Tonight I had dinner with Linda at Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, just before teaching my Intro class. We were talking about our sons, and I mentioned that Jim loves babka.
“Vodka?” she said.
A question! Rabbis love questions! And this rabbi loves babka. How could my beloved not know about babka?
It was time for some Jewish learning: we ordered some babka, and had it for dessert.
Jewish learning comes in many shapes and forms. Sometimes it comes in big heavy books, and sometimes it comes in the form of a cake. This cake was loaded with chocolate and Yiddishkeit, and it was delicious.
What Jewish topic did you learn by experience, not in a class?
“People assume that the Ashkenazi way of doing food is the crux of what Jewish food means. The reality is that Jewish food is a text, and there’s different types of text. Oral and written, of course. And then you have the text of the land of Israel. Then comes the diaspora itself. In other words, it’s your personal identity with the text, the idea of Israel, and where we live.” – Michael Twitty, in an interview for Chow, 4/10/2014
Michael Twitty teaches remarkable Torah. He is Jewish, African American, a food historian and chef, and he has a way with words. The interview above (click that link!) is chock-full of interesting insights about Jewish food. His book, The Cooking Gene, is a masterpiece on the links among food, identity, and culture.
If I ask a random American what “Jewish Food” is, likely they’ll say something about deli food, or bagels. However, Jewish food is much more varied than that. There’s Sephardic food, replete with rice and rich flavors, and the food of the Israeli street (falafel, anyone?) Digging deeper, there’s the food in every Jewish home, which is as individual as Mom’s best recipes and Dad’s skill with the grill. Jewish food is any food Jews eat around the Jewish table, which over time becomes infused with Jewish meaning.
An example: I grew up in the American South, and on holidays we had something called chess pie. Every slice is a sliver of gooey sweetness. The first few years I was a Jew, I made the typical Ashkenazi things for Rosh Hashanah, but eventually I switched over to making my chess pie, because I don’t know of any sweeter dish on earth. For me and my family, it’s a Rosh Hashanah dish now, and every bite includes not only sugar, butter, and spices, but the hope for a sweet year. I swear it made the pie taste even better.
Another example, this one for Passover: A friend gave me her mother’s recipe for brisket, a very elaborate and wonderful old Hungarian recipe. I made it, and tinkered with it, and fiddled with it, and a few years ago I realized that it had morphed into something entirely different, a brisket that was a mix of the original recipe and the techniques I learned from my grandmother. Here it is, and unlike the chess pie, it can be made kosher for Passover:
beef brisket, approximately 1/2 lb per person
2 cans tomatoes, with liquid
1/2 potato per person, carrots, and onions to cover the bottom of your roasting pan
fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon mustard
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Buy brisket for the number of people you have coming. I normally figure 1/2 pound per person.
In a deep roasting pan, put a layer of cut up potatoes, carrots, and onions.
Cut the brisket into as many pieces as you need to to handle it easily.
Brown the brisket on all sides on the stovetop over high heat. Brown the fatty side first, then brown the other sides of the meat in the fat.
Put the browned pieces of brisket in the roasting pan on top of the vegetables.
Sprinkle with fresh ground pepper, 1 teaspoon of paprika, and 1/2 teaspoon of ground mustard.
Deglaze the browning pan with a cup of wine (I use red, white is OK, do not use a sweet wine.)
Add 2 large cans of whole tomatoes, cut up, to the browning pan and bring it to a near-boil.
Pour the liquid over the meat and veggies, cover the pan (either with a lid or foil, but get a good seal) then put in the oven.
After 15 min, reduce heat to 300.
Allow it to cook until the meat is falling apart. Normally I cook it for 8 hours or even more.
Remove the brisket to a carving board and allow it to rest for 30 minutes before slicing. Slice perpendicular to the grain.
Strain out veggies, reserving liquid, and put them in a separate bowl.
Put the liquid in a saucepan on the stove and heat to reduce it for a gravy.
Are there any foods that have taken on Jewish meaning in your Jewish home? Share recipes if you are willing!
I got a request this week from @farrahudell on Twitter: “How about 8 easy recipes next? I’m good on ritual, cooking not so much…”
Guess what – I am not much of a cook, either. I have a few things I do well, but that’s it. The question behind the question, though, is one worth asking: what to do, if you are not a very good or a very confident cook? What if you hate to cook? Here are some ideas for those readers:
1. IT’S A TRADITION!– Is there a meal you and your household like and that you are comfortable cooking? Make that Shabbat dinner every week! If someone asks, tell them it is your tradition. If your tradition is to eat grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for Shabbat, that’s lovely. A guest who criticizes the menu is way out of line: don’t invite them back. (If it is someone you must ask back, maybe add a green salad next time, or her favorite dessert.)
2. BUY A GOOD COOKBOOK – If you like to cook but don’t know any “Jewish” recipes, buy a cookbook! There are some great Jewish cookbook writers: Joan Nathan, Leah Koenig, Arthur Schwartz, to name a few. Epicurious.com offers a list of “Our Seven Favorite Jewish Cookbooks.” But also keep in mind that the food does not have to be a particular kind of “Jewish” food to be great for Shabbat. Jews have lived just about everywhere – the real question is, is it something your household enjoys?
3. FOLLOW A JEWISH FOOD BLOG – If you like to find your recipes online, and want something a bit less traditional-Ashkenazi, check out Michael Twitty’s Afroculinaria. Michael’s recipes make me want to cook. Even more, they make me want to eat. There are lots of good Jewish food blogs – just browse around on wordpress.com or any of the other places bloggers do their thing.
4. ASK AT SYNAGOGUE– Suggest to your synagogue that a cooking class would be fun. Or just ask around and find out who’s a good cook, and ask him/her for some lessons. As Rabbi Hillel said in the first century, “The shy will not learn.” Ask!
5. JOIN WITH OTHERS– If your life is stressful and you’d really like to just “come to dinner” three Shabbats a month, what about forming a Shabbat chavurah? If you rotate among households, then it’s less work and everyone can pitch in together to do the dishes afterwards. Or rotate houses and bring potluck.
6. NO SHAME IN TAKEOUT – If you hate to cook, don’t have time to cook, or you don’t have anywhere to cook, there is no shame in takeout for Shabbat. Again, get something you like, that your household likes, and don’t stress over it. This is Shabbat, you’re supposed to enjoy it! Home made challah is lovely, but challah from the store isn’t bad, either. I recall one very special Shabbat dinner when we ate cheese pizza and salad.
Also: keep in mind that through the centuries, while Jews have tried to make Shabbat dinner a special meal, sometimes it was also a very simple meal. Some of the nicest Shabbat dinners I’ve had were very plain: soup and challah, salad and challah, a roasted chicken and some salad, etc.
One last note, but an important one: Shabbat is not a time for scolding and nagging. It’s not a great time to introduce picky toddlers to new foods, or to insist that your 8 year old eat her Brussels sprouts. It’s absolutely not a time to nag someone whose diet you’d like to change, even with “hints.” Let it be a gentle time, with easy things to eat, pleasant conversation, and love.
This blog came about in response to someone who wanted recipes, and I’ve pretty much weaseled out of the recipes. (Trust me, you are not missing anything.) But here is one recipe I’ll share:
RABBI ADAR’S EASY CHICKEN SOUP
Count your guests, and put that many chicken thighs (with skin and bone) into a large pot (1 per guest.) Add one peeled and quartered onion, a handful of peppercorns, a small bunch of fresh dill, and some celery tops. Cover with water. Bring almost to a boil then simmer until the chicken is falling apart. Strain the whole thing through a sieve or cheesecloth, saving both the soup and the stuff you drained out. Pick the meat off the bones, chop it or tear it into manageable pieces and replace in the soup. Salt to taste. Serve.
Variations: At the end, you can add any of these to the soup: (1) cooked noodles (2) chopped greens (bok choy, kale, etc.) (3) other vegetables. Add enough veggies and it’s a one pot meal.
Whatever you decide, enjoy! Remember that Shabbat is for rest, for joy, for sharing. If your current practice leaves you feeling guilty, stressed-out, angry, or overwhelmed, it needs adjustment. Do whatever you need to do to make Shabbat what it is meant to be, an oasis of joy and rest!