Thursday, September 22, 2011

Rosh Hashana, Apple Cake and Getting Fat

The Jewish calendar reveals that it's almost Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the New Year, and despite our religion's lack of superstition, when our future hangs in the balance--literally, with our good deeds weighed by God against our bad--we bring on the symbolism.
With food.

Since early Jewish commentaries (Gemara tractate K'risos 6a) where "Abaye said ' the beginning of each year, each person should accustom himself to eat gourds (squash), fenugreek (or sesame seeds or black-eyed peas), leeks, beets and dates...'," families have adopted the custom to put these and four other foods on their tables, eaten ceremoniously, each with a request to God.  The others are pomegranate, a whole fish, and the most famous, apple, eaten dipped in honey.

The foods were chosen because their names relate to ideas for increase and sweetness for the coming year, and protection from harm.

The apple dipped in honey idea has led to holiday menus incorporating permutations of both, including apple cake and honey cake.  I usually serve a first-night menu that features honey in every dish.  Even the challah, the egg bread that's shaped as a braid the rest of the year, gets a new form--round in a circle, representing the circular nature of passages in time.

Since our college-freshman son was in third grade, we've made apple cake from a class cookbook of the kids' favorites.  It's easy and delicious, more like chunks of apple held together with sweet crumbles:

Max’s Grandma’s Apple Cake

2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
3 cups peeled and sliced apples
½ cup vegetable/canola oil
1 egg, beaten

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Spray a bundt or springform pan with non-stick cooking spray.
Combine flour, sugar, soda, salt, and cinnamon in a large bowl. Mix in oil, egg and apples. 
Pour into pan and bake about 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Every culture has its culinarily-based traditions, and certainly Jews imbue their food with more than flavors and guilt. We use it to elevate ourselves above animals by a "ritual" washing and blessings, and we are commanded in the Torah to "eat, be satisfied, and thank the Lord your God for the good land he has given you."  But even beyond all that, Rosh Hashana food is far more than merely reminiscent of the holiday.
Jewish scholars have noted that the point isn't the foods themselves, but rather the humility and respect for God viewing them invokes in us.  Even if you don't like the symbolic foods, or you're allergic, you'd still put them on the table to focus our yearnings.  As the one cooking and planning, I'd guess that all the extra effort that goes into gathering all these symbols earns a bit of God's attention.

An article last week in the New York Times bears upon America's food traditions, connecting changes in family habits with the sharp rise in obesity between 1980 and 2000.  Imbuing food with symbolic powers and emotional connections, like Jews do on Rosh Hashana, isn't the culprit in humanity's higher BMIs--instead it's the eeeevil corporations who market bounteous food at low prices. And it's irresistible sloth-enticements like television and computers, robbing the young of fresh-air playtime. 

A current series of articles in The Lancet, chock-full of politically-correct messages, say that no culture has ever reversed its obesity trends--which "increases the urgency for evidence-creating policy action, with a priority on reduction of the supply-side drivers."  In other words, government must mandate less food availability, so people have to eat less and thus get thin. In a reversal of the war on hunger, Lancet pundits suggest a war on plenty.

In the Times article, health writer Jane Brody reminisces about the good-old days of her childhood, when, lacking nearby vending machines and fast-food outlets, she had to "walk or bike many blocks to buy an ice cream cone," no doubt through ten feet of snow. Kids "went out to run around and play until dark," TV was a week-end special event, and nightly home-cooked meals included no "convenience foods" other than canned fruits and vegetables.

OK, I can play that game too.  When I was a kid, yes, my family did have dinner together, and when I'd ask my mom "What's for dez?" (dessert), she'd usually answer, "canned fruit."  You know, the kind in that heavy sugar-syrup.  Because fruit was healthy.  I'd be disappointed, but sometimes she'd bring home a coffee cake, which we'd devour slathered in butter.

We consumed lots of beef. Mostly ground, the fattier kind, because it was cheaper than the lean.  An eating-out treat was buying a big bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.  So greasy I'd use half a roll of paper towels blotting it first. It came with mayonnaisy cole slaw.

We drank our milk from those quaint glass bottles the milkman would leave by our back door.  Whole milk, of course.  It was better for children than the only other type, skim.

I didn't come from a family that kept kosher, and every Sunday, my mom would fry up a huge pan of bacon.  Pig bacon, and sausages, served with eggs and pancakes with butter and syrup and glasses of whole milk.

Being a girl, "going out to play" meant confabs or poring over Seventeen Magazine with my best friends.  It meant card games and sometimes sidewalk roller skating.  Good thing there weren't so many skateboarders around. (Why aren't those guys at their computers??)  I had a lot of homework, hand-written from notes taken sitting for hours at the library. 

But we know, suggests Jane Brody and the Lancet crew, that fast foods, corn-syrup-laden store products, aggressive advertising and TV and computers caused the rise in US obesity. 

What, then, has caused its slight decline over the last decade?  What has caused increased obesity in developing countries without these innovations? 

I suspect that alarm over the "obesity epidemic" is exacerbating it.  The more experts insert themselves in our eating choices, by law, policy or admonition, the more we feel guilty about food.  And the stress makes us eat. Or convolute our diets so our bodies don't get what they really need.

Which brings me back to Rosh Hashana, when particular foods are not seen as cholesterol, calories, trans-fats, raw or slow.  Instead, they're sweetness, plenty, protection, and entreaty to God.  In a sense, it's a good thing to have an occasion when we see beyond the sensory pleasure of food to the long-term meaning of sustenance--to continue through another day, and another year.

To my Jewish friends, have a stevia-sweet 5772 of svelte and active health.  And to us all, may every taste remind us of heaven.


  1. Thanks, Diane. I am doing a lesson on Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur this Sunday for the kids at our church.

  2. The apple cake sounds like my tattered copy from years ago. Maybe it was Max's grandmother who gave it to me. Thanks for the lessons on Rosh Hashana.

  3. Thanks for sharing the apple cake recipe, Diane - I'm going to a B'Nai Shalom potluck tonight in downtown SLC (it's a group that celebrates connections between LDS and Jewish cultures and faiths), and this will be the perfect contribution!

  4. Great information here, I enjoyed reading it. You always have good insight. I also love to hear about your celebrations and foods, thanks for sharing the recipe--I will try it this friday. Oh, and I think the bread in a circle is great symbolism, so true too.