Monday, February 16, 2009

Confessions of A Food Jew

When people ask me what I love most about being Jewish, the images flash before my eyes.

Succulent slices of slow cooked brisket, moist with rich tomato-y gravy. Latkes, crisp on the outside, melting in the middle, with applesauce and sour cream. Light as air matzo balls, floating in a pool of brilliantly golden chicken soup, dense sweet noodle kugel.

I mean, yes, of course I love being a part of a religion that allows so many different ways to worship, that holds such a long tradition of philanthropy and artistry, that has such interesting traditions and rituals. Even though I have never been particularly observant, I chose Brandeis (Jew U.) as an undergraduate in large part because the school represented the best of educational excellence and social activism. But getting all the Jewish holidays off didn’t hurt my feelings. While my matriculation there did wonders for my Yiddish vocabulary, it didn’t make me any less secular. For me, someone whose upbringing always felt a little bit Jew-ish, as opposed to really Jewish, food is where I have always felt most connected to my people and my history.

Don’t get me wrong, my family isn’t non-practicing, we just found our own style. We may not have belonged to a temple, but my sister and I were both bat mitzvahed, we just did it with a private tutor instead of Hebrew school, and with a borrowed torah at our weekend place instead of on a traditional bimah. And for mine, a Chinese buffet luncheon to follow. We share the major holidays with friends and family, choosing readings from books in the living room over synagogue services. Our Passover Seders may be brief, but they have deep meaning and we take them seriously, adding our own traditions over the years.

But always, the celebration centers on food. Apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah, blintzes to break the Yom Kippur fast, tzimmes on Passover. I’m an accomplished home cook, and while my regular dinner parties are likely to be based in French or Italian peasant cooking, my Jew food is pretty spectacular, thanks to my paternal grandmother, Jonnie, who shared her knowledge, her recipes, her cookbooks, and her love through the holiday dishes she prepared.

Food, both the specifics of traditional recipes, and the generic feeling of gathering friends and family around the table, is always at it’s core a Jewish experience for me. Breaking of bread, or matzo where appropriate, sharing of stories, the sense of unity created around a dinner table, this is where I feel the most direct link to our shared past. I have always believed that when a people have been forced in their history to work hard at maintaining community, bringing people together for meals becomes an essential part of how you keep faith.

This blog is likely to be at least 50% about food, my relationship with food, my relationships with other people who love food…which is about the right percentage for any Member of the Tribe, a people known for spending most of any meal discussing in depth what the next meal should be.

There will be recipes. Lots of recipes. Most of these will be mine, or else accredited adaptations or borrowings. However, and this is VERY IMPORTANT, sometimes my recipes are things I’ve been making long enough that my addled pre-Altzheimers-almost-40-year-old mind thinks I made them up, when in fact it is entirely possible I have stolen them wholesale from an old friend or classic cookbook. This can happen because for eons now I have entered my culinary successes into my computer, keeping an extensive recipe folder. Helpful when one has subscribed to eight cooking mags for nearly two decades and often takes recipes from them. Often I riff on those, use them as a starting point, substituting things based on my personal taste or seasonal availability. If it works, it gets entered in the file. But I’ve never been good at adding notes to these, so I have no idea from whence they came or if I made enough changes to call them my own. On the one hand, this is great when I travel, because all my best dishes are in the laptop and if I am a guest in your home I can make you dinner (YAY!). However, until recently, I haven’t bothered to note whether the original recipe was mine or taken off of a website or pulled from the latest issue of Cooks Illustrated, which is not so good for posting on a public blog where one can be flogged for plagiarism.

SO…I will try and be diligent about only claiming credit for stuff I know I invented, and giving proper credit where it is due. But if you are here and spot your Great Aunt Ginny’s perfect Snickerdoodles and I don’t mention her…please shoot me a private e-mail and I will rectify ASAP. Please do NOT post a comment accusing me of grand theft recipe and implying that there is a special place in hell for me. I’ll just delete you.


Jews don’t believe in hell. Especially Food Jews.

To start us off, one from the Jonnie Files:


1 5 lb. beef brisket
2 t salt
¼ t pepper
2 yellow onions, sliced
4 ribs celery, sliced
1 c chili sauce (Heinz is good)
1 bottle beer (I like a pale ale, but use whatever you have on hand)
¼ c water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put water on the bottom of a heavy roasting pan. Season brisket with salt and pepper and lay on top of water. Spread onion and celery over the top of the meat, then distribute chili sauce evenly over the vegetables. Cook uncovered 90 minutes. Pour beer over meat, cover tightly with foil, and braise 45 minutes per pound of meat. Remove from gravy, defat liquid, and puree juices with vegetables. Put juice in container, and chill meat overnight in fridge. The next day slice meat across the grain and lay into baking dish. Cover with gravy, and put back in fridge. Reheat covered at 350 to serve. (1 hour to indefinitely!)

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