Manning the Tables
I once read somewhere that George Orwell’s Animal Farm (a parable belittling communism, in case you have never read it) was smuggled into the Soviet Union under the heading Agricultural Manuals. To paraphrase him; All Chassidim are equal but the boys are more equal than the girls. Let us leave aside for a moment the questions of a Bar Mitzva that boys do have and girls don’t. I suppose one could argue that not only Chassidim discriminate there. I do find it ironic that the likelihood for a girl to have a Bat Mitzva party is in inverse proportion to the likelihood of her keeping any mitzvoth.
Chassidim do not usually invite each other for meals unless it can be considered a Chessed (good deed). It simply is not done to unnecessarily put yourself into the position of sharing the table with a strange woman. My personal problem is slightly more immediate. I just don’t like the food.
Chassidim always eat the same foods Shabbos and Yomtov. On the Hill every lunch will start with salmon. I do like poached salmon. I do not like the overcooked cardboard variety in heavy syrup Chassidim inevitably cook. The gefilte fish that usually accompanies it has become far more edible since the young generation made it acceptable to buy the mixture done. I just wish they would add a line to the cooking instructions saying “If you are going to cook salmon in the same liquor add it for the last ten minutes only.”
Ei mit Zwiebel invariably follows the fish and is one of the most horrible tasting Jewish traditions ever. In essence it is an egg salad with onion. The onion in remembrance of the Manna that fell in the desert and for some inexplicable reason, we are told, could taste like anything in the whole wide world except onion. (Someone has a sense of humour.) Because we are not allowed to eat an onion that was left tailed overnight, the onion cannot be kept chopped in the fridge but has to be hand-chopped shabbos morning. This, coupled with the idea that fat in enormous quantities makes it better, does not usually for a refined salad make.
The next round is cholent. I am a cholent eater. I eat it Friday afternoon to check it is good. I try it before going to bed to check it is still good and then just a sniff before davening in the morning to numb the olfactory nerves before the mikve. One has to be a seriously bad cook to completely ruin a cholent. Unfortunately Cholent happens to be the nutritional equivalent of an atom bomb.
It is in the meat course however where the real pitfalls lie. This is the course where the rules are less fast. Some go for cold cuts and salads in the summer. Some plump for cold roasted chicken with kugel and some eat decomposed meat from the cholent. The worst of all are the ones that try out something new especially for the guests. For some reason the Chassidic cooks I have met all seem to think adding sugar to food makes it gourmet. I have had to stoically eat chicken boiled in pineapple syrup, lettuce salad with strawberries and cranberries and countless other failed experiments, never forgetting to compliment the blushing Chef
Food at the Chassidic table is rarely put on serving plates and handed round. In our households Mummy puts food on your plate and you eat it. I was a little surprised, last time I ate out, to notice that the boys were served first and only then the girls - including my wife. As I am polite I waited for my wife to get her portion before I started to eat. I then noticed that my daughters were given children portions while the boys had had the same plates as I. This was too much for me. I took my plate and deliberately gave half my portion to my biggest daughter. The looks that passed between the host and his wife were a picture. I will probably never be invited again. Who cares?
I am considering publishing a manual on table etiquette, maybe called the Shulchan Aruch.