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.

How Are Cooking Habits Changing?

I have spent a lot of time thinking about food during this time. Some of it is because, well, I am always thinking about food. Some of it is because dreaming about food helps me deal with the wildness of the outside world – as I told Ruby Tandoh for a piece in Food52. And some of it is because, well, there is a lot to say. I’ve been keeping what has become a fairly lengthy personal diary themed around food and food systems since the onset of the pandemic, with tons of materials and recipes and thoughts. I am also working on a piece about food sharing in socially distant ways (with video!). Beyond that, though, I have been noting observations I have made – both in my professional work in local government and urban planning, as well as the cooking habits I see in my away-from-the-desk life.

A shelf of canned fish
(Photo public domain)

A lot more people are cooking, for sure – even as various places “reopen”. Many of these people were far more reliant on restaurants, takeout, and prepared foods before the pandemic; which, though not always leading to restaurants’ closure, certainly made a takeout-centric lifestyle a lot more difficult.  So folks turned to the kitchen, and new trends blossomed: sourdoughs, jam-making, homemade pastas, and complex dishes. Others cooked because they were bored; still others cooked their grief away. And even consummate cooks like me, now with more time to cook complicated things we saved for chagim and birthdays, branched out in new directions. (I mastered khachapuri.) For those new to cooking, the sudden imposition of more time, and time at home, provided an opportunity to actually learn some new skills. Some liked the cooking, some did not. But two months in, a lot of new habits might be sticking. That is curious to me, though I’m always happy when more people find joy, solace, or simply something in cooking.

Of course, the consequences from this change are not always positive. For the millions of people who rely on kitchen work, serving, and other food work to pay their bills, the shift to cooking at home can be catastrophic – no matter how virtuous the intent. Then, of course, there is the question of who is doing the cooking at home. Women are still doing far more chores than men in shared households, and that extends to cooking. Increase cooking time without addressing patriarchy, and that’s increasing women’s work. (Cooking is hard!) Then, of course, we should also remember that food safety problems can come from improperly made home-cooked food – not ideal in the time of a pandemic. One is not, actually, necessarily staying safe at home. That said, some people are now cooking more, or cooking differently.

Some of these changes will “stick” for a while. People may cook at home because going out makes them anxious. People may cook at home because that is what they are used to now. People may cook at home because they feel pressure to do so from peers or social media. People may cook at home because that is what they can afford. People may cook at home because they like it. Perhaps it is all of these things. And for those of us in Jewish communities, cooking at home may also happen because all the other wonderful parts of semachot – happy occasions – are so much harder in a physically distant world.

Soup with squash, beans, and noodles garnished with sour cream in a bowl

But I have been wondering about what these things mean long-term. One is that I think we will see some of a shift in what kind of cooking is celebrated in social media and popular discourse. The 2010s saw a lot of cooking as a showpiece: the cookies, the stews, the perfect open-faced sandwiches. (Too often without honoring marginalized creators and contributors.) But when people have spent much of a formative moment in their lifetimes cooking for themselves and those in their households, or closest circles, showpieces begin to mean much less. I think, across cultures, that we might see more “home-style” cooking – as loaded and historically complex as this idea is – in which the process and the comfort take a much more central stage. Sure, you will have centerpieces, but cooking now sits in a very different place in many people’s brains.

Cooking is work! And I sense that there is greater appreciation for that now. When you have to cook, for work, or for a family, or for yourself, you start to learn shortcuts and tricks because you know that you do not have the time, energy, or space for the “real thing” – as bullshit as that concept is anyway. A lot of new cooks are coming in, and I think they are coming in with a perspective that is not about cooking something that shows status or looks good – though that is always part of food. Rather, it’s about trying to eat and enjoy it – and the process – even as the world seems to fall apart, and even when the energy to cook isn’t fully or really there.

Perhaps we will shift to a food culture that is less precious – and hopefully, less racist. A lot of this picture-perfect food culture is built on a narrative and process that steals from the work of people of color, and masks the risks and labor of cooks of color across the food industry. I hope that these changes lead some white folks to have greater empathy – and pay more attention to whose food stories are told, and who gets the money from them. I also hope that cooking habits lead people to glorify aspirational cooking a little less, and the fact that food should be for everybody a little bit more. I also hope that, now that some have experienced cooking labor for the first time, that there is more weight and advocacy for the millions of kitchen workers that feed America – few of whom have the luxury to eat the way white pundits tell them to.

But who knows if these hopes will come true? Like the virus, food habits are often unpredictable.

Disability and Cooking in the Time of Coronavirus

Stars are footnotes and appear at the end of the post.

A white hand moving over a braille cookbook in a green binder. A bowl with a brown batter and a whisk is in the foreground.
A braille cookbook. (Photo Society for the Blind, January 2017)

Greetings from Maryland, where I am safely ensconced and riding out our strange new reality. I miss my partner, in New York, and my family, but I am okay. I hope you are managing and keeping safe.

With the ongoing crisis, I have been thinking a lot about differential access to food, and how it plays out in a pandemic situation for folks with different experiences, often marginalized ones. There are authors who have already written very eloquently about these effects from the point of view of class, race, and gender – and I strongly suggest you read these pieces too! I want to talk, today, about how these access points can play out for people with disabilities.* Specifically, I will talk about the acts of getting, storing, and making food to eat in this context. 

Canned vegetables on a shelf.
Canned vegetables that so many of us are using and storing in this time. (Photo Parenting Patch via Creative Commons)

When I wrote my piece about disability in the kitchen, the blog’s most-read article to date, I did not foresee that we would be dealing, two years later, with a global pandemic. At the time, I was working on accessible communications for a government agency; now, I am doing graduate work in urban planning, focusing on aging and disability in the built environment. Even the way I talk about my own autism has changed. And, as I research topics from public restrooms to sidewalks, I keep returning to that piece I wrote about disability in the kitchen. Now, when I watch all of our food habits change in line with the virus, enabled by technical innovations, I note that people with disabilities still face barriers to coronavirus cooking. These barriers come right alongside the threats to disabled people’s lives from rationed care, the lack of access to many remote services on which disabled people rely, and the housing problems many disabled people face. 

A shelf of canned fish
Canned goods that are often essential for many disabled people – and non-disabled people. Leave some mackerel for me! (Photo public domain)

We should remember that disability intersects with other marginalized identities. Disabled people of color face particular and often more intense barriers to access, and often lack access to services more than their white counterparts. This lack extends to access to food – be it living in food deserts or not having an accessible grocery store nearby. Gender, too, plays a role: women, non-binary people, and transgender people often also have difficulty accessing services. And class plays an overarching role. People with disabilities are far more likely to be poor and to rely on inadequate “safety nets”; many people cannot afford food during a normal time. So now, many of the interventions well-off abled people take for granted – grocery delivery, food delivery, or being able to purchase two weeks’ of food at once – are more difficult or impossible for many disabled people. Not to mention that inadequate housing and kitchens particularly affect poor disabled people – especially people of color with disabilities.** People incarcerated in “group homes”often have no autonomy over their food at all (or anything else). The inability during a “normal” time to afford a house with accessible food storage or appliances is doubly problematic when there is no accessible way to store, cook, or save large quantities of food.

But these problems start even before we get to putting food away. Let’s walk through the process of going to a grocery store, buying food, bringing it home, storing it, and cooking it in this time. 

A narrow brick sidewalk by colorful brick rowhouses with poles and stairs in the way
Narrow sidewalks with steps and blocks (like this example in Frederick, Maryland) can make getting to the grocery store a gargantuan task for disabled people. (Photo mine, February 2020)

Barriers start with the simple act of getting to the grocery store, or getting groceries delivered. Of course, some people with disabilities cannot safely leave their homes during the pandemic, and that situation itself is an enormous barrier. Many people with disabilities, including those who can leave, rely on public transit or paratransit to go to “essential services” like supermarkets, and routes and service have been gutted in many areas. As a result, what was a one-hour trip might now take three. Sidewalks, already badly maintained and narrow, are difficult to practice social distancing on – especially if you cannot wheel on dirt or safely on a busy street! Many grocery stores that are open have visitors line up on inaccessible barriers for entry, or are located in difficult-to-navigate and often dangerous areas. These challenges are added to on the return trip with the difficulty of carting food while achieving any of these tasks. Food delivery can cost more money that many disabled people do not have, and not to mention, anecdotes indicate that some things do not seem to make it into delivery baskets right now. Furthermore, many delivery services’ communications are inaccessible, be it badly-designed websites or demanding telephone calls some people cannot make. So, many people with disabilities rely on friends or family to assist with groceries – but this relies coordination, and often gives other people undue power over what that disabled person is eating. The “well-meaning” (but actually inappropriately controlling) family member might not, for example, get those sour cream ranch chips that make lockdown that much more bearable for their relative. 

A sign with an Asian elder woman with thumbs up on a street pole, saying "Extra seconds to cross? We made it better together.
Some people need some more time to get to the grocery store. During coronavirus, that can be harder to achieve while social distancing. Ironically, this sign is not accessible – yellow text on white background is actually illegal for government signage. (Photo mine, in Alexandria, VA, March 2020)

Other barriers exist once you enter a grocery store or supermarket. Of course, many grocery stores are inaccessible, with narrow aisles and steps, loud equipment that triggers sensory reactions, and broadly impossible to navigate for blind people. Coronavirus adds another layer: the need to socially distance means that you move a lot, but some people move more slowly than others. Standing in line for an hour, as occurs in many places, is not possible for some people. Social distancing is more difficult or impossible for people with cognitive disabilities, especially given the type of mental processing such distancing requires. On top of food shopping, that can become very difficult without cues in the store. The worry about viral spread, often dismissed for grocery stores, is quite real for immunocompromised people. Masks make it harder for Deaf and hard of hearing people to communicate with store staff and other shoppers, because facial expressions and lip-reading become impossilbe. And, of course, shortages play a role too. If you, like many disabled people, have food sensitivities or allergens, and your mainstay foods are out of stock, you may find shopping more difficult. Not to mention that markups on common food items may make them unaffordable to many people with disabilities.

Bestworld supermarket with a yellow sign with a sidewalk and crosswalk in front.
An inaccessible (but well-stocked) supermarket in Washington, DC. (Photo mine, September 2019)

Once someone returns, or has food delivered, how do they store it? Refrigerators and freezers are often inaccessible for people with disabilities – especially wheelchair users and people of short stature. Food packaging is usually inaccessible to blind and low-vision people, who often have to relabel all of their food once it comes back into the house. With the larger grocery hauls that result from less frequent trips away from home, this task becomes longer, and more tiring. In addition, cabinets, especially those meant for food storage, are also often not accessible for wheelchair users. When one is limited to a certain amount of space, storing two weeks’ worth of food can be an insurmountable challenge, as a result of poor, inaccessible design. (Even a design that is pretty: if it is not accessible, the design probably is not good.) Many disabled people live in housing that already was inadequate for food preparation and storage. Furthermore, for many people with cognitive disabilities, the challenge of sorting and storing food,*** already present before the pandemic, becomes even more taxing with the new amounts of food and the different rations required during the pandemic.  And, of course, let us not forget that people with suppressed immune systems are at higher risk of contracting coronavirus from packaging, if it is transmitted this way, with far worse results.

A man using a wheelchair opening a drawer under a microwave in front of a fridge.
Some kitchens are accessible. Most, sadly, are not. (Photo Amanda Mills, in public domain, August 2016).

Then, of course, there are challenges familiar and new about planning and cooking meals. All of the usual barriers impeding disabled people’s freedom in the kitchen are still there: unusable counters, dangerous stoves, inaccessible sinks, and so on. But the necessitated reliance on cooking makes it that much harder if things get messed up – something that also matters for recipients of food assistance. In addition, planning meals can be a difficult task – and planning them for as much as two weeks is often extremely difficult for people with cognitive disabilities. Furthermore, many of the pre-prepared ingredients that make cooking more manageable for people with disabilities – pre-cut vegetables, canned fruit, and little herb sachets among them – are in short supply at many groceries. Some disabled people may not be able to, say, safely chop an onion in their kitchen.

For many disabled people, this paradigm is particularly exhausting. Some disabled people already work with lower levels of energy or higher fatigue than other people. Most disabled people have to do the honestly tiring work of figuring out how to move around barriers, to navigate inaccessible spaces, and still get what they need. In the age of coronavirus, that can be especially tiring. And so the added fatigue, the accumulated tiredness, the “lack of spoons,” becomes yet another barrier for food access. Even – especially for people who cannot leave their homes right now. The worry and the coordination of food access alone can be exhausting – on top of which, all these other issues may apply. 

Colored scoops of different shapes and colors on a wooden board with three bowls behind it, each bowl has a number of circles.
A prototype for an accessible cooking system with color-coded utensils, designed for people with cognitive disabilities. Created by Amanda Savitzky and on display at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. (Photo mine, February 2018)

You may notice, when reading, that many of these issues are not specifically about coronavirus itself. Of course not – the built environment that harms disabled people was already there before the pandemic: access to food sources was still blocked, transport was still an issue, kitchens were inadequate, cooking was difficult, fatigue still occurred. The point is not that these barriers to food and cooking are new for people with disabilities. The point is that the coronavirus crisis amplifies them, to a point of being even more impactful and dangerous. 

I wonder, from a personal and professional perspective, how we can address these issues in a post-pandemic world. What sort of transport structures and changes will we need to put in place to consider food access and service access for people with disabilities? What changes need to be given additional oomph? What new requirements will supermarkets, grocery stores, housing, and other services need to meet during construction? Some of these standards already exist, but some will be changed. After all, disabled people, too, will be making changes to their lifestyles after the pandemic – and that choice will necessitate some new design standards, be they wider supermarket aisles or more food storage space than before in an accessible kitchen. These are all to be determined, and hopefully, will improve upon the current paradigm, which is unacceptably inaccessible.

Handwashing with soap under running faucet
Don’t forget to wash your hands! (Photo via Pexels/WP)

*A note to readers: I tend to be ecumenical about using “person-first language” – people with disabilities – and identity first language – “disabled people,” though I tend to prefer the latter since it points out that people are disabled by the societies around them. This idea is called the social model of disability. As an autistic person, I find myself switching when I even describe myself. That said, I know many people with disabilities prefer person-first language, and as a compromise, I switch between the two now. For certain disability communities, there are proper protocols: The descriptor Deaf people is always identity-first in English, the descriptor people with cognitive disabilities is always person-first in English. These rules are based on community decisions. Please do not use “differently-abled,” as it implies that there is something wrong with being disabled!

**The first folks to be listened to on issues affecting disabled people of color are disabled people of color themselves. For a clear explanation as to why, and the intersection of race and disability, see this fantastic piece by Imani Barbarin. Ditto for issues affecting women with disabilities, disabled transgender people, and working-class disabled people. I should not be your primary source here!

***Resources by and for people with cognitive disabilities often expressly discuss pantry storage and food purchasing. However, many assume regular grocery access – which may not be possible during the pandemic. 

 

Maple Spice Cookies

maple sugar cookies on a plate
(Photo mine, February 2020)

Here is a simple, straightforward cookie recipe. This type of rolled sugar cookie shows up often in American Jewish community cookbooks from the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s. Though such recipes are often dismissed as a sign of “assimilation,” I think they offer a lot of knowledge about exactly how Jewish folks, and mostly the women who were doing most of the cooking, were still trying to maintain community ties and get people to communal events in this new framework. Besides, there is no shame in enjoying a cookie.

I did not see a cookie of this specific flavor in the books, but I have made a variant of these a few times in the past months, and was quite happy with the result. You can make a dairy-free/pareve version by using oil and one small egg instead of the milk, or use a plant-based milk and oil for a vegan cookie.

Maple Spice Cookies

Based on recipes by Garrett McCord, Craig Gund, and Sally McKenney

Makes 24-30 cookies

1 stick (4oz/115g) salted butter, softened

½ cup (3.5oz/100g) granulated cane sugar + 2-3 tbsp for rolling

⅔ cup maple syrup

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 tbsp whole milk

2 cups (8.5oz/240g) white flour

2 tsp baking powder

2 tsp ground cinnamon

½ tsp ground nutmeg

½ tsp ground ginger

½ tsp ground allspice

½ tsp ground cloves

  1. Preheat your oven to 350F/175C. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Cream together the butter and sugar in a large bowl until combined. You can use a pastry knife or an electric hand mixer. Here is a guide for how you can do that with a wooden spoon if you have neither.
  3. Add the maple syrup, vanilla extract, and whole milk, and mix until combined.
  4. In a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, and spices together.
  5. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and work together with the pastry knife, spoon, or hand mixer until combined. You should have a sticky but pliant dough.
  6. Pour the 2-3 tbsp of sugar for rolling onto a plate and spread it evenly.
  7. Take a piece of dough and roll it into a 1 inch/2.5cm ball. Then, roll it briefly in the sugar until covered. Place it on the parchment paper. Repeat until you use the dough – spread the dough balls about 2 inches/5 cm apart.
  8. Use a fork to lightly “squash” each of the balls.
  9. Bake for 10-13 minutes in the oven, or until the cookies are brown but not burned on the bottom, and the cookies are solid but still soft.
  10. Remove from the heat and let cool for 15-20 minutes before serving. Store any remaining cookies in an airtight container or bag for up to four days.

Thank you to my classmates, colleagues, housemates, and boyfriend for trying several iterations of this recipe.

 

Beef and Leek Goulash (Is It Goulash?)

This is a stew that, like many things called “goulash,” would not be called “goulash” by everyone. But maybe it would. In any case, it is a variation on a delicious theme.

Goulash in a bowl over egg noodles
(Photo mine, November 2019)

Stewed meat with vegetables in a red sauce is a fairly common Central European dish. The dish started off as a Hungarian herder’s stew – although, with its meaty content, it may have been somewhat of a nobleman’s dish too after the Magyars settled on the Pannonian plain. The dish spread, by dint of the Holy Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires (and massive, centuries-long migrations across Central Europe) throughout the region, and similar names largely stuck. When chili pepper was introduced in the early modern period – and paprika became particularly popular – the dish evolved again in Hungary and other countries, to include the modish spice. That practice – and the common use of tomatoes – spread as well, to Germany and Austria, to Russia, and to the United States. The dishes were often quite far from what is typical in Hungary – for example, American goulash often contains pasta, and Scandinavian ones are less piquant. (Though goulash in Hungary has evolved into dozens of related dishes, like pörkölt and halászlé!) Across these countries, Jews often cooked versions of these stews with kosher meats, and likely contributed to their development in many countries by introducing additional ingredients or cooking methods from other Jewish communities.

Finished and plated tamatiebredie with mieliepap.
Tamatiebredie with mielie pap. (Photo mine, June 2017)

Of course many cultures also have their own variant on these stews – South African bredies, Argentinian carbonadas criollas, Filipino calderetas, and so on. The sticking power of the name “goulash” is probably from the influence of Hungarian cuisine and culture across a wide area as a result of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Cookbooks for early 20th-century Jewish housewives often have a variant of this dish in them. These sorts of stews, and goulash in particular, were a mainstay of German-speaking middle class families in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – it is raised in nearly every major book about German Jewish cuisine. Many Ashkenazi Jews explicitly sought to assimilate into this culture, and in some cities were a key part of the middle class and its practices. Housewives were expected to maintain a certain type of cultural refinement and practice in the home, and cookbooks were key parts of communicating this. So was what you ate – and goulash, which would have been considered luxurious by working-class families – was one of many recipes that were part of there. When German-American Jews wrote similar cookbooks for settlement houses where Eastern European Jews studied (or were pressured to study at), goulash was often included.

This recipe is my variant on these dishes. Like even Hungarians before the 18th century, when paprika was introduced to Central Europe, this goulash is made without paprika. Instead, I gain sharpness and depth from the leeks and the dill, but it is compensated by sweetness. Leeks are a delicious, hearty addition to any stew – just be sure to wash them properly! I served this stew with egg noodles, but it would probably be wonderful on rice as well.

Beef and Leek Goulash

2.2lbs/1 kg beef chuck stew meat, cut into 1 inch/2.5cm or so pieces

1 large onion, diced

5 cloves garlic, crushed

2 medium-large leeks, washed, chopped, and washed again

3 carrots, peeled and sliced

1 tablespoon white or rice wine vinegar

1 16-oz/450g can diced tomatoes

1 tablespoon table salt

1 tablespoon soup powder OR 1 tablespoon bouillon base

1 ½ teaspoons ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried dill

1 tablespoon white sugar

Water as needed

2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil (depends on fattiness of meat)

Prepared egg noodles, rice, potatoes, or bread (for serving)

  1. Place a stewing pot or casserole pot over a high flame. When hot, add 2 tablespoons oil, and then add the meat. Brown the meat, stirring frequently, for about 3 minutes. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and set aside. If not much fat has melted off the meat, or you are low, add some more oil.
  2. Add the onions and garlic and sauté, stirring frequently, until wilted and softening, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add the leeks and carrots, and mix in thoroughly with the onions. Then, add the vinegar. Cook covered, stirring occasionally, for 5-10 minutes, or until the leeks have wilted.
  4. Add the tomatoes and spices and mix thoroughly. Bring to a boil.
  5. Add the meat, and then water to cover (about 1 or 1 ½ cups). Mix in thoroughly, then bring to a boil.
  6. Lower the heat to a simmer, and then simmer, half- or loosely covered, for 1 to 1 ½ hours, stirring occasionally.
  7. Serve hot with egg noodles, rice, potatoes, or bread.

Thank you to Ziva Freiman and AJ Faust for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.

Pashtidat Kishuim/Zucchini Casserole

So, it is time to post one of my favorite childhood recipes: a zucchini casserole called pashtidat kishuim. It is an odd favorite dish for a child: a soft, eggy, slightly bitter, zucchini-based pudding. But to me, this is childhood: it was a frequent feature on the dinner table. I am not given to nostalgia, but I will say that 14-year-old me and 28-year old me are equally enthusiastic about this dish. I am excited to share it with you!

Slice of Pashtidat kishuim
I forgot to take a photo of mine, but this is what it looks like – toasty zucchini goodness. (Photo Aloha Zohar)

I discussed the history of pashtidot in one of the earliest posts on this site, a recipe for pashtidat tiras (corn casserole). To review: the dish is rooted in some sort of baked dish from medieval times, mentioned by Rashi and other scholars. In modern Israel, that morphed into a casserole made from various readily available, often processed, and nationally encouraged ingredients. In the 1950s, classes and media encouraged pashtidot as a food, and soon, the casseroles became a staple of dinner tables. They remain as such today – one of Israel’s best-selling cookbooks is simply titled Pashtidot.

Pashtidot are different from kugels but are often similar. Some Israelis use pashtida to refer to kugels, and many Americans use “kugel” to refer to pashtida. I draw the difference by two means. One is that the history is different – kugels were originally and sometimes still are cooked in a Sabbath stew, while pashtidot are generally baked separately. The other is that kugels tend to have a mainly starch base, while pashtidot tend to be egg-based for their structure. As a result, pashtidot tend to be a lot softer than kugels – even those made from mashed potato tend to be firmer. But who knows – the boundary is in the eye of the beholder. Authenticity is still bullshit, anyway.

A typical Israeli pashtidat kishuim is a little less firm than my rendition. This is because I add potato for solidity and for heartiness. This addition brings my pashtida closer to a kugel then other pashtidot, because of the carbohydrate. Again, the boundary is fuzzy – and even, then, such a heavy kugel would be classified differently, as a teygekhts, in some dialects of Yiddish. But I digress. The potato cuts the bitterness of the zucchini nicely, adds some weight and solidity, and also makes the whole thing even more delicious. You can decide whether or not it is a main course (serves 6) or a side (serves 12).

Pashtidat Kishuim

Serves 6-12

4 medium-large fresh zucchini

2 medium baking potatoes

1 medium onion, finely diced

5 cloves garlic, minced

6 large eggs, beaten

1/3 cup neutral-flavored oil

1 heaping tablespoon avkat marak (soup powder) or 2 tbsp table salt, additional 1 tsp ground black pepper, ½ tsp dried oregano

1 tsp ground black pepper

1 tsp dried oregano

1 ¼ cups white flour

Additional salt, to taste

Oil, to grease the pan

  1. Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Grease a 13”x9”/33cmx25cm deep baking pan.
  2. Grate the zucchini, then squeeze out all the water by hand. If you have a food processor, I strongly suggest you use it.
  3. Grate the potatoes, but do not squeeze them. Mix with the zucchini.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, mix together the onion, garlic, eggs, oil, avkat marak, black pepper, and dried oregano.
  5. Add the grated vegetables and mix until the egg mixture is distributed throughout.
  6. Add the flour and mix in until thoroughly combined. Pour the mixture into the pan and distribute so that it is level.
  7. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the top is beginning to become golden on the ridges and a knife comes out moist, but without zucchini or flour sticking to it. If you like a crispy top, bake for another fifteen minutes. Serve warm or hot.

A note: during Passover, you can swap the flour for an equivalent amount of matzah meal.

For Each Protest, A Babka

This blog is deeply political. In a time when the American President is saying nakedly anti-Semitic things, and that children are being incarcerated, it would be deeply irresponsible not to be. Besides, like it or not, food is political! I encourage all readers to do what they can to fight for a better society. For some people, that might include protests.

Babkas on sale with a Hebrew sticker that says "Chocolate babka, 36 shekels"
(Photo Christine Garofalo/CC)

There are many articles that talk about how to go to protests. I want to add a bit of levity and sugar to this by suggesting you bring a babka to a protest. Yes, this article is ridiculous, but why not? Babkas are delicious, portable, and help you make new friends with whom you can fight – together. Different babkas are appropriate for different protests, so here is a guide for “which babka?”

  • If there are going to be many children at a protest, a chocolate babka is best. Children are often scared at their first protest: while it is fun, there are a lot of people, and a lot of noise! Chocolate is a nice treat that also helps children feel a little more comfortable with this new learning experience. Not to mention, the adults love chocolate babka too.
  • If the protest is mostly adults, a cinnamon babka also works. In adulthood, some begin to find a chocolate babka too cloying, and others – including myself – come to prefer cinnamon, which many children find a bit difficult. Chocolate also can trigger migraines in many adults, which is the last thing you want at a protest. Cinnamon is a good bet. (You can bring both.)
  • For protests about the environment, you may want to bring a vegan babka. Forget here that veganism is not necessarily better for the environment (and often is not). If someone is vegan, you respect their dietary restrictions, and many vegans show up at environmental protests. A vegan babka will probably need to be homemade. But it works, and often only one or two substitutions need to be made.
  • If the protest has many, many people, or will be outside for a long time, bring a babka from the store. It is fun to bake a babka, but in quantity, it is very hard to do. Home-baked babka also tends to be a tad more difficult to transport, unless you have the right equipment. No shame in popping to the store.
  • If the protest may have some right-wing counter-protesters, a plum babka, or any other kind of jam babka. If they try to shake your hand, their hands will be sticky! Pettiness is sometimes your friend. Also, Trump hates plums.
  • You can always bring multiple flavors! We are advocating for a world where all people have the freedom to live a fulfilling life, which ideally should include many babkas.

Remember to stay safe at protests! Follow these tips by Sam Killermann on your own safety, and don’t forget to have the contact information of a pro-bono lawyer, just in case. Your protest right is protected in the United States by the First Amendment. (In other countries, different local laws apply.) Don’t forget to hydrate. If you don’t feel safe going to a protest, or can’t make it, that’s okay! There are many other ways to contribute to a better society, and you should still have babka while doing it.

Great Show: “Street Food”

Instead of preparing to move one day, I decided to start watching Netflix’s Street Food series. I am a big fan of street food generally – it is fun, showcases the creativity of evolving cuisines, feeds lots of different people, and is usually very tasty. (I have a special soft spot for roasted chestnuts or peanuts on the street.) The series looked beautiful too, with a focus on street food vendors and their food in ten different Asian countries. So, I turned on Netflix and began watching the first episode, about Jay Fai and her famous drunken noodles. I was hooked.

A plate of drunken noodles with seafood on a plate with an egg on the side
Drunken noodles in Thailand (screenshot from Street Food/Netflix)

The show is not just about the food, but about the extraordinary “ordinary” people who cook it. While much of the show focuses on the delicious food, most of the time is dedicated to the people who cook it – and particularly, one vendor in each episode. The chef narrates his or her story, his or her history, and his or her life. The show shines here: it makes the show about the food and its wider context. This focus is often lost elsewhere. When a food is divorced from its social or political context, it becomes easy to dismiss the concerns of the people who cook it as well. Street Food avoids this trap by plainly putting that context in your face. You cannot watch the show without noticing the influences from various places, or how people adapt to difficulties through food, or how history informs the very basis of the cuisine – and not some sort of “authentic essence.” In fact, Street Food is markedly critical of authenticity, and proudly displays new foods like Korean baffle (egg waffles) right alongside traditional fare like Filipino nilarang.

A stall with trays of food
Street food in Vietnam (screenshot from Street Food/Netflix)

Street Food is not just critical of authenticity, but also shows the dynamism of each country’s street cuisine. The vendors talk about inventing new methods and preparations – from Jay Fai’s Japanese-style crab omelet in Bangkok to Aisha Hashim’s modernization on the process of making putu piring, a rice and coconut cake, in Singapore. Scholars on the show talk about the influence of war, globalization, colonialism, or political trends on the cuisine. Western food writing and media often treats street food as something unchanging, and the show challenges that. Often, the newer foods are the most appealing – for example, the flour-based knife cut noodles (kalguksu) from Seoul.

A laughing Korean woman with a gray headband and a pink smock with pots in the background
Cho Yoon-sun, a kalguksu vendor in Seoul featured in Netflix’s Street Food, and her joyous laugh. (Screenshot from Street Food/Netflix)

Of course, the food is mouth-watering. My favorite episodes were the ones for India and South Korea. The former featured huge plates of delicious curries, stews, and fried goods, often cooked for hours at a time. The meaty Nihari stew is something I would love to try. The Korea episode was also wonderful for the food: Cho Yoon-sun’s kalguksu noodles look perfectly filling, with a luscious texture and delicious (albeit treyf) broth. The banchan featured in the Seoul episode – particularly the lotus root pickles – were so mouth-watering that I had to go get a snack immediately. And, of course, all the other episodes have delicious food too.

A bowl with a fish head by a bowl of stew with two dipping sauces. A hand holding tongs is withdrawing from the bowl.
Fish head stew in Chiayi, Taiwan (screenshot from Street Food/Netflix)

My one big critique is that the episodes are too short! At thirty minutes, one can sense that many of the stories and histories were cut short. I would love even an extra fifteen minutes to more deeply explore the making and history of some of the dishes. I would have also loved to see an episode featuring Cambodian or Central Asian street food (plov anyone?), but I also understand the difficulty of producing media in those countries.

I look forward to future installments of the series. We still do not know which countries will be featured, though I am hoping very fervently that Mexico’s incredible street food culture gets featured. Ditto for Turkey and Morocco. And, given the quality of this season, we can expect a real treat for the second installment too.

Accessibility notes: audio description is available, and all episodes are captioned in several languages.

A Reminder That Food is Political!

A deli window with a sign that says "we accept food stamps EBT" with Doritos and Lays bags behind it, and toothpaste below.
(Photo Clementine Gallot via Creative Commons, March 2009)

I often post explicitly political things on this blog and the associated Facebook page. I do this for two reasons. One is that this blog has never been, and will never be, politically neutral. It is irresponsible to talk about the food people eat without concern for how that might be affected by people’s lives, and all the things that affect their lives. The other is that, by and large, the readers of this blog like the political commentary – even if they do not always agree with it. Some are even drawn to it. That said, a few people have complained, either because I refuse to endorse their racism or their politics of cruelty, or because they believe food should be not political. “Food should unite,” one messenger told me. “It shouldn’t be subject to politics.”

Well, you will just have to deal with the political bent of this blog. Food is deeply political! In some ways, it is the basis of politics itself – what else spurred any form of governance other than the need to make sure people’s resources were managed, including food! (For good or for bad.) When we eat, we say all sorts of political things. What we eat is closely connected to our status, what sort of “traditions” we pass on to our kids, and who we see ourselves as. Even more so, what we do not eat does the same thing. Beyond that, what we are able or not able to put on the table spurs us to political action. The knowledge of how that ability might change informs how we act politically today. And the identities that we take into politics is shaped by food. Think about how much our own Jewish identity is shaped by food – and then think about how much Jewish identity gets shaped in politics. Think about how many racist things are said in the name of food being “too smelly” or “too gross.” Think about how someone’s life might be shaped by those remarks. And think about how often politicians use food as an excuse to gain power, to take away power, or give power.

Your food cannot be isolated from political discussion. It is a hard truth, and many people wish to hide behind the privilege of not needing to think about this. If you are a migrant child in a cage with irregular food access, an elderly person unable to access food because of an inaccessible environment, or a poor person unable to buy certain foods because of limits on what you can use food stamps for, you do not have the luxury to assume that food is not political. The same rules apply for an observant Jew in a country that has banned shechita, the Jewish child teased for matzah at school, or the Jewish prisoner forced to eat treyf because of the abysmal nature of prison food systems. Even when you can sit at a dinner table normally again, that knowledge never goes away.

So I ask you, if you are uncomfortable, to sit with that discomfort at your next meal. Think about the workers that grew the crops in your food, and why your food cost as much or as little as it did, and why you are eating that specific thing. Were you ever teased for eating it, if you brought it to school as a child? Did anyone call the cops while you made it? Have you always been able to afford it – and what enabled that? That will help you understand how food is, in fact, deeply political.

Mistakes Made Jewish Cuisine

My maternal grandmother left a mountain of recipes. I wrote about some of these for Handwritten Magazine before. The recipes are delicious and replete with typos or forgotten ingredients. Mysteriously, 0s are doubled or removed, so the recipe ends up calling for “20 grams flour” rather than 200. Entire ingredients, like flour, are forgotten. So are basic steps, like frying onions. When one cooks from the recipe, it is an experiment of trial and much error. It took nearly twenty attempts to get her pumpkin fritters right.

Fish on ice in a market
Cooking a whole fish for the first time – or after a long time – can result in various mistakes. (Photo mine, December 2017)

So, to this year. My mother and I were tasked with bringing stuffed matzoh balls to a Passover seder. These kneidlach are stuffed with fried onions and garlic and are very, very tasty. We opened the sheaf of my grandmother’s typewritten papers with her recipes to the matzoh ball to find that … mysteriously, she seemed to call for as much margarine as matzoh meal. Being experienced enough to know that this couldn’t be right, we consulted other recipes for a more sensible ratio. We realize now that my grandmother meant 20 grams.

As I reflected on this bizarre typo (and imagining fat globules swimming through my soup), I thought about all the ways Jewish cuisine might have been shaped by mistakes. We often think of cuisine as some sort of unbroken tradition. I have written repeatedly, here and elsewhere, why that is bunk. We also valorize the creativity of our ancestors in using and taking in new ingredients, or making things out of limited ingredients, or having the bravery to try something new. That is somewhat more accurate, but there is still something lacking. And so I would say this:

Mistakes have shaped Jewish cuisine. They may be typos, omissions, spills, accidental omissions, or random accidents. Sometimes they change it for the worse, sometimes for the better, and sometimes we never know. A dish might end up being better with the accidental addition of a spice, or leaving out something else. It might become a longstanding tradition – I suspect that whoever first made the gelled broth of gefilte fish probably left the broth out for too long by mistake. A mistake may also turn into someone’s “secret ingredient.” My formerly-secret ingredient of black pepper in applesauce started as an accident.

Soup with squash, beans, and noodles garnished with sour cream in a bowl
I have not made this soup for a while, and I am liable to make a mistake while making it. (Photo mine, February 2018)

That said, people make mistakes more often than they withhold secrets. When a recipe does not work out, some people’s first instinct is to assume that the cook left out an ingredient to preserve their domination over a dish. The mythical “secret ingredient.” I doubt that this is usually the case, though ardent cooks can be as vain and petty as anyone. Rather, I am more convinced of the fact that cooks forget that they do things in a way, or that they add something in such and such a way, because it is so natural to them. I beat eggs in a certain way, so that the whites get a bit puffier, but I never thought to include that in a recipe, for example. That mistake will change the final product, unless you too beat your eggs in the exact same way. In addition, you can always mess up when cooking from someone else’s recipe. And these mistakes determine, I think, a bit of what gets cooked and what does not. If a mistake makes a dish hard for someone to recreate, then that dish will likely not appear on the table – or appear in altered form. Likewise, if a mistake leaves you with a bad impression of a dish, then you will not be inclined to cook it again. As I write this, I wonder how many creative, tasty, and wondrous dishes have been lost to mistakes by author or cook. My grandmother’s pumpkin fritters very nearly met this fate, because she forgot to mention flour at all.

Things get lost in translation, too. One thing that often never gets really appreciated is how different “eyeball” quantities can be in different languages – ktzat in Hebrew is not necessarily a bit in English, and that is not un poquito in Spanish either. Now, apply that measure to salt, or pepper, or nutmeg (as I have witnessed), and see what results. The same goes for directions: meng in Afrikaans can be expressed by several words, not just mix, in English. And, of course, “to taste” is impossibly personal and extremely cultural. So when parents give their children recipes, or friends give their friends recipes, or someone squints over a newspaper in a language they speak imperfectly (guilty as charged), unintentional mistakes can be made quite easily. And the end product is different. Sometimes the change is not so great, but sometimes it is better or tastier.

Pihtije, a Serbian aspic
Aspics, like the pictured Serbian pihtije or the Ashkenazi p’tcha, were maybe invented out of a mistake. (Photo VI via Wikimedia/CC)

And then there are the dishes you end up forgetting to make for years at a time. I have not made brownies, for example, for about five years. (Shocking, I know.) I know that when I make them the first time, I will probably mess something up. If I make them for someone, they might not like “my brownies” – even if I try to convince them that my brownies are normally delicious. If that person is my boyfriend, I might not end up making them for quite a while, or ever again. Transpose this idea to a rarer dish, or one that might not be easily made. It is quite possible that many things have been given up, because they are too hard to make right, or so hard to recreate that they are easily messed up. Beyond changing ideas of “good” and “bad” and assimilating a cultural aversion to wobbliness, one reason that p’tcha is probably no longer as common, for example, is that it is actually quite easy to mess up. Other dishes or variants of extant ones have probably been lost in the recesses of many memories. Still others are changed by the mistakes that you make in re-creation.

Part of me wants to think only of the happy accidents – after all, which genius realized that gefilte fish is perfectly paired with horseradish? But cooking and cuisine are not only happy or happy accidents. A lot of learning to cook, and researching food history, is not noticing a thing and then making a disaster of your dish. These disasters help us figure out what to cook, how to cook, and how not to cook. And when we learn from others how to eat, what to eat, and how not to eat, these disasters can add up to a cuisine. Mistakes have changed the way Jews talk about, cook, eat, and remember food, and that is something worth noting – just like my grandmother’s missing 0.