We’re Free, Let’s BBQ!

by | Jul 3, 2024 | Deep-ish Dive, Special Days | 0 comments

ADRABA’s Chosen Food course takes a close look at Jewish food culture and digs into the origins of food traditions that mark special events. More often than not, there is a logical explanation – and it usually has something to do with climate and cuisine. For example, we eat apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah because (as we’ve been told) we want to have a sweet new year. But apples were not cultivated in the Mediterranean in ancient times, so our ancestors did not know from apples. (And their honey came from dates, not bees.) Apples and (bee) honey is a purely Ashkenazi tradition going back to at least 11th century France – and in France (as well as Italy and, later, Poland), in the fall, there are apples aplenty.

One of the more interesting connections between food and festival comes from, of all places, Independence Day.

This week marks both Canadian and American Independence days. Six weeks ago, Israel celebrated Yom HaAtzma’ut. All of these days are marked by grilling meat.

In Israel, making a mangal is synonymous with Independence Day. Mangal (lit. “grill” in Arabic) probably first came to Israel-Palestine with the Turks during Ottoman times (pre-1917). Grilled meat, fish and kebabs were a staple on menus of Arab restaurants in the 1960s, and like all street food, it was eventually gentrified and made its way onto the plates of diners in five-star Israeli hotels. However, mangal never strayed too far from its roots. For a country barely 100 years old, this tradition took hold relatively quickly and widely – and is now considered a standard activity on Yom HaAtzma’ut for anyone marking the day. Independence, after centuries of dependence, is a cause for celebration. For many cultures (Jewish included), the best way to celebrate is to eat well, which means eating animal meat.

Jewish-Israelis prepare kebabs, chicken livers and hearts, ground lamb, spiced ground beef and chicken wings, seasoned with Middle Eastern spices like za’atar, baharat, sumac, and ras-al-hanout.

Jewish-Americans and Canadians, on the other hand, align more with their nation’s traditions and grill up burgers and hotdogs with the usual condiments (i.e., ketchup, mustard and relish) on hand.

Unlike their Israeli counterparts, the tradition of grilling meat on Independence Day has a much more storied history.

In the early years of the American republic, think the 1780s, Independence Day was often the biggest community festival of the year. And the best way to celebrate was to serve up the (relatively) new fusion cuisine – barbecue.

This form of barbecue did not involve burgers and dogs. We’re talking “old school” barbecue, where you would skewer a whole animal carcass with wooden poles and cooked it over a trench filled with burning coals from hardwood trees. And if we’re talking America after the 1780s, it was likely that African slaves were tasked with this labour-intensive task. By this time, barbecue was already known as a verb, (i.e.,a cooking process), an adjective (i.e., a kind of cooked meat), and a noun (i.e., a form of social event). But aspects of this tradition also borrowed from the peoples who predated the arrival of the British to North America. For example, British settlers in the Virginia colony blended their meat-cooking techniques with the meat-smoking techniques of the Powhatans who lived in that area.

Though Americans (and, later, Canadians who got their independence in 1867) regard their freedom as essential for their way of life, July 4th and Canada Day really don’t dwell too much on the transition from dependence to independence. It is a day for fireworks, flash sales at big box stores, and barbecue.

So, whether you’re grilling kebabs in a Tel Aviv park or hot dogs in a Toronto backyard, don’t forget the fascinating history behind the tradition of celebrating freedom with fire-cooked food!

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