Making My Tribe

"Where there was good food there were usually good people. I learned that early on. I also learned that making food for other people was something I was good at. It gave me a sense of peace and belonging. When I made food, I made a tribe."  Kim Severson, Spoon Fed

This weekend at my wife's firm's holiday party, I stationed myself next to the chilled shrimp, slathered cocktail sauce on a plate and got down to business. Between shrimp and what I would describe as gourmet pepperoni, I ate almost a full meal before we sat down for dinner. Shrimp is one of my favorite foods, and I don't eat it at home because we keep a somewhat kosher kitchen, meaning no shellfish, no pork, and no meals that include both dairy and meat (though I sometimes have both if it's just me).

The negotiations that surrounded our moving in together almost six years ago were tense, not because we weren't both sure that we wanted to take that step but because we struggled to figure out how to make the "food stuff" work. We come from completely different worlds on that front.

I grew up in Georgia with parents from South Louisiana, which meant that my fried chicken and biscuits were mingled with sausage-filled red beans and rice, jambalaya, seafood gumbo, shrimp stew, and - my absolute favorite - crawfish etouffee.

Not only that - I came from a clean-your-plate, eat-what-your-mama-cooked house. No one had allergies, or ethical food considerations, and I was allowed only a small number of food dislikes. I was expected to eat the food put in front of me.

My wife, on the other hand, grew up just outside Philadelphia in a strictly kosher house. She didn't eat out at restaurants. She checked every food box for the kosher symbol. Add to that the fact that she was diagnosed lactose intolerant when she was 11 and a myriad of food intolerances shortly after we started dating, and we were looking at a pretty challenging landscape for compromise.

If we hadn't each made a little movement since our childhoods, I'm not sure we would have had a chance. But by the time we met, I had dabbled in vegetarianism and was focused on eating sustainably-raised meat. My wife now ate out at restaurants and ate non-kosher foods, though not non-kosher animals (aka, no pork, etc).

Naturally, she wanted a kitchen without pork or shellfish and with separate dishes for meat and dairy - the type of kitchen she grew up with. And I wanted a kitchen with cheeseburgers on the grill and pots of shellfish-laden etouffee simmering on the stove - the type of kitchen I grew up with. It wasn't just that I felt that I was, in the food arena, perhaps becoming Jewish by default (something I was not prepared to do). It was that so many of the warm and cozy memories of my childhood involved a food item that would not be permissible in a kosher kitchen. And even the "kosher lite" kitchen we were discussing wouldn't welcome a shrimp cocktail. But of course, the alternate was true for my wife.

We ultimately took the plunge with a set of parameters we both felt we could accept. They've morphed over time along with all our other interfaith issues, but we thankfully always come back to the same place - we want to be together enough to expand, to grow the box of our lives big enough to include elements of both of our traditions. We'd rather be doing that messy work with each other than not.  At this point, I'd say we've both given up a fair amount.

But we've gained so, so much.

Those occasions where I find a way to share my family's food traditions with her are such a gift, whether it's making something kosher-friendly or dairy-free or without refined grains and sugars (which wreak havoc on her system). When we subbed out buttermilk for soymilk in the fried chicken, when we found the perfect chicken andouille sausage for my mom's sausage and chicken gumbo, and last week when I realized I could make one of my favorite holiday treats - chocolate haystacks - with her special dairy-free, sugar-free chocolate chips, salted almonds, and gluten-free pretzels. In those moments, I am creating our own new traditions - ones that are a mix of her and a mix of me.

It may sound silly, but as we stand in the kitchen crunching away on these modified chocolate nibbles or sit across from each other chowing down on bowls of chicken and sausage gumbo, I remember the words we said when we slipped our rings on each other's fingers.

I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine. 

This is where I belong.
This is my tribe.