Five years ago my daughter telephoned from college to inform me that she had made a decision about dining out: Now that she had become Orthodox, she was only going to eat in kosher restaurants.
Tears streamed down my face. I know there are many things that are far worse for a mother to hear. But for a restaurant-obsessed food blogger whose identity is strongly tied to dining out, this was very upsetting. Dining out was a shared passion in our family. I devoted hours of my free time to researching restaurants, as every meal out was an opportunity to be seized. I discovered online communities where restaurants were as hotly debated as politics. I kept a bulging file of reviews from the Washington Post and Washingtonian Magazine and made lengthy lists of restaurants I wanted to visit. My husband, daughter, and son had been the grateful beneficiaries of my efforts.
This wasn’t the first change my daughter had announced since beginning her transformation from a Conservative Jew to a more strictly observant one, after she graduated high school. But unlike her other decisions—tossing out her skimpy tank tops in the name of modesty, refraining from turning lights on or off on Shabbat—this one affected not just her, but all of us. And her decision about where she would and wouldn’t eat felt like a dismissal of a family ritual that I had encouraged, one that was particularly dear to me.
Dining out has been an integral part of my life since I was a child. I have fond memories of vacationing with my parents in Southern Florida, where no trip was complete without a visit to the now-shuttered Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House. We were herded into a line according to party size and inevitably served by a waitress with big hair who had worked there for 40 years. We indulged in oversized corned beef sandwiches along with bottomless bowls of sour pickles and pickled tomatoes. Once, we all sat separately at the counter so we could each get our own basket of fresh rolls, most of which we took home to enjoy later. This was our own version of family bonding.
As an adult, I began to pursue more adventurous and innovative cuisine. From the time my kids were young, I schlepped them to high-end restaurants, including some that weren’t really age-appropriate. On a family vacation to San Francisco in the mid-1990s, we took our then 6-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son to a trendy hot-spot. We were led to our table by a very chic transvestite who navigated us through a packed bar full of inebriated singles. The most kid-friendly food we could find was exorbitantly expensive sliders. We had drinks and a few teensy burgers and high-tailed it out of there—even though my kids were oblivious and would have happily stayed for more. They grew accustomed to out-of-the way adventures for dining destinations, frequently putting up with my fervent determination to locate just the right spot, even when hunger was making us all cranky.
Neither my husband nor I was raised in a kosher home, but we made a decision to keep kosher when we married. We agreed that while our home would be kosher, however, our bodies were another matter. This resulted in some overcompensating in restaurants. Cheeseburgers, pepperoni pizza, barbecued shrimp, BLT sandwiches … nothing was off limits.
Still, our days of the family feasting on crabs, or getting our hands sticky with barbecue sauce from grilled pork ribs, were already long gone before my daughter’s phone call. A few years earlier, when she was 17, she stopped eating nonkosher food—although she would continue to eat in vegetarian restaurants. Around the same time, my husband, then-president of our Conservative synagogue, decided to observe the dietary laws by eating only vegetarian meals or seafood (no shellfish) in restaurants. Next, my nonreligious son declared after graduating college that eating animals—whether they were kosher or not—was unacceptable to him. I dedicated myself to identifying the best vegetarian restaurants in the D.C. area where we live, and while vacationing managed to discover some world-class spots.
I recognized that the day might come when my daughter might make even more stringent moves. For months, I had been trying to comprehend the plethora of new rules she was adopting about everything from time periods when shopping was not permissible to restrictions about dog-walking on Shabbat. As she stepped out of the halls of her Jewish high school for the last time, something inside her clicked: She believed in God, and she would demonstrate this by fully incorporating the teachings of the Torah into her life. She never questioned the sacrifices. But all too often our conversations ended in tears—sometimes hers, sometimes mine. I perceived each step she took toward more stringent religious observance as a movement away from our family. With family celebrations looming, I wondered if she would be willing or able to participate in these simchas, where the levels of observance wouldn’t be up to her own. Was she headed into black-hat territory? I had many sleepless nights, wondering what would become of the girl I’d known who was a foodie, a funky fashionista, an indie-rock lover, and a TV addict.
I shouldn’t have been shocked by my daughter’s decision to abide by Jewish law. We’d sent her to Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School from grades 4 through 12, and she’d been an active leader in B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. We had weekly Shabbat dinners at home and attended synagogue regularly. We bought kosher meat and kept separate dishes and cutlery but weren’t strict about every product being certified. If it didn’t have treyf ingredients, it was acceptable. I hoped my children would adopt some of these practices when they had their own families.
But when my daughter took her observance to the next level, it threw me for a loop. Suddenly our home wasn’t kosher enough and our rituals barely sufficed. My heart sank at the realization that she would no longer want to eat in a home with cheese or bread that didn’t have a hekhsher, or share a Shabbat meal that was prepared after sundown. Practices that we believed had once demonstrated our commitment to Judaism, and happy occasions celebrated with restaurant meals, were family traditions now in question. Living in Washington, there was a limited number of kosher restaurants, none better than passable. The thought of forever being restricted to these venues was depressing.
Then I discovered that Top Chef Season 3 winner Hung Huynh was temporarily serving as executive chef at Solo, a high-end kosher restaurant in Manhattan, and I could hardly contain my excitement. I leaped to the phone, tripping over a towering stack of issues of Food and Wine magazine. I inhaled as I called my daughter to see if we could make a trip to New York together, and then called the restaurant for a reservation. The meal was unforgettable. I was thrilled to be dining at the hands of a Top Chef winner. If I turned my head ever so slightly, I could see Chef Hung in the kitchen. My daughter implored me not to say anything, afraid that in my enthusiasm for meeting the newly minted TV star I would embarrass her. But then Chef Hung paid us a visit, upon my request. While I nervously toyed with my perfectly cooked Asian-spiced vegetables, I “calmly” tried to explain the significance of our dinner. “She keeps kosher,” I told him, smiling toward my daughter. “I am a Top Chef-loving maniac who eats almost anything. The fact that you are cooking here is an incredible opportunity for us,” I said, holding back tears. I glanced over at my daughter to check her level of humiliation. She was smiling, and so was Chef Hung. And so was I. Our family ritual would still endure, satisfying my newly observant daughter and her still-discriminating food-blogger mom.
Five years have passed since my daughter’s momentous decision, and we are all still learning to cope and compromise. I’ve given up bringing noncertified food items into our home, and I cook food to bring with us on vacations. I get excited about eating shwarma at the nearby Max’s Kosher Café. On Tuesday nights there is an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet at a kosher market that really isn’t bad. And I don’t mind the chicken wings at the Distrikt Bistro in the D.C. Jewish Community Center. And when my daughter and I can share a truly positive culinary experience, as we have done on more than one occasion, I still rejoice.
But I’ve also discovered a new way to enjoy sharing a meal. My daughter has become, like her father, a competent and creative cook. And so I’ve come to recognize that rather than dining out, all of us occasionally preparing a meal together in our now glatt kosher home can be an incredibly rewarding experience. When it comes to dining, in the end, everything is relative.
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