Comfort food truly lives up to its name during tough times

By Gail Appleson

Over the summer, I attended a thought provoking presentation called “Jews and Christians: Talking Across our Differences” aimed a bridging the communication gap between the two religions.

Sara S. Lee, an adjunct professor emeritus of Jewish education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, gave the Judaic view. When Jews and Christians hold such dialogues, Jews, whose sense of being has been affected by the Holocaust and countless persecutions, tend to focus on history, she said. Christians, on the other hand, often talk about theology.

She told an old joke that has been circulating during Jewish holidays for some time.

“They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”

Although we joke about Jewish mothers urging us to “Eat, Eat,” it’s true that food is a big part of our culture. That’s why  my parents’ scuffed and scratched dining room table is one of my most valued possessions. My family celebrated many seders, Rosh Hashanah feasts and birthday celebrations around that table.

But food is also a comfort during times of pain. It’s what we send instead of flowers to shiva houses to help nourish mourners and get them through difficult times.

In fact Lee’s quote made me think of an incident that happened when my family was sitting shiva after my father died. Dad and I had been very close and his death, while expected, was almost impossible for me to accept or comprehend. Although I can’t recall much of anything said to me during that time, I do clearly remember a story that my cousin Jo Ann shared in an effort to lend some comfort.

The story was about a cabbage.

Jo Ann’s mother, my Aunt Dolly, was a wonderful cook. She had died of cancer two years before my Dad, but had been quite lucid during her last days spent in the hospital. Shortly before she died she told Jo Ann that she had left a cabbage in her refrigerator and could not die in peace if that cabbage went to waste. She made Jo Ann promise to leave the hospital, get the cabbage and make a noodle dish for her family that night.

Although Jo Ann’s heart was breaking she did as she was told.

She took the cabbage home and cooked it with noodles the way my Aunt Dolly always did and probably the same way as our grandmother did.

“How could I have done that?” Jo Ann confided saying she felt a little guilty going home to cook at that critical time. But, she added, there was an even stronger feeling that this was her mother’s way of urging her to have the strength, that life must go on.

“I never had made noodles and cabbage before, never, not until that day,” Jo Ann told me. “It was like my mom was standing over me guiding me to make it.”

This food story has given me comfort for many years. It helped me make it through my father’s death and more recently through my mother’s. It got me through the trauma of living in New York during 9/11 and other personal and professional heartaches.

Yet, I have to admit that I’ve never been a big fan of cabbage.

But when things look bleak, I make my aunt’s cabbage and noodles.

It’s a special comfort food that says something about life and death and the importance of not wasting anything in between. It’s about survival, resilience and celebrating the moment at hand.

For more about Jewish mourning rituals, see the article from “Heartbreak to Healing” in OY! Magazine/Guide.

Gail Appleson is a writer for Armstrong Teasdale LLP and freelancer who lives in St. Louis.


“Dor to Dor,” is an intermittent Jewish Light series looking at various aspects of “grown-up” life and generational connections through the lens of Jewish writers living in the St. Louis area. If you are interested in contributing to Dor to Dor, please email [email protected].