Fleishig or milchig?
Those are the first words of Treyf, Elissa Altman's kaleidoscopic memoir of growing up Jewish in post-second world war New York and the tumultuous decades that followed.
The Yiddish words for meat, milk and non-kosher capture the paradox of Altman's beautifully rendered, elliptical book. The uncategorizable Treyf is neither fleishig nor milchig; an autobiography first, Altman's book is also an ode to food, an exploration of Jewishness, an elegy for lost love, an appraisal of memory itself. Amidst culture wars, family secrets, personal traumas, and a lot of meals, Altman finally comes to a kind of reconciliation with herself.
Treyf feels the most intimate of Altman's highly personal work.
A longtime food writer and cookbook editor, she's the author of Poor Man's Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking, inspired by her award-winning blog PoorMansFeast.com.
She writes a popular Washington Post column entitled Feeding My Mother, and contributes to US media from O: The Oprah Magazine to The New York Times.
I spoke to Altman from the Newtown, Connecticut home she shares with Susan Turner, her spouse of 16 years.
There's so much food in this book, so evocatively connected to parts of your life. Can you choose one food memory that's strongest?
As Treyf proves, all food is not necessarily heart-warming or even delicious.
I have a lot of wonderful food memories, but by far the strongest is tied to a scene that takes place early in the book, in 1974, when I was 11, in my grandmother's kitchen. She reached over my shoulder and set down in front of me a boiled brain on a plate. No garnish. No instructions. Just a boiled brain on a plate. I stared at it for what felt like hours. Eventually, my father came in and said: "She doesn't eat brains yet." I was flummoxed. In
a bit of remarkable timing, this event took place the day after we saw Young Frankenstein at the Ziegfeld, and all I could think of was Abby Normal.
You write that "food, in my mother's life, will become dangerous, forbidden, the devil on her shoulder; it will terrorise and taunt and harass her". How would you characterise your own relationship with food?
When I was a child, my relationship with food was purely associative: if we were having bacon in the house, I associated it with secrecy, because I was told to never mention it to my father's Orthodox parents. Nearly every Saturday morning, my father waited until my mother left to have her hair done, and he would squirrel me away for fancy lunches in Manhattan; again, laden with secrecy because I was told to never mention our outings. But food was also certainly nurturing - at least when my grandmother, Gaga, prepared it. As an adult, I've gone from one extreme to another. I think of it as love, certainly - nurturing and sustenance - but it is also history, time, and place.
Your relationship with Julie [a roommate who becomes Altman's lover] takes less than two pages. Seems like a pretty significant event in your life. Does that feel like it could have used more space in the book?
The fact of Julie had far more presence in the book, initially; she, sadly, ended up on the cutting room floor. Indeed, our relationship was significant: ours was the first serious romantic relationship I ever had, and no one else knew about it. This is, of course, another meaning of treyf: our relationship was forbidden on so many levels. But writing more about Julie would have taken the book in a different direction; instead, I needed to explain how I came to return to my paternal grandparents' apartment, which had been empty - apart from all of their things, which were kept there like a time capsule - for years. It was the forbidden that was sent back in time, to a place I hadn't been for years. When it was time for me to leave that apartment after 18 months, I was ready to go back to my life; I was also ready to love again.
Your mother and father sound like polar opposites. Which of them do you resemble most?
Without question, my father. Although my mother can be a very funny woman, and as a professional singer and model she still enjoys the spotlight, my father and I got to a point where we almost always finished each other's sentences. I learned about comedic timing from him - he was a longtime copywriter and a frustrated journalist - and he was a spectacular storyteller. I listened to him closely most of my life; I never realised that I was actually absorbing his ability to shape story like a sponge. And although we had some extraordinarily difficult times to get through, I miss him every day.
There are so many conflicting emotions around Judaism and Jewishness in the book. What's your relationship with that part of your identity now?
That conflict - the morass of contradiction, the paradox that comes as a natural part of assimilation - is what I struggle with, constantly. I was non-observant as a child; that's just how I was raised, by two mid-century, modern American Jews who were more interested in arts and fashion and New York City than in religion. Peculiarly, I have and always had a strong spiritual inclination, which was not fulfilled by my birth religion - not because of any nefarious desire
to walk away from it, but because
it was just not a part of my life or my practice.
I have a profound cultural attachment to Judaism - this is the plight of the assimilated, I suppose - but I still practise in a very personal way, and one which is more meditative than not. My relationship with Judaism isn't so much ambivalent as it is ambiguous and ever-changing. And I've grown to be comfortable with that.
The book's not quite linear, but incredibly detailed. What was the process of writing like? Had you kept diaries?
I am and always have been an inveterate journal-keeper (even now, as I write this, I have a stack of them sitting next to me, dating from 1976 through to 1993). I've also been blessed with the blog, which is a place where I began writing about my family and my experiences growing up in earnest. In the writing of Treyf, I learned other significant things about memory: first, the strongest memory jog for me is visual. Finally, I recently discovered that I have a synesthetic memory, which is actually considered to be a neurological condition. Many of my memories are so clear that it feels as though they happened yesterday. This is not always a good thing…
Does the book feel like a cathartic experience for you? You expose yourself so completely.
I'm not sure I would call it cathartic. But writing the book enabled me not only to better understand myself and my cultural/spiritual inclinations, but to revisit a time and place that wasn't always kind to me, and to do it safely and from a vantage point of time and distance. But the act of writing memoir comes with immense responsibility; it is not a place for getting back at people, or for spite. Instead, it results in a kind of cracking open of humanity and heart: I did not expect to come away from the book with a profound compassion for many of its more difficult characters that I didn't necessarily have going in, but I did.
Your blog, Poor Man's Feast, won a 2012 James Beard Award. What was the genesis of the blog, what's its mission now, and its name?
Back in 2007, I decided to create a sort of online landing pad for long-form, food-related narrative, simply because I wanted to see if there was any room for it in the digital world.
Fast-forward almost 10 years, and online, long-form food-related narrative is a fact of the blogosphere. In terms of its name, I believe in my heart of hearts that sustenance and nurturing doesn't always have to come as a result of culinary excess or frivolity; often, it goes hand in hand with the concept of food that can be accessed and prepared by everyone.
Today, PoorMansFeast.com is beginning to change and morph a bit; in the coming months, I'll be writing more about spirituality and the table, the moral imperative to feed the people around us, and what the late American food writer Marion Cunningham once called "the modern tribal fire". Stay tuned for that in 2017.
Your blog says you're fanatical about "real food". Can you explain what that means? Does Jewish food feel like "real food" to you?
By "real food" I mean anything that is not tortured into submission; I mean food that is simple, honest, good, and easily had. Jewish food can certainly be real food, but so can Indian and Arabic, and Vietnamese and French. Just please don't tart it up...