Background: A.S. is a 22-year-old student at USC studying Occupational Therapy. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, and both of her parents are professors at USC. The informant’s mother told this story to the informant multiple times, especially when describing her childhood or her favorite holiday. This was her mother’s favorite time of the year, because it was the one time that she could be all together with her family and celebrate, even though they were Jewish and the tradition revolved around a Christian holiday.
Main piece: “My mom was born in Rome but grew up in New Jersey. Her mother was Italian and she was also Jewish…which is interesting since there aren’t too many Italian Jews. Anyways, she still celebrated Christmas because her father was raised Catholic. So my grandmother would prepare a traditional Italian meal for Christmas in the house when they lived in New Jersey. It wasn’t like other Christmas dinners in the states…it was like specifically Italian. So they would have a bunch of courses, seven I think, because of the seven sacraments or something, and almost all of them included some sort of fish plate, but no meat. I think my mom told me it was called um.. oh it was called Feasts Natalae. It was traditional in Italy to have the dinner on Christmas eve but it was still called Christmas dinner I think. Each course was fish because it’s like a kind of fasting…they just don’t eat meat. My mom said this was a really special time for her because she knew her family would be together. And it wasn’t even about the holiday or religion or anything, it was about being with her family.”
Performance Context: I interviewed the informant while we were both together, sitting on a couch, in the house where she lives on west 28th Street in Los Angeles. Feasts Natalae would typically be practiced on Christmas Eve, and is a prominent tradition in Italy. This tradition would be practiced by Anna’s mom’s family every year.
My Thoughts: I think that this story is representative of the fact that each culture and each family has a different way of celebrating Christmas, both culturally and religiously. Each nationality and each individual family has a way of making the holiday special for them. There are a lots of Christmas traditions around the world that aren’t officially coming from the church, but are still important to families and have to do with Christmas.
Original Script: “Every year…even to this day, we made Matzo Ball Soup for high holidays. It is basically, the chicken soup of the Jewish people. It is my favorite traditional Jewish dish and the recipe has been passed down for generations…Every year, I go to the grocery store and get everything I need: the chicken—the whole thing cut up—, the celery, carrots, onions, fresh dill—none of that pre-packaged crap—celery salt…Then I go home and take out a huge soup pot that can hold 12 gallons. I put everything in the pot…have my kids, and husband help…it is a long process that can take up to seven hours. After it is cooked I let it cool and I make the matzo balls and add it to the soup. The next day, when it is time celebrate, I heat them both up together and it is delicious! It is usually always eaten to the bottom of the pot, but if there is a left overs I freeze the soup to heat up for later. My family, my kids, my nephews and nieces, love it. It is something everyone looks forward to when we get together. I don’t only make it for high holidays, there is always an excuse to make it…when I am sick, when my kids are sick, when my husband is sick, hell, when I just want to eat it, I make it.”
Background Information about the Piece by the informant: Cheryl grew up in a predominately Jewish household in Skokie, Illinois. Her stepfather’s, Obbie, mother had witness the holocaust and he had also lost a sister to a concentration camp, which concentration camp is unknown. Very proud of his Jewish heritage, Obbie, Cheryl’s mother—Riki—, Cheryl’s siblings—Victor and Hope—and Cheryl grew up a very conservative Jewish family—celebrating all of the Jewish high holidays such as: Yom Kippur, Shabbat, and Passover—as well as attending Synagogue every Sunday.Cheryl had learned the recipe from her mother, and has been something that has been passed down through the generations of their family. To Cheryl, she not only loves the Matzo Ball Soup because of its taste, but she also enjoys the fact that it is something from her whole family enjoys and is something the family can do together.
Context of the Performance: High Holiday food—a food usually made in correlation with Jewish holidays.
Thoughts about the piece: After interviewing Cheryl, and having a Jewish heritage as well as tasting her Matzo Ball Soup myself, I can understand her fondness for the soup. However, I believe the soup is also associated with the coming together of a group of people with the same religious background and is associated with a group identity. The preparation of the soup has become a family tradition as it is performed over many years—thus it became a tradition that celebrates the heritage of the Jewish people. It is also interesting to note that those performing and the audience are the same people—the family, albeit that more of the extended family is associated with the audience as well. The cooking of the Matzo Ball Soup can also be associated to that of a ritual that is in the beginning of a sequence of events for a festival. (It can also be observed that the freezing of the Matzo Ball soup can be considered the closing ceremony. What is interesting is the fact that is traditional meal is something the family makes when someone is sick, or they just want to eat it. Perhaps, performing the cooking of the soup after the time and place of festivals make the family reminisce on being surrounded by family—which in turn makes them feel better. Thus, Matzo Ball Soup becomes a folk material object.
The informant is a 95-year old man who grew up in Davenport, right near downtown with his parents and two brothers. His father came over from Russia and owned a grocery store in Davenport. He is a father, grandfather, worked in advertising for 60 years, and loves baseball.
Interviewer: “Do you remember anything your mom used to cook?”
Informant: “Yes, she made brisket. It was so good.”
Interviewer: “Did she make it from a recipe?”
Informant: “No, she made it herself. And it was something her mom had taught her. It was so good, nobody could match it. She gave the recipe to Nancy way back when. She also made the keegal or kugel, whichever you call it, she made that on her own recipe.
Interviewer: “Is that the one Aunt Nancy uses at Seder?”
Informant: “Nancy has it, yes. She makes that one. Although it’s not quite as good as Marcia’s was.”
As with my previous collection of food-related folklore, I see a strong emotional connection to the discussion of food. This could be because the food talked about is usually something cooked by an immediate family member at some special occasion or holiday when family is gathered. So it isn’t so much the food alone that makes the informant emotional, but the memories tied up with the food. When a recipe has been passed down from family member to family member it only strengthens and nuances the connection to a food.