One of my earliest memories takes place when I am a skinny 5-year-old, visiting my grandparents in Long Island. I remember my grandmother looking at me, frowning, and yelling to my mother, “Stephie, you have to feed this child! She has no meat on her bones!” Thus marked the start of my understanding the importance of food in Jewish culture.
Over 20 years later, I felt myself channeling my grandmother when my partner’s parents came from Newfoundland, Canada to visit us in New York City for the first time. While they enjoyed their trip to the Statue of Liberty and embraced the necessity of exploring the city on foot, they were less excited about the food. They frowned at Korean barbeque and Indian, instead seeking out chicken wings and nachos. There’s almost nothing I love more about New York than its culinary diversity, and I was on a mission to expand their palates.
So I took them to Second Avenue Deli, and they were in kosher heaven.
When I met my partner, a Visa-holder from Newfoundland, he had been living in Brooklyn for several months. He had never met a Jew before moving to New York, let alone dated one. But in no time after we started going out, he had fallen in love with my Jewish culture. Not only did he adopt a Fran Drescher-like accent when bickering with me—in a totally playful way, I promise—he also adored my family’s ability to complain with each other. As someone who’s not reserved about his opinions, he put it to me this way: “I like how it’s culturally more acceptable to be open about how much things suck.”
Newfoundland, after all—where he’d spent most of his life—is fairly self-contained. A small island off the northeast coast of Canada, Newfoundland long relied on a robust cod fishing industry for its economic success. Due to overfishing, the industry collapsed in the early 1990s, leaving the island without many jobs to spare. People don’t tend to move there for work, and though it’s incredibly beautiful and a hell of a good time to visit, flying there is expensive (only about four airlines make the trip). Most people living there cite a vaguely Irish heritage, which is reflected in the music, cuisine, and alcohol consumption.
By the time my partner’s parents came to New York, I’d visited his home near Newfoundland’s capital, St. John’s, before. I’d gone to celebrate Christmas for the first time, and the holiday played out just like I’d imagined.
For one, we got a flat tire in a blizzard, forecasted by my partner’s many warnings about the winter weather. (He didn’t consider it to have been a blizzard, but I am from Boston and can assure you it was.) We also opened presents around an adorned tree—which I of course knew would happen but had never seen in action before in spite of having many Christmas-celebrating friends my whole life. Several family members asked me what I usually did on December 25 if not celebrate Christmas (eat Chinese, watch movies—duh). And we ate Jiggs dinner, which consists of salt beef, boiled potatoes, cabbage, and carrots alongside pease pudding—much like the split pea soup my grandmother used to make—and mustard pickles—which are like very mustardy pickles.
Recovering from an unsuccessful attempt at introducing his parents to Korean barbeque, my partner and I wandered the streets of Manhattan in search of something less aggressively spiced. At that moment, I remembered how the pease pudding we’d eaten at Christmas reminded me so much of my grandmother’s pea soup. It occurred to me that I’d only encountered such prominently placed pickles at meals when attacking deli spreads with my Jewish family and eating Christmas dinner with my partner’s. I knew exactly what kind of food in Manhattan they’d love.
Flash forward to a booth in Second Avenue Deli, where the four of us sat contented in front of towering corn beef on rye sandwiches, plates of half-sour pickles, and bowls of matzah ball soup. The only difference between this spread and the one I typically enjoyed with my family was the presence of actual beer instead of Dr. Brown’s root beer.
This made me ask myself, why are the foods from our two very different cultures so similar?
Maybe it had something to do with our mutually northern heritages. Most of my great grandparents originally came to the United States from Russia, where food grown during warmer months had to be well preserved for the unforgiving winters, hence pickled vegetables and heavily salted beef. Root vegetables also grow well in these climates. Ultimately, getting through long, bitter winters requires comfort food, which both of our families have on lockdown.
In looking into this, I found more connections between Jews and Newfoundland, a place where, to hear my partner’s friends talk, no Jew had ever walked before me. Apparently, Jews started arriving in Newfoundland in the later 18th century. Many came specifically from Russia in the early 1900s, when my family left the country to escape anti-Jewish pogroms. Around that time in New York, where my family settled, Jews were also selling salt-cured beef to Irish immigrants. Corned beef had had a long history in Ireland by then, predating the earliest wave of Irish immigration in Newfoundland. This perhaps explains my partner’s and my families’ shared appreciation for very salty cow parts.
Our cultures merged even more that day when my partner, his parents, and I went to see “Come From Away,” a Broadway show about the 38 planes diverted to Gander, a small town in Newfoundland, on September 11, 2001. While the “plane people” in the play, based on real life passengers, found warmth and acceptance in the welcoming culture of Newfoundland, one Newfoundlander looked to the acceptance of a rabbi who’d been stranded on one of the flights.
The Newfoundlander had escaped the Holocaust as a boy and had never told anyone, not even his wife, that he was Jewish (he’d been warned not to). Upon hearing of a rabbi on one of the grounded planes, he asked to meet him, and they said a prayer together. This, apparently, is a true story.
In another scene from the show (and real life), a Newfoundlander noticed the rabbi wasn’t eating. There was no kosher food available. So a bunch of Newfoundlanders came together to give him a kosher kitchen setup to make sure he didn’t go hungry during his stay.
…Sounds quite like the sentiment that brought me to Second Avenue Deli with a group of Newfoundlanders earlier that day.