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Friday Night Dinners
Life, death, and chicken soup.
This article is a part of Vittles British Jewish Food Week. To read the rest of the essays and guides in the project, please subscribe below:
Friday Night Dinners
Life, death, and chicken soup
The Jewish day starts when the sun sets, so the sabbath starts on Friday nights. The start of the sabbath is marked with a meal – Friday night dinner. Friday night dinner is when Jewish food happens, and it happens in the home. I knew, before we had ironed out what British Jewish Food Week was, that we needed to ask British Jews about their Friday nights.
What I have learned from these writers is that, over the course of hundreds of Friday nights, everything happens. Friendships are formed, dogs hump chair legs, children are born, vegetables are overcooked, grandparents die and chicken soups are served to varying degrees of quality. One friend, when we were discussing this collection, mentioned a Friday night dinner that ended with the exposure of a long-term, extramarital affair. All three of the involved parties were at the table.
There’s a great deal of determination in these stories. People have brought traditions to Britain from their homelands, adopted their parents’ cultural heritage (and learned their recipes), or established and developed their own. I don’t think there’s one right way to do it – the rhythm of Friday nights is the rhythm of Jewish life. All that’s required is to cook and eat. Molly Pepper Steemson
“Eat! Eat! Force yourself to eat!”
A Jewish joke:
A homeless man approaches a Jewish mother: ‘I haven’t eaten in days.’
Jewish mother: ‘Force yourself.’
The punchline, as so often, lands on her. Yet she isn’t being intentionally unkind. It's not that she doesn’t identify with this guy. It’s that she over identifies with him, much as she does with her own children. Eat! Eat! Force yourself to eat! Sometimes, it’s true, that’s how Friday night dinners can feel for Jewish families. Forced togetherness. Forced merriment. Forced gratitude. Forced feeding. They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat. Etcetera. But while lots of cooking goes down on Friday nights, the real food – the food of foods – is the challah. The reason Jews place a pair of challahs on the table is based on the story in Exodus that says two portions of manna came down to feed the children of Israel as they wandered the wilderness on the Sabbath. Given the bread of affliction those kids set out with, that surplus must have felt like an amazing bounty. And I can’t be the only one, surely, to associate the two challahs with the infant’s early dependence on the mother’s bountiful breasts (unless I am the only one?). For there really is something about challah. A good, fresh challah tastes like manna from heaven, even though somebody’s labour – traditionally the mother’s – went into making it. In challah we taste how fortunate we are to be settled. But in challah we also remember how precarious and temporary our situation is; how near we always are to hunger, begging, homelessness. Inside a Jewish joke, we learn from Freud, you’re liable to find both enormous pleasure and a barely repressed history of trauma. You could say the same for a Jewish meal, too. Devorah Baum
You say “Baruch ata Adonai…” even though you don’t know what it means
For 30 years you spend Friday nights at your grandparents’ house. You sit around the dinner table with your family and tell your grandparents nothing they don’t want to hear. You light the Shabbat candles, shield your face from the flames and say
Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha'olam, asher kidu-shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat
even though you don’t know what it means.
Your grandma cooks the same meal: chicken soup with kneidlach; roast chicken, roast potatoes, carrots and broccoli. Apple strudel with vanilla ice cream. Challah from Grodzinski; you copy your grandfather by foregoing the butter and sprinkling it with salt.
The menu, the people, the surroundings – none of it changes for 30 years until your grandparents die, their house is sold and the dinners pass into memory. You become pregnant, you become ill, you can barely eat until you give birth. The food you dream about in those long months is the first thing you reach for when your son is born. Challah, sprinkled with salt. Eli Lee
“The gentle arrival of Shabbat”
It’s Friday morning in deep summer on the southern tip of Dartmoor and I’m heading to the chicken coop to collect eggs. They’re the essential ingredient for challah dough and the crowning egg wash, topping off the doughy insides with an irresistible golden-brown sheen.
Challah is the centrepiece of my Friday night meal and I can feel the gentle arrival of Shabbat when I’m making it. The touch of dough in my hands, the moment when I feel I’ve got the right amount of flour, the smell that permeates around the house as it bakes. The afternoon is spent harvesting and preparing the meal. This is a chance to enjoy the work we have put into the land: the mulching, sowing, transplanting and waiting all come to fruition. In summertime, the beds heave with abundance, from towering rows of french beans to tall tomato plants, draped with ripening fruits in yellow, pink and red, with bushes of agretti and basil in their shade.
The arrival of Shabbat is signified by the twilight sky, gathering together around a table, the gentle songs of Kabbalat Shabbat and blessings over candles and wine. Then, finally, the harvest meal – whatever is most fresh and in season, roasted, fried or raw. The challah cloth is removed to a chorus of joy, with both of them lifted in the air and held together, as the meal is blessed in the breaking of bread. Samson Hart
Jews are wanderers (source: the Bible), and I’m not sure how many South African Jews like me have found their way to London, but if you keep your ears open on a Saturday walk through Hampstead Heath, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s in the millions.
When my family moved from Johannesburg to North London, perhaps the most unexpected upheaval to our Friday night dinners was the precise timing of them. How strange it was to arrive home from school in the winter to pitch dark and the Shabbat candles sometimes already lit, or in midsummer gathering around the table while it was blazingly bright outside. Scripturally speaking, we should have waited for twilight to tear into the Daniel’s kitke (what all South Africans call challah, don’t ask me why), but I suspect that my parents knew Friday nights were at their most tranquil if we weren’t all hangry.
Essential to the Jewish diasporic experience is revelling in the vanity of small differences. British Jewish food always seemed sweeter to my palate, perhaps a natural defence against achingly long winters with nothing much to celebrate. The challahs tasted cake-like compared to the kitke on my grandmother’s Shabbat table in Pretoria, and for some godforsaken reason English pickled herring also ended up sickeningly sugary: our herring was salted to withstand a nuclear war. Miles Coleman
“Repetition serves as a brace as life careens forward”
After my mother died, my father attempted to learn to cook. Despite his lack of aptitude in the kitchen he managed to master two dishes, sensing, perhaps, that their maintenance in the family diet was of existential import: chicken soup and roast chicken.
I had learned my mother’s chicken soup recipe in the last year of her life when, incapacitated by a stroke, she had hoarsely whispered instructions through the kitchen hatch from her armchair. Death turns the young into adults and can make grown-ups as needy as infants. The untimeliness of my mother’s death created a further inversion as I taught my father the family tradition. He now takes pride in the very minor interventions needed: skimming the scum off the boiling carcasses, the essential addition of an Osem stock cube.
The chicken is invariably well-done but the best part of his Friday night dinner is the potatoes. Carbonated and steeped in chicken fat, they burst in your mouth like schmaltz grenades. The menu never varies. There will be gefilte fish (the Hungarian kind, peppery). There will be some shop-bought vegetable dishes that my mother would have condemned as gedempte – a pot roast braised and reheated to the point of disintegration. There will be an Israeli dairy-free knock-off of a Walls Viennetta (the real one isn’t kosher).
When I rejected orthodoxy in my late teens, the only thing I kept up was Friday night dinner because, well, it seemed unconscionable not to. Later, I recognised the comfort that tradition provides by anchoring you in history. Repetition serves as a brace as life careens forward. The blessings do that on Friday night. But there is a comparable purpose in eating an unchanging meal week in, week out – it’s how we keep up with Mum. Jonathan Beckman
Recklessly secular household
I did not grow up doing Friday nights. Ours was a recklessly secular household, except for one high-speed Seder a year. My only Jewish friend’s family Shabbats were heavy on the Hebrew; I'd stand there, shy, out of place, feeling, for once in my life, profoundly goyish.
But, when I had my own children, I began to want to tether them, and myself, to some kind of tradition: to have the good bits of Judaism, the community and warmth and eating, not only the anxiety. I’d still been to very few Friday nights; it was difficult to imagine imposing rituals when none of us, least of all me, believed.
But the great thing about most Jewish traditions is that God needs barely to come into them. So my schoolfriend wrote down the prayers, we appropriated a vaguely celebratory song from the kids’ primary school music classes (“I like the flowers”) and we began. Most Friday nights we had pork sausages; occasionally, we made challah. God, as I imagine her, hardly featured, except when I kissed the children’s heads to bless them.
Years passed. My children are grown. Friday nights are over. I need a new tradition. Typing this feels sadder than it should. Charlotte Mendelson
“Those dinners were inspirational”
Growing up it was Sunday lunch, not Friday night dinner, that brought the family together, but during lockdown that changed. Finding ourselves living together for the first time in a decade, my mother, sister and I turned to Fridays to properly convene. The food changed, too. Roast chicken, sure, but now preceded by matzah ball soup. We made slow-cooked ribs, cholent, kugel and pierogi. We celebrated Passover one week, Easter the next; while there was never an avowedly religious element (to either), a growing interest in my late grandmother’s story fuelled our dinners.
Covid restrictions faded, as did Friday nights: I moved to Finsbury Park, my sister to France. But those dinners were inspirational: last year my mother and I visited Warsaw for the first time, to walk the streets where my grandmother was raised, to visit the cemetery my ancestors are buried in, and to ultimately become more connected to our past. Tomé Morrissy-Swan
“Food, boys and maybe God”
I was first dragged to the JSoc on Friday night by my persuasive (and kosher) friend Beth. For £4, she told me, you get food, boys and maybe God. She was right on all counts.
Friday night dinner was held at the Oxford Synagogue on Walton Street. Every week, the doors to the hall were closed and the entryway was transformed into a holding pen, where we would wait until two nebbishy boys released us into the main hall. Inside were two trestle tables, piled high with food.
We quickly learned how to get the best out of our dinner. Meat and potatoes were placed at one end of the table while bean salad and homogenised creamy pareve pasta were at the other. Crucially, there were plates at both. Grabbing a plate from the latter end allowed you to bypass the queue for the former and head straight for a foil tray of roasted chicken.
Because of this system, the slow starved. Often our plates would be piled high with bones before the last person at our table had sat down. Each term, the JSoc hosted a ‘bring a friend’ Friday night. A handful of unwitting victims would enter the bullpen. On one occasion, I remember our friend screaming over the scramble for a crispy edge of kugel, “LOOK AT THE GOYIM!” The hall fell silent as we turned to face two ashen first-years, sat alone, staring at what I can only imagine looked like Jewish Guernica.
In this rodeo a lifelong friendship bloomed, as did my faith. Nothing brings you closer to God than the taste of a dairy-free brownie at the end of a victorious Friday Night Dinner. Tabitha Steemson
“He doesn’t care how you say it, as long as you say it”
I didn’t grow up with Friday night dinners. My desire to explore being a Jew emerged independently in a family where I was normally the only one who took an interest in Judaism. While my family fully supported me when I chose to have my bar mitzvah aged 26, it became clear that it was my responsibility to establish and maintain certain traditions for myself. I decided, among other things, to host Shabbat once a month.
Growing up, I always felt I had to do certain things to demonstrate I was Jewish enough. Hosting Shabbat at mine has enabled me to create a welcoming Jewish space of my own that reflects the Judaism I’ve defined for myself. For some people, my Shabbat is their first experience of Judaism. Whether they fall in love with challah or just feel the shock at being able to take a few hours out on a Friday, Shabbat often fills little gaps people didn’t know they had.
I’m always happy to reassure guests that it’s okay if they don’t nail how they pronounce the Hebrew prayers. On these occasions, I quote a Chabad Rabbi who – while vigorously encouraging me to put on tefillin and pray - whacked me on the back and said: “He doesn’t care how you say it, as long as you say it.” Josh Dell
“‘Spicy’ really is the best compliment you can give it.”
There is a fish dish that, for Moroccans, is an essential part of Friday night dinner. It’s a fish dish without a name. At home, we called it dagim (Hebrew for fish). Sometimes ‘Moroccan fish’ if it needed to be defined. Some people call it hraimeh, but hraimeh is really its Libyan-Tunisian-Jewish cousin – a thicker sauce, concentrated, without chickpeas or carrots. It is usually made with tilapia and bream, but my parents have made it with anything they could get hold of, from tuna steaks to haddock. The key to the dish is the sauce. Everyone has their twist, some layer the vegetables with the fish and cook them together. Others, like my parents, fry the vegetables first – garlic, red peppers, rehydrated chillies, a fresh green chilli or two, carrots and chickpeas. They then build up the sauce with tomatoes, hot paprika in oil, turmeric and black pepper. Finally, the filets of fish go in with a generous covering of coriander. When it’s my mum’s turn, she’ll give it her unorthodox twist and throw in a pinch of hawaij, a nod to her Adeni roots. White fluffy challah stands in for cutlery. I like to swirl tahini dressed with lemon into the remaining juices (an act best not done among Moroccans that aren’t family); that way you get a bite that is tangy and spicy. ‘Spicy’ really is the best compliment you can give it. Leeor Ohayon
“Stories of a former homeland”
As secular Iraqi Jews who marked the high holidays and not much else, we didn’t have weekly candles-and-challah. The Friday night cooking code was usually Iraqi. We’d rotate a few regular dishes, slow-cooked and steeped in the flavours of my parents’ cultural heritage, incongruous in our Gloucestershire and then North London kitchens.
There was t’beet, typically a Saturday night meal for us: slow-cooked chicken with rice steeped in spices, some of which had navigated their way from the Indian subcontinent onto the Iraqi plate – cardamom and cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. The special-rated version (paraded out to much fanfare during Jewish festival meals) featured a whole chicken stuffed with this delicious rice. But our Friday night version comprised meltingly soft chicken cuts nestled in rice, its crispy bottom – or khaak – a sign of the cook’s culinary skill.
Another Friday regular was salona, a sweet-and-sour fish stew, with aubergines and tomatoes deepening the lemon-syrup-infused curry sauce. On an especially cold night, we’d have red kubbeh: aromatic meat-stuffed dumplings, swimming in a comforting, jewel-red beetroot soup. The semolina dumplings, we’d joke, were a superior, sophisticated version of Ashkenazi matzah balls (though honestly, we loved those, too).
I rarely make kubbeh now – it’s too laborious, and the texture never comes out right in my unskilled hands. But the t’beet is still a fixture, served with a side of amba mango pickle, instantly evocative of my parents’ kitchen table and their stories of a former homeland. Rachel Shabi
“It’s good mum, it’s a good one”
When I was young, people often said, “but you look SO Jewish” in a way that sounded like an insult. My mum isn’t Jewish, so I’m (technically) not. But hard nos made me feel grubby; like my great grandma went through all that for me to deny her existence.
In school one day I found myself surrounded by two huge mops of curly hair: “ARE YOU JEWISH?! ARE YOU JEWISH?!” They were love and belonging and they became my best friends. Pretty soon, and especially through our teens, I was eating “FND @ Claud’s (we had Nokia 3210s).
Friday night with my family was something occasional, religious and formal, but at Claudia’s it was freeflow. Grandparents, little siblings, humpy Yorkshire terriers and friends, shimmying in and out of the kitchen booth. Someone finishing their courgette soup, someone just starting. Roast chicken, big glasses of tap water, potatoes and potatoes and potatoes. Claudia’s mum on the landline determining where her dad was (a cab driver), asking him to stop at Lids. Claudia, between slurps: “IT’S GOOD MUM, IT’S A GOOD ONE.” Laura Goodman
“The culinary equivalent of Jackson Pollock’s paintings”
As a teenager, I longed to start the weekend by necking Strongbow like my non-Jewish friends. Instead, weekends started with Palwin No.10 (the indelibly cloying kiddush wine), every sip reminding me I’m Jewish.
Challah was central to our Shabbos table, accompanied by Ritz crackers dipped in chopped egg-and-onion or chopped liver, hummus (a late addition) and then chicken soup, which would arrive just as we were getting full. My mum’s chicken soup was often delicious, but her cooking is something like the culinary equivalent of Jackson Pollock’s paintings. There is chaos and randomness, but a unique creativity, too. Things sometimes burn, but flavours often come together in surprising ways. This would mean that, each week, the chicken soup varied in composition and quality.
Grandma’s is, conversely, consistently sublime. It has a deep flavour, made distinct by the combination of onion, carrot and swede with a roasted hen and white pepper. It was how all her grandchildren’s experimentation with meat exemption – myself included – came to an abrupt end. Joel Hart
“Participants are born and die, but chicken soup stays the same”
My Shabbats began in Manchester. My late mum, no shade, was not a great cook (she did a few things well: chopped and fried gefilte fish, salmon (tinned) cutlets, potato kugel (hand-grated)… and egg and chips; we are from the north). She never cooked on Shabbos, my gran did. We started with Hebrew blessings over the candle-lighting, sickly-sweet Palwin and perfect challah. The Friday night meal was always the same: chopped liver, egg and onion to start; chicken soup; roast chicken and roast potatoes.
When I moved to north London 23 years ago, Shabbos moved to my aunt and uncle’s house. More significantly, in 2006 I became a vegetarian. Suddenly, most Shabbos foods were off the menu. My poor aunt had to get creative, producing great dishes with faux chicken/mince.
Other events have altered Shabbos since then: my cousin got married (to a vegetarian!) so we go to theirs in Golders, and they’ve added twin toddlers, who are sleeping soundly by the time we start singing Shalom Aleichem. We’re not frum but these rituals are everything, a reset for the weekend, and nothing has ever really changed. It’s still the same concept as when my family came here from Eastern Europe. Participants are born and die, but chicken soup stays the same. Liz Tray
More Sainsbury’s than sacramental
Friday night dinner began as soon as I got back from school. Our home would be suffused with the sweet aroma of mum’s chicken soup, simmering for hours in the oven (her secret method); I could never resist stealing a bowl to rest on my lap in front of an episode of Neighbours. Later on came kiddush, when mum would light the candles and do the blessing and dad recited further prayers over the wine and the challah, followed by the customary children’s blessings. Then more soup. And chicken, always chicken, either crowned by tinned pineapple rings or coated in dehydrated onion soup (well, it was the 80s…)
Nowadays, my Friday night dinners aren’t nearly as regular or routine. They aren’t even always on a Friday. My NHS hours and youngest’s five-a-side football mean that any marking of Shabbat tends to occur on a Saturday. But still, there’s chicken. And wine, albeit more Sainsbury’s than sacramental. Over the years, we’ve picked up additional kiddush rituals, like taking a moment to reflect on something meaningful to us, and a custom acquired two decades ago from a friend’s parents: waltzing around the table, exchanging hugs and kisses, all the while exclaiming, “Shabbat Shalom!” Aaron Vallance
“Chicken soup is crap”
We are undecided, in this house, about God, ambivalent about religion, suspicious of tradition and embarrassed by ceremony, but we do like bread. And it’s for this reason, mainly, that we get a challah on Fridays. Sometimes I light the candles, but that’s mostly for romance. Chicken soup is crap: overrated, weak, the world’s most successful marketing campaign, it’s glorified not for its taste, but because of the story it tells about itself. I will eat it, of course. I’m an adult and it’s tacky to say no to foods past the age of 12, but when I do I think about the customers at the Jewish deli my boyfriend used to run. Every day someone would tell him the chicken soup there wasn’t as good as their grandmother’s and he’d wearily explain that this might be because the deli used real chicken, rather than Osem soup powder (£3.29 at Morrisons). This daily conversation still feels to me more Jewish than the soup at its centre. Our weekly challah, it’s a nod to it all, a shorthand – we’re choosing the good bits of Judaism every week, even if only in our plaited carbs. Eva Wiseman
Devorah Baum is a writer and filmmaker. Her books include Feeling Jewish, The Jewish Joke, and On Marriage.
Jonathan Beckman is the editor of 1843 magazine and the author of How to Ruin a Queen.
Miles Coleman is a documentary producer and writer born in Johannesburg and raised in London. His films and series can be found on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney Plus and his latest titles include 'FIFA Uncovered' and 'If These Walls Could Sing'
Josh Dell is a writer and editor. He has questions for those who are slicing their Shabbat challah.
Laura Goodman has written two food books: Carbs and The Joy of Snacks. The latter just came out in paperback. Find her on Instagram.
Samson Hart is a food grower, writer and earth-based facilitator/educator, currently living and tending land in South Devon.
Charlotte Mendelson has written five novels, including The Exhibitionist. She is the Gardening Correspondent for the New Yorker
Tomé Morrissy-Swan is a freelance journalist, writer and editor based in London. He was previously a food editor at the Telegraph.
Leeor Ohayon is a writer from London based in Norwich, where he is pursuing a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the UEA.
Rachel Shabi is a British journalist and author. She is a contributing writer to The Guardian and the author of Not the Enemy, Israel's Jews from Arab Lands.
Tabitha Steemson is a PR consultant and occasional writer. She once wrote a catchy show-tune about Osem Mini Mandel.
Liz Tray is a sub-editor for cool mags like The Face, Sight and Sound, 10, The Art Newspaper and Vittles. She doesn’t dig the incorrect spelling of bagel (it’s not beigel) but might agree to be paid in them. Find her @liztray, where she spends too much time shouting at Man Utd fans and not enough time extolling the virtues of Bowie’s 1990s output.
Aaron Vallance is a doctor for the NHS and a food writer. You can find his blog at 1 Dish 4 The Road, where he writes about Jewish food, family memoirs, London restaurants and the relationship between food and wider themes.
Eva Wiseman is a writer and journalist, and a commissioning editor and a columnist on Observer Magazine.
Vittles British-Jewish Food Week is edited by Molly Pepper Steemson, with additional editing from Jonathan Nunn and Adam Coghlan, and subediting by Sophie Whitehead and Liz Tray.
All illustrations are by Georgia Turner, a freelance illustrator and neuroscience PhD student from London.