Great Books: Perfection Salad, by Laura Shapiro

I am far from the first person to believe that the kitchen can change the world. In fact, such a belief motivated the domestic science movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was largely led by women. This push – though not feminist – sought to give honor and credit to women’s work in the kitchen, and to transform how women ate. Laura Shapiro’s 1986 book Perfection Salad narrates the history and impact of this movement – and how the legacy on the kitchen was “devastating” – and how it also, in many ways, strengthened patriarchy rather than lending respect to women.

About two dozen white women in aprons and caps looking at a camera in a library
A home economics class in early 20th-century Toronto. (Photo public domain via Toronto Public Library)

The book charts the fascinating history of “domestic science,” the ancestor to today’s “home economics.” The movement stemmed from a desire to standardize and give respect to women’s domestic work – and rather than changing gender norms or the distribution of labor, social reformers sought to do so by standardizing and making scientific this labor. Much of the change happened in cuisine – with ideas of foods being controlled, and determined for nutrition or morals alone rather also for nourishment and flavor. (Hence creations like the book’s titular salad.) The book also charts the way women interested in chemistry and economics were shunted off to the gendered world of home economics – and how this whole development tied in with the popularization of industrial foods. The book is fantastic, and I highly recommend it.

One surprise for me, while reading the book, has been the type of presence Christianity has in many of these reformer’s narratives. I am unsurprised by the presence – social reform has always had a strong Christian overtone – but rather the tenor of it. Many of the reformers presented “orderly” households as analogous to Heaven itself – and one even narrated Heaven as such an establishment! Even as scientific methods were incorporated into home economics, the base of the enterprise was still a very patriarchal one of the woman as keeper of the hearth and imparter of Christian morals (with all sorts of rather biased assumptions attached). Shapiro’s depiction of this phenomenon is unflinching but also deeply engaging – she draws the reader into the minds of the authors who she writes about from a century’s distance. As I read, I reflected on similar tendencies in many Jewish social reform cookbooks in the early 20th century – like the famed Settlement Cook Book. Even with their secularizing and assimilationist tendencies, these books still relied also on older, very patriarchal ideas of what the kitchen was spiritually – and what women should be doing there.  

Shapiro published this book in 1986, but many of the notes and observations carry over to much of domestic culture today. One is: the constant pushback that people – mostly women – get for following instinct and embodied knowledge rather than something “improved,” “rational,” or “new.” We saw it with domestic science, and now we see it with much of the “health food movement.” Instinct, of course, is not always right – but there is something about knowing what will work when, and the knowledge that comes from things that cannot always be measured or codified, and the action of doing. For this insight alone, Perfection Salad remains as relevant as ever.

Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century, by Laura Shapiro

Iceland and Storytelling for Jewish Modern Food

A greenhouse with plants on green grass.
A greenhouse for growing tomatoes and other vegetables in Reykholt in Southern Iceland (Photo Salvor/public domain)

This post starts with a country that most people do not think of for Jewish food: Iceland. I recently went on a lovely trip there with my partner. Iceland has many things to love, big and small. Among these things are the food. Some of the food comes from Iceland’s pastoral and fishing heritage: lamb, skyr, butter, cod, and rye bread. And some comes from the incredible creativity of Icelanders – tomatoes and carrots from greenhouses powered by geothermal heat, bread combining the flours of the world with local flavors and advantages; and an abundance of high-quality processed foods. The latter is what I am thinking about here. As I walked through supermarkets in Iceland (something I love to do whenever I travel), I thought about Rachel Laudan’s call for embracing modernist food. If any country has heard this, it is Iceland.

Triangular red and white milk container saying "Mjolk 1 litri"
Triangular milk container from the 1960s at the National Museum of Iceland. (Photo mine, March 2022)

Iceland’s wholehearted embrace of modernity for food – and all the promises that brings – is inspiring. Much of this has to do with the fact that Icelanders aren’t overly romantic about the hardships of the past, which were particularly harsh for a volcanic country just off the Arctic Circle. Modernity is not bad or unnatural – it means that vegetables can be grown closer to home, Icelanders can have a high quality of life, and healthy food is readily available with a fair amount of variety. Some countries direct travelers to unbroken agricultural traditions. Iceland – especially its government – goes in the opposite direction. Icelanders show off greenhouses and posters explaining all of Iceland’s excellent milk products. This push comes not just as a promise of prosperity – but also as a new way of revitalizing traditions, from preserved fish to skyr to some of Iceland’s more notorious specialties. In some ways, this embrace even enhances some of Iceland’s traditions, such as the baking traditions that preserve recipes now lost in the mainland Nordic countries.

Checkered jam pastry and fried knot pastry on parchment
Icelandic pastries – hjónabandssæla on the top, kleina on the bottom (photo mine, March 2022)

We should all be like Icelanders in this way.

Some people pooh-pooh the industrial and artificial for a “natural” history they romanticize and misremember. I have made this point again and again on this blog. A lot of this has to do with the stories people would rather tell or hear about the food they eat. Stories are nice but should not be the basis for advocacy or a food system – the good old days were not very good. (Especially for Jews and Icelanders, and black people in the Americas.) Rather, as Laudan notes, we need to advocate for high quality processed foods. Or as I say, we should try to become a bit more like Iceland. For that, the advocacy and the making is not enough – we also need to tell stories.

In her masterful Cook As You Are, Ruby Tandoh asks us to imagine what a narrative (which she calls a “mythos”) for processed food looks like. As I noted, Iceland is already beginning to get there with modern food. And part of that has to do with the stories – that there is something about making the highlands bloom with greenhouses, or the clever reuse of Iceland’s volcanic features and abundant water. And let us not forget that Iceland fought off British ships – and won – to be able to fish for cod, which was then processed – and by then, in very modern ways. Those fishermen are well-remembered. There is humor in these stories, too, such as a book of poetry in honor of the discount supermarket Bónus. (I have read it, and can confirm that it is funny.)

A refrigerator with four shelves stacked with packaged dairy products
Shelves of Israeli industrial dairy. The fruit yogurts at bottom left are a personal favorite. Iceland has a similar selection. (Photo Rakoon via CC/Wikimedia, 2018)

Some of this type of storytelling does exist in Israel, with narratives of the kibbutz and the behemoth of the Israeli modern food system. I want to ask: what would American Jewish modernist food storytelling look like? Of course the stories themselves would vary – some stories would be about technology, some about ingenuity, and some about tradition. I would hope that some would be about the workers in plants and in supermarkets and the cooks in commercial kitchens. I think many would be about familiar foods – say, the workers who produce industrial matzah meal or cream cheese, or the technological ingenuity of canned, jarred beets. Others could show the promise of new technologies and tie them to traditional foods – imagine a hraimeh or gefilte fish made from fish grown in new forms of aquaculture, or borekas made in giant air fryers. And most of the stories can only be told after the innovation happens.  Nothing in this lore would negate the Jewishness of this food. Icelanders can tie their modern embrace to their rich cultural tradition – and so should we. 

So let’s start thinking of these stories.

Kosher Tostones in the Heights: A Guest Post from Michael Faccini

I’m excited to share another guest post by my dear friend, Michael Faccini, who wrote a lovely interfaith seder piece last spring. This post may be controversial, but I think it is badly needed: a discussion on the intersection of race and kashrut, especially in shared spaces.

“Kashrut is only a barrier if you let it be.” This line sums up many of my thoughts about kashrut – and, during the decade when I kept some form of kashrut, my general attitude. Yet, as Michael notes in this piece, sometimes kashrut is an intentional barrier – one that often intersects with attitudes about race and class, particularly for white Jews. I know many firm kashrut-keepers who don’t let kashrut be a barrier for building community, and who ardently question the way race often intersects with supposedly neutral ways of keeping kosher. Sadly, I know many who do not.

I hope you read and enjoy this piece. Michael has generously provided his kosher recipes for tostones – a classic Dominican side dish and snack – at the end of the post, so please be sure to reach that point too. Michael has requested a shout out to his favorite Dominican spot in Washington Heights, El Valle Seafood. I would like to add Albert’s Mofongo in Inwood, which very helpfully has a lard-free mofongo for those of us who avoid pork (and lard-filled ones for those that do eat pork). It is delicious, and here in Greater Washington I frequently miss it.

“What are you making?” said with a confused and concerned face. That’s how I’ve ended up introducing a lot of fellow Jews to the luscious fried delight that is tostones. I make excellent tostones (technique to follow), but I’m not so sure that a white Jew from rural Montana should be anyone’s introduction to tostones and plantains in general. It feels particularly strange because most of those people have been roommates past and present in Washington Heights. I find myself wondering: how exactly do they live in this largely Dominican neighborhood of NYC and not know what a tostone is? 

It seems like an innocent and easy question, but answering it reflects a lot of the challenging racial dynamics I’ve seen among the Jewish community living in the Heights. Before moving here, I was introduced to the Heights as being a Jewish neighborhood. As home to Yeshiva University, a sizable Orthodox population, and a popular traditional egalitarian shul, there are ways in which that is true. There are long and deep Jewish roots in the Heights and a recent significant population growth of young Jews, particularly students and young families, in the neighborhood. When I first moved to the Heights in the summer of 2019 to attend rabbinical school, that description fit. Living on Bennett*, most of the people I saw walking around the neighborhood were visibly Jewish, wearing kippot, tzitzit, and sheitels or tichels, or people I met through Jewish roommates. 

A couple of weeks after moving in, though, I needed to cross over Broadway to St. Nick for the first time, to buy a shirt from Goodwill for a job interview. That’s when I met a more realistic representation of the Heights, known to some as the Little Dominican Republic. On the St. Nick side, Spanish is used prominently in signs and also heard throughout the neighborhood. There are street vendors of all kinds, many selling fruits and vegetables common in Caribbean cooking and foods like chicharrón and tamales (obviously not Dominican, but delicious). And, most clearly, the majority of the people you see on the street are Latin American (Latine), Dominican particularly. The income is also apparent. It’s no coincidence that Goodwill was located in that part of the neighborhood (it’s since closed), along with storefronts like Boost Mobile, health insurance companies that service Medicaid and free federal plans, and community-owned businesses. Looking for housing later, I learned that those couple of blocks from Bennett to Wadsworth/St. Nick are worth a difference of $200-300+ in rent. 

Green coconuts with the tops peeled off
(Photo MaxPixel/CC)

If the neighborhood is so clearly Dominican, why was I introduced to it as a Jewish neighborhood? To me, part of the answer lies in the history of the Heights. Jewish immigrants, particularly in the aftermath of the Holocaust, were a prominent community in the early 1900s. Because of the historic roots in the neighborhood, there can often be this sense of reclaiming and returning to the neighborhood. “We’re not moving in, we’re moving back.” I understand the temptation, especially for individuals whose families were early members of the Jewish community in the Heights. At the same time, it ignores why Jews left the neighborhood. A lot of the Jewish community moved out during the White Flight of the 1960s/1970s. That’s when the Dominican community moved in in large numbers following the assisination of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, transforming the neighborhood to the largest Dominican community outside of the Dominican Republic. And things were not great when they arrived, only getting worse when the crack epidemic began. Violent crime, particularly through gun violence, was prevalent. The Dominican community came together in the 90s/early 2000s to change the neighborhood and make it what it is today. That’s when we see the boom of young white Jews moving to the Heights and clear gentrification-fueled attempts to rebrand the neighborhood to WaHi after SoHo (thankfully these have failed). 

Those dynamics influence what I see as a core reason for seeing the Heights as a Jewish rather than Dominican neighborhood: segregation. While of course there are Dominicans living west of Broadway and Jews living east, the racial demographics largely fall along geographic lines. Perhaps more notable, though, is the very limited interaction between the two groups, outside of customer service, childcare providers, domestic help, and (Jewish) landlord to (Dominican) tenant. If you live in the Heights and you’re Jewish, almost all, if not all, of your social contacts are also Jewish. It would make sense, then, to see it as primarily a Jewish neighborhood, especially if you live on a street that is largely Jewish.

fried seasoned plantains
Fried sweet plantains (maduros), one of my first posts, from when I myself lived “in the Heights.” (Photo J. Katz, December 2015)

Going back to food, these contribute to some of the answer for why I meet a lot of Jews in a Dominican neighborhood who don’t know what a tostone is, even though that’s the cultural equivalent of not knowing what a tortilla is in a Mexican neighborhood. If you don’t realize and/or care that the neighborhood is Dominican, you’re not going to really be exposed to those foods. It’s often more than lack of exposure. There is a profound lack of curiosity and often a desire to be separate that people justify on religious terms, particularly kashrut. 

I naively underestimated that dynamic when I entered a conversation over a Shabbat meal shortly after moving back to the Heights. I’d shared that I chose to move away for a while because I found the clear segregation (and Jewish apathy toward it) too difficult to deal with, particularly with some personal challenges at the time. Somehow the conversation moved to suggestions about how that could be approached. I suggested convening religious leadership from both communities, as the Catholic church and local synagogues have a lot of sway in their respective communities. Immediately I was met with this litany of reasons why the synagogue leaders wouldn’t feel comfortable. “Okay, so what about the Reform congregation?” According to this person, that wouldn’t work because the neighborhood was “too religious” for that community to be a good representation. I started to get the sense that my roommate’s friend was wanting separation.

Starting to feel the futility, the conversation switched to tactics. Heavily influenced by a lifetime of watching Anthony Bourdain, I suggested a communal meal to start the process. Food, after all, has always been my soft entry into other cultures, including Dominican culture. Immediately the concerns about kashrut came forth. Which, you know, have some validity. Dominican food is not exactly known for its great vegetarian options and those would still pose some difficulties for people only eat hechshered kosher food (food prepared with supervised ingredients in a kosher kitchen). “Okay, what about if they prepared vegetarian food in our kitchens under supervision?” For those unfamiliar, this is a totally legitimate, although not universally accepted, way of solving the kashrut issue because the food would have hechshered ingredients, be prepared in a kosher kitchen, and there are ways to deal with concerns about someone not Jewish doing the cooking. And that’s how I finally understood that the issue wasn’t about kashrut or religion.

Her face was filled with absolute disgust at the idea of a Dominican cooking in her kitchen or the kitchens of anyone she knew. A year and a half later and I am still horrified at her response. Dominicans can stock our food at the store. Dominicans can scan and bag our food. Dominicans can clean our kitchens. But God forbid they cook in our kitchens, at least if they’re cooking their cultural foods and doing so as our equals. I find it hard to believe that a non-Jewish Italian making fresh pasta or Japanese person rolling sushi in our kitchen would have elicited the same disgust.It was fear and hatred of the racial Other dressed up in the guise of religion and kashrut. 

This is an extreme example, but, when it comes to Latine food particularly, kashrut is often used as an excuse not to explore and form closer bonds. There are some real challenges. I won’t deny that. I experienced them when I used to keep kosher. It’s hard to find things that you are confident are vegetarian and there’s often a language barrier in verifying ingredients/preparation. While there is at least one vegan restaurant that serves Dominican food, I don’t expect to see a successful kosher-certified Dominican restaurant in my lifetime. That’s why I learned how to make things like tostones and sofrito and bacalao. I wanted to experience the food, but needed to make it kosher. Was it as good as the real stuff? Probably not. But I didn’t let kashrut keep me from exploring food so I could get a better sense of Dominican culture while also getting to know Dominican coworkers. Kashrut is only a barrier if you let it be

Some would argue that that’s one of the reasons behind kashrut. Not being able to eat with your neighbors makes it really hard to form close bonds and, therefore, to marry with them and have children with them. Ignoring that this doesn’t seem to apply to pizza or Eastern European foods that commingled to make some quintessentially Jewish foods or sushi or a whole lot of other things, this begs the question: is that a value we want to have in 2022? And what does it mean when a majority white group applies that to Latine and/or Black communities and certain Asian communities**? None of us can say with any certainty that reluctance and/or refusal to make kosher mofongo isn’t a reflection of racism. For me, the answer to values in 2022 and beyond is no. My reasons for no longer keeping kosher are many, but the greatest benefit I’ve seen is my ability to experience other cultures and form closer bonds with people from those cultures. I wouldn’t have been able to form some of the close bonds without unrestricted food sharing. I love making tostones on my own. But I love making tostones with a friend and eating their food even more. 

Now for that tostones recipe…

Tostones - fried green plantain - on paper towel
Tostones (photo M. Faccini, December 2021)

Tostones

Select green plantains, the greener the better; 1 plantain makes 8-10 tostones.

Peel the plantains- I cut a slit through the skin the full length of the plantain to start the peeling process (if you are making more than 3 plantains, soak them in salted water to prevent discoloration).

Heat a skillet with an inch of canola or other neutral oil over medium heat.

Slice the plantains into ¾” slices.

Fry in the oil until lightly browned on each side.

Remove and immediately flatten using a glass or other flat object.

Return the flattened plantains and fry until light golden brown.

Drain on a paper towel and salt to taste, or season with Adobo for more flavor.

*I’m choosing to use geographic and other street markers even though they may mean little to people who don’t live in the Heights or haven’t before. Living in St. Louis and now the Heights, I’m very familiar with the ways in which a street is often the line of segregation and how much difference a block or two can make for demographics, housing prices, and safety. In St. Louis, that’s Delmar Boulevard. In the Heights, that line is Broadway. My goal is to make the invisible visible to fellow Jews living in the neighborhood that find a way to ignore those lines of segregation.   

**Asian cuisines that have been made kosher, such as Chinese and Japanese food, have a pretty clear class correlation. Jews felt comfortable sharing Chinese food and making Chinese food kosher at a time in which we, too, were new immigrants and shared a similar socioeconomic status. Japanese food, adopted more recently, is primarily associated with upper-middle/higher class. Asian cuisines from cultures that have had less economic success, such as Vietnamese and Thai food, rarely find their ways onto kosher menus. (Jonathan note: Krishnendu Ray has an excellent book about this broader trend.)

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.

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)

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.