We all know that food plays an important role in our Shabbat routine. We know that we have a halachic obligation for three Shabbat meals. Many of us know that the Ari emphasized a kabbalistic importance to these meals. And many of us are very much set on a particular menu for Shabbat.
This is not a deep post. Yet the Torah we live encompasses all aspects of our personal and communal culture; and so this, too, is relevant in some way.
I have Ashkenazi friends in the NYC area who think that if you don’t have cholent on Shabbat, you’re some sort of heretic. Or at least insufficiently respectful of the hallowed requirements of Judaism, and maybe to be held in slight suspicion as ignorant or unreliable. When I ask them what they think Jews ate on Shabbat in Teheran, Halab, Fez, Saana, or fill-in-the-blank – they give me a blank stare.
The truth is, what people eat on Shabbat has much to do with personal taste, local culture, and what’s available. Here in the American Southwest, we are especially blessed with deservedly famous hot chiles. In the fall, parking lots all over town host chile roasters. Farmers bring their produce in burlap sacks, and roast it fresh for the customer. Even the supermarkets offer this service. The smell of roasting chiles permeates the air for a few weeks each fall. Most of us buy a quantity (15 or 20 lbs is common) to freeze and last till the next crop.
For me, hot chiles are the answer to a prayer. I thrive on a good Yemenite schug. I can eat it three times a day, with almost any sort of meal. My wife’s best friend is a Teimani woman from Bnei Ayish, and she supplies our needs; but this means getting a fix in small quantities to make it last. A good schug is altogether a rare thing outside of Israel. The best is made at home, in small batches, in a Yemenite kitchen. So, imagine my delight when we discovered that good hot chiles are ubiquitous in New Mexico. One could say theyÕre the state food. The question here is never, ‘do you want chile?’; it is only ‘green or red?’
So, on a recent Friday night, for instance, we had the sort of meal that many of our New York friends (the majority Ashkenazim, anyway) wouldn’t quite understand. We started with hummous. We had three types of schug. Our neighbors just made their first batch of Santa Fe schug using chiles from their garden. Both the green and the red were very good. And we had some of the schug that I had brought back frozen in July from Bnei Ayish. Very tasty, with a mild sweat breaking the brow.
It happens we skipped the fish. If we had fish, it likely would have been smoked salmon. Sometimes we have a Yemenite salmon (‘Moriah’s salmon’) recipe. A few times a year my wife will make salmon ‘gefilte fish’. Our neighbors will sometimes serve sushi. I, of course, put schug on my fish. And we rarely ever have typical whitefish/carp gefilte fish in our house.
After a quick zemer/song or short reading from the Nechama Leibowitz biography we’re enjoying, it is time for the main dish. Chicken? Beef? Could be; but our classic and favored by far meal is green chile stew. Served in bowls, with spoons. Bits of lamb and vegetables with lots of hot green chiles. And an extra napkin just for wiping the sweat off the brow. The stew is excellent with a dry red wine, or beer. It awakens nerve endings in the mouth you might not know were there.
I remember when Beit HaTfutzot/Museum of the Diaspora opened in Ramat Aviv some 30 years ago. There was an excellent exhibit, like a modern diorama, or a Jewish home on Shabbat. But this exhibit changed before one’s eyes, to show how Jewish homes around the world were similar, yet different. Certain items were in place in each version, with changes of local style; while other items like foods and clothing varied.
In New Mexico, the hot chile pepper is culinary king. For many of us, that bears a strong influence on our Shabbat cooking. What local influences shape the way you eat on Shabbat?