Q. I am marrying into a lovely family that is not Jewish. My family is hosting a dinner to meet the future in-laws. My mother, who prides herself on being a superb cook, is planning to serve all her Jewish specialties. I feel this is literally putting our differences on the table.
A. Food gives many messages. It is used to create bonds, or it can highlight differences. Familiar foods are comforting and welcoming, and sharing a family table filled with recognizable foods usually strengthens social bonds. Introducing unfamiliar foods could make your future family feel uncomfortable by exaggerating social and cultural differences.
Food is one way we present ourselves to others. Your mother wants to put her “best food” forward. This is a big moment for her. She wants to share a sense of the warmth of her family through the dishes she prepares.
Let your mother know how much you appreciate her efforts to make an extraordinary evening. At the same time, and in a caring way, share your fear that serving only traditional Jewish food could be interpreted as an effort to culturally condition your in-laws to a Jewish family, a process your in-laws may or may not welcome.
For each one of us, food is infused with memories. There are many Jews who regard traditional Jewish specialties such as brisket, kishke or chopped liver as nostalgic. Your new in-laws may view it as “exotic” or “interesting,” or might regard it as unappealing. Ask your fiancé what he thinks.
You should be sensitive to your future in-law’s preferences, as you would with any guest. You (or your mother) should inquire as what they like to eat, and if they have any dietary restrictions. This will help make everyone feel more comfortable.
Note that you don’t necessarily have to completely change the menu to accommodate your guests, but you do need to provide options for them.
Food, thoughtfully and lovingly prepared, may be the key ingredient through which all of you discover the well-seasoned, many flavored blend that will become your new family.
Ruth Nemzoff is an author and resident scholar at Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. Ellen Rovner, Ph.D. is a culinary anthropologist and visiting research associate at Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center.