Oh Grocery Stores, Call Us Sometime to Talk About Jewish Food Culture

Food is a really important part of Jewish culture and religion. I mean, really important. Grocery stores, our main source of food, are place that we look to for filling our carts and tables with the traditional foods that help us mark Jewish time, and create festive meals. This might put a burden on some grocery stores that they are unequipped to handle. I don’t just want to complain (I will a little). I also want to propose a solution, which I will (a little).

The other night I was in a local chain grocery store, and what did I see as I walked in but a very neat and full food display for Hanukkah! Now, we do live in the part of Syracuse that has a large concentration of Jewish people, and three of the four synagogues in town are within a mile (if not across the street) from this particular location, so I was not surprised to see a food display. What did surprise me for a moment was what they had on the display. I know that most people know that Hanukkah is associated with latkes (potato pancakes for everyone else), topped with applesauce and sour cream. (Please do not start the Applesauce/Sour Cream debate. That is for another post.) So I was not surprised to see packages of latke mix and jars of apple sauce on the shelves. But also was able to imagine that just those two items might not have filled enough shelf space to make for an impressive display. They also had out the standard boxes of hanukkah candles, and some boxes and bags of gelt (chocolate coins, which is also another interesting topic). But that was also not enough. I imagine some very thoughtful and creative minds getting together to ask themselves: What else should we put on the shelves? What else do Jews eat on their holidays? What foods come to mind?

There is probably not a unit of time small enough to measure the gap between the question and the classic response: matzah. Oh yes! Nothing screams Jewish holiday food quite like matzah. After all, who else in the world eats matzah? (Answer: everyone, it is just a big water cracker. Ok, not “just,” but a really detailed water cracker.) Then they must have gone into the back to pull out anything that had the same company label on it: Manischewitz. They just put out everything that even looked remotely Jewish on to that display. And it looked like they were trying so hard to be awesome and thoughtful and creative.

Don’t get me wrong: I felt seen and appreciated. I just wish that they had said: Hey, I have an idea. There is a synagogue across the street (and there is). Let’s call them and ask them for some advice about what we should put out for Hanukkah. Maybe the Jewish people have some ideas about what they are looking for when they go shopping for food for Hanukkah. That would have been such a simple idea. We could have helped them pull of the shelves other items that might not have occurred to them, and for items that they might have been able to order that they would never have thought of: oils, olive oil, different vegetables for making contemporary versions of latkes, donuts, donut holes. I don’t know. We would have had some ideas. First and foremost: Take down the matzah. It’s just not the right season.

This remind me of the time in Louisville, KY, when I found a floor display for Passover at a local chain store there (God bless them), and there must have been an empty shelf or two. So they went looking for some more Jewish food. And do you know what totally awesome thing they found? He-brew! That’s right. Beer. A beverage that is made from a mixture of grain and water, which would be the one thing on Passover that we avoid like the plague. But they put it there, and it looked nice, if not completely ironic. The got the irony points, and again, should have called someone from the Jewish community to ask a few simple questions, like: Is beer a Passover food? What are some other Passover foods we might put on such a display? Simple questions that would have gone a long way to create a feeling of understanding in the grocery store.

Before Purim this year (or next year if we are looking at the secular date), I will give them a call and make some gentle suggestions. Might be worth picking up the phone.

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