications and websites. But in newspapers (and general magazines too), there’s no compelling reason to cover it most of the year.
L’Shanah Tovah to my Jewish friends. May you have a year filled with sweetness and joy, and may you do as many good deeds as there are seeds in a pomegranate.