Fall from Faith: A Veal Parmigiana Epiphany

Fall from Faith: A Veal Parmigiana Epiphany

For some people, straying from the family faith is a gradual process, a long, slow falling away from religious precepts that no longer make sense.  For me, it was like being struck by lightning.

Or by a young cow and a hunk of Italian cheese.

This is the true story of how a timid, more-or-less-kosher eater was transformed into a wild food rebel in a single meal.

What I Thought I Knew

Never to be found in the Jarolim household

My family wasn’t strictly observant — we didn’t have two sets of dishes, for example — but we didn’t eat pork or shellfish and we didn’t mix milk and meat in a single meal. This was par for the course for most of the Brooklyn Jews I grew up with.

But there was a way our family differed from many others I knew: We never went out to eat.

I’m sure there were financial reasons. But I don’t think we were much — if at all — poorer than the families of friends who “went out for Chinese” once a week, even though they kept kosher at home. (In case you’re wondering, this works on the same principle as “whatever you eat while you are standing at the kitchen counter doesn’t have any calories.”)

No, the reason we never went out to eat was more tribal. You never knew what they put in the food. By “they” I don’t mean goyim. We didn’t go out for kosher deli either. Or to other people’s houses, in fact… but that’s a whole other topic. I always got the sense that eating outside of our home was dangerous.

I suppose, looking back, that it’s a good thing this was in the days before packaged supermarket food was suspect. Who knows how we would have survived?

My Friend Julie Schwartz

In the fifth and sixth grades, I had a friend named Julie Schwartz. Julie was not only pretty and well dressed, but she was exotic. For one thing, she was a twin. For another, she had a mother unlike the mothers of my other friends. Mrs. Schwartz was stylish, a Jewish Audrey Hepburn (okay, probably not so thin; let’s say Liz Taylor). And she was divorced. I didn’t know any other members of this rare species, the divorcee, but thought if that’s what they looked like they must be fascinating.

I was flattered that Julie wanted to be my friend. And when she invited me out to lunch at the Italian restaurant owned by her mother’s boyfriend — her mother had a boyfriend! he wasn’t Jewish! —  there was no way I was going to turn down that invitation.

My mother, reluctantly, gave me permission, even though she had never met the dubious-because-divorced Mrs. Schwartz who was  leading me into the frightening land of Food Prepared by Strangers.

The Menu Dilemma

And that’s how I found myself in what must have been a standard Brooklyn Italian restaurant, staring at a menu that could have been in Mandarin for all I could decipher of it. I had no idea what to order.

Mrs. Schwartz must have seen my discomfort — she was kind as well as sophisticated — so she offered to order for me. I gratefully accepted.

Then I heard her say to the waiter, “Veal parmigiana.”

I didn’t know much about Italian food, but I knew two things: Veal was meat and parmigiana was cheese. And I wasn’t supposed to be eating them together.

All kinds of fears ran through my mind. Was this dish going to taste horrible? Would I be able to finish it without throwing up and embarrassing myself? Or was I going to be sick later that afternoon, and have to confess what I had eaten to my mother so could she administer a cure?  Would I then have to listen to endless “I told you sos” about the dangers of eating out?

A Miraculous Conversion

Now I have a shrine to Chinese takeout food and fast women

You already know how this ends. The veal parmigiana was delicious. In fact, everything I ate was far tastier than anything my mother had ever cooked. And, although I came home feeling quite full, I was far from sick.

My parents had deceived me.

That’s how I, in turn, justified lying to my mother about what I had eaten for lunch. Spaghetti with tomato sauce, I said, no meatballs.

This was the start of a long period of duplicity, of chowing down on cheeseburgers, shrimp cocktails, Cobb salads with bacon on the sly as soon as I could afford to eat out with my friends. After I moved out of my parents’ house, my tastes became more eclectic and discerning. I eventually became a food and travel writer, and have been fortunate enough  to dine in some of the finest restaurants in the world.

But I don’t think anything has ever tasted better than that first forbidden plate of veal parmigiana.


16 Responses to Fall from Faith: A Veal Parmigiana Epiphany

  1. KL says:

    GREAT post, Edie. You had me all the way!

  2. Nothing’s ever as good as the first time, except sex. Great post, Edie. Your writing makes me want to be Jewish!
    Jackie Dishner recently posted..Benefits of riding a bike — in verseMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      It’s true, sex tends to only get better… Maybe this makes you want to be lapsed Jewish; you get a lot more options than if you’re observant.

      Thanks for your nice words and thanks for coming by, Jackie — much appreciated!

  3. Edie,

    You had me laughing throughout the post! Congratulations on your lapse of faith. (I’m a lapsed Catholic, and it had nothing to do with food.)

    My husband is Jewish and married to this Italian-American, his oldest sister married an Italian, and so did his aunt. I really think it had to do with the food.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I knew it couldn’t be just me. Italian food is clearly dangerous for people of the Jewish faith (and no doubt other faiths). It makes us give up kosher observances, intermarry, and who knows what other sins.

      Thanks for coming by, Linda. Glad I could give you a laugh!

  4. Clare says:

    But Edie, you have been punished: you don’t think your allergy to garlic can be traced back through your food odyssey to that first Italian meal? There, now you can feel better about having deceived your mother, as you have paid!

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Interesting theory, the slow-acting seed of my food allergy being planted in that first meal, only to emerge decades later! I like it. Now if only we can figure out how to alleviate the guilt of all those other deceptions…

  5. This is hilarious! Just think of all the fantastic things we’d have missed out on if we’d believed everything our parents told us. In my opinion, they’re the ones that should feel guilty.
    Amy@GoPetFriendly recently posted..Dog Friendly Myrtle Beach in the OffseasonMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I like that parental guilt theory — especially since, in my case, my parents are beyond suffering it while I’m still around to wallow! Yes, many areas of life would be diminished if we had followed all our parents’ rules. Thanks for coming by, Amy.

  6. What a terrific contemplation of a young awakening–Edie’s coming of age. Well done, you.

    Reminded me of how my mother liked to put on airs. We were visiting some more sophisticated co-workers of my father one summer (1950’s) and when the lady sliced an avocado into the salad, I asked what it was. My mother was horrified. “Why you know that’s an avocado. We have them all the time!” uh, no….more like never.
    Vera Marie Badertscher recently posted..A Drop in the BucketMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      How very nice of you to say!

      So… do you love or hate avocados today (the Freud part of this blog wants to know)? It would be a pity if, in the land of guacamole, you were permanently scarred by the experience.

  7. Karyn Zoldan says:

    We talked about this. Like your mother I was never allowed to eat at people’s houses that were not Jewish. However, lots of my non-Jew friends always ate at my house.

    One time I had to eat dinner at my friend Margaret’s house and her mother made BLTs. My mother said if I ate bacon I would die (I was a teenager at this point.) Margaret said that was her favorite sandwich and she was proof of the living.

    I ate it. I loved it. I went home and told my mother, “I ate bacon and I’m living proof that it is not killing me. You lied!” From then on, I ate bacon whenever I could.
    Karyn Zoldan recently posted..Tucson Tails: Giving Tuesday, Animal Lovers, Movie BuffsMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thanks for following up, Karyn. It’s a great story. And I’m living proof that you’re telling the truth about liking bacon. I’ve been with you when you (and I) ate ice cream with bacon. Talk about multiple sins!

  8. Sharon says:

    I just read this…and chuckled all the way thru…trying to remember Julie..?…
    No recollection….my favorite day was when Rose Gale (Becky’smother)..
    Made us BLT sandwiches for lunch….

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