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 food rebel in a single meal.
What I Thought I Knew
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
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.