With the election looming, there’s much to debate, but for Jewish students at Carnegie Mellon University, one topic took precedence Saturday night: kugel. Four students hashed out which kugel — potato, noodle, apple or no kugel — is the best in an online, shtick-filled evening that elicited smiles, laughs and a lively comments section.
The CMU Hillel executive board offered students a little levity with the lighthearted debate à la the University of Chicago’s over 70-year-old annual Latke–Hamantash Debate. Thus began a new contest: The Great Kugel Debate.
“The election is coming up and also the anniversary of the Tree of Life shooting is coming up as well, and we just wanted a reason to come together to do something really silly and fun,” said Tahlia Altgold, vice president of the CMU Hillel’s executive board. “We’re trying to go really ham with it.”
That meant creating teams with promo videos, hashtags and profile frames — like a burnt orange #TeamNoodle banner — and entering the participants in a raffle for Hillel merchandise.
The event opened with havdalah led by Dan Marcus, executive director and CEO of Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh, a promotional video for the debate and a rhyming introduction from two alumna. Meanwhile, about 28 participants filed into Zoom, many changing their Zoom backgrounds to pictures of the kugel (or no kugel) of their choice. Then, moderator Nickia Muraskin laid out the rules, telling the four debaters that if they didn’t exercise restraint, she’d exercise the mute button, and the debate began.
First to speak: Team Noodle, represented by Sophie Paul. “It’s the only one that has cheese in it, and cheese is the best objective food that exists out there,” she claimed.
Team Apple, debated by Daniel Glazer, followed up with a two-minute case. “The apple kugel is evolution at its finest, taking the best aspects of the kugel and the apple, and bringing them together to create culinary excellence,” argued Glazer. “The apple kugel excels at it all: rich from the noodles and egg but light from the fresh chunks of apple, sweet and savory from the eternal combination of apple and cinnamon…This fusion of American ingenuity and bubbie magic deserves a spot at every Shabbos table.”
Yael Canaan, for Team No Kugel, argued that other dishes are superior to kugel while Jonah Dubin for Team Potato insisted that while he considers himself a “kugel pluralist,” potato is indeed the best.
Following the opening statements, Muraskin and audience members posed questions like “What’s the main selling point of your dish?” and “How is your kugel symbolic of the Jewish experience?”
To the question “Given the decision between kugel or other classic dishes like matzah ball soup, brisket, mashed potatoes or a bagel with lox, where do you stand?” No Kugel replied that anything is better than kugel. Noodle’s riposte: Choosing not to have something does not make it an inferior dish.
A robust discussion erupted in response to a question about storing kugel. Apple and Noodle argued there’s no problem refrigerating their dishes. Potato suggested that potato kugel is more refrigeratable than the other kugels and smeared them as lasagnas. And No Kugel advocated for pita, maintaining that it is delicious even when frozen and reheated. A student wrote in the comments section: “Can someone identify the difference between plasticky kugel and Legos by touch alone? I don’t think it is possible.”
Perhaps the most contentious part of the evening came in response to a question about the origins of kugel. Potato argued that it was the “primal kugel” while Apple noted that the original kugel was a bread-based dish and that potato, apple and noodle kugels are offshoots. The “bread” description proved contentious: Potato accused Apple and No Kugel of wrongly seeing kugel as bread while Apple and No Kugel replied that he misinterpreted their arguments.
No Kugel defended the Israeli dish memulaim “stuffed ones” in another answer, describing the vegetables and dried fruits filled with grains and meats. Her arguments countered an otherwise Ashkenazi-centered debate.
Zoe Hertz, CMU Hillel’s Springboard Innovation Fellow, recognized it was important for Hillel to address that kugel is an Ashkenazi dish and to offer students Sephardic and Mizrahi alternatives. So the food sampler served as part of the weekly Shabbat2Go dinners included the three kugels debated as well as pashtida, kugel’s savory counterpart in Israel.
In their closing statements, No Kugel quipped “kugel is bad, and you should all invest in a cookbook.” Potato reiterated his disgust with the bread comments and dispiritedly ceded the rest of his time. Apple asserted that apple kugel “brings a lot of sweetness, love and deliciousness where others fall flat.” And Noodle stressed that cheese is yummy.
It was all in good fun: Even when the winner was announced at the end following a quick Zoom poll (spoiler: Team No Kugel won), the participants stayed all smiles. The event, after all, wasn’t really to definitively determine which kugel is the best — its success was in its inconsequence, a break from all that is serious and stressful with a night dedicated to debating kugel.
Some students have struggled to muster excitement about a semester altered heavily by the pandemic, explained Hertz, but the debate and its leadup offered a welcome respite, with posts about kugel flooding her Facebook feed all week.
“They’re so full of warmth and happiness; it really has made me happy to see,” said Hertz.
Altgold agreed. “I can’t remember when the last time I laughed that much was,” she wrote in an email. “I think we all really needed that right now.” PJC
Kayla Steinberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.