A Jewish-Italian Tradition For Turkey Day
Make a meatloaf the way they do in Venice and Ferrara.
This year’s much-hyped “Thanksgivukah,” aside, many Jews always celebrate Thanksgiving Day with an intensity usually reserved to our most sacred holidays. We identify with the Pilgrims, who travelled across an ocean to flee religious persecutions and find freedom. With their sweat and faith, they fought against illness and scarcity, finally turning America’s wilderness into their “Promised Land.”
As in our favorite Jewish holidays, the Thanksgiving table is also exquisitely symbolic. Pumpkin, and of course turkey, represent bounty. Cranberries are always combined with plenty of sugar to make a palatable sauce, but their true nature is extremely sour. That contrast is symbolic of life’s challenges and triumphs.
But the corn is especially complicated, and it’s fraught with ambiguities in other cultures, as well.
Here, at Thanksgiving, it reminds us of the harsh winter before the first harvest, when the pilgrims barely had enough to eat. It is said that at one point there was so little food that each person was given only five kernels of corn per day.
In Northern Italy, where I’m from, corn is seen as both a comfort food and a symbol of scarcity. When it first arrived from the Americas, it quickly spread through Lombardy and the Veneto, where landowners reaped huge profits by feeding their workers only polenta.
Tasty and filling, it was so lacking in vitamins and protein that it caused an epidemic of Pellagra, the same deficiency disease that spread in the American South during the Great Depression.
Much like the cup that every Jewish groom crushes underfoot at his wedding, these gastronomic cues remind us that while giving thanks for the many blessings that we enjoy each day living in America, we should not forget the tears that are shed and the lives that are lost every year.
Symbolism aside, here’s an Italian Jewish turkey dish that can easily cross over to our winter holiday season, although Jews in northern communities like Venice and Ferrara eat this dish on Rosh Hashana and Passover. Cooking the loaf in the skin is a distinctively Jewish technique.
Alessandra Rovati is an Italian food writer and lecturer based in New York. In addition to her published articles and recipes in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Joy of Kosher and several international publications, Alessandra writes Italian-Jewish culinary history on her web site, DinnerinVenice.com. Alessandra has been a featured guest on a variety of television and radio programs and has spoken at universities and cultural institutes. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest for more classic Jewish Italian cuisine recipes.