How to Put Local Food on Your Rosh Hashanah Table
Rosh Hashanah, a two-day celebration that starts on Oct. 2 at sundown this year, marks the Jewish New Year and the creation of the world. It begins the 10-day period of introspection, prayer, and inner transformation that culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
So what does this have to do with food, sustainable or otherwise? “The holiday is at once solemn and festive, with the anticipation of renewal and fresh starts,” explains Jayne Cohen in Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations. “Nearly 2,500 years ago, the prophet Nehemiah proclaimed, ‘Eat the rich and drink the sweet.’ ”
Rich? Sweet? I can just imagine the collective raised eyebrow, but the foods of Rosh Hashanah are laden with symbolism and a mindfulness that should speak to everyone, regardless of religion. Eating these foods reminds us of how to behave, Cohen wrote. “Whole or part of an animal’s head (sweetbreads, tongue, etc.); an entire fish, including the head; or even a head of roasted garlic might be served, urging us to be…at the head of our peers. Sweets, like challah stuffed with raisins, tell us to act in a way that would cause no sadness…. And it is a mitzvah, a good deed, to invite guests, especially strangers and poor people, those, as Nehemiah said, ‘for whom nothing is prepared’ to share the meal.” Lovely.
Not to mention delicious. “Seasonal produce frequently finds its way into favorite Rosh Hashanah fare, such as spinach and leeks among Sephardim, pumpkins among Italians, and apples and plums among Ashkenazim,” writes Gil Marks in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. “An ancient custom is to eat a new fruit—one not yet sampled that season—on the second night of Rosh Hashanah while reciting the blessing ‘Shehechiyanu’ (Who has preserved us).”
Marks, a food historian, straddled the worlds of food and religion with ease and eloquence. According to his New York Times obituary (he died in 2014 at 62—way too young), he studied for the rabbinate at Yeshiva University in New York, and “some would argue that his work was, in its way, Talmudic—full of information and interpretive wisdom on the foods of Jewish tradition and the governing principles of cooking and eating them.”
I can think of no better time to begin to eat seasonally and close to home than right now, for we’re in the great swing season of the year. The days are still warm and just long enough so that the last summer crop of tomatoes, eggplants, chiles, green beans, and corn can mature. Tender, juicy lettuces and radishes, both short-season cool-weather crops, are being harvested left and right.
You’ll still find all of the above at farmers markets and roadside stands, along with just-dug carrots and other root vegetables that have been growing underground for months. Bend down and take a whiff—they still smell of damp earth. The first bunches—bouquets, really—of kale, chard, and other pot greens look succulent and robust. And the winter squashes range from deep-orange red kuri (a fairly new Japanese kabocha type) to the more familiar butternut and acorn.
In my neck of the woods, out on the North Fork of Long Island, the vegetable that takes pride of place (since the 1800s) this time of year is the slightly flattened buff-colored Long Island Cheese Pumpkin, an heirloom that has won a coveted berth on Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste. So called because it resembles a small dairy cheese, it is an outstanding eating pumpkin, whether in a pie or cut into slices and roasted.
As Slow Food USA notes, “Another culinary use of pumpkin is the growing demand for seasonally infused American craft beers. Pumpkin beer has a long history in New England: when colonists first settled America, malt had to be either imported or grown and malted, a costly and fickle endeavor. Pumpkins grew plentifully and had a high enough sugar content that they could be added to the mash and fermented.” That most parts of the plant are edible—including the shell, flesh, seeds, and flowers—appeals to every thrifty cook, many of whom treasure organ meats or a flavorful fish head for the same reason.
Now, about apples, honey, and Rosh Hashanah.
The first recorded association of apples with Rosh Hashanah was in a siddur, or Jewish prayer book, compiled around 1100, Marks tells us, and in his Encyclopedia, he quotes the book’s explanation: “The residents of France have the custom to eat on Rosh Hashanah red apples. Every thing new and bright and good for a good sign for all Israel.”
Dipping apples in honey seems to be of German derivation, first mentioned by a German rabbi in a legal compendium published around 1310. There are numerous layers of meaning: One connection is to the biblical account of King Saul and his son Jonathan, who mistakenly ate wild honey on a fast day. “The incident of Jonathan serves as an inspiration for dipping an apple slice into honey, appealing to God to pardon us, as Jonathan was pardoned by his father,” explains Marks. Honey is also an ancient symbol of immortality and truth, and the sweetness of both honey and apple is a wish for a sweet year to come.
If that isn’t reason alone to buy a jar of local honey and a bag of just-picked apples, I don’t know what is. And because I haven’t touched an apple since early spring—here in the Northeast, I’m sick to death of them by then—its sweet-tart crispness will be completely new.