Lynda Cohen Loigman’s debut novel, The Two-Family House (reviewed here), tells the story of two Jewish brothers living with their wives and children in one building, in the 1940s and 1950s. The wives both have babies within minutes of each other on a stormy night, and after that nothing is the same between them. Cohen Loigman takes us through the various rituals of their lives, depicted through the perspective of the brothers, their wives and some of the children, including lots of food along the way.
Cohen Loigman grew up in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. She received a BA in English and American literature from Harvard College and a JD from Columbia Law School. She is a student of the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College and lives with her husband and two children in Chappaqua, New York. Visit her at her website, Facebook and Twitter.
Jewish Food Experience: How do you feel the kinds of meals we eat have changed from the 1950s and 1960s to the present era?
Lynda Cohen Loigman: In general, I feel like we are a lot less connected to the food we eat now. Part of that is the change in the kinds of foods we eat and the way the food industry has moved toward convenience as the ultimate goal, but another part of that is because family dinners are no longer a priority in our busy lives. That’s what really makes me sad—the fact that we don’t sit around the table and eat together the way families did back then.
In the 1950s and 1960s, processed foods and frozen foods were starting to find their way into our kitchens, but families still ate home-cooked meals. Of course, that isn’t as true today. I think there is a push to get back to home cooking, but it’s different than it was. Now, depending on where you live, there are many more pre-made meal options for people. They’re not necessarily processed or unhealthy, but we are not making them at home from scratch. I can pick up a rotisserie chicken from my local grocery store, pre-sliced cantaloupe and a bag of prewashed lettuce for a salad. Even when we are “cooking,” it feels like we are removed from the food we are eating. On the plus side, it’s definitely easier to put a meal on the table these days than it used to be.
JFE: You write about happy times and somber times in your book, food being prominent at both. How do you feel the food accentuates the mood of the situation that is taking place?
LCL: I have several large family dinner scenes in the book, and those tend to be filled with a lot of tension. When Sol invites everyone to dinner at the Italian restaurant, for example, there are multiple conflicts brewing. The same is true for Thanksgiving at Aunt Faye’s apartment and Thanksgiving at Helen’s home several years later. I find a dinner table to be a wonderful setting for conflict to develop. Not only can you force multiple characters with varying agendas to be in one place at one time, but there are many different kinds of stresses to exploit: the stress of cooking and serving a meal, the concern over where everyone should sit and the burden of keeping conversation polite or appropriate for the different people present.
One of my favorite moments in which food creates tension in the book comes after the families have Thanksgiving apart for the first time. After spending an awful evening at her aunt Faye’s, Judith arrives home to find a table full of Aunt Helen’s leftovers waiting for her. Judith is starving—she barely ate any of the Thanksgiving meal served at Faye’s fancy apartment—and she’s dying to have a piece of Helen’s apple pie. But Judith is insightful enough to realize that eating Helen’s pie will be viewed as an act of betrayal. Rather than provoke her mother’s anger, Judith chooses to forego the pie and go to bed hungry.
In general, Helen and Abe are more positive and optimistic characters than Rose and Mort, and their attitudes toward food illustrate those traits. Helen loves to feed people and Abe loves to eat. Mort, on the other hand, is more concerned about following the dinner schedule he has created than enjoying the food that he eats. Food is not a source of pleasure or nourishment for him—it is more about control. Later in the story, as we see him evolve, his attitude toward food evolves as well. When he tries to connect with Judith during their lunch at the coffee shop, he eats his chicken salad sandwich with a gusto his daughter doesn’t recognize. It’s a signal that something within him has shifted.
JFE: What was a memorable Jewish food experience for you while growing up?
LCL: I grew up in a small town in western Massachusetts. There were some other Jewish families in my town, but bar and bat mitzvah parties tended to be very modest events—simple luncheons or celebrations at home. When I was fourteen, my twin cousins on Long Island turned thirteen. I had never been to a party like theirs before—it was lavish and beautiful, complete with a 1980s Star Wars theme. I thought the cocktail hour was the party, and I couldn’t imagine more food would be served after all the pasta stations and hors d’oeuvres. My mom snuck me an amaretto sour, and I thought I was imagining things when the guests were ushered into the main ballroom for a sit-down dinner. For dessert, waiters wheeled out four long Viennese tables and arranged them in the center of the dance floor. I’ll never forget it.
JFE: What is a Jewish food recipe you wish to pass along to future generations, starting with your children?
LCL: Chicken soup with matzah balls. Both my son and daughter love it, and at some point I’m going to have to teach them how to make it.
JFE: Thanksgiving is the setting of a few scenes in your book. Which Jewish food items do you include in your own Thanksgiving meals?
LCL: Thanksgiving has always been a special holiday for me. As a child, it was always a holiday we spent with my mom’s sisters and their families. Now, my children really love spending time with their cousins in Boston for Thanksgiving. We have an early dinner and walk around the city together. Then we come back and have leftovers. I love cooking for Thanksgiving because there are no surprises. Every once in a while I try out something new, but usually I stick to the tried-and-true recipes.
I’m not sure that I really include any truly Jewish foods in my Thanksgiving dinner, but no matter what, we always have apple pie. The pie has special meaning for me because my mom was always the pie maker in the family, and apple pie is one of the things she taught me to make.
JFE: A book club you Skyped with recently prepared a whole meal from your book. What was that experience like for you, participating on a virtual level?
LCL: Well, I actually joined them after they had already eaten, but it was still really lovely to hear about it. In the book, Natalie eats dinner at Teddy’s house every Thursday, and Thursdays are meatloaf night. The book club replicated the meatloaf dinner. The women from that club tried to incorporate themes from the book with props as well; they had baby dolls on the table (dressed in pink and blue) and cards for all the life events that take place. They had a wedding card, a bar mitzvah card, a birthday card—even a moving card!
The fact that these women prepared a meal from the book was incredibly moving to me. What can I say? There’s a very strong connection between food and caring. It was very special.