Jews and food are inextricably linked. For some Jews, family meals and Jewish holiday celebrations inform eating and dining preferences throughout their life. Many Jewish professionals in the food industry will tell you that childhood experiences of cooking with a grandparent or parent helped guide their careers.
Meredith Goldberg grew up on Long Island, where she began baking alongside her grandmother at the age of three. Tuesdays were baking day, when Grandma Ruthie would cover the entire table with her confections, including sesame circles, apple cake, zucchini bread and carrot cake.
Jewish holidays were a big deal growing up. “My grandmother and Aunt Sadie would make gefilte fish from scratch over Passover. They would make their own horseradish, so no one could go in the kitchen. It was like your eyes were bleeding. So that formulated the way that I view food and why I view it as such an experience,” says Goldberg.
Goldberg cherishes her food memories, and she still gravitates toward Jewish foods like chopped liver, lox, whitefish and brisket as comforting reminders of her childhood.
Goldberg credits those early experiences with leading her to a career in the DC food and hospital industry. She is the director of marketing and communications at the luxurious Jefferson Hotel at 16th and M Streets, Northwest. Her job includes promoting the hotel’s three restaurants: the Michelin-starred Plume, the Quill cocktail lounge and Greenhouse, an informal space serving breakfast and lunch.
However, in 2011, at the age of 32, Goldberg was diagnosed with breast cancer, and food was the last thing on her mind. But when she was told she should be eating Jell-O and white bread on chemo days, it didn’t sit well with her. She began to conduct research with the aid and encouragement of her best friend. This led her to naturopathy and a diet that is gluten-free and anti-inflammatory. Goldberg learned to eat with the seasons and shop regularly at farmers markets. She cut out dairy and focused on eating organic foods.
Today, six years later, Goldberg says she conforms to this diet 80 percent of the time. She spends Sunday’s cooking for the week with an emphasis on foods that are local and organic. Her current favorites are cauliflower rice with lean proteins and spaghetti squash. The other 20 percent is dedicated to exploring and enjoying DC dining.
So what happens to the Jewish foods that she grew up savoring? What about her grandmother’s apple cake and zucchini bread, which Goldberg lovingly describes as “insane”?
Rather than abandoning those recipes, Goldberg altered them to suit her newly adapted way of eating. She now incorporates almond flour, coconut flour and honey into her baked goods. She is relieved that she can pay homage to her grandmother, while making food that is more in tune with how she eats today. To keep her inspiration front and center, Goldberg displays a photo of her grandmother on her kitchen counter. It depicts a Tuesday baking session, with her grandmother proudly displaying a sesame circle cookie among a sea of baked goods.
The foods that now comfort her include those that made her feel better when she was sick, such as cantaloupe and frozen yogurt. They share a place in her life alongside the modified cakes and cookies from her childhood. “While it wasn’t a great time in my life, I don’t want to forget that it happened. It’s very easy to fall back into old habits and become lackadaisical. All food tells a story, so everything I eat reminds me of something and can be equated to a time in my life,” says Goldberg.
Just as her grandmother passed down recipes and knowledge, Goldberg is sharing her experiences as a breast cancer survivor to help others face the challenges. She recently published a book describing her journey, From Cocktails to Chemotherapy: A Guide to Navigating Cancer in Your 30’s. She is also going to serve as a peer counselor for Sharsheret, a national organization supporting Jewish women and families facing breast and ovarian cancer.
There is no single way to respond and live through cancer diagnosis and treatment. Food played a healing role for Goldberg, and her grandmother’s legacy guides Goldberg to provide comfort and connection to others.