Featuring glatt kosher cow brains and hearty goulash alongside shrimp cocktails, Elissa Altman’s new book, “Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw,” chronicles a family story of American Jewishness and its cuisine across generations.
Poetic and contemplative, the memoir by the James Beard award-winning food writer focuses on the author’s young life in 1960s and 70s Queens. With a cover depicting the author on Santa’s lap, it presents a tenderly-portrayed cast of complex characters: the father who is both abrasive and dedicated, the stove-slaving Bubbe who is in love with a woman.
The book subtly, carefully probes notions of the holy, of tradition, devotion, and love. Ahead of its September 20 release, The Times of Israel spoke with Altman about the genesis and background of “Treyf.”
In the past, you’ve written exquisitely about food and intimacy, but here, you focus on a Jewish angle as you trace your family history and your developing senses of self and sexuality through the kosher and non. What catalyzed an exploration of your religious and cultural heritage at this point in your life?
Let me start in the past. In the 1960s and 70s when “Treyf” takes place, many pockets of American Jewry were focused on assimilation. My parents had a challenging time plaiting their religion to their cultural heritage, conflicted about their Jewishness — although they were, as am I, intensely proud of it.
My father had an anxious relationship with Judaism. His father — who’d arrived in the United States in 1905, alone, as a child — was a fire and brimstone Orthodox cantor of the old school who believed (at least where his son was concerned) in corporal punishment as an incentive to prayer. (I don’t think this is uniquely Jewish; Catholic friends have told me similar stories.) My father was loathe to pass along religious observance to me because it was connected to such anguish and bitterness for him; it tasted of violence and rage.
I found myself searching, even as a young child, for a spiritual anchor to my life. As I’ve gotten older — I’m 53 now — that search has grown more intense. The questions who am I, why am I, what am I, dovetailed into my writing “Treyf.” As the narrative unfolded, I realized that every person in the story found themselves at spiritual odds.
A particular catalyst would have to be the experience of losing my father in 2002. After so many years of unhappiness and worry, at 79 he was finally happy and healthy. He went out one sunny day, got into a car accident, and never came home. Over the 14 years since his death I’ve spent a lot of time pondering if he was really happy and spiritually fulfilled. Did he regret not having brought observance into our home?
Your family story revolves around generations of passionate women who react to, parallel, and oppose each other. Your grandmother and her goulash are great sources of security for you, while your mother, a former model, barely has an appetite at all. How has your mother shaped you?
My father used to say that he divorced my mother because she was too religious: every meal she made was a sacrifice or a burnt offering. But my grandmother — Gaga — was the best natural cook I’ve ever known. Gaga and I were profoundly connected. She was always there, my rock, my guide, the angel on my shoulder. (A picture of her looks down at me at this minute.)
At one point — and this is something I didn’t include in the book — my father took issue (as many men would) with his mother-in-law’s constant presence, and asked her to limit her time with us. She honored his request, and both she and I fell into a silent, deep depression that lasted until my parents’ divorce.
Gaga was an immense lover of music (of all kinds; she adored the Grand Ole Opry, and so do I); when she couldn’t sleep, she paced her apartment reciting Shakespeare and Longfellow. On some primitive level, we needed each other like air and water; we both knew it but never verbalized it.
Gaga’s relationship with her daughter — my mother — was oppositional. That traveled through our bloodlines — my mother and I also have an antithetical bond.
‘Every meal my mother made was a sacrifice or a burnt offering’
She, a hyper-heterosexual, former model/television singer with a fear of food, wound up with me for a daughter: a food writing, slightly chubby gay woman whose goal in life is to feed whomever crosses my path. She’s a very beautiful and talented woman, but our outlooks are so utterly different, it sometimes seems like we’ve fallen into each others’ lives from Mars, struggling to understand each other. But — and this is a very big and important but — it’s a testament to the power of our primal love that we keep trying to communicate. We couldn’t not. We have great affection for each other, even though we speak different languages. We’ve inadvertently taught each other about the power and nature of forgiveness.
Has your mother read ‘Treyf?’
At almost 81, she hasn’t — I think that parts of my story that take place when I was a child would be too difficult for her to revisit at this point in her life. I wouldn’t ask that of her. That said, she knows what’s in the book. I am deeply heartened — lest anyone attempt to paint the story in a negative light — that everyone who has read it, from reviewers to my editorial readers, calls it a love letter to my family.
And, I’ll add, to Jewish cuisine! Do Jews have a unique relationship to food?
Absolutely, unequivocally… not. We are a culture that has a visceral connection to the act of bread-breaking; our holidays, celebrations and religious customs are bound up in culinary ritual. But my Asian, Italian, and Indian friends would say the exact same thing.
We remember the people who came before us by continuing their culinary traditions and making them our own. We celebrate who and what we are and where we come from by the way we sustain and nurture ourselves and others at the table — this is the modern tribal fire at work. That feels to me a universal, human thing, rather than something that is unique to one culture or another.
Your depictions of old Queens are so vivid. The building complex you lived in is almost a character in the story and I can still picture your paternal grandparents’ apartment. Place is as pungent as food in your prose. I’m interested in your thoughts on the relationship between food and architecture?
I cannot say that there is a direct connection, beyond the chefy compulsion during the 1980s and 90s to produce what I used to call “tall food.”
My grandparents’ Brooklyn apartment was a morass of faux-stucco (what my cousin used to call “ripply”) walls and fanciful archways reminiscent of old Europe. Much of the food that was cooked in that building was, shall we say, old European-style food.
In “Treyf,” I recall the fragrance of the hallways and ponder the idea that so much griebenes [chicken skin cracklings fried with onions] had been cooked in the building at the same time for so long that the schmaltz had simply been sucked into the pores of the place. To this day, when I smell melting schmaltz, I’m transported back to 602 Avenue T, to the days of visiting my grandparents, and to the 18 months when I lived there. My dry-cleaning bill was never higher.