Tradition, Tradition

At Sarah’s favorite grocery store for her weekly shopping trip on Sunday, I’d decided to mostly focus on her and her list. Her favorite store. Her diet. Her need for both help, and sovereignty. Yet the upcoming Thanksgiving celebration loomed, since a somewhat-unexpected trip to see my dad had taken a bite out of my planning window.

Would we have any turkey this year? Don and I don’t eat much meat, and among our small, covid-safer gathering are one vegan, two vegetarians, and at least one person who will arrive stuffed from another Thanksgiving meal! Maybe we’d just skip turkey completely this year. Certainly not a whole bird.

Don suggested we buy some already-prepared turkey. I balked at that. Something deep inside me objected. For some reason I felt I’d rather have no turkey than store-bought. I guess it’s because Thanksgiving, whatever else it is and isn’t, is to me about the joy of cooking, serving, sharing good food.

So there I was at Metcalfe’s with Sarah, a multitude of turkey options arrayed before me, and out jumped this one: A kosher turkey breast. Not a “skinless, boneless breast” like you can buy with chicken. This is the breast, singular, which is actually, I think, the whole chest or upper part of the turkey. Eight pounds worth. It was frozen, and I did a brief mental assessment: Just the right number of days to defrost it in my fridge. I would’ve preferred organic to kosher, but at least it said ‘no antibiotics or growth hormones’ on the label. So I hefted it into Sarah’s cart with a smile, thinking how pleased my mother and her parents would be with me.

Growing up we only ate kosher meat, which involved significant effort in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the 1960s and ’70s. Keeping kosher was a mark of distinction, a kind of specialness and separation. Not a sense that we were better than others, just that this was what was right for us to do. Because God commanded it? Not really. As far as I knew neither of my parents really believed in God, or at least not that kind of God. But my mother adhered strongly to many of the traditions of her “Conservadox” Jewish upbringing, believing they kept us off a slippery slope towards alcoholism, drugs, domestic abuse, dissolution, and dissipation. It was a functional morality. Eating separate foods kept us from mingling too much with Gentiles, which kept us, she hoped, from inter-marrying, which was necessary to preserve our peoplehood.

Today, kosher foods feel to me more like what people call comfort food, albeit in an abstract way. I don’t think I can taste the difference, I have to trust the label. Which, I must add, bears the brand “Empire” on it. Not a concept I really find positive in any regard. The rise and fall of empires. The British Empire. Native American genocide. Labor abuses in Iowa kosher meat plants. So many fraught associations with this label. Not to mention concern for the animal’s life itself, bred for and forfeit to this strange and problematic American tradition. Where, I wonder, did the rest of this bird end up?

Still, I will cook it, and enjoy eating it. Perhaps let myself feel the life force of this other being flowing into me, with gratitude. And enjoy sharing food and other expressions of thankfulness—for vegetables, for vaccines, for some just verdicts—with my small collection of vaccinated, boosted, and rapid-antigen-tested friends and family.

Turkey “chest” with paprika rub in slow cooker, Nov. 25th, 2021

3 thoughts on “Tradition, Tradition”

  1. Yes, the complexity of it all! I love that you see and acknowledge the layers — oppression and identity, tradition and adapting, the impact of Thanksgiving on turkeys and on community, and more. I hope you enjoy the day, the people, the food! So grateful for how you and Don have been a “sanctuary” for me, dear Becca!

  2. Jennifer Rosenfeld

    Couldn’t agree more…. and your mom and Zayde B would approve. I remember my first Thanksgiving hosting after our marriage and thinking how is this going to work if I can’t use butter in any of my sides. It all worked out ok and was delicious

  3. It was good for me to read one of your reflections again after a long pause — just so distracted with work and stuff. This is the time of year for reflections, taking stock and connecting. Lots of layers of meaning. You are so talented at pealing the onion. Thank you and best wishes!

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