Relationships through Food

Snack cakes come packaged in twos.

In 8th grade, my dad would drive me to and from school on his three weeks off. Working on the North Slope in Alaska, his schedule has fluctuated over the years, but back then he was three weeks on the slope and three weeks off at home.

In the mornings, I’d put on my best radio announcer voice and echo the morning greeting from the NPR reporter, “I’m Harry Beadle and this is the morning’s news…” giggling down 2nd street. We would listen to the headlines of the morning, maybe talk about them if one caught our interest or we had time. On the days I wasn’t running late, he’d circle, go around the neighborhood blocks lazily, instead of straight to school. I cherished those extra few moments riding in Betsy, our little white Mazda pickup, the last vehicle my dad would buy from the man who raised him, my Grandpa Wally.

My junior high building was shaped like an eagle and most afternoons my dad rolled around back with the same observation of feeding me to the head of the school in the morning and picking up the scat in the afternoon. We would go for a drive, talk about most anything, and on those days there was no hurry we would cruise to the Mini-Mart gas station and we would buy a package of snack cakes to  share.

Twinkies were rare, Ding-Dongs a frequent choice, and the cupcakes a competition as to who could eat the most cake before breaching the cream center. Snack cakes come in twos because  they are meant for sharing.

Sharing food builds relationships.

In colonial Savannah, Georgia food became the common ground across religious differences. Benjamin Sheftall, one of the original Jewish colonists in Savannah, Georgia, greeted each wave of German arrivals with different gifts of food.

Born in Frankfurt an der Oder in 1692, Benjamin lived in German-speaking lands until the age of 38, when anti-Jewish policies forced him to seek a new home. Each new wave of German speakers brought Benjamin a little piece of the home he left.

Food like language is intimate. Language begins in the body and leaves the mouth, food enters the mouth and ends in the body. To share both food and language in a strange land is to form a sacred bond with someone.

Known collectively as the Georgia Dutch, each group came to Georgia fleeing religious persecution. In its on-going struggle with the Catholic church, the British established the colony of Georgia “for an asylum to the persecuted Protestants…” The first group of Lutherans came from Salzburg and were greeted with a breakfast of rice soup, free of charge in Benjamin’s store. When the Moravian Brethren arrived in Georgia as missionaries, the Jewish Sheftall family greeted them with Passover cakes and raisin wine. Jewish colonists gifted ill Moravians with chicken and fish dinners described as “well cooked and well prepared.” 

With the help of shared food, language, and homeland Benjamin built relationships among his fellow Georgia Dutch, appearing once and again in the official record as an advocate for those in his community who had yet to master the English language.

Yet, food can also be isolating.

They say that losing a food is a lot like losing a person you love and I say they are right. As I began my new diet, foods came to me one by one. I cried for months over tacos with shredded cheese and sour cream. I waxed nostalgic on the phone to anyone who would listen about “the way I used to eat.”  I sobbed endlessly at the thought of adjusting family recipes, feeling my Bubbe  ripped out of my  life once more. My strongest most visceral memories of the woman, now forever out of my reach.

I’d ask my friends if I could smell their food. I dreamed of cream cheese.

I’d linger and stare at the snack cakes, packaged in twos.

On a family Thanksgiving, I hear “At least it still smells like Bubbe’s,” a loud complaint about being forced to accommodate my allergy. Two sets of everything that year–mashed potatoes, bread, pies–and only a small handful of people sharing with me.

Eating a strict Kosher diet, the Sheftalls must have also turned down offers for food. The Sheftall family refused to eat meat from an animal they did not slaughter according to their religious ritual. Each meal was blessed, each eating utensil specific to its purpose. How did their Protestant friends react?

The Salzburg’s records note that some grateful men cleared Benjamin’s land as way of thanks for his aide. But not all were willing to accept Benjamin’s religious differences.

His relationship with Reverand Boltzius soured when Benjamin met conversion tracts with arguments and discussion viewed as blasphemy in the Reverand’s eyes.

Eating Kosher wasn’t always an option, especially in the throes of war.

As prisoners of war during the Revolution, Benjamin’s son Mordecai and grandson Sheftall bent their Kosher laws to eat the boiled beef but they refused the portion of pork.

A fellow inmate recounted, “the Jews Mr. Sheftall & son refused to eat their pieces & their knives and forks were ordered to be greased in it.”

As much as food was used to build a communal Georgia Dutch, it also had the ability to isolate out the Jewish colonists.

Yet, many of the relationships persisted and the Sheftall family continued to form bonds with their Christian neighbors. In 1788, Mordecai received a letter from his friend John Wereat telling him, “don’t forget to bring your sharp knife with you and then you shall not fast here unless ’tis your own fault, as I am putting up some sheep to fatten.

John Wereat valued his relationship with Mordecai enough to adjust to the Kosher dietary restrictions. He went out of his way to accommodate his friend and with the message of food said, “you are welcome here.”

I am often awestruck by the kindness of people who go out of their way to include me. Friends in grad school who brought dishes I could eat to potlucks; baked me holiday cookies; and made turkey alongside ham when Passover and Easter landed together. Family members who mail me dairy-free cheesy crackers not to be found in Wyoming; who hide the homemade peach ice cream before I arrive; who read labels and create dishes for everyone– including me to share.

I frequently read labels that seem like long shots and every so often I am rewarded. Among my awards are Mrs. Freshley’s snack cakes. Riskily made in a shared facility, their snack cakes are among their only dairy-free offerings and they are certainly not advertised as such, but I take the risk. The only hint of dairy could be in the caramel coloring, but that first cake was worth it. No reaction. I was fine. I had the tactile of my memory back. I recovered the tradition formed between my father and me.

I carried my own personal experiences of inclusion, isolation, and the value of sharing food with me into my interpretation of the Sheftall family. We cannot escape the way we view the world, but we can heighten our awareness of it and use it in our interpretations of history, art, and life.

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