by Rebecca Boggs
Uniting Taste and Text on Shavuot
(with a recipe for galaktopita zarka, baked cream custard)
Ta’amu u-r’u ki tov Adonai • Taste and see that Adonai is good (Psalm 34:9)
Shavuot as z’man matan torateinu, the season of the giving of our Torah, puts the revelation of divine words and divine text at the center of our celebration. But it is also an agricultural festival of first fruits (chag ha-bikkurim), a time to acknowledge our gratitude for this bounty and to enjoy it! Though we often think of the first night of Shavuot as a time devoted to text, we shouldn’t forget about the power of taste: some of my most vivid tikkun leil Shavuot memories involve symbolically significant foodstuffs, which have been a jumping-off (or jumping-in) point for study & discussion. I share them here, hoping that they might enliven your Shavuot celebrations and that it will inspire others to recount and create others!
• steamed milk with honey & spices
Not only did this lovely warm drink keep us going through the dark chill of the Oxford night, but it also put the words of Torah about Israel as a “land flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 33:3)–eretz zavat halav u'dvash—literally in our mouths.
Later I learned that one midrash explains the phrase "honey and milk are under your tongue" (Song of Songs 4:11) as a reference to the study of Torah (Devarim Rabbah 7:3).
• cookies in the shape of the Torah scroll
On the first day of Shavuot, we read selections from Ezekiel’s vision as the haftarah (Ezekiel 1:1-28, 3:12). In preparation for this event, one friend had us read and discuss the first three chapters of Ezekiel, including the following verses:
He said to me, “Mortal, eat what is offered you; eat this scroll, and go speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat, as he said to me, “Mortal, fill your stomach and your belly with this scroll that I give you.” I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey to me.
When Ezekiel ate, we ate—and it was sweet!
I’d say it’s the thought that counts here: you could get a cookie cutter & do icing to get ones that look more accurately representational, but when I made them I just took my favorite chocolate-chip recipe and made shapes that were at least vaguely reminiscent of a sefer Torah with the etzim (wooden rollers) emerging on top and bottom. (The scroll in Ezekiel is not in fact a Torah scroll but a scroll on which are written “lamentations, dirges, and woes” [2:10]; discuss!)
• a Mount Sinai of flavored cream cheese with raisins, dates, & other goodies hidden inside it
The shape speaks for itself, but the rest may fuel speculation while sating hunger. Are there ten kinds of hidden treasures, for the Ten Commandments? Is there significance in the fact that they’re not readily visible—are we having to work for those nuggets of significance in our experience of Torah? And oy, what if you like the raisins but are allergic to the nuts?
A textual connection that’s often used to link Shavuot and dairy foods in general seems all the more appropriate here for a mountain of cheese. The term har gavnunim (“many-peaked mountain”) in Psalm 68:16 allowed commentators to link Mount Sinai to gevinah, cheese (Shemot Rabbah 2:4). There’s a nice illustration at http://www.jhom.com/calendar/sivan/dairy.htm , but the mountain isn’t cheese there—unless it’s green cheese!
This particular cheese mountain came surrounded by crackers (reminiscent of the shape of the tablets? forming the boundary beyond which the Israelites were not supposed to cross [Exodus 19:12]?). You could use matzah instead, to emphasize the connection between Pesach and Shavuot—that the revelation at Sinai is the culmination of the Exodus. North African communities combined this idea with the first one above, eating matzah shredded into bowls of milk and honey. [see http://www.jhom.com/calendar/sivan/dairy.htm]
• a creamy sweet custard traditional among the Jews of Ioannina in Greece, on which I outlined (or tried to!) the shape of the tablets Moses brought down from Sinai.
For this one, offer your own interpretation as you make or eat it: see recipe below!
Mine? Pluralism is tasty! The fact that it comes from a different tradition makes a nice addition to the blintzes and cheesecake that have become staples of Shavuot celebration for many American Jews. (You can read here about cheesecake: http://www.jewishaz.com/jewishnews/020510/cake.shtml)
• (fake-meat) buffalo wings + blue-cheese dressing
This taste treat emerges from a more complicated exegesis (from friend Ben Begleiter) involving the importance of "wings" in a variety of Shavuot-related texts:
1) the wings of eagles, kanfei nesharim
“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me” (Exodus 19:4). So we read in our Torah reading for the first day of Shavuot, reminding us of the beginning of this process in the Exodus from Egypt.
2) the wings of God’s presence, kanfei ha-shechinah
In Ruth 2:12, Boaz says to Ruth, “May you have a full recompense from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have sought refuge!” (asher ba’t lakhasot takhat k’nafav). Those who join the Jewish people as converts are brought takhat kanfei ha-shekhinah, under the wings of God’s presence (see e.g. Shabbat 31a).
3) the “wing” (corner, hem, skirt) of Boaz’s garment
In Ruth 3:9, Ruth asks Boaz to spread the corner or “wing” of his garment over her in protection and acknowledgment of his status as a redeeming kinsman.
Hence, buffalo wings make an appropriate addition to the Shavuot menu!
But what about the blue-cheese dressing that traditionally accompanies them? It, too, can be given an exegetical twist: just as the spicy buffalo wings are tempered by the creamy dressing, so do we ask that God’s milder attribute of mercy, rachamim, temper the more fiery attribute of justice, din.
A variation on this winged theme, from a friend who hails from south of the Mason-Dixon line and has a dairy allergy, is her annual Shavuot fried chicken lunch. I imagine the children of Israel would have been delighted to take this treat, accompanied by hush puppies and a pareve pecan pie, out of their picnic hampers during their encampment in the wilderness of Sinai.
When Moses comes down from Sinai and reads out God’s commands to the people, they reply Na’aseh v’nishma: we shall do and we shall listen, hear, understand (Exodus 24:7). From this response we learn that full comprehension may come only after we have dedicated ourselves to action: we enter into experience—of ritual, of the physical world, of performing mitzvot--and through our experiences we come to understand. On this Shavuot, let us unite our senses and our seykhl, body and brain, in joining tastes to texts so that we can indeed “taste and see” how the divine force reveals itself.
Recipe from Cookbook of the Jews of Greece by Nicholas Stavroulakis (Lycabettus Press)
Galaktopita zarka (Baked cream custard)
In the dialect of Ioannina, zarka means naked, and here describes a custard cream pie that has no shell or covering. As the word galaktos indicates, in Ioannina this was once made with heavy cream, which is perhaps richer than desirable today. A good compromise can be achieved with 1 cup milk to 1 cup heavy cream.
3 eggs, well beaten
2 cups milk (or 1 cup each milk and heavy cream)
1/4 cup sugar
Vanilla extract to taste
Additional sugar and cinnamon
Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Beat the eggs until very frothy. Add the milk, sugar, and vanilla, and mix in well. Pour into a well-buttered deep 9x9 inch pan and bake until set, about 45 minutes-1 hour.
Remove from oven and cool. Then chill in the refrigerator. Sprinkle liberally with sugar and cinnamon before serving. Serves 4-6.
A few of the many links with information & recipes on Shavuot foods in Jewish communities across the world:
Another fun footnote:
Plenty of Jews are fans of satiric songster Tom Lehrer, but fewer know that this holiday gets name-checked in his song “Hanukkah in Santa Monica,” where “Shavuos” rhymes with “East St. Louis.” You can hear it here: