The Food-a-Rama Event: Food and Women in Jewish Tradition
Anyone who has ever left a traditional Jewish celebratory meal can you tell the same thing: I’m stuffed. This one phrase, and feeling, can be traced back through generations and generations of Jewish families and meals. The reason for this is simply because Jews love to eat and love to eat well. But it goes beyond that simple reasoning and has to do with Jewish tradition and what food means to certain traditions. Food has become so tied into Jewish tradition and specific foods are served on specific holidays and at no other time during the year.
Like any good tradition, it evolves over time while still keeping its basic roots and purpose. The Food-a-Rama event is a perfect example of this. On ____ 2006, the 40th annual Food-a-Rama took place at Beth El synagogue in Madison, Wisconsin. Although not a religious event, Food-a-Rama is a tradition that serves as a microcosm in showing how important food is to the Jewish people and how food is also a very significant part of Jewish traditions themselves.
In studying this event and its relation to Jewish food tradition, I attended the 40th annual event and interviewed one of its head organizers, my aunt, Amy Fields. In doing so, much was learned about the history of Food-a-Rama including its origins and purpose and how it has evolved to where it is today. Aside from Food-a-Rama, much was learned about what it was like growing up being Jewish in Madison and how food has affected the life in most Jewish people, in particular, my aunt.
Food-a-Rama: Its founding and history
The Food-a-Rama event, interestingly enough, actually started out at a Temple Beth El in Rockford, Illinois in 1966. Although the Temples have no affiliation besides their common name, the sisterhoods between the two temples were friendly. Because of the close locations between Rockford and Madison, the respective sisterhoods would often take day trips and spend time with their opposite contingents. At these visits, the sisterhoods would chat and often time exchange recipes and traditions that either takes place at their temples of ones they have thought about instituting. As Amy Fields says:
“My mother was actually a part of that first meeting with the Beth El Rockford sisterhood. I of course didn’t know it at the time but she told me when I started becoming involved with the sisterhood and eventually Food-a-Rama. One of her favorite stories about meeting with the Rockford sisterhood is how she befriended a lady. My mom hasn’t always been known as a great cook, but she definitely knows how to make a few things very well. One of those things, and one of my favorite things ever, is her chocolate chip banana bread. So, at one of those meetings with the Rockford sisterhood, she ended up giving her banana bread recipe to a women she befriended. And to this day she is still so appreciative of my mother for giving her the recipe that she sends her a loaf of the bread just in time for the Yom Kippur break the fast celebration”
On a quick side note, Chocolate Chip Banana bread has been in my family for a few generations and is always eaten on the Yom Kippur “break fast.” It is a traditional Yom Kippur “break fast” food because it is sweet and bitter with chocolate but still has fresh bananas which come from the earth. This is important because Yom Kippur is a time for a fresh start and to be cleansed of your sins which happened in the past year. Therefore, although not a truly traditional Yom Kippur Holiday food, my family has added it as one of ours and will continue to do so for generations to come.
As the meetings between the two sisterhoods became more common, the Beth El Madison sisterhood began to notice and hear about a tradition that they have been doing for a few years: Food-a-Rama. The Beth El Madison sisterhood liked the event and received permission to implement it at their temple in Madison.
Food-a-Rama started off forty years ago as an Election Day fundraiser for the sisterhood and for Temple Beth El. Temple Beth El used to be a polling place and the sisterhood would make sandwiches, bake deserts and other traditional Jewish foods to serve and sell for the people coming to vote at the synagogue. Although Temple Beth El stopped becoming a polling location in the early 1980’s, the Food-a-Rama event is still in full force today and is stronger than ever.
Food-a-Rama: The event and its evolution
Today, people no longer come to Temple Beth El on Election Day to vote. Instead, people come there to feast on traditional Jewish delicacies. It all gets started when a month before the event, the Beth El sisterhood places an order to Vienna Beef in Chicago for four hundred pounds of corned beef, two hundred pounds of salami and various amounts of kosher hot dogs. This might seem like an inordinate amount of food, but it all gets eaten, and fast. After this preliminary step, the sisterhood hits the kitchen where they proceed to bake their oldest and best traditional Jewish food recipes. As Amy Fields says:
“The cooking process is by far the sisterhood’s favorite part. Although women are entitled to more these days then they used to be, cooking is still a very important part of a Jewish women’s life. My grandma always used to tell me how she and her mother would always make the traditional holiday meals, from the weekly Shabbat dinner, to the Passover Seder. It always gives a Jewish mother pride, and I’m saying this from my personal experience as well, when everyone is silent when they are eating their meals because it shows how much they enjoy it. Whenever my grandmother made a great meal my grandfather would always look at my grandmother and say, ‘they’re hummin’ tonight dear, they’re hummin’ tonight’. But back to Food-a-Rama. The sisterhood liked the cooking process so much because it gave them a chance to show off not only their culinary skills, but their family’s best recipes that have been passed down from their grandmother, to their mother and so on.”
The concept of pride that my aunt alludes to is a very important point. In a piece by Chana Rachel Kovacs, she writes about women’s role in traditional Judaism and how food and cooking is a very important part of this:
“Sometimes a woman just has more important things to do. One of those things is making Shabbos dinner. One of the commandments to women is to bake bread and take out a piece to be burned. This piece, in the days of the Temple, would have been given to the priests. Nowadays we bake this bread for Shabbos. Baking bread is time consuming. To honor the Shabbos is a commandment. One way of doing this is by making foods which we would ordinarily be prepared: chicken soup, gefilte fish, ice cream, etc. This job falls on the woman, and it is to her honor if she goes out of her way to prepare special foods for Shabbos. More is involved in preparing for Shabbos than cooking, but most women prefer to let their husbands do the heavier work. In addition, many husbands work and come home just before Shabbos. Regardless, few Shabbos guests (we have many) will notice the accomplishment of most of the chores which the men might perform, if the house is reasonably orderly to begin with. They will notice the food. Shabbos is the holiest day of the year next to the Day of Atonement: the symbol of creation; and it is the woman who is privileged to "make the day."”
The take out window at Food-a-Rama
Hungry customers getting their delicious food
The all important sisterhood sandwich makers
An overview of the people dining
More happy people eating
Me and Mayor Dave
This is exactly the sisterhood’s sentiments as they prepare food for Food-a-Rama. Women usually make the same dishes every year. As Amy Fields says, “if there is one big thing I’ve learned by growing up Jewish and taking part in Food-a-Rama it’s that every Jewish mother has their one go to dish.” And this is exactly the kind of dish that women bring into Food-a-Rama. Whether it is Mrs. Goldstein’s famous cole slaw, Mrs.
Rudoy’s famous rugelach or Mrs. Gillman’s famous chocolate chip mandel bread (think chocolate chip biscotti with a Jewish flair). Other traditional Jewish foods that members of the sisterhood make are chopped liver, various salads, chicken matzo ball soup and sweet and sour cabbage soup. Everyone brings in something they are proud of. Along these lines, the women love being complimented on their delicious delicacies as well.
On the day of Food-a-Rama, all of the prepared foods from the sisterhood are brought into the kitchen as well as the various meats that have been ordered. There are a few aspects that make up the event. There is a group of women who are in charge of the take out section. Because the event has become so popular, and the food so good, people have begun to call in ahead and take out food. The carryout section is open from 10:30 am to 1:30 pm on day of the event.
One of the other groups, and one of the most important groups, is the sandwich makers. This is one of the funniest things I saw while attending Food-a-Rama. As you will see in the photos, the sandwich makers consist of sisterhood members sitting around a small table with pounds upon pounds of corned beef and salami in front of them. There only job, though no small task, is to make the vast amount of sandwiches that are to be consumed that day. They groups is the biggest group and is divided up into shifts and some of the members are elderly and can only handle so much.
There are also a few other groups that help make the event work. Another important group is the ladies in the lunch line. They serve the customers and ask them if they would like to make their sandwich a “platter” which also includes a choice of homemade coleslaw or potato salad. Lastly, there are the ladies who are in charge serving the deserts. And finally there is the cashiers who tally up the totals and make sure the customers pay for their food. Prices for the meal are reasonable and all proceeds from this years event were split between the Temples Sisterhood fund and in support of The YWCA Third Street Program and Hospice. Sandwiches cost six dollars, seven dollars for a platter with includes a sandwich and salad. $4.50 for a kosher style hotdog platter, 75 cents for side salads and deserts range from $1-3.
Although there is no formal competition judging the food, there is some fun minded competition between the women in the sisterhood as Amy Fields describes:
“We’ve never had a formal competition with judges and stuff, but everyone can usually see which dishes and deserts go first. It’s all in fun but I can usually notice a bigger than normal smirk on some of the women’s faces if their food is a bigger than normal hit. And of course people often times will try and get the recipes out of the women. It’s up to the women, but some recipes are so ingrained in family tradition that they refuse to give them up. Typical Jewish mothers for you.”
Lost in all of this is the way in which the Food-a-Rama is still an Election Day tradition. As mentioned earlier, Temple Beth El stopped being used as a polling place in the Early 1980’s. Because everyone enjoyed the food and the event was such a good fundraiser, the sisterhood decided to continue on with Food-a-Rama. As my aunt says, “it’s a non partisan event, but you can’t be a successful politician without being at Food-a-Rama.”
And this is most certainly the case as many local and state politicians are always there showing their faces and talking with potential voters. According to the Capital Times, “Politicians attend Food-a-Rama because that’s where the people are. Madison’s mayors (past and present), district attorneys, senators and congressmen faithfully make appearances.” I can attest to this statement as my aunt pointed out Tammy Baldwin to me and I was fortunate enough to take a picture with and have a brief conversation with Madison mayor Dave Cieslewicz. Not to say that Food-a-Rama has preserved a lot, but like any good tradition, it has done a good job adapting and changing as it is needed.As mentioned above, this event is a nonpartisan event but it is also not a religious event even though it is still held in the synagogue and traditional Jewish food is served. It has evolved from a way to make money off hungry voters to an Election Day event where people from the community and politicians from all over the state can socialize and enjoy some of the best traditional Jewish foods around. I asked my aunt if the crowd (excluding the women of the sisterhood) is predominantly Jewish and her response was no:
“After living in Madison your whole life you get to know a lot of people and can also kind of tell who is Jewish and who is not. I would have to guess that about two-thirds of the people the come to Food-a-Rama are not Jewish. Hey, traditional Jewish food is really good and there aren’t too many good delis in the area. So, if your not Jewish and don’t get to experience Jewish delicacies that often, what better than to come down to Food-a-Rama and get your traditional Jewish food fix for the year.”Even though Food-a-Rama has evolved over the years, it has kept its main focus and it illustrates how important food is to Jewish people and how food is also a very significant part of Jewish traditions themselves. Some of the main aspects of food and tradition that are highlighted by Food-a-Rama are as follows:
1. Recipes being passed down from generation to generation are a big proponent of every family and almost every family has at least one dish that is a family specialty and will stay within the family for sometime.
2. The pride that goes into making and serving traditional Jewish food. This idea goes back to old days when it was considered an honor for Jewish women to prepare Shabbat dinner because it is the holiest day of the year next to the Day of Atonement.
3. The idea that Jewish people love to eat and love to eat well. Jewish people look for any excuse to have a lavish feast, from bar mitzvahs, to births and even to deaths and funerals, food and drink are had at all of them
4. Finally is the idea of tradition and food. In the words of my aunt:
"So many of the Jewish holidays revolve around food because there are special foods for different holidays. Potato latkes for Chanukah, homintashins for Purim, apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah. So much of Jewish food is tied to the actual holiday.”
And it is because of this all that Food-a-Rama has been going forty strong years. Food is a great way of not only bringing Jewish people together, but people of all different religions, races and backgrounds. So, anyone interested in experiencing a great tradition in which you can see many aspects of how Jewish food and Jewish tradition are intertwined should check out Food-a-Rama on Election Day every year.
Pictures (all pictures taken by Adam Fields unless noted):
1. Evans, Gwen. "Vote 'Yes' for Temple's Election Day Tradition." Wisconsin State Journal 2 Nov. 2006: 11.
2. Fields, Amy. Personal Interview. 28 November 2006
3. Kovacs, Chana Rachel. Woman's Role in Traditional Judaism. Off Our Backs. Washington: Feb 28, 1972. Vol. 2, Iss. 6; p. 18