In Food History 101, we're hitting the books -- to explore the who, what, when, where, and why of what we eat today.
Today: Turns out Passover isn't the only Jewish holiday with a seder plate.
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Most people associate a seder plate with the Passover holiday -- and they associate apples dipped in honey with Rosh Hashanah. But well before apples entered the scene, there was a seder plate on the Rosh Hashanah table. Rosh Hashanah is one of the few Jewish holidays that focuses not on an event -- like Passover's celebration of the exodus from Egypt -- but rather on self-reflection and prayers. Each item on the seder plate represents a prayer for the year to come.
According to Jewish food historian Gil Marks who (literally) wrote the book on Jewish Food, the original five simanim, or symbolic foods on the seder plate -- gourds, fenugreek or black-eyed peas, leeks, chard or beet greens, and dates -- were first documented the Talmud (the book of Jewish rabbinic law) in 400-500 CE. The impetus for using each of these five fruits and vegetables was to make puns -- that’s right, puns in Hebrew or Aramaic! For example, the Hebrew word for gourd is related to the word for "called out," suggesting a blessing that one's merits be called out and recognized. These word plays are continually updated; some eat dates while praying for romantic connections in the coming year. The exact make-up of the Rosh Hashanah seder plate varies by community, geographic location, and ancestry. And families who don’t start their meal with a seder plate nonetheless incorporate some of the symbolic foods into the dishes they serve.
Now let’s get back to those apples, which were first associated with Rosh Hashanah in France circa 1100 CE. Soon, German and other Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews began the tradition of dipping apple slices into honey for a sweet year. However, among Sephardim (Jews who trace their family roots back to pre-Inquisition Spain and Portugal, the Babylonian Era, or Northern Africa), the quince is the quintessential Rosh Hashanah fruit. You may only know of quince as the main component in the membrillo on your cheese plate, but around Rosh Hashanah, this fruit is incorporated into syrups, preserves, stews, and cakes.
Over the years, other symbolic foods have entered the Rosh Hashanah lexicon: sweet carrots, pomegranates, and sesame seeds to increase one's merits, challahs studded with raisins and braided into circles to represent the continuity of life, and the head of a fish or lamb with the hope to be a head (rosh in Hebrew means head) -- a leader instead of a follower. If you're squeamish and don't want an entire lamb head on your table, serve lamb as a main course.
To coin an original Rosh Hashanah-style salutation: This year, may your seder plate prayers be answered, may your merits increase like the seeds of a pomegranate, and may you eat well. Very very well.
Photos by James Ransom, Emiko Davies, and Cookie and Kate
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