WHAT DOES FOOD HAVE TO SAY ABOUT THE UNSAID?
A Feast of Words is a monthly literary potluck in San Francisco which brings together writers and chefs around a common theme. I was this month’s invited culinary guest, and the theme was “The Unsaid.”
After giving it some thought, I decided to present food from the Medieval crypto-Jews of Spain and New Spain, whose religious practices were forced underground during the Spanish Inquisition in order to avoid expulsion or death. In this case, I argue, that ritual, and even food, represents what is, or must remain, unsaid.
For hundreds of years, Jews in Spain and New Spain used food as a means to connect with the divine while avoiding persecution for open religious worship. Through daily and weekly rituals around food and the table, Spanish and Portuguese Jews were able to maintain religious and dietary commandments quietly at home while praying to Catholic saints as dictated by the Church. So successful were the crypto-Jews in folding Jewish tradition into Spanish culture that many of their descendants have no idea they are observing Jewish law when they eat certain foods or prepare them in a certain way.
CRYPTO-JEWISH FOOD UNDER THE INQUISITION
Food was also one of the primary ways that Jews were identified as heretics by Catholic authorities in Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition. Cleaning meat by removing the blood in water, eating meat during Catholic Lent, baking unleavened bread, and eating bitter herbs in the Spring (in honor of Passover), became the basis by which Jews could be identified by neighbors and jealous rivals. The consequences of being identified as an unrepentant Jew in one’s home, and in one’s heart, included expulsion (often to North Africa), or being burned alive at the stake.
Under these circumstances, many Jews continued their observances secretly, believing that is what G-d wanted of them, while assimilating into mainstream Catholic life as converts, or conversos. While Jews could not practice their religion openly, they continued folk practices of worship, celebration, and observance, such as refraining from cooking or lighting fires on the Sabbath, and putting on clean clothes and a clean tablecloth on Friday evenings. A clear understanding of the Jewish origin of these rituals remained for a couple generations and then faded, so that people were eating their milk and meat in separate dishes, and baking unleavened bread in the Spring, without even knowing why.
CRYPTO-JEWISH FOOD IN THE NEW WORLD
Some of the Jews who fled or converted under the Inquisition worked as doctors or interpreters for the Spanish conquistadors in the New World, circa 1492. Once settled in the areas now known as Texas and New Mexico, they continued their secret Jewish traditions, such as baking unleavened bread with olive oil rather than pork fat, and making kosher stews before sundown Friday to be ready on Saturday. In fact, some believe that the Tex-Mex specialties of pan de semita, and even chili con carne, have Jewish roots from this cross-cultural contact.
FOOD AS “THE UNSAID”
For A Feast of Words I am preparing a 500 year old medieval Shabbat stew from the crypto-Jews of Spain, and a Tex-Mex matzo known as pan de semita along the Rio Grande.
While I do not believe that syncretic religion or religious persecution are unique to Judaism, the story of Jedeo-Spanish food as a placeholder for religious practice is a fascinating one. Many of these dishes, such as hamin, continue to be cooked (openly) throughout the Jewish diaspora today, especially among the Sephardic communities of Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt. But the handing down of recipes and techniques for 500 years amongst crypto-Jewish families in New Mexico and Texas, who continued to cook as their mothers did, keeping Jewish tradition without knowing it, continues to fascinate me.
PICTURES FROM “UNSAID” at A FEAST OF WORDS
After giving a short talk on the history, origins, and ingredients of the dishes I was preparing, I gave guests a chance to taste them, and in doing so, eat a 500 year old recipe.