Ugly Delicious: Exploring the Taste of Authenticity in BeHalotecha

In BeHalotecha, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the Israelites wandering in the desert. Sick of the tofu bland Manna day after day they complained saying that wanting meat to eat. (Numbers 11:4) To deal with them Moshe asks God to give them meat to eat. God concedes and gives in to desires. I have always been mystified by their kvetching. There we read:

We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” ( Numbers 11: 5-6)

This seems a little hyperbolic. The Israelites lack any expression of gratitude. What could have been so good about the food in Egypt that made them yearn the place of their slavery? On top of that I wonder if the food was even that good. Memory is a fickle thing. Where they just yearning for the taste of a knish from an Anitevka which might never have been?

I want to suggest that this kvetching in our Torah reading might really be a discussion about authenticity. When it comes to food we have deep feelings about what is genuine. Even if what we are eating is good if not better that we used to eat, we often think that it could never be as good as it was in the old country.

In Pastrami on Rye, a history of the New York Jewish deli, Ted Merwin argues that deli did not reached its full flowering in the immigrant period, as some might assume, but in the interwar era. Deli’s glory days were when the children of Jewish immigrants celebrated the first flush of their success in America by downing sandwiches and cheesecake in theater district delis. Today, after a long period languishing in the trenches of the hopelessly old-fashioned, deli is experiencing a nostalgic resurgence. People are eating pastrami dripping with all of the imagined leeks, the onions, and the garlic of the old country.
We see the same dynamic being played out in other cultures while watching my new favorite binge worthy show Ugly Delicious. Each episode examines the cultural, sociological, and culinary history of one specific popular food. The show’s creator David Chang challenges and explores the attitudes in each dish’s lore in all of its varieties and orthodoxies. In my mind this is not just another food channel show that challenges my practice of keeping kosher and my desire to lose weight, but rather, like our Torah portion, a very subtle conversation about authenticity and its limits. 

Ugly Delicious.png

What makes “Ugly Delicious” compelling, ultimately, is Chang’s commitment to rejecting purity and piety within food culture. Chang said, “I view authenticity like a totalitarian state…It’s not that I hate authenticity, it’s that I hate that people want this singular thing that is authentic.” wrote in a review of the show in the New Yorker said:

In food culture, particularly American food culture, the concept of authenticity is wielded like a hammer: This pizza, made with San Marzano tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala and a yeast-risen dough, blistered in an ultra-hot wood-fired oven for less than a minute, is authentic; that pizza, ordered on the Domino’s Pizza Now™ mobile app, dressed with toppings that arrive at a franchise location pre-sliced in a vacuum-sealed bag, passed through an industrial conveyor-belt oven, is not. The problem with such rigid categorizations, according to “Ugly Delicious,” is, for one thing, creative stagnation. Chang, after all, made his career on an exuberant disregard for convention. His restaurants—with their Japanese names, Taiwanese pork buns, Korean rice cakes, Continental flourishes, and intellectual-bro Americana twists—remix and subvert everything from ancient culinary traditions to standard restaurant-service expectations. ( New Yorker February 23, 2018)

I can only imagine what David Chang would have said to the  Israelites in our Torah portion. I would love to actually have this conversation with today’s Rabbinical students. That would be delicious.



2 Responses to “Ugly Delicious: Exploring the Taste of Authenticity in BeHalotecha”

  1. 1 yigdal June 1, 2018 at 3:29 pm

    This is awesome—Ted will be excited to be in such good company!
    Shabbat shalom!

    Sent from my iPhone

  1. 1 Authentic Return | Said to Myself Trackback on July 13, 2018 at 9:39 am

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