To combat climate change, we will need to both reduce emissions, but also adapt. Why is this? Well, even if we turned off all carbon emissions off today, a certain amount of climate change is still “baked in.” You can read about that science here. This means that, unfortunately, some human-caused climate change will continue to happen. And that climate shift will affect everything that we do – and to “weather the storm,” (pun intended) we will need to mitigate its effects in our daily lives.
Some of this adaptation will occur in the kitchen. There has been a lot of writing about the way we cook and what we cook as it relates to carbon emissions. I discussed this topic in the context of electric and gas cooking in a recent article for Greater Greater Washington. However, our surrounding climate affects how we do everything from certain cooking tasks to food storage to what we are able to realistically grow and eat.
This topic could cover books and doctoral theses. However, I decided to think of a few things I could identify for a brief blog post. These are all predictions – or things that will be more common as climate change continues to affect our lives. (The science is, of course, continuously evolving on this urgent issue.)
Better ventilation and cooling in kitchens. We are going to be dealing with more heat – and that also means that buildings will be hotter – sometimes to the point where air conditioning alone (separately complicated) is not going to cut it. Kitchens, already hot, can become dangerously so – especially for people who work in kitchens. In addition, many major food groups will be in demand, and I do not foresee weather-dependent menus becoming too common. Hence, we will need more and better ventilation and cooling to keep the temperature down in the kitchen. I imagine that this problem will get a lot of architectural and engineering attention over the coming years. But – also – we will need to consider what kind of changes we make in order to make that efficiency possible. Some things – like a wood-fired oven – will need a lot more surrounding infrastructure to be usable. I think a lot of these lessons can be learned from the past and from existing practices –many cultures have done some pretty neat things to ensure ventilation and cooling in hot climates.
Changes to processed foods. Some ingredients will be harder to come by, and others will be more problematic to grow as the climate changes (which I cover below). This situation will happen with the climate change that is already locked in. One way that this shift will affect our food is what goes into the processed ingredients that most of us rely on to some extent – everything from the flour that gets milled to what happens in frozen meals to the components of spice blends and preservatives in canned vegetables. These changes will affect how we cook with the ingredients, what they taste like, and how available they are. For example, I imagine that we may see a shift to more amaranth showing up in processed goods as it is a fairly drought-resistant crop. Meanwhile, I suspect that we will start to see fewer things with apple products, including widely-used juice and vinegar, given the effects of the changing climate on apple production. Most of all, I think we need to be prepared for different tastes – which have varied throughout history! As sympathetic as I am when people are upset when preferred products change, this is something we should all be prepared for – and address when we cook and eat.
Fewer water-intensive ingredients. Unfortunately, the amount of climate change that has been “locked in” will continue to affect rainfall – and not just in traditionally dry places. In many places, water-intensive ingredients like almonds and walnuts will go from just being environmentally awkward to economically and scientifically unfeasible. I expect, over the coming years, that many water-intensive ingredients will become scarcer and more expensive. There will also be pressure to use fewer of these ingredients, similar to the way that there is already pressure to consume less meat and dairy. (Though there is more scientific pushback there than with almonds or certain water-intensive plants.) Some common recipes will become less so – for example, the breadth of Jewish recipes that include almonds. Other times, substitutions will be quite common – for example, oat milk rather than almond milk.
Of course, there are many more mitigation techniques that I could discuss here – I have not even scratched meat-eating or adjustments to when we do certain tasks. And, of course, we need to cut emissions, and that comes through the food system too, as well as how we cook. Mitigation is still a key part of our response though – and I hope that this post highlighted for you how kaleidoscopic, how varied this response will be.
I am far from the first person to believe that the kitchen can change the world. In fact, such a belief motivated the domestic science movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was largely led by women. This push – though not feminist – sought to give honor and credit to women’s work in the kitchen, and to transform how women ate. Laura Shapiro’s 1986 book Perfection Salad narrates the history and impact of this movement – and how the legacy on the kitchen was “devastating” – and how it also, in many ways, strengthened patriarchy rather than lending respect to women.
The book charts the fascinating history of “domestic science,” the ancestor to today’s “home economics.” The movement stemmed from a desire to standardize and give respect to women’s domestic work – and rather than changing gender norms or the distribution of labor, social reformers sought to do so by standardizing and making scientific this labor. Much of the change happened in cuisine – with ideas of foods being controlled, and determined for nutrition or morals alone rather also for nourishment and flavor. (Hence creations like the book’s titular salad.) The book also charts the way women interested in chemistry and economics were shunted off to the gendered world of home economics – and how this whole development tied in with the popularization of industrial foods. The book is fantastic, and I highly recommend it.
One surprise for me, while reading the book, has been the type of presence Christianity has in many of these reformer’s narratives. I am unsurprised by the presence – social reform has always had a strong Christian overtone – but rather the tenor of it. Many of the reformers presented “orderly” households as analogous to Heaven itself – and one even narrated Heaven as such an establishment! Even as scientific methods were incorporated into home economics, the base of the enterprise was still a very patriarchal one of the woman as keeper of the hearth and imparter of Christian morals (with all sorts of rather biased assumptions attached). Shapiro’s depiction of this phenomenon is unflinching but also deeply engaging – she draws the reader into the minds of the authors who she writes about from a century’s distance. As I read, I reflected on similar tendencies in many Jewish social reform cookbooks in the early 20th century – like the famed Settlement Cook Book. Even with their secularizing and assimilationist tendencies, these books still relied also on older, very patriarchal ideas of what the kitchen was spiritually – and what women should be doing there.
Shapiro published this book in 1986, but many of the notes and observations carry over to much of domestic culture today. One is: the constant pushback that people – mostly women – get for following instinct and embodied knowledge rather than something “improved,” “rational,” or “new.” We saw it with domestic science, and now we see it with much of the “health food movement.” Instinct, of course, is not always right – but there is something about knowing what will work when, and the knowledge that comes from things that cannot always be measured or codified, and the action of doing. For this insight alone, Perfection Salad remains as relevant as ever.
Owamni is one of the few full-service indigenous restaurants in the United States. The menu centers indigenous ingredients like maize, wild rice (manoomin), sunchokes, and tubers. It also does not include wheat, dairy, soy, pork, or cane sugar – which were introduced through colonization. This exclusion is important for this movement – and though it contrasts with the approach of some other indigenous food activists, this focus in many ways liberates Sherman to explore some fantastic possibilities. The menu at Owamni showcases these wonders.
After lunch, I reflected on how little we discuss indigenous food in the American Jewish community. Most American Jews are White, and there is not much reflection on the way that we still buy into colonial ways of farming, eating, and cooking. I think this lack of investment partly reflects how White American Jews have, unconsciously, bought into the food system as it is.
When I have brought up indigenous cooking to some Jewish friends in the past, kashrut has been brought up as a concern. Yes, kashrut should be an option for those who choose to keep kosher. But I think here kashrut also covers the discomfort of discussing indigenous affairs – and the fact that most American Jews are not indigenous. Kashrut, as my friend Michael has written here before, is only a barrier if you let it be. I think we can cook more with indigenous food, support indigenous food systems – and eat some delicious things in the process. I certainly plan on looking more into Piscataway and Lenape food traditions back home in Maryland.
Now, for the lunch itself. David (my partner) and I chose to eat a mostly vegetarian meal, because those are the dishes that jumped out to us on the menu. We had several shared plates and one each of a small plate. Everything was delicious, and the beans and sweet potatoes ranked among the best things we have ever eaten. If you have the chance to go to Owamni, do so – and keep in mind that you will need to reserve in advance.
Owamni by the Sioux Chef is at 20 1st St S, Minneapolis, MN. It is wheelchair accessible and close to several transit options. Reservations open 60 days in advance.
Sean Sherman, the head chef, also has a cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Cookbook. I greatly recommend it. The link takes you to Birchbark Books, which is the United States’ only indigenous-owned bookstore. Order from them if you can – and if life takes you to the Twin Cities, the bookstore itself is a real treat.
Cheese is traditional for Shavuot across Jewish traditions. In honor of the upcoming holiday, I want to share a recipe for a baked good I’ve come to make fairly frequently in recent years. These cheddar rosemary scones are based partly on a traditional British scone, and partly on an Amish biscuit recipe. What I appreciate about this family of recipes is that baking soda and baking powder make for an incredibly fluffy final product – one that is very fluffy. One of my favorite sensory joys, too, is watching the baking soda already act and rise when it hits the buttermilk as you mix the dough for these or a soda bread. If you are sighted, I hope you enjoy this too.
You could grate your own cheddar for this recipe, but I make it with the discount shredded sharp cheddar from the supermarket and it is perhaps even more delicious, given that the machine shredder loses less of the cheese than me on a food processor or box grater. Modernist food for the win.
Cheddar Rosemary Scones
Makes 15-18 biscuits
2 cups white flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
¾ teaspoon table salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon dried rosemary
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar (any type of shred is fine)
¼ cup melted butter or vegetable oil (either/or)
1 cup buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Line one large or two medium cookie sheets with parchment paper.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, pepper, and garlic powder.
Add the cheese and rosemary and mix in thoroughly.
Add the butter/oil and buttermilk and mix together to form a dough with a spoon.
When combined, use two spoons to scoop clumps of dough about 3in/7.5cm wide and place onto the parchment about 2in/5cm apart. These will not be even – do not worry about that! The variety is part of the appeal, and the soda will help them grow.
Bake for 13 minutes. The biscuits will expand and turn golden.
Remove from the oven and let sit on the cookie sheet for 10 minutes before moving and serving. Store in a sealed container at room temperature or in the fridge for up to five days.
Thank you to Yohannes and Camille Bennehoff, Kenny Turscak, Melanie Marino, Scott Michael Robertson, and two people who boldly asked me for scones at the Midlands in DC for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this iteration of the recipe.
This post is based on several reader requests. A number of folks have told me that they, or their partners or roommates, have trouble with reading recipes and end up with kitchen disasters, bizarre results, or taking an extremely long time to make something.
I’m working on a longer-term project to address some of these issues from a neurodivergent lens (more coming soon!). That said, I want to share a checklist on what to check before you make a recipe, so that you are prepared for the recipe and what it entails, and make the recipe in a way that works for you. (Or not! Sometimes you might realize that a recipe isn’t for you. I’ve been cooking since I was six, and even I have that realization sometimes.)
This list has ten questions that I ask myself when I read a recipe. The answers to this question inform not just whether I make a recipe, but what I do before I make it, and how I make sure that I do all the steps to make it. I hope that this helps you, too.
Before I begin: whenever I make a new recipe, I always read over the entire recipe at least twice (and usually many more times. Recipes are often complicated little beasts, and you should have a general idea of the shape of the recipe, even before you start asking these questions, and certainly before cooking.
Now, the checklist itself.
How much time do I have to cook? This is important to know. If you have 45 minutes, for example, you probably do not want to do a very complicated recipe. If you have a whole afternoon, then obviously you have more options. I ask myself this question, especially given that recipe preparation times in cookbooks are often wildly off (and vary from person to person which is why I do not give them). To be safe, I tend to multiply any prep time by 1 ½.
What ingredients do I need, and in what forms do I need them? The first reason I ask this of myself is to know what I need to buy, if I am going shopping, and to make sure I did not miss anything. Pay special attention to the forms of the ingredients since oftentimes, they are not interchangeable (for example, tomato paste versus fresh tomatoes). When you do substitute them, you will need to take special care – which brings me to my next question.
What substitutions do I need to make? You might not have an ingredient, you might have an allergy or aversion, or you might have another reason you need to swap something out. Always start with any substitute the author suggests, and then go to the internet and do some searches if there are no suggestions. Only trust your guess with a substitution if you have done it before – for example, I can usually substitute eggs in baked goods because I have done so dozens of times. I have a common substitutions list.
Do I have to prepare ingredients first or is that in the recipe? Most recipes are written with some directions as to how an ingredient should be prepared – a chopped onion, a drained can of beans, and so on. Often this makes sense, because the recipe itself quickly assembles and changes these prepared items. That said, preparation takes time (and is never properly reflected in time estimates). Check to see what things you need to do there – such as chopping vegetables. Account for that in your time if you can. If you’re new at cooking, or haven’t cooked for a while, I recommend observing and noting how much time it takes for you to do things like chopping, and how much energy. Factor these things in when reading a recipe – you may want to avoid a recipe for which the preparation is particularly intense. (Confession: my knife skills are still slower than average even though I’ve cooked for over 20 years now. I sometimes skip recipes that require tons of chopping as a result.)
What equipment do I need? Always good to check – not just to make sure you have it in your kitchen. Chopping and prepping your ingredients only to find that your pot needs washing is a frustrating experience.
What are the steps? I read this in advance to know how much energy it will take to make a recipe, and also how much I will need to concentrate, or if I can cook other things during parts or take it a bit easy. For example: a stew that cooks for an hour with only some stirring leaves a lot more room than, say, a stir-fry with lots of quick motions.
What steps might I need time or help with? Some things can be tricky – it is good to know if, say, a long kneading process is involved. If you live with someone else who can help you, you can also check if you can get their help with a particularly tricky step – for example, draining pasta from a large pot.
Have I made recipes like this before? What did I learn then that can help me now? This is always good to ask yourself, so that you can both apply new skills and remember from past mistakes. For example, I remembered from making a miso eggplant that extra miso burns in the oven really easily, so I made extra sure to make sure not too much miso dripped off when making miso-glazed salmon.
What do I need to do before I start cooking? For example, do you need to go shopping – or wash a lot of things you’re bringing out from the closet? Or are you ready to go? This process takes energy and time.
Do I have the time, energy, and things I need to cook this recipe? Consider the answers to questions 1-9. No shame if the answer to number 10 is no.
I hope this helps you as you go forth, explore recipes, and make great and delicious things in your kitchen.
Here is a simple, easy recipe from one of the stars of the show from my Passover seder: a spicy dip with beet and skyr. This dip was inspired by two things: an all-consuming love for beets, and a spicy habanero skyr that my partner and I tried in Iceland. Beets, as it happens, are a common addition to the seder table, as their red color symbolizes the Passover sacrifice of long ago.
Skyr is interesting to work with – partly because it is lower in fat than yogurt, which it resembles. To make this dip richer – and to help it carry the spice and the flavor of the beet – I added a touch of olive oil, which also makes the dip simultaneously smoother but also even more likely to color anything it touches. Don’t wear white when eating this!
Spicy Beet Skyr Dip
1 large or 2 small cooked beets, peeled (You can use the pre-packaged cooked ones from the supermarket)
This post starts with a country that most people do not think of for Jewish food: Iceland. I recently went on a lovely trip there with my partner. Iceland has many things to love, big and small. Among these things are the food. Some of the food comes from Iceland’s pastoral and fishing heritage: lamb, skyr, butter, cod, and rye bread. And some comes from the incredible creativity of Icelanders – tomatoes and carrots from greenhouses powered by geothermal heat, bread combining the flours of the world with local flavors and advantages; and an abundance of high-quality processed foods. The latter is what I am thinking about here. As I walked through supermarkets in Iceland (something I love to do whenever I travel), I thought about Rachel Laudan’s call for embracing modernist food. If any country has heard this, it is Iceland.
Iceland’s wholehearted embrace of modernity for food – and all the promises that brings – is inspiring. Much of this has to do with the fact that Icelanders aren’t overly romantic about the hardships of the past, which were particularly harsh for a volcanic country just off the Arctic Circle. Modernity is not bad or unnatural – it means that vegetables can be grown closer to home, Icelanders can have a high quality of life, and healthy food is readily available with a fair amount of variety. Some countries direct travelers to unbroken agricultural traditions. Iceland – especially its government – goes in the opposite direction. Icelanders show off greenhouses and posters explaining all of Iceland’s excellent milk products. This push comes not just as a promise of prosperity – but also as a new way of revitalizing traditions, from preserved fish to skyr to some of Iceland’s more notorious specialties. In some ways, this embrace even enhances some of Iceland’s traditions, such as the baking traditions that preserve recipes now lost in the mainland Nordic countries.
We should all be like Icelanders in this way.
Some people pooh-pooh the industrial and artificial for a “natural” history they romanticize and misremember. I have made this point again and again on this blog. A lot of this has to do with the stories people would rather tell or hear about the food they eat. Stories are nice but should not be the basis for advocacy or a food system – the good old days were not very good. (Especially for Jews and Icelanders, and black people in the Americas.) Rather, as Laudan notes, we need to advocate for high quality processed foods. Or as I say, we should try to become a bit more like Iceland. For that, the advocacy and the making is not enough – we also need to tell stories.
In her masterful Cook As You Are, Ruby Tandoh asks us to imagine what a narrative (which she calls a “mythos”) for processed food looks like. As I noted, Iceland is already beginning to get there with modern food. And part of that has to do with the stories – that there is something about making the highlands bloom with greenhouses, or the clever reuse of Iceland’s volcanic features and abundant water. And let us not forget that Iceland fought off British ships – and won – to be able to fish for cod, which was then processed – and by then, in very modern ways. Those fishermen are well-remembered. There is humor in these stories, too, such as a book of poetry in honor of the discount supermarket Bónus. (I have read it, and can confirm that it is funny.)
Some of this type of storytelling does exist in Israel, with narratives of the kibbutz and the behemoth of the Israeli modern food system. I want to ask: what would American Jewish modernist food storytelling look like? Of course the stories themselves would vary – some stories would be about technology, some about ingenuity, and some about tradition. I would hope that some would be about the workers in plants and in supermarkets and the cooks in commercial kitchens. I think many would be about familiar foods – say, the workers who produce industrial matzah meal or cream cheese, or the technological ingenuity of canned, jarred beets. Others could show the promise of new technologies and tie them to traditional foods – imagine a hraimehor gefilte fish made from fish grown in new forms of aquaculture, or borekas made in giant air fryers. And most of the stories can only be told after the innovation happens. Nothing in this lore would negate the Jewishness of this food. Icelanders can tie their modern embrace to their rich cultural tradition – and so should we.
Everyone has a favorite legume, and for me in recent months, that bean has been the black-eyed pea. I love the meaty, nutty flavor of the bean, its toothsome texture, and their subtle, starchy smell. Not to mention that, among beans, the black-eyed pea is particularly beautiful.
Black-eyed peas, which are a type of cowpea, have a long history in many Jewish cuisines. The peas were common on Jewish tables in the Talmudic era, and continue to be popular today among Jewish communities from Turkey, Syria, Iraq, the Balkans, and India – as well as Jews across the Southern United States and in African countries. Egyptian Jews are especially fond of black-eyed peas, both fresh and dried. For many, the food is a tradition on Rosh Hashanah, because the Arabic and Ladino name for the pea – lubya – sounds similar to various words meaning “plenty” and “prosperity” in Aramaic and Hebrew. This tradition parallels the Black American tradition of black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. That said, black-eyed peas are delicious enough – and, in dry form, hardy enough – for year-round consumption.
Here, I adjust a recipe from a favorite, newish cookbook, In Bibi’s Kitchen, by Hawa Hassan and Julia Turshen. The book is a collection of recipes by women from eight African countries that border the Indian Ocean. One of my favorites is a simple and absolutely elegant white bean recipe by a woman in Madagascar, Jeanne Razanamaria. That recipe blends the tang of red onion with the hearty goodness of white beans. That recipe has become a frequent star on my dinner table – and, even though it is from a country with a completely different culinary history, very reminiscent of Jewish white bean recipes. (Perhaps not surprising in the Indian Ocean context.) I decided to try this recipe with other legumes, and found that some beans with a stronger flavor – like black eyed peas – also needed other strong flavors to pair with it and the relative lightness of the red onion. Hence my addition of garlic, which does feature in many recipes from around the Indian Ocean. My suggestion is to not just make my recipe, but also Razanamaria’s original recipe. Both are delicious.
If you want another excellent black-eyed pea recipe by a far more achieved Jewish chef and writer, I highly recommend this recipe for black-eyed pea soup by Michael Twitty – whose book, The Cooking Gene, is one of the Great Books I’ve recommended on this blog.
As for this recipe – it only has six ingredients! The flavor comes not from spices – as much as I love them – but from judicious application of each of the ingredients. The beans, onions, garlic, and tomatoes each shine in their own way, supported by the oil and salt. Finally, a note: I have not tried this recipe with canned beans, only dried. If you successfully adapt it for canned beans, let me know!
Black-Eyed Peas with Red Onion and Garlic
Based partly on a white bean recipe by Jeanne Razanamaria in In Bibi’s Kitchen
½ pound/250g dried black-eyed peas*, soaked overnight or for at least six hours
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 large red onion, diced
3 slicer tomatoes, roughly chopped, with seeds removed
6 cloves garlic, crushed
In a medium pot, cover the soaked black-eyed peas with enough fresh water to cover the beans by 2 inches/4 centimeters. Bring to a boil, then simmer for an hour, or until soft. Stir now and again.
Set aside ¾ cup of the beans’ cooking liquid. Drain the beans and add a generous dash of salt. Set aside.
Wipe down the same pot, then place on medium-high heat. Add the oil, then sauté the red onion for about 3-4 minutes, or until softer and beginning to caramelize slightly.
Add the tomatoes and sauté for 3 more minutes, or until the tomato skin begins to separate from the flesh.
Add the beans and the garlic and mix thoroughly, then add the reserved cooking liquid.
Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, and then add a second generous dash of salt to taste.
Serve with rice and any other fixings. Leftovers keep in a sealed container for five days in the refrigerator, or in the freezer for several months.
Thank you to Jennifer Szlasa and David Ouziel for participating in User Acceptance Testing. Thank you to Mikaela Brown for finally getting me to write about black eyed peas.
Though I myself still partake in many animal products and a rather abundant amount of gluten, I am trying to learn some more gluten-free, vegan dessert and snack recipes. Some of this has to do with the fact that I now interact in spaces with people with each or both of these dietary needs, and I’m too lazy to make two things. Also, some of this is that this skill is probably useful to develop for potlucks. In my research, I was reminded of a delicious dessert or snack from Italy – castagnaccio, a nut- and herb-studded chestnut flour pudding. This traditional snack has not only a wonderful, chewy but dense texture and earthy, nutty taste – but is also vegan and gluten-free.
Chestnuts have a fairly interesting Jewish history which I have touched on in prior posts, particularly in my recipe for kestaneli kuzu – lamb stewed with chestnuts. In additional research, I came to learn that the Jews of Northern Italy put chestnuts into many delicious things – including a traditional charoset recipe, polentas, and stuffed pastries. Some of the use of chestnuts had to do with poverty – before potatoes and corn arrived in the New World, chestnuts were a key source of starch for many European peasants. Wealthy people ate chestnuts too, often cooked with more expensive things like meat or sugar. I have a suspicion that dishes like castagnaccio crossed some boundaries – because while the chestnuts themselves were accessible, grinding chestnuts into flour required significant labor. It is a modern miracle that I can simply order chestnut flour online that has already been ground for me. I imagine castagnaccio graced more well-off tables more frequently – especially if there was someone else doing the grinding or cooking.
Back to today – most of the recipes called for raisins. My partner despises raisins, which is one of the traditional cornerstone ingredients in castagnaccio. I solicited advice from my Facebook friends on how to substitute the raisins – a key source of sweetness – without losing too much in taste. (Thank you!) I landed on a substitute with a splash of wine and some added sugar – which many castagnaccio recipes traditionally omit.I served the castagnaccio along with some ricotta and honey for added moisture – though you can obviously substitute similar vegan things or omit these. The texture is very difficult to describe but quite lovely – with a certain firm chewiness, and the nuts add a wonderful taste and aroma. I will definitely make this again.
I’m excited to share another guest post by my dear friend, Michael Faccini, who wrote a lovely interfaith seder piece last spring. This post may be controversial, but I think it is badly needed: a discussion on the intersection of race and kashrut, especially in shared spaces.
“Kashrut is only a barrier if you let it be.” This line sums up many of my thoughts about kashrut – and, during the decade when I kept some form of kashrut, my general attitude. Yet, as Michael notes in this piece, sometimes kashrut is an intentional barrier – one that often intersects with attitudes about race and class, particularly for white Jews. I know many firm kashrut-keepers who don’t let kashrut be a barrier for building community, and who ardently question the way race often intersects with supposedly neutral ways of keeping kosher. Sadly, I know many who do not.
I hope you read and enjoy this piece. Michael has generously provided his kosher recipes for tostones – a classic Dominican side dish and snack – at the end of the post, so please be sure to reach that point too. Michael has requested a shout out to his favorite Dominican spot in Washington Heights, El Valle Seafood. I would like to add Albert’s Mofongo in Inwood, which very helpfully has a lard-free mofongo for those of us who avoid pork (and lard-filled ones for those that do eat pork). It is delicious, and here in Greater Washington I frequently miss it.
“What are you making?” said with a confused and concerned face. That’s how I’ve ended up introducing a lot of fellow Jews to the luscious fried delight that is tostones. I make excellent tostones (technique to follow), but I’m not so sure that a white Jew from rural Montana should be anyone’s introduction to tostones and plantains in general. It feels particularly strange because most of those people have been roommates past and present in Washington Heights. I find myself wondering: how exactly do they live in this largely Dominican neighborhood of NYC and not know what a tostone is?
It seems like an innocent and easy question, but answering it reflects a lot of the challenging racial dynamics I’ve seen among the Jewish community living in the Heights. Before moving here, I was introduced to the Heights as being a Jewish neighborhood. As home to Yeshiva University, a sizable Orthodox population, and a popular traditional egalitarian shul, there are ways in which that is true. There are long and deep Jewish roots in the Heights and a recent significant population growth of young Jews, particularly students and young families, in the neighborhood. When I first moved to the Heights in the summer of 2019 to attend rabbinical school, that description fit. Living on Bennett*, most of the people I saw walking around the neighborhood were visibly Jewish, wearing kippot, tzitzit, and sheitels or tichels, or people I met through Jewish roommates.
A couple of weeks after moving in, though, I needed to cross over Broadway to St. Nick for the first time, to buy a shirt from Goodwill for a job interview. That’s when I met a more realistic representation of the Heights, known to some as the Little Dominican Republic. On the St. Nick side, Spanish is used prominently in signs and also heard throughout the neighborhood. There are street vendors of all kinds, many selling fruits and vegetables common in Caribbean cooking and foods like chicharrón and tamales (obviously not Dominican, but delicious). And, most clearly, the majority of the people you see on the street are Latin American (Latine), Dominican particularly. The income is also apparent. It’s no coincidence that Goodwill was located in that part of the neighborhood (it’s since closed), along with storefronts like Boost Mobile, health insurance companies that service Medicaid and free federal plans, and community-owned businesses. Looking for housing later, I learned that those couple of blocks from Bennett to Wadsworth/St. Nick are worth a difference of $200-300+ in rent.
If the neighborhood is so clearly Dominican, why was I introduced to it as a Jewish neighborhood? To me, part of the answer lies in the history of the Heights. Jewish immigrants, particularly in the aftermath of the Holocaust, were a prominent community in the early 1900s. Because of the historic roots in the neighborhood, there can often be this sense of reclaiming and returning to the neighborhood. “We’re not moving in, we’re moving back.” I understand the temptation, especially for individuals whose families were early members of the Jewish community in the Heights. At the same time, it ignores why Jews left the neighborhood. A lot of the Jewish community moved out during the White Flight of the 1960s/1970s. That’s when the Dominican community moved in in large numbers following the assisination of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, transforming the neighborhood to the largest Dominican community outside of the Dominican Republic. And things were not great when they arrived, only getting worse when the crack epidemic began. Violent crime, particularly through gun violence, was prevalent. The Dominican community came together in the 90s/early 2000s to change the neighborhood and make it what it is today. That’s when we see the boom of young white Jews moving to the Heights and clear gentrification-fueled attempts to rebrand the neighborhood to WaHi after SoHo (thankfully these have failed).
Those dynamics influence what I see as a core reason for seeing the Heights as a Jewish rather than Dominican neighborhood: segregation. While of course there are Dominicans living west of Broadway and Jews living east, the racial demographics largely fall along geographic lines. Perhaps more notable, though, is the very limited interaction between the two groups, outside of customer service, childcare providers, domestic help, and (Jewish) landlord to (Dominican) tenant. If you live in the Heights and you’re Jewish, almost all, if not all, of your social contacts are also Jewish. It would make sense, then, to see it as primarily a Jewish neighborhood, especially if you live on a street that is largely Jewish.
Going back to food, these contribute to some of the answer for why I meet a lot of Jews in a Dominican neighborhood who don’t know what a tostone is, even though that’s the cultural equivalent of not knowing what a tortilla is in a Mexican neighborhood. If you don’t realize and/or care that the neighborhood is Dominican, you’re not going to really be exposed to those foods. It’s often more than lack of exposure. There is a profound lack of curiosity and often a desire to be separate that people justify on religious terms, particularly kashrut.
I naively underestimated that dynamic when I entered a conversation over a Shabbat meal shortly after moving back to the Heights. I’d shared that I chose to move away for a while because I found the clear segregation (and Jewish apathy toward it) too difficult to deal with, particularly with some personal challenges at the time. Somehow the conversation moved to suggestions about how that could be approached. I suggested convening religious leadership from both communities, as the Catholic church and local synagogues have a lot of sway in their respective communities. Immediately I was met with this litany of reasons why the synagogue leaders wouldn’t feel comfortable. “Okay, so what about the Reform congregation?” According to this person, that wouldn’t work because the neighborhood was “too religious” for that community to be a good representation. I started to get the sense that my roommate’s friend was wanting separation.
Starting to feel the futility, the conversation switched to tactics. Heavily influenced by a lifetime of watching Anthony Bourdain, I suggested a communal meal to start the process. Food, after all, has always been my soft entry into other cultures, including Dominican culture. Immediately the concerns about kashrut came forth. Which, you know, have some validity. Dominican food is not exactly known for its great vegetarian options and those would still pose some difficulties for people only eat hechshered kosher food (food prepared with supervised ingredients in a kosher kitchen). “Okay, what about if they prepared vegetarian food in our kitchens under supervision?” For those unfamiliar, this is a totally legitimate, although not universally accepted, way of solving the kashrut issue because the food would have hechshered ingredients, be prepared in a kosher kitchen, and there are ways to deal with concerns about someone not Jewish doing the cooking. And that’s how I finally understood that the issue wasn’t about kashrut or religion.
Her face was filled with absolute disgust at the idea of a Dominican cooking in her kitchen or the kitchens of anyone she knew. A year and a half later and I am still horrified at her response. Dominicans can stock our food at the store. Dominicans can scan and bag our food. Dominicans can clean our kitchens. But God forbid they cook in our kitchens, at least if they’re cooking their cultural foods and doing so as our equals. I find it hard to believe that a non-Jewish Italian making fresh pasta or Japanese person rolling sushi in our kitchen would have elicited the same disgust.It was fear and hatred of the racial Other dressed up in the guise of religion and kashrut.
This is an extreme example, but, when it comes to Latine food particularly, kashrut is often used as an excuse not to explore and form closer bonds. There are some real challenges. I won’t deny that. I experienced them when I used to keep kosher. It’s hard to find things that you are confident are vegetarian and there’s often a language barrier in verifying ingredients/preparation. While there is at least one vegan restaurant that serves Dominican food, I don’t expect to see a successful kosher-certified Dominican restaurant in my lifetime. That’s why I learned how to make things like tostones and sofrito and bacalao. I wanted to experience the food, but needed to make it kosher. Was it as good as the real stuff? Probably not. But I didn’t let kashrut keep me from exploring food so I could get a better sense of Dominican culture while also getting to know Dominican coworkers. Kashrut is only a barrier if you let it be.
Some would argue that that’s one of the reasons behind kashrut. Not being able to eat with your neighbors makes it really hard to form close bonds and, therefore, to marry with them and have children with them. Ignoring that this doesn’t seem to apply to pizza or Eastern European foods that commingled to make some quintessentially Jewish foods or sushi or a whole lot of other things, this begs the question: is that a value we want to have in 2022? And what does it mean when a majority white group applies that to Latine and/or Black communities and certain Asian communities**? None of us can say with any certainty that reluctance and/or refusal to make kosher mofongo isn’t a reflection of racism. For me, the answer to values in 2022 and beyond is no. My reasons for no longer keeping kosher are many, but the greatest benefit I’ve seen is my ability to experience other cultures and form closer bonds with people from those cultures. I wouldn’t have been able to form some of the close bonds without unrestricted food sharing. I love making tostones on my own. But I love making tostones with a friend and eating their food even more.
Now for that tostones recipe…
Select green plantains, the greener the better; 1 plantain makes 8-10 tostones.
Peel the plantains- I cut a slit through the skin the full length of the plantain to start the peeling process (if you are making more than 3 plantains, soak them in salted water to prevent discoloration).
Heat a skillet with an inch of canola or other neutral oil over medium heat.
Slice the plantains into ¾” slices.
Fry in the oil until lightly browned on each side.
Remove and immediately flatten using a glass or other flat object.
Return the flattened plantains and fry until light golden brown.
Drain on a paper towel and salt to taste, or season with Adobo for more flavor.
*I’m choosing to use geographic and other street markers even though they may mean little to people who don’t live in the Heights or haven’t before. Living in St. Louis and now the Heights, I’m very familiar with the ways in which a street is often the line of segregation and how much difference a block or two can make for demographics, housing prices, and safety. In St. Louis, that’s Delmar Boulevard. In the Heights, that line is Broadway. My goal is to make the invisible visible to fellow Jews living in the neighborhood that find a way to ignore those lines of segregation.
**Asian cuisines that have been made kosher, such as Chinese and Japanese food, have a pretty clear class correlation. Jews felt comfortable sharing Chinese food and making Chinese food kosher at a time in which we, too, were new immigrants and shared a similar socioeconomic status. Japanese food, adopted more recently, is primarily associated with upper-middle/higher class. Asian cuisines from cultures that have had less economic success, such as Vietnamese and Thai food, rarely find their ways onto kosher menus. (Jonathan note: Krishnendu Ray has an excellent book about this broader trend.)