One Israeli woman’s journey to embracing Thanksgiving’s meaning and accompanying culinary offerings.
I have a special connection and a big love for tradition. It’s always been my life’s anchor, but also my wings.
Growing up without a mother made me appreciate tradition, and at a young age I noticed its power of bringing family together. Tradition was our family gift. I felt lucky to inherit such a gift wrapped in Jewish holiday gatherings around the table, listening to my Abba’s songs and the stories of my Savta (grandma), while preparing and enjoying delicious Tunisian dishes. In tradition, I found the qualities of a life guide, a parent and a mother, and I embraced it as hard as I could and held on to it.
I still do.
Growing up in Israel, we didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. My minimal exposure to Thanksgiving was through American movies and TV shows, as I watched American families gather around a table filled with good food to count their blessings. Perhaps somewhat expectedly, the average Israeli is not familiar with this very American holiday, and I was no different.
It was a little more than 15 years ago when I celebrated my first Thanksgiving. I had just moved to the United States and I was alone — a complete stranger in a new place. Thanksgiving was a foreign concept. It was not the tradition I inherited, but I was intrigued.
Surrounded by wonderful, loving people, I was invited to many Thanksgiving celebrations and started feeling my very own Israeli connection to this foreign holiday.
Perhaps tradition is not only inherited but also can be acquired?
There is no surprise in the natural embrace and connection to Jewish tradition to the American holiday of Thanksgiving. The concept of appreciation and giving thanks to God is embedded in Judaism. I find examples of the gratitude concept every day in many of my Jewish rituals, readings and learning, from the first morning prayer of Modeh Ani (literally “I am thankful”) to the concept of Hakarat Hatov (“recognizing the good”) that appears in many of our Torah and Talmud lessons. And even within our very own name Yehudim (the Jewish people) that comes from the name Yehuda, which shares the same Hebrew root letters of the word for thanks and literally means “giving thanks.”
Beyond the Jewish connection to gratitude, I was able to find additional personal connection to Thanksgiving, thanks to my love for side dishes. In my family’s Jewish Tunisian tradition, every meal opens up with a colorful spread of a huge variety of small side dishes called s’latas (salads). They each have a unique taste, and every time we came to the table they were there to open our meal. It was easy to take these small dishes for granted, as they were not the main part of the meal.
However, for some reason, and to this day, these s’latas are my favorites and I appreciate them the most. I believe this is how I grew such a deep love for side dishes, so allow me to say, “Let’s (NOT) talk turkey …”
Getting to know Thanksgiving, it was obvious that the main holiday dish is, of course, the roasted turkey. If you ask me — and not only because I am not a big fan of eating turkey — I feel that Thanksgiving tries to carry a message actually through the various side dishes. The subsidiary, minor dishes that do not get all the attention; the plates in the background that we take for granted. Symbolically, this holiday calls us to look to our sides, to the minor, everyday blessings in our lives and show gratitude to the ones we sometimes take for granted.
It has been more than 15 years now since the first spark of my own Thanksgiving connection. Being able to find a link between my inherited tradition and this American holiday allowed me to acquire a new tradition, and I am thankful for that. My growing love and connection to Thanksgiving has inspired my love of food, and through my Israeli eyes I was able to come up with a few original dishes that have been part of our family Thanksgiving celebration ever since.
A Fall (in love) Soup – Silky Butternut Squash-Turmeric topped with crispy Turmeric Root, Coconut Chips and Harissa
2 tbsp. Olive Oil
1 small Onion
2 stalks of Celery
1 big Carrot (or 2 medium ones)
1 medium Butternut Squash
2-3 Garlic cloves
400 ml. (a little less than 2 cups) Coconut Milk
3+ cups of Water
1 inch Ginger Root
1 inch Turmeric Root (optional)
1 Bay Leaf
½ tsp. Turmeric
½ tsp. Black Pepper
1 tsp. Salt
For Plating (Optional):
Fried Turmeric Root
Chop Onion, Celery and Carrot to small and equal pieces.
Sauté the Onions in the Olive Oil on medium heat for couple on minutes.
Add Celery and Carrots and cook for another minute or two.
Add cubes of Butternut Squash and minced Garlic.
Grate Ginger Root and Turmeric Root into the pot.
Add dry Spices Black Pepper and Turmeric.
Pour in Coconut Milk and add Bay leaf.
Add cold Water to reach all vegetables’ level and bring to a boil.
Cover the pot and cook on low heat for about 30 minutes.
Using a hand blender stick, blend to a smooth soup.
Thinly slice Turmeric Root and fry lightly until it crisp up.
Sprinkle with a little Salt
Topped with Harissa oil, crispy Turmeric Root and Coconut Chips.
Tunisian S’lata Lubia – Simple Green Beans with Garlic and Lemon
1½ lb. Green Beans
3 Garlic cloves
1½ tsp. Butter
1 tsp. Olive oil
2 tsp. Lemon juice (about half a lemon)
Lemon Zest (about 1 tsp.)
Cut edges off Green Beans and wash well.
Parboil Green Beans and transfer to icy water.
Cook and toss on high heat with Olive Oil and a touch of Butter for about 6 minutes.
Add sliced Garlic and toss quickly.
Add Lemon, Salt and Black Pepper still on high heat and toss one last time.
Turn heat off.
Sprinkle Lemon Zest on warm Green Beans.
Middle Eastern Thanksgiving – Roasted Beets and Butternut Squash topped with Pumpkin Seeds, Pink Tehina and Lemon Zest
2 Medium Beet Roots
(+1 Beet Root to juice for Pink Tehina)
½ Butternut Squash
½ cup Pumpkin Seeds
2½ tbsp. Olive Oil
½ tsp. Za’atar
½ tsp. Garlic Salt
¼ tsp. Black Pepper
For the Pink Tehina
⅓ cup raw Tehina (Sesame Paste)
Half a Lemon freshly squeezed (about 2 tsp. lemon juice)
1-2 tbsp. of Fresh Beet Juice
3 tbsp. Water
Salt (a pinch and a little)
Peel and cube Beets and Butternut Squash to about 1 inch in size.
Lay all vegetables flat in one layer on a parchment paper in a large oven tray.
Drizzle evenly with Olive oil.
Sprinkle all vegetables with Za’atar, Garlic Salt and Black Pepper.
Roast the vegetable in a preheated oven of 400°.
After 40 minutes carefully give the vegetables a good flip.
Keep roasting for additional 10-15 minutes.
Zest one Lemon.
Toast the Pumpkin Seeds in a small pan over medium heat for 5 minutes.
Make sure to toss them around for even toasting.
To Make the Tehina:
Combine Lemon juice with raw Tehina and stir using a fork.
Add Beet juice and mix to combine.
Add Water and Salt and stir to a smooth consistency.
Drizzle the roasted vegetables with pink Tehina sauce and top with toasted Pumpkin Seeds and Lemon zest.
Top photo: Huppit Bartov Miller (Photo by Evan Cohen)
A Reisterstown resident, Huppit Bartov Miller is an Israeli-American Jewish mother of three. She is an educator, cook and food blogger for Afooda.com.
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