On the latest episode of the James Beard award-winning podcast The Sporkful, host Dan Pashman revisited a previous discussion about whether it’s appropriate to celebrate the holidays of a cultural group you’re not a part of. Pashman describes a Lunar New Year party in which the hosts served Americanized versions of Chinese dishes like dumplings and fried rice, but also sushi as well as chips and guacamole. And he attends a “Gentile Passover” seder at which he was the only Jewish person.
Pashman expresses some discomfort that his Passover hosts, while attempting to be respectful of the Jewish holiday traditions, chose to celebrate the rituals in a way that was different than what he was accustomed to. He explains that even though he isn’t super-religious, and doesn’t get caught up in the details of his own family’s seder, he noticed the ways in which his non-Jewish hosts modified the traditional sequence of events. “When I was the only Jewish person in the room, I felt like, no, wait, you’re supposed to dip the parsley in the salt water first, and then the egg, or whatever,” Pashman said. “All of a sudden things I wouldn’t care about in my own home made me cringe a little bit if they weren’t done correctly.”
In an update to the original episode, Pashman learns that the “Gentile Passover” hosts no longer celebrate the holiday, in part after they heard about the discomfort he felt. But he still expresses some conflicting feelings, because, he says, something good can still come from other people experiencing Jewish culture and learning more about it. But he wonders, “Is it possible to share our cultures in a way that strikes a balance between these conflicting feelings, between the discomfort and the connection?”
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My take is that in a world in which our differences are more likely to cause division than harmony, that it’s important to celebrate the holidays of each other’s cultures, especially if it’s done thoughtfully and respectfully. Many of the biggest holidays on the annual calendar have lost much of their original meaning, but that doesn’t mean that people who don’t observe should stop celebrating them altogether. No, you shouldn’t appropriate the overtly religious aspects of a holiday if that’s not part of your belief system. But celebrating another culture’s food or related holiday customs? Go right ahead.
I don’t have a drop of either Asian or New Orleans heritage, but what I’m looking forward to most over the next few weeks are the dumplings I’ll make for Chinese New Year, and the jambalaya that will help me commemorate Mardi Gras. And as I prepare those foods, I’ll make an effort to learn something about their cultural meanings and just maybe, be better equipped to connect with the people for whom those foods hold special resonance. By doing so, I’m hoping to take a small step toward celebrating diversity — especially at a time when it isn’t possible to travel and experience those cultures in their natural habitat.
What I Ate: Sirloin tip steak from Beast & Cleaver on arugula with horseradish cream sauce