What Do Autistic People Cook?

This post is part two of a three-part series. See the first post here.

In my last post, I discussed how the relationship between autism and food, often narrated as limiting, is actually multifaceted and very complex. There is joy, there is creativity, and yes, there are boundaries, but we autistic people relate to food well beyond limits. In this post, though, I want to discuss what autistic people cook, and how they go about cooking it.

What do autistic people cook? The answer to this question of course tends to vary from culture to culture – though on the internet, you’d come to believe that macaroni and cheese is the national dish of autistic people. A few commonalities abound. Many autistic people rely heavily on the same or a few recipes for various reasons. These “same foods” are safe from the perspective of sensory needs or a need for structure; the recipe is “known” enough to allow preparation without taxing executive function; often, the ingredients are on hand too. I have noticed that these same foods are often comfort foods of whatever culture an autistic person grew up with – for example, huevos con ejotes in Mexico or chili for people from Cincinnati.

Bowl of meaty Cincinnati chili with cheddar cheese on top.
Cincinnati chili. (Photo CC/Wikimedia Commons)

Other autistic people tend to enjoy cooking a wide variety of foods, especially if – like me – they find sensory pleasure in cooking. Some autistic people also do not enjoy consecutive meals or consecutive textures. Sometimes, the “calculus” in a recipe might be different for autistic people than for people who are not autistic. For example: many autistic people are highly sensitive to texture, so a recipe may be more closely aligned around textural contrast or consistency than taste. (Chinese culinary tradition builds heavily on these contrasts.) Other autistic people, including me, add to the astringency, pungency, or acidity of their food, often doubling or tripling the amount of garlic, onions, or chilies in a dish. I realize as I write this that I’ve “gassed out” many neurotypical housemates over the years with a particularly spicy dish. It is hard to categorize what we autistic people in this category make, but I have noticed that many of us enjoy Mexican cuisine, Japanese and Korean cuisines, and the cuisines from around the Indian Ocean basin – Ethiopian, Indian, and Thai food. These culinary traditions place a lot of stock in the sensory experiences to which many autistic people are especially sensitive.

Gnocchi on a board
Gnocchi (photo CC)

Many autistic people are very adept at substitutions. Part of this skill comes from the aversions many autistic people have to certain textures, foods, or ingredients – and so they have to learn how to, for example, substitute for the depth of onion without the texture of onion. In addition, it appears anecdotally that autistic people are disproportionately vegetarian, vegan, or adherent to religious dietary rules. Sometimes, cooking certain things might involve an ingredient “swap.” When I surveyed people on an autistic food forum, a lot of contributors brought up substitutions.

Autistic people often heavily rely on written recipes. Why? Many autistic people have an easier time with structured directions or steps when doing complex tasks like cooking, and a well-written recipe helps in this regard. When recipes go awry, it can be hard for many autistic people to “course correct” – even when, as is often the case, it is the recipe author’s fault. (I’ve had to correct a few myself.)

Other autistic people, like me, are not as reliant on recipes but need other forms of structure in the kitchen as well – and tend to do certain things in very routine or predictable ways. For example, I cannot go to a grocery store without a list, which means I plan what I cook at home – and many adjustments I might make to recipes – well in advance. One autistic person posted about planning meals for a whole month! Autistic people often memorize key recipes, too – which adds another layer of structure. Even those who don’t need written recipes memorize them, because we autistic people often end up remembering reams of information anyway.

Bread pudding with cherries in the pan
Bread pudding with cherries – a dish with a soft yet firm, chewy texture that pleases many autistic people. (Photo mine, November 2017)

There is a lot of tasty food in autistic kitchens. These habits in cooking do lead to lots of delicious-sounding things. On the autistic food group I am in on social media, many people post lovely-looking meals; some of my autistic friends are among the best cooks I’ve met. I hope, someday, to see several cookbooks by autistic people on the shelves of every bookstore. Not just to share the delicious food we make, but also a little bit about how we make it. As I will explain in the next post, I think everyone can learn from autistic cooks.

A quick note: many autistic people prefer “identity-first language,” because autism is part of an identity and can’t be separated from the person. Other people on the autism spectrum prefer “person-first language,” because they want to emphasize the humanity first. (Some non-autistic people like to mention something about not being defined by the autism, which tends to rub most of us the wrong way.) I switch between the two in my day-to-day life, but many of the people I spoke with strongly prefer identity-first language. So I am using that.

Thank you to the dozens of fellow autistic people who I spoke with while preparing to write this piece, particularly those on the Autism Meals Facebook group.

Not Just About Limits: A Misconception About Autism and Food

Old kitchen with many implements and a big window
In this kitchen, the window would always be open for me. Photo by Charlotte May on Pexels.com

The windows are open, or the air conditioner is cranked up, so that I do not get too hot. I put on gloves before I handle the sticky dough, and use a spoon – rather than my hand – to sprinkle the sugar and seeds on the cookies. These are a few little ways you might see my autism playing out in the kitchen.

I have talked about being autistic and how it affects cooking before, both in my writing and in this excellent piece by Ruby Tandoh. In this and the next two posts, though, I want to focus on autism and cooking generally. As part of the research for this piece, I collected thoughts and experiences from several dozen other autistic people, on social media and in my life.

Every autistic person is different. Some, like me, can “pass” as neurotypical in certain situations and are extroverts. Some cannot, are introverts, or use spoken language intermittently or not at all. Some have strong sensory sensitivities (like me). Some do not. Some see things in black-and-white. Others struggle to see things as binary choices or complex systems (like me). Some need comparatively little support in their day-to-day lives. Others need more support from others – which does not affect their worth or capacity. All these things affect how autistic people engage with food and everything around it. Yet many people see food and autism as a conversation only about limits.

Pasta
(Photo CC)

“Autistic people are all very picky eaters.” “Autistic people have severe food limits.” “Autistic people cannot cook independently.” These are things I have seen and heard bandied about, even by other autistic folks. And while these things do apply to some autistic folksand there’s no shame in that – these are generalizations that also reduce the entire autistic experience of food to one of limits.

While limits matter, they are not the only way autism connects to food. Being autistic is a non-stop, all-encompassing experience, and of course, that will include food. Besides, autistic folks are as complicated as everyone else – and that applies as much to me as it does to someone with higher support needs and different capacities. To go beyond this idea of limits, I will now walk through three aspects of autistic relationships with food: sensory, executive, and interest.  

A shelf of canned fish
(Photo public domain)

Autism is a sensory experience. Many of us are highly sensitive to certain things that we touch or perceive – bright or dim lights, hot or cold temperatures, loud noises or quiet, or any of a panoply of textures can cause a level of distress or joy other people usually do not experience. A bad sensory impact can affect our ability to do other things, regulate our emotions, or remember certain facts or aspects of our surroundings. Many autistic people experience sensory sensitivities that relate to food. Some people cannot eat food with certain textures, or touch ingredients with certain textures. Others, like me, need to be careful with how hot the kitchen gets while we are cooking. One friend of mine cannot handle the sound of other people chewing. Other sensory experiences, however, can bring a type of joy or pleasure beyond that of non-autistic people – something that scientists have noted in autistic people’s dopamine responses to certain stimuli. The smells of the food, touching other textures, or the process of iterative tasting as one adjusts a recipe were all cited as “sensorily pleasant” experiences. Some of the people I spoke with cited these “sensory-seeking experiences” as a reason they enjoy cooking or eating certain foods. I myself have this with the sensation of stirring, which I find soothing.

Spoons with spices
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Autism affects executive function – which then determines how we cook. Autistic people sometimes have different strains on doing everyday tasks or other tasks, such as keeping things organized or focusing on certain topics. For example, I tend to get hyper-focused on specific things, whereas another friend has trouble staying focused on one thing for too long. In the kitchen, many autistic people do certain things to help concentrate or do tasks in a workable order. For example, some autistic people must have a completely clean and clear kitchen area to cook at all, or else the clutter is too distracting. Others need specific directions, with exact recipes and mentions of equipment and time ahead of time. Other people have difficulty following a recipe exactly, and cannot “clean as they go along.” Some people save their meal planning for special occasions like holidays – and others, like me, plan many of our meals days in advance. Each autistic person tends to do something different in the kitchen as a result – but it is all with different capacities in mind.

For some people, cooking can be so taxing that it cannot be done every day or very frequently at all. Hence, many autistic people rely on prepared foods or other processed foods, and others rely on the same food for many meals. Many autistic people on the internet joke that boxed mac and cheese is an “official food” of autism. Other autistic people live with people who do more of the cooking or food decision making. These experiences not only parallel other people with disabilities, but also many people whose time or executive function are affected by other things. I doubt that many autistic people’s diets and food habits are that different from that a busy non-autistic parent of a newborn or young infant, or someone overworked or juggling multiple jobs. Processed foods and prepared foods help all these people – it just takes a specific form for autistic people.

A cook ladles brown onion soup into bowls, four of which are full and eight of which are empty. A large pot is to her side.
(Photo US Air Force)

Many autistic people have intense, particular passions for a topic or an activity – which many autistic people call “special interests.” For some, the sensory joys and experiences of cooking – and all the tasty food – becomes one of those interests. For most autistic people with this interest, like me, cooking becomes a hobby. However, I was lucky enough to hear from several people whose special interest led them to become professional chefs. These people often had developed their own sophisticated ways to deal with any sort of sensory or function issue. What was even more interesting, though, was to see how many people chose to go into food precisely because it played into their traits and life as an autistic person – from the heightened sensitivity to certain things to the ability to do the same things and find joy in them to being fulfilled in their passion. If anything, cooking was the opposite of limiting: it was liberating. In that freedom, of course, was deliciousness too. Autistic chefs told me about a few proud culinary achievements: intricate truffles, delicate yet fierce meat rubs, and creative renditions of “comfort foods” among them.

We all have our own, individual, complicated relationships with food. Autism plays a role. Constraining the conversation to limits means that we cannot appreciate the joys, fun, emotional wrangling, and practical considerations that autistic people have around food. Nor can everyone learn from autistic food experiences – which, in the final post of this series, I will discuss. In the next post, though, I will look at what different autistic people cook, and how they cook it.

A quick note: many autistic people prefer “identity-first language,” because autism is part of an identity and can’t be separated from the person. Other people on the autism spectrum prefer “person-first language,” because they want to emphasize the humanity first. (Some non-autistic people like to mention something about not being defined by the autism, which tends to rub most of us the wrong way.) I switch between the two in my day-to-day life, but many of the people I spoke with strongly prefer identity-first language. So I am using that.

Thank you to the dozens of autistic people who I spoke with while preparing to write this piece, particularly those on the Autism Meals Facebook group.

The First Meal in a New Kitchen

I’m getting ready to move in a few weeks – only a few miles, to an apartment my partner and I will share. Part of this move, of course, includes packing our various sundry kitchen items from our currently two separate kitchens. This process has led me to think about that first meal I will cook in the new kitchen – whatever it may be.

A moving box with a drawing of a house and trees on it
(Image Kim Love/CC)

I’ve had to cook in a number of new kitchens over the past decade: dorms, my college apartment, the places I lived during each master’s degree, my New York City apartment, and places that I’ve spent good chunks of time in in South Africa and other places. Some of this moving about has been because I’m as peripatetic as any overeducated millennial. Some of this moving about has also followed my career. And each kitchen has been different: from a narrow New York City kitchen to the huge kitchen in the apartment I shared in college.

I usually make the same round of things my first few weeks in a new kitchen. I make an apple cake, I usually make a lentil and okra dish, and I usually make a shakshouka. The last move I made, in 2019, also included a black bean soup. Some of this habit is to reduce the cognitive overload while I adjust to a new space. Some of this cooking, however, is intentionally strategic.

Stoves and ovens, as it turns out, have their own idiosyncrasies. Some ovens tend to run hotter than others – and though an oven thermometer is always handy, knowing what “200C” actually means for your oven takes a bit of experimentation. There’s always the burner that runs a little wonky, or that electric stoves vary wildly in quality. When one makes something that one knows well, it’s easier to spot – in the differences – what one needs to be watchful for in a new kitchen. Hence the apple cake helps me figure out how much hotter an oven is than the displayed temperature, and a shakshouka can help me figure out how reliable an electric cooktop is.

Google did not turn up much for me. So I want to know: do you have a similar practice? My partner usually makes his favorite food – Cincinnati chili – but not as a way to “test out” the kitchen. Do you cook something easy post-move? Or do you try to get to know your new kitchen and its various quirks, whatever they may be?

Five Great Recipes for Office Return Weeknights

Here in the US, things are beginning to change around COVID. Obviously, these changes are a good thing – and we hope the same for elsewhere. However, there are some things that we will need to readjust to, and for some, that includes all the habits around returning to the office. Given commutes, we might need to cook more quickly on weeknights now.

In preparation for this, I have been trying some new recipes that do not take too long and make for hearty, tasty dinners. Some do require a bit more work than others in chopping vegetables, but none takes too long, and can easily feed a family or just yourself. Four of the five are by other authors, and I strongly suggest you make other recipes from those sites, blogs, and books!

Orecchiette alle Cime di Rapa – Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe

round pasta and dark greens with a bit of brothiness in a brown bowl
Orecchiette alle cime di rapa (photo mine, May 2021)

This recipe is one of my favorites, and comes from the south of Italy. The convenient part is that the vegetables and pasta are cooked in the same pot – something that, before learning how to make this myself, I thought was quite untraditional. This recipe also comes together quite quickly, and you can substitute kale or mustard greens for the rabe. Some people cook this with anchovies, but I leave the anchovies out and swap in a few more cloves of garlic and a bit of salt.

Orecchiette alle Cime di Rapa from Oldways Table/Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Hiyayakko – Dressed Cold Tofu

Tofu with sauce and bonito and scallion on blue plate
Hiyayakko (from Just One Cookbook)

This is a classic Japanese summer recipe. Silken or other soft tofu is simply dressed with a few sauces and things for seasoning – scallions, ginger, and soy sauce are most common. It is very refreshing and filling and has a lovely, pudding-like filling. I use this recipe from a Japanese author, which also adds katsuobushi – very delicious dried bonito flakes. The optional black sesame seeds add a nice touch.

Hiyayakko from Just One Cookbook

Huevos con Ejotes Eggs with Green Beans

eggs and green beans on mexican pattern brown plate with salsa and tortillas on side
Huevos con Ejotes (Maricruz Avalos)

This recipe from Mexico is tasty and very balanced – the green beans add a vegetal texture and taste to the richness of the eggs. There are also many regional varieties. I’ve made a few different recipes, and these two really stand out to me. One is from Maricruz Avalos’ excellent blog, and the other is from Oaxaca by Bricia Lopez, which is a truly excellent cookbook. I usually eat this with corn tortillas and some salsa macha or some cheese and cilantro. I use vegetarian chorizo in Bricia Lopez’ recipe.

Huevos con Ejotes from Maricruz Avalos

Oaxaca by Bricia Lopez

Shakshouka

A particularly successful shakshouka from 2014. (Photo mine)

This is one of my favorites – and, contrary to what people tell you, is probably from North Africa. That said, it has become – in various forms – a classic around the Mediterranean, including in Israel and Palestine. It is also quick to make and quite flexible – you can take all sorts of delicious vegetables and use them. This recipe was one of my first for the blog, and I am still quite proud of it. My only new addition is to suggest making it in a cast-iron skillet, which makes for a lovely serving presentation and adds a bit of weight to the flavor.

Shakshouka recipe from this blog

Cigrons amb Espinacs Chickpeas and Spinach

Spinach chickpeas and onions in a white bowl
Cigrons amb espinacs (Gimme Some Oven)

This is a traditional Catalan recipe with a  long Jewish history – Claudia Roden mentions a similar recipe in her Book of Jewish Food, and such recipes spread throughout the Mediterranean after the expulsion from Spain. This recipe is also delicious and very easy to make with canned chickpeas. I eat it with nice bread, which you can get from a store – after all, you are busy.

Catalan Chickpeas and Spinach from Gimme Some Oven

Guest Post: An Interfaith Seder, by Michael Faccini

Today we have a guest post from my dear friend, Michael Faccini, who is a social worker and all-around Jewish advocate in New York. Michael and I speak quite often, and he offered to write a post about his experience hosting his non-Jewish partner for a seder this year – including some delicious food photos and an exploratory experience. This piece is really lovely, and it’s an honor to have it here on Flavors of Diaspora. Also – I covet Michael’s ability to make flan and I will definitely ask him to teach me soon. 


Table with food and seder plate
Michael and Luis’ seder table (photo M. Faccini, March 2021)

For the past few months, I’ve been dating someone really wonderful and quite unexpected. He’s kind, considerate, supportive, and…not Jewish. I’ve been in a lot of communities in which that is automatically A Problem. So, even as he was asking respectful questions and watching Fiddler with me on a date night, I was worried about Pesach. With hesitation I asked if he wanted to do a seder with me and he said yes, without hesitation. 

After some questions, he said, “I’ll try any Jewish food…as long as it has flavor.” Uh oh. You see, my partner is Puerto Rican. His bar for flavor is a lot higher than most traditional Pesach foods that are often too bland, even for me. Challenge accepted, but with trepidation. As I planned the menu, I felt pangs of guilt. Yeah, this would have flavor, but it was all food from my culture, none from his. It’s not exactly a cultural exchange if the only culture present is mine. Remembering how he talks about his aunt’s flan, I came up with the solution: a traditional seder (with flavor) and flan for dessert. 

Seder plate with beet instead of bone and a glass of salt water
Michael and Luis’ seder plate (photo M. Faccini, March 2021)

I looked at all the Pesach recipes I could find. Which had flavor? Where could I add flavor? How was I going to do that with still impaired smell and taste from covid (recipes and memory, mostly)? I decided on: matzo ball soup, tzimmes, potato kugel, and rosemary lemon chicken. Much of the flavor for the soup came from this lovely site’s vegetarian broth recipe (Jonathan note: this compliment was unsolicited!), but also a last minute innovation in the matzo ball mix: adobo seasoning. Matzo balls are often too bland for me, but these were flavorful and delicious. For the kugel, I tried caramelizing the onions before adding them. Not really worth it and I learned that no one cares that a kugel is “bland.” The rest was standard. I made the full meal except the matzo balls themselves and the chicken. Partially this was for Shabbat, but as someone with chronic fatigue issues I find that premaking and then reheating food for stuff like this allows for pacing that reduces stress and prevents exhaustion. 

Now for the Puerto Rican side. I am a baker, but I have never made baked custards and they are notoriously easy to mess up. I went into this nervous from a technical perspective, but also because flan is a cultural food. I always worry that doing cultural foods poorly will be seen as insulting, even though he said he appreciated that I was even trying. So, I settled on this recipe and proceeded with anxiety, justifiably. My loaf pan was a little larger than the recipe. My oven is notoriously unreliable and decided that it wanted to be at 350 that day, not 300. I set the timer much earlier than the recipe and pulled it when it looked like the appropriate jiggle, until I moved it again and it looked too set. I did a video of the jiggle for amusement and sent it to him, captioned: “Here’s the (probably overbaked) flan for tomorrow.” He responded, “it looks fine.” Doubtful. 

Roast chicken with rosemary
Roasted chicken for the chag. Jonathan thinks this is a masterpiece of roast poultry. (Photo M. Faccini, March 2021)

Hopefully you’re asking yourself what he contributed to the food. My apartment is shomer kashrut even if I’m not, so I actually didn’t ask him to bring anything, and I kind of tried to discourage him. But he’s a Puerto Rican that likes to cook, so I should have known that wasn’t going to happen. He surprised me with maduros made from the blackest plantains and tostones because he knew it couldn’t have flour and that I love plantains. He also for the first time in his life bought kosher wine, requested to be sweet. And, y’all, he and the guy at Jay’s liquor delivered. I usually don’t like wine, but I enjoyed this one

Oh, wait, isn’t there more to a seder than the food?

That was also a challenge. If you think New Yorkers are all Jewish literate, I have news for you. He is a New Yorker through and through, but doesn’t know a lot about Judaism. I wanted to make his first seder one that would be educational, but mostly engaging and enjoyable. He’s a comic book nerd, so I got us the Graphic Novel Haggadah (generally enjoy, but lacks translation for a lot of things) and freely did some skimming, often with me explaining while we admired the artwork (it’s very well done). For maggid, we watched the Rugrats Passover special and Prince of Egypt. No finer maggid exists. For it all, he was engaged and curious, exactly how you should be at a seder.

Back to food. We couldn’t eat until late because I needed to wait until Shabbat ended (like 8pm) to put the chicken in. While we enjoyed our maggid options, I prepared the chicken and soup before reheating the rest. The chicken, well, the chicken had some oven related issues. We had that much later than the rest. This was the first time he’d had tzimmes and kugel. Both were hits, with the tzimmes suggested as particularly good for ham (he’s probably right and I’m pretty sure I may be asked to recreate them for just that purpose). He’s had and enjoyed matzo ball soup, so that was not new but eagerly anticipated. The broth particularly was a hit (y’all, this broth really is delicious and refreshing) and the adobo made the matzo balls themselves much more enjoyable. He enjoyed it all immensely and it definitely filled the flavor requirement. 

A whole rectangular flan
The flan. (Photo M. Faccini, March 2021)

It was time for the part of the night I’d been looking to most anxiously: the flan. I warmed the caramel by putting the pan in hot water briefly and then unmolded. I cut us slices and could tell immediately that it was not, in fact, overbaked. It was set well but still very creamy, almost like a soft cheesecake. The couple of times I’ve had flan, it was less creamy and more rubbery. I watched carefully as he took a bite and I knew before he’d said anything that I’d done well. The flan, he insisted, was perfect. His mother would be the final judge. 

When he went home in the morning after flan for breakfast, I gave him a hefty portion of flan to take with him. As soon as he got home, he had his mom try to the flan. He called me on speaker right afterward. His mom tells me how good the flan is and says, “Will you teach me? You’re Jewish, right? A Jew teaching a Puerto Rican how to make flan.” I responded that of course I would. My partner ended the call by saying that I was honorary Puerto Rican now. 

The seder was undramatic and enjoyable. But it was also transgressive. I, a white Jew, invited my Puerto Rican non-Jewish partner to seder. Even as leaving rabbinical school frees me to be open about this relationship, none of us can pretend that interfaith relationships are accepted in many Jewish communities. While we are often not read as a interracial couple because I’m often assumed to be Latine, we similarly cannot pretend that such couplings are universally accepted. There are a lot of “don’t do this” messages for our relationship just because of our demographics. That alone is transgressive, but also the act of genuine, curious cultural exchange. How often do we interact with people who are different from us in which we both are full humans and we talk about our differences? It went beautifully. I was Jewish, unapologetically. He was Puerto Rican, unapologetically. And we got to spend the evening sharing ourselves and our cultures. May we leave the narrow places in our worlds and minds so that we can have more of that freedom. 

A slice of flan on a blue and white plate
(Photo M. Faccini, March 2021)

Chopped Liver

After years of waiting, I finally got around to making one of my favorite Ashkenazi dishes: chopped liver. This recipe has become a sort of “catchall” dish for the entirety of Ashkenazi Jewish cooking, much as other specific recipes have become “representative” of entire cuisines. It is also something that can be very controversial: vegetarians have told me that this is the last meat thing they miss, and others, including my partner, will not touch it. It is also laborious, so I wanted to make it when enough liver-eaters would be with me to share a decent quantity – something stymied by the pandemic. Finally, that moment came, punctured by a few anti-organ-meat comments from my partner.

Chopped liver on bread with tomatoes with salad on a plate on a floral tablecloth
(Photo mine, February 2021)

The history of chopped liver is quite interesting. The dish originates in the Middle Ages with goose liver – which was often consumed as a byproduct of rendering schmaltz (fat, traditionally from poultry). Though preparing liver to be kosher requires salting and broiling to eliminate blood, Jews quickly developed a taste for the rich organ. A preparation of liver chopped with onions and salt quickly became popular in medieval and early modern Jewish communities, and spread in two directions. One was into France, where it became foie gras. (Yes, it has a Jewish origin!) The other was to Eastern European Jewish communities, where the dish became popular with calf and chicken livers. Eggs and more onions were added, usually to stretch the costly and strongly flavored liver. The dish has remained popular in Jewish communities ever since, though after World War II there was some decline, just like with organ meat generally.

Chopped liver is often used as a shibboleth for authenticity or tradition. In my own experience, consuming it is sometimes seen as a sign of upholding some sort of “real” Jewish culture. Others cite it as an example of a dish lost in assimilation (whatever assimilation means), just like herring and p’tcha. I suspect that some of this attachment has to do with the way “chopped liver” is used as a Jewish symbol in Hollywood. Never mind that this narrative of dishes being abandoned is, in some ways, artificial – though it has happened for a few things.

The original chopped liver source. (Photo JD Forrester/CC)

Not everyone has to like chopped liver – it is an acquired taste. That said, I do quite enjoy it. I enjoy the deep, earthy flavor good liver has – and the way that these flavors can be accentuated by a tart rye bread, a soft challah, or crunchy matzah. Then again, I have eaten chopped liver since I was a child. Not everyone has – and if someone decides they do not like it, well then, there is more for me.

I break the tradition in this recipe in two ways. One is that I use oil instead of schmaltz for a lighter final product – though many recipes nowadays use oil too. Oil was expensive into the 19th century, so many of our ancestors would probably think of an oil-based chopped liver as more luxuriant than schmaltz – which was much more common in Eastern Europe. (The schmaltz from a large goose could last a family several months.) The other change I embrace is how I blend the final product. Though the tradition is to chop it by hand, I use the food processor for a smoother – and more quickly produced – final product. Technology can aid us in deliciousness. Be careful when making it, because liver is easy to overcook. After three and a half minutes on each side, I check the livers every thirty seconds until they are finished cooking.

If you have not had it before, I strongly recommend that you try it from someone else before you cook it. Liver is a laborious thing to prepare, and if you do not like it, you will have saved yourself the effort of preparing it (as outlined in steps 3 through 4). Delis in Ashkenazi Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods often have very good liver to try. Feel free to ask in the comments if you want a recommendation for a particular area – I have recommendations in New York City, Toronto, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Chicago.

Chopped Liver

Based on the recipe by Faye Levy

2 eggs

1 lb chicken livers

Kosher salt

3 tablespoons sunflower oil

1 yellow onion, chopped

1 white onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled

Table salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Parsley to garnish

  1. Boil the eggs for ten minutes. Drain and set aside to cool.
  2. Turn on your oven or broiler to a high setting.
  3. Wash the livers under running water until the dark liquid is mostly gone. Pat dry. Then, cut off the green bits and the black bits from the liver – this takes a bit of work. These bits are a bit softer and different in texture from the rest of the liver. Place the livers in a bowl and toss with a few generous sprinkles of kosher salt. The salt draws out the blood.
  4. Place the livers on a foil-covered sheet and spread them out. Broil for 3 ½ minutes on each side, or until dark with no pink on the outside and with a smoother, more solid texture on the outside of the liver. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.
  5. Heat a skillet or saucepan, and then add the oil. Then, add the onions and garlic. Cook, stirring regularly, for 20 minutes, or until the onions are a rich brown color and have a sweet smell and very smooth, soft texture. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
  6. While the onions are cooling, peel the hard boiled eggs and mash with a fork into coarse crumbles.
  7. In a food processor, puree the livers and onions together to your preferred consistency – my family enjoys a smooth chopped liver.
  8. Pour the liver mixture into a bowl. Add the salt and black pepper to taste – I usually add twice as much salt as pepper. Then, mix in with the crumbled eggs.
  9. Garnish with chopped parsley. Serve on your chosen vehicle for chopped liver. The liver keeps in the fridge for about four days.

Thank you to Ziva Freiman for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

A Tu biShvat Foods Chart

I decided to have a little fun, in honor of Tu biShvat this year – one of my favorite holidays, and well-suited for socially distant celebrating. Many fruits and nuts are common, but there are also many allergies and aversions. Here is a chart of some traditional Jewish things you could eat to celebrate a giant birthday party for trees.

Pomegranates on a tree in an orchard
 All nuts and seedsNo nuts, seeds okayNo nuts or seeds
No dried fruit or nutsPomegranates, fresh figs, citrus fruits, fruit salad with an almond-butter-based dressing, applesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with fruit and almonds, pastries with almonds, savory stews incorporating fruitPomegranates, fresh figs, citrus fruits, applesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with sesame seeds, savory stews incorporating fruitPomegranates, fresh figs, citrus fruits, applesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with fruit, savory stews incorporating fruit
No raw fruitApplesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with fruit and almonds, pastries with almonds, savory stews incorporating fruitApplesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with sesame seeds, savory stews incorporating fruitApplesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with fruit, savory stews incorporating fruit
No solid fruit*Applesauce, date charoset, various fruit juices like pomegranate juice or grape juice, pomegranate and grape jellies, smoothies with tahini, almond milk, cashew milkApplesauce, date charoset, various fruit juices like pomegranate juice or grape juice, pomegranate and grape jellies, smoothies with tahiniApplesauce, date charoset, various fruit juices like pomegranate juice or grape juice, pomegranate and grape jellies

*For guidance on creating liquid cuisines for people who cannot or can no longer swallow, see this wonderful article from NPR and the cookbooks linked there.

Jewish Food, Dementia, and Inclusion

Two forget-me-not flowers
Forget-me-not: the international symbol of dementia advocacy (Photo by Ithalu Dominguez)

Hello! I have not posted much content in a while. Graduate school keeps one busy – although, I am pleased to say, the work is applicable to the community! And part of this work has involved lots of fieldwork and lots of writing. But now I have the time, during my break, to write a new post – on a topic near and dear to me.

Something I have recently thought quite a bit about is dementia. A good chunk of my graduate and recent professional work has been about social infrastructure and facilities for older adults, especially those with memory loss. We live in a culture that does not value people with dementia, and it is a shame. Even other discussions about disability, including some of mine, do not adequately consider people with dementia and their needs. To make better lives for older adults with dementia, we do not just need proper infrastructure, nor is it only keeping them out of congregate facilities. (Both are essential.) Rather, we need to have a cultural overhaul – and that includes food.

Trays of vegetables and fruit on a metal table
Institutional settings do not always offer choice. (Photo public domain)

We often forget that people with dementia have personalities and preferences – and that extends to palates too. As memory loss progresses, people with dementia have different experiences. Sometimes, they prefer one thing that is somewhat new. In other cases, and especially for immigrants, their preferences revert to those of their teenage or young adult years. When it comes to food, these tendencies might manifest as a strong desire for one food, or a preference for food from a home cuisine. Institutional food usually does not meet these desires. Nor do many standard programs that encourage “healthy eating” – while forgetting that “healthy food” is different from person to person.

Regularity and independence matter a lot when we talk about food and dementia. Many older adults with memory loss are given no agency over their lives – and though support is sometimes needed, support is different from forced dependence. Often, no preference about food is offered – or the opportunity to control how much is eaten, and how. At the same time, routine is grounding. Often, a regular meal or snack on the same day or at the same time is helpful and empowering. Variety, often forced, can be disquieting or distressing for some people. Yet we live in a food culture that often considers repetition or leftovers “boring” or “dull.”  This problem is part of a wider one: people with dementia are also often excluded by the food practices of everyone else. Older adults with memory loss are often talked past when food is discussed, and their preferences and needs are often dismissed. We can start by allowing for their independence and need for regularity.

Three baked challahs
Challah: a traditional bread that can be grounding. (Photo mine, October 2016)

What does that look like for Jewish food? We already have regularity: challah and other traditional breads on Shabbat, weekly festive meals, and traditions around what food gets eaten when, like herring, cholent, brik, and bourekas. Keeping up these traditions can help include people with dementia in two ways. One is providing that grounding regularity. The other is that, for many Jewish older adults, these foods may meet a need grounded in an earlier stage of life. Encouraging these traditions can be a powerful form of inclusion. At the same time, all of us can do more to encourage independence. People with dementia should have the chance to eat independently, and their preferences should be respected. If they do not want “Jewish food,” that’s okay. Jewish tradition and food should not be forced.

I strongly encourage my readers to complete the Dementia-Friendly America video series, to learn how to better support your family, friends, and neighbors with dementia.

Polenta Casserole with Spinach and White Beans

A quick corn recipe this time. Polenta has an interesting history in Jewish tradition – like other maize products, it really only became a thing after corn was brought from the New World in 1492. Polenta and similar corn porridges like mamaliga and gomi became common in certain pockets of the Jewish world: Italy, Romania, and Georgia are primary among them. Unlike rice, breads, and noodles though, there was no broad swathe of cornmeal-eaters. Georgian gomi tends to be white; Romanian mamaliga tends to be mushier, and Italian polenta tends to be firmer.

I made this casserole back over the summer when our internet was out for three days during Isaías, but had the wisdom to write this down.

casserole with vegetables and cheese on top
Casserole, as finished. Ugly but delicious. (Photo mine, August 2020)

Serves 5-8

6 cups cooked polenta (about 2 cups uncooked)

2 ½ tablespoons olive oil or butter + more for greasing

1 medium white onion, chopped

6 cloves fresh garlic, minced

1 sprig fresh rosemary, chopped finely

1 15-oz can cannellini beans, with the fluid

Salt and black pepper to taste (I find the goat cheese adds enough salt.)

1 teaspoon white wine or apple cider vinegar

3 cups frozen spinach

2 cups goat cheese crumbles

  1. If you haven’t already, make the polenta according to package directions. I use Bob’s Red Mill Polenta.
  2. Preheat the oven to 425F. Grease a 9×13” casserole with a very light layer of olive oil or butter.
  3. Heat a large skillet, then add the oil or melt the butter. Add the onions, garlic, and rosemary and sauté for a few minutes, or until the onions begin to wilt.
  4. Add the beans and fluid, salt, and pepper. Stir, then add the vinegar. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat to low and simmer for five to ten minutes, or until the fluid is mostly gone.
  5. Add the frozen spinach and mix in thoroughly, until it is cooked through. Remove the skillet from the heat.
  6. Spoon the polenta into the casserole. Then, spoon the skillet mixture on top. Add the goat cheese crumbles in an even layer on top of that.
  7. Bake for ten minutes, or until the cheese starts to brown. Serve hot.

Rosemary Lemonade

Rosemary lemonade sepia picture with sprig of rosemary
(Photo mine, October 2020)

Makes ten servings

Since the news cycle right now is not exactly…slow, I won’t bore you with a long text.

This lemonade was one of my favorite things to drink this summer. You can probably make this lemonade with other herbs; I would like to try it with thyme sometime.

2 sprigs fresh rosemary*

10 cups water

½ cup sugar

Zest of one lemon

Juice of three lemons

Ice

  1. Place the rosemary in 2 cups of water in a shallow pan and bring to a boil.
  2. Add the sugar and stir in until dissolved. Turn off the heat and remove the rosemary.
  3. Pour the syrup over ice in a large pitcher. Add the zest and lemon juice and stir well.
  4. Add the rest of the water to the pitcher. Let sit for one hour before serving.

*Different herbs will probably require different amounts – it should add up to a tablespoon or two for each time.