The Vegan Files
My mother told me a lot of stories when I was growing up. Some made me roll my eyes with the morals they were meant to convey and others I just plain couldn’t believe. But then there were some that I never got tired of hearing no matter how many times she repeated them. Most of these had something to do with Yiddish words or with the intricacies of observance in the Jewish faith.
One of my favorites went something like this: A boy raised in an observant Jewish home married a nice Jewish girl whose parents didn’t keep kosher. However, she was determined to learn kosher cooking. While an inexperienced cook, she did her best to please her new husband. He related many times how much he loved lamb chops, and she was glad to oblige. To the kosher butcher shop she went, intent on picking out the finest lamb chops ever cut from a young ovine. At dinner that evening, the young bride burst into tears when her husband offered his critique: “It’s okay, but it’s not like Mama made it.” Not one to give up easily, the wife tried again and again and again, asking the butcher for recommendations and trying out various types of lamb chops, consulting cookbooks and trying different preparation techniques, spices and garnishes. Alas, it was all to no avail. Each time, she would be deflated when her husband reported “It’s just not like Mama made it.” In desperation, she finally gave up on lamb chops from the kosher butcher and prepared the kind of dinner that she grew up with. Apparently, this kosher thing just wasn’t working out, so she might as well cook what she knew and loved. She went to the local supermarket and bought pork chops, which she prepared using her mother’s time-tested recipe. To her surprise, her husband’s face lit up with the very first bite. “Finally!” he cried, “Just like Mama used to make!”
This wonderful story came to mind while working on my memoir recently, when I got to the part where I was describing my dislike for the lunches that were served at the yeshiva (Orthodox Jewish school) that I attended in my elementary years. Most days, I brought a sandwich from home, which suited me just fine. Thinking about the school lunches, I remember how heavily breaded the dry fish cakes were. But most of all, I remember how much I disliked the tomato soup that was often served.
“What’s wrong with the tomato soup?” my mother would ask. “Is it too sweet? Too salty?” At the age of eight, I couldn’t come up with a coherent explanation. I just couldn’t put my finger on it. The bottom line was that it just wasn’t like the tomato soup that my mother served at home.
Years later, I came to realize that the school’s awful tomato soup was homemade, while my mother’s delicious soup was Campbell’s out of a can. My mother bought Campbell’s because her mother did. Both of them kept kosher. Neither had any idea that the “natural flavors” listed in the ingredients include meat juices left over from processing dead cows and pigs.
Like the young husband in my mother’s story, I had no idea that my “kosher” food at home was anything but.
I experienced a similar situation when it came to cheese, which was once among my favorite foods. I mainly grew up on processed American “cheese,” packaged Swiss cheese and cottage cheese. My father loved to indulge in tiny bricks of “smoky cheese,” which he particularly enjoyed on apple pie. I would taste it and fail to understand how anyone could stomach the stuff. As an adult, I branched out and learned to love feta, bleu cheeses, Brie, cheddar, gouda and provolone. Over the years, my parents became more adventurous as well, and they now regularly enjoy Muenster and Havarti.
Well, wouldn’t you know it, I got schooled once again, this time courtesy of Trader Joe’s. About five or six years ago, I was shocked to discover that, right there on the label of some of TJ’s most delicious cheeses, the ingredient “animal rennet” was listed. Now I understood why the Orthodox Jewish friends of my childhood would only eat Miller’s kosher cheese. After my lesson from Trader Joe’s, I gave Miller’s a try and found the taste to be disgusting. Apparently, you had to use the scrapings from the stomachs of cows and sheep to get the enzymes that made cheese taste so delicious. It was Campbell’s tomato soup all over again! I related this sad information to my parents, to no effect. As far as my mother is concerned, cheese is dairy and therefore kosher. Oy.
When it comes to flavor, it seems that most of the time non-kosher wins.
After I became a vegan, I learned that excellent minestrone soup can be made using vegetarian tomato sauce and fresh vegetables. My wife is a master at this. I also learned that bland food can easily be flavored with any number of spices, no meat juices needed. My go-to spices are black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder and oregano. I also use mustard (both yellow and Dijon), lemon juice, green salsa (I don’t much care for the red), pepperoncini and jalapeños. For baked yams, cinnamon is a must. And then there is vegan margarine, olive oil, vinegar and soy cheese to flavor vegetables. Even tofu, which many won’t eat due to its bland nature, is delightful when doused liberally with spices and baked.
My favorite vegetable remains the eggplant, which I learned to love as a teenager when my father would take me out to little Italian joints for eggplant parmigiana. My wife still prepares this for me regularly. She slices the eggplant, I douse the slices with canned tomato sauce and spices, and in the oven it goes. About 40 minutes later, I apply slices of soy cheese to get nice and melty.
Just as in the case of tofu, many won’t eat eggplant because it is bland. Believe me, it’s not bland at all when I get done with it. Garlic rules!
Years ago, I learned that eggplant, like tomatoes, are nightshades; for a very long time, both were thought to be poisonous. But what I didn’t know (until we saw it on the Cooking Channel the other day) is that eggplant is, of all things, a berry! How can something as large and lovely as an eggplant be compared to a little strawberry or blackberry? Strange how nature works.
Even worse, however, I learned this week from Jeff Guo’s Wonkblog entry in The Washington Post that the eggplant emoji is suddenly enjoying a spate of popularity. Initially, I was delighted. I had no idea that my favorite vegetable, er, berry, had, in all its purple glory, found its way into the land of text messaging. That’s when I learned that (gulp) the beautiful eggplant emoji has, uh, a sexual meaning. Now why would anyone go ruin a thing of beauty by smutting it up like that?
Gutter minds notwithstanding, the eggplant emoji will continue to bring a smile to my face. Please feel free to send it to me anytime. But only if it means you’re inviting me to dinner.
I’ll bring the soy cheese.