On April 2, the Jewish Museum & Archives of B.C. kicks off The Chosen Food Supper Club, a dinner series designed to introduce diners to a variety of Jewish cuisines and cultures. Various partner organizations will detail where the food comes from and lead discussions on the significance it has to the people who traditionally eat it.
I asked Michael Schwartz, the museum’s director of community engagement, seven reasonable questions and one stupid one about how the series will work:
The events are kosher-style, but not certified kosher. Can you explain, for non-religious people, what that means?
There’s not going to be pork on the menu. They’re not going to get milk and meat in the same meal. But certifying things is a bit of a rigmarole. And we’re using a shared kitchen.
People are often surprised to learn about Jewish communities in Japan, Iran or Venezuela. Why are there Jews everywhere?
There’s an assumption that Jews in Canada came from Europe before and after the war. Many families did come at that time. But there’s also displacement due to earlier conflicts. There’s a huge number of Jews who came from Spain, North Africa, the Middle East. There are Jews that have been in China for centuries. We want to draw attention to that diversity of the Jewish community.
With Jews being historically semi-nomadic, what is the distinction between Jewish regional foods and the existing regional food?
That’s the riddle we’re going to be looking at. Families will bring, from their place of origin, the cuisine that they’re accustomed to. A Dutch or Polish Jew will go to South Africa. They’ll want to cook food that they grew up with. But then the ingredients they need to do that are unavailable and they need to adapt.
The dumpling-making session is a partnership with the Hua Foundation. What is that and what kind of dumplings will you be making?
The Hua Foundation is a group of young Chinese-Canadians who are trying to revive their community’s appreciation for Chinatown. It made perfect sense for us to team up with them. And one of their activities is to do a dumpling workshop. So we’ll do a bit of both, kreplach and soup dumplings.
In addition to biltong [jerky] and bobotie [a meaty casserole infused with curry and tamarind], your Cape Town dinner features South African barbecue. What part of that wouldn’t I find in southern American barbecue?
They have sausages that are of a Dutch influence. Boerewors, a long sausage originally made with boar meat, but adapted to beef.
The pastrami planned for your July dinner is probably the Jewish food most familiar to people. What is the contemporary deli scene like in Vancouver?
Fading. We’ve lost delis over the past few years. It’s down to Omnitsky, which has been around at least 20 years, and Mensch just opened. [Writer’s note: there’s also Solly’s.] In Vancouver, we’re used to Montreal style. Most delis here would either get their meat from Winnipeg or Montreal. Mensch does pastrami, the New York version, not smoked meat. And they make it here from scratch.
The series closes in September with the Rosh Hashanah [New Year] dinner featuring the foods of Aleppo. What is the connection between the Jewish immigrant experience in Canada and refugee crisis of Syria?
It’s traditional to eat seven different vegetables that have symbolic reference to verses in the Torah that are read during this time.
The synagogues here have been involved in helping sponsor Syrian families settle. The Jewish community here has been involved in previous situations, helping settle Vietnamese in the seventies, Russians and Ethiopians in the nineties. The immigrant heritage, in many cases the refugee heritage, is not forgotten and is passed forward to people who are in a similar situation today.
Recently, director John Carpenter had to clarify that his 1987 movie They Live, about alien lizard people secretly controlling society is not, as hatemongers have claimed, about Jews [it is, he said, an allegorical critique of unrestrained capitalism in the Reagan era]. Will you feature lizard people cuisine in the series? And if not, what role can food play in combatting bigotry?
I haven’t invited any lizards.
But food is really the first opportunity for conversation. It’s the universal language for hospitality, for making people feel welcome and comfortable. If we sit people down to discuss cultural difference and commonality, it’s a little hard to get the ball rolling. Food gives you something to ask questions about.
Once we start talking about food, we end up talking about so many other things. We ask people about the food they grew up with or what type of food they make, and within five seconds, people are off topic, which is really the intent.
Let’s talk about the food. But let’s talk about farming, and their grandparents, and about life in the old country, and what you could get and couldn’t get, and gender roles. Food is really an entry point for all the bigger issues of life.