'Treyf': A Memoir Of Food, Family, And The Forbidden

Oct 10, 2016

Credit NAL/Berkley

On the day Elissa Altman visits North Carolina to speak at UNC-Chapel Hill, there’s a protester with a sign that reads “Stop Sinning” in front of the building where the author is headed.

“I actually had to laugh,” she says. “What is ‘Treyf’ about? Rule breaking. The forbidden and the ambiguity of life.”

The Hebrew term has a complicated meaning. Used most often to describe prohibited foods such as shellfish and pork, it can also refer to a person who is undesirable or improper. 

“Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw,” is the deliciously wise new memoir from the James Beard award-winning author of “Poor Man’s Feast.” Readers wanted to know more about the characters Altman had introduced in her earlier work. If that was a “sweet and linear love story that ‘knotted’ food and love together,” the new book untangles many of those knots.

Altman grew up in Queens, N.Y., and came of age in the 1970s in an extended Jewish family that worked to assimilate, but also to preserve their family lore through storytelling. It was a Brady Bunch era of cultural “mash-ups.” “The food and the fashions, the music of the times – everything is ‘plated together’ for me,” she explains.

Family and friends met often at the neighborhood Chinese restaurant, Tung Shing, where they’d enjoy wonton soup and other dishes containing “treyf” – once immediately following a bat mitzvah. “That was the crazy thing. Nobody said, ‘This is wrong, this is crazy, you just came from a synagogue and you’re eating shrimp with lobster sauce.’”

As a young woman she worked in Manhattan at Dean and Deluca, where she first learned about rare, imported cheeses and other high-end foods. She learned to prepare “fancy, obnoxiously tall food you have to knock over to eat.” That trend is over for her. “With every passing year I feel like the less you do to something of really good quality, the better off everybody is. That’s the way I prefer to cook now. I make a really mean roast chicken.”

For many years she kept a journal, and discovered in her grandmother’s apartment a trove of letters her father, a naval aviator who’s now deceased, had written home during World War II. (Her mother, who still works as a model and singer, will be the subject of the next book, due out in 2018.) Add to those resources her recollections of the family storytelling so ever-present that Altman calls them “wallpaper,” and “Treyf “ spills over with rich details.

Until she was well into writing the book, Altman did not realize she was addressing larger questions about what is forbidden, about being “other,” and issues that aren’t unique to Jewish culture, but are universal. Friends and colleagues of other backgrounds and ethnicities tell her they can relate to this story about “the choices we make about the things we bring forward, consciously or unconsciously, from the past into the life we live as modern Americans.”

Like many others, the author and her partner mark their holidays with a combination of evolving traditions. Altman will observe Yom Kippur, October 12 this year, and plans to break the fast with traditional dishes such as bagels, smoked fish, and eggs. For the winter holidays, she says, “We have been known to celebrate Chanukah, followed by making Christmas dinner for my partner’s Catholic family.”  

Finding a place to belong, taking meaning from turbulent times, honoring the past while forging a future: These are challenges that can unite but too often divide us. “What do we bring into the world that we live in now?” Altman asks. “What do we let go of and how do we deal with the inevitable guilt and shame, all of those things that dealing with the past involves?

“I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find the balance.” She emphasizes the need for compassion and kindness.

As we wrap up our interview, the caterers arrive. Students begin filing into the room to hear Altman’s talk as part of the university’s “Food for All: Local and Global Perspectives” series. Helpers set out platters of bagels, cream cheese, fresh vegetables, fruit, and hummus. Some attendees aren’t sure what to make of the chopped whitefish spread but others dive right in. There’s no pork, no shellfish, and other than perhaps the fish, there’s nothing ambiguous at all. Right now, nothing is treyf – and everyone belongs.

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