COMFORT FOODS // What’s for Dinner? The Friday Night Table in Ashkenazi Culture — Hannah-Clare de Gordun

On a red and white checked tablecloth is a typical Shabbat spread of smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels: a plate with a bagel and knife and fork, two glasses of wine, a dish of sliced lemons, a dish of pepper and a dish of sliced red onions.

‘What’s for Dinner?’ was developed as a celebration of my late grandmother’s Friday Night dinner table, embroidered from photographs that I had taken in the years prior. 

“The act of sewing is a process of emotional repair.” – Louise Bourgeois

When my grandmother died, I experienced grief for the first time. As I suffered her loss, as part of my grieving process, I became compelled to research our shared heritage and to understand where I came from. My grandmother had been my link to my paternal side and with her goneI realised how little I had asked her to share with me. I researched archives of Liverpool newspaper articles and I even managed to unseal my great-grandfather’s records that had been  protected with a one hundred year old seal order at The National Archives. I asked her nieces to share stories with me and they shared incredible memories of my family that I hadn’t heard before. What I discovered was a fascinating textile legacy. 

My great-grandmother Gertrude arrived in Liverpool at 20 years old from Poland and, without a word of English, taught herself to sew and began working  as a seamstress. She became such a successful dressmaker that she went on to open a gown manufacturer in Liverpool’s Islington area in the 1930’s.  On my maternal side my great-aunts were all lacemakers, tailors & seamstresses. Now I had what felt like a textile affirmation from my foremothers. I began the process of exploring embodied knowledge: I taught myself embroidery and started to work with textiles for the first time in a process that became performative healing.

My grandmother was passionate about food and she shared that passion with me. Our ritual was to go out for cream cakes, where she would order a double espresso with extra hot water on the side and adoringly introduce me to a new delight like a mille-feuille,  always jokingly asking me  “if it was worth getting fat on?” once I took my first bite. My most favourite memories of her are from when we would take a black cab back to her flat after being out together and she would take my hand and just hold it with so much love. Her soft hands, with a perfect manicure and two gold rings that I now wear on my right hand. Her Friday Night Dinners had been my introduction to my Jewish heritage and I felt that embroidering a Shabbat meal was an apt way to celebrate mine and my grandmother’s relationship. 

Depending on the meal or season, food would have been purchased from across London. Meat from Allens, chicken from Menachems, bagels, smoked salmon and Palwin wine from Panzers and, in May and June, Alphonso mangoes from a tiny grocers in Swiss Cottage. As a pescatarian, I missed out on a lot of traditional food — chicken liver paté, matzo ball soup — but the nights that we had bagels, those  were my favourite. It always felt more like we were sitting down to a picnic than for a formal meal.

Food is also part of a larger history. Centuries of forced migration influenced the Jewish diaspora to consider their cultural identities beyond language and borders. As a consequence, food and its surrounding rituals have  become a unifying cultural factor, a shared language. 

Through this shared language, seen in the celebration of Shabbat at our round dinner table, we create a “home”, a space of belonging, for a culture that has frequently been forcefully ripped from its physical roots.

I document the Ashkenazi food as a form of connection – in the same way that spoken language connects us – and to examine the way mealtimes such as those held at my Grandmother’s table have become, for the Jewish diaspora, our place, our community, our landscape. 

I am keen to explore the way lost landscapes can become reconstituted – though my great-grandmother had lost her nationality and the physical surroundings of her upbringing, they came to be redefined through the experience and ritual of sharing food as her family prepared to celebrate Shabbat at home every Friday night.

What I learnt from my experience of Ashkenazi cuisine was that it wasn’t necessarily the food, developed by impoverished people forbidden to grow their own crops and compelled to create recipes out of scarcity and hardship, that mattered. It was the experience of sharing a traditional meal as part of this family that had its origins in Eastern Europe, now sitting at their solid round dinner table, a newly-founded land.

Hannah-Clare de Gordun is a visual artist based in Dublin. Her creative practice developed from works on paper; photography, gouache painting and illustration to more recently working with textiles and fibre as her medium. The themes of her work visualise and interrogate a language of belonging, loss and identity.

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