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.

Five Great Recipes for Office Return Weeknights

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

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

Orecchiette alle Cime di Rapa – Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe

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

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

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

Hiyayakko – Dressed Cold Tofu

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

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

Hiyayakko from Just One Cookbook

Huevos con Ejotes Eggs with Green Beans

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

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

Huevos con Ejotes from Maricruz Avalos

Oaxaca by Bricia Lopez

Shakshouka

A particularly successful shakshouka from 2014. (Photo mine)

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

Shakshouka recipe from this blog

Cigrons amb Espinacs Chickpeas and Spinach

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

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

Catalan Chickpeas and Spinach from Gimme Some Oven

Guest Post: An Interfaith Seder, by Michael Faccini

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A Little Project of Mine

notebook and pad
(Photo by Dom J on Pexels.com)

Shana Tova! I hope you are well and safe in this time. Though I am going to continue to spend much less time on social media, I feel ready to come back and make some blog posts, and some food- and planning-related posts again. I want to do things that I enjoy – without affecting my mental health.

There’s more content forthcoming: a lemonade recipe, a polenta recipe, and a post about dementia among them. But first, I want to talk about a little project that has helped me process this time.

Every day, I write whatever I’m thinking about food into a diary. Often, it is a recipe, with some thoughts about what I made or how I served it. For the first two months, each day was about an ingredient or a method. Later, I started tying food to the politics of the time: to the fight for black lives and racial inequities in food systems,  the way fights over the food industry during COVID tied with political assumptions, and how food reflected how reactionary some left-wing claims were. Sometimes, it was just how I was feeling, with a food-related tinge. Disorganized as this may sound, I now have about 28,000 words worth of diary entries from the past six months.

This food diary has helped ground me through the bizarre evolution of this plague. Through it, I am able to track how things have changed – sometimes for the better, sometimes not as much. Furthermore, it’s helped me realize once again the connection between what and how we eat to our political, social, and economic realities. I wrote in April and June about how coronavirus has changed our cooking habits. This diary has given me a glimpse into that on a personal level.

I’m not planning to share more than one post here – the writing is far too raw, and the recipes are written telegraphically. (To give you a sense, I literally wrote “LMFAO it’s going to be sticky” as a transition in one recipe.) But what I will say is that it has helped me – and is likely to be the basis of some future writing. Watch this space.

Food Sharing in a Pandemic

I was originally going to write a long resource post about how to share food safely and what to make in this time of cautious life. I hold by an ethic of harm reduction: I take it as given that you will socialize and that food will be a part of that, and not always “bring your own.” How to do that safely is something that is useful to know.

I dithered on this post, which was handy, because other resources came out! So in this brief post I will share a few resources, a few foods, and then the blog’s first ever video: a sharing mechanism.

Good Resources

Yes, it is probably safer to “stay home” or to not share food, but realistically, I know that that is not going to happen. So do public health departments. I found the Washington DC guide for cookouts to have a lot of broadly applicable information:

Also, take a look at the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance here. (Yes, I know they got some things wrong early on. But many epidemiologists have said the same things as this.)

Today’s guidance on outdoor cookouts (and travel) is good!

Some great highlights: centralize serving, use individually portioned things, and of course, wash your hands.

Tasty Food to Share

Here are some blog recipes that I find are easy to share in outdoor settings and portion well individually.

A Serving Video

Here is an awkward video I made with two of my friends to demonstrate a safe way to serve and share a food at an outdoor picnic. The food is chocolate babka. Thank you to Joe Jeffers and Hannah Cook for starring, and to David Ouziel for filming! The video is captioned. A transcript with or without descriptions of what is on the screen is available on request.

If you prefer a text description of what to do, here it is:

  1. Have one person serve the food. Let’s say it’s you.
  2. Wash or sanitize your hands.
  3. Put on your mask. Wash your hands again.
  4. Put on gloves if you wish – it is helpful for reducing anxiety, and for avoiding things other than COVID.
  5. Set out your serving tools – knife, cutting board, etc.
  6. Cut/make a serving and place it on a plate or napkin.
  7. Step 6 feet/2 meters away.
  8. The other person should come and take it.
  9. Step back. Repeat steps 6-8 for each person.
  10. Remove gloves, wash your hands.
  11. Remember to wash your hands between removing your mask and going back to serve any more food. Don’t reuse gloves!

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.

Chocolate Cake Means You Made It (and a Recipe)

Chocolate cake with ice cream on a plate on a green table

Chocolate cake with ice cream on a plate on a green table
Chocolate red wine cake with homemade ice cream. (Photo mine, April 2020)

It’s hard to feel like you have “made it” during a global pandemic and a world-historical crisis. The crushing disappointment of not being able to see one’s loved ones, of goals gone and dreams deferred, and of plans spilled out like milk is truly taxing. And even for me – I have things pretty good, compared to most – it can be rough, with all the uncertainty and being far from my partner and my mother. So I have turned to the familiar comfort of cooking, and to a dessert that is at once very assimilated and very Jewish: chocolate cake. When I eat my cake, I – like many other Jews since the 1880’s – can feel like, for a moment, that I have “made it.”

Text reading "Rebecca Gomez has for sale at the chocolate manufactory no. 14, upper-end Nassau Street between Commissary Butler's and the Brick Meeting, Superfine warranted chocolate, wholesale and retail, white wine Vinegar by the cask or single gallon at 4 s., Spermaceti oil and common Lamp citto, Fig Blue, soap starch etc. etc. Also a few gross Mogul and Andrew playing Cards, at a low rate and by the dozen"
A Jewish merchant woman’s advertisement for chocolate and other goods in 18th-century Rhode Island. (Document found in Library of Congress archive)

Chocolate has a long history in Jewish cooking. Of course, cacao and the chocolate it comes from originated in what is now Mexico, and only reached Europe after the Spanish conquest. Despite the Inquisition, Sephardi Jews were involved in the chocolate trade from almost its beginning in Europe, and well-off Jews in the Netherlands were already making and consuming chocolate in the 17th century, and in Italy and the Americas in the 18th. New developments in cocoa processing and production gave us eating chocolate and cocoa powder for baking in the 19th century; Jewish people in Europe and the Americas were involved in early manufacture of both. By the late 19th century, chocolate was still a luxury good, but widespread across Europe, especially in cities; Jewish merchant families and better-off Jewish communities began to incorporate chocolate into baked goods. As a result, the consumption of chocolate quickly became a status symbol. Incorporating a bit of chocolate, even as a paltry glaze or with store-bought candy was a sign of the times and living large. Contemporary recipe books from the United States, Germany, and Lithuania all contain recipes with chocolate in holiday food sections.

Yiddish-book with food images on cover, reading "Krisko resepies far der idisher baleboste/Crisco recipes for the Jewish housewife"
This Yiddish-language cookbook was distributed by Crisco to sell their products to Jewish communities – and like many others of its time, it included chocolate cake. (Image from Yiddish Book Center/CC)

One way that chocolate became a status symbol was through cake. Home baking became far more common in the 19th century, with new types of ovens coming into homes and a more ready availability of sugar, dairy, and sources of fat. Middle-class families often served – withthe assistance of domestic labor – cake as a way of being “civilized” or showing off their success. Jews were no exception – this was also a time of fervent assimilation into certain norms of decorum and class across Europe and North America. (Reminder: assimilation is not necessarily a bad thing.) The earliest Jewish-authored cookbooks I found in online archives to contain chocolate cake recipes are German-language examples from the 1880’s; English-language examples follow a decade later. By the early 20th century, respectable Jewish housewives on both sides of the Atlantic, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike, were expected to make – or direct a domestic worker to make – chocolate cakes. In a short time, such cakes became a keyword for luxury and comfort, and began to be served on Sabbath tables and at major events. Since then, different communities have developed different chocolate cakes. Yiddish-speaking bakers in interwar New York often baked certain loaves from Yiddish-language cookbooks, just as well-off Salonican and Cairene Jews educated in French-language schools made decadent cakes in their homes. Italian Jews had chocolate cake recipes, too, for special occasions. By the 1950’s, most Jewish cookbooks contained at least one chocolate cake recipe – and chocolate had found its way into traditional cakes that originally did not have chocolate, like marble cake and sour cream cake. A chocolate cake was not only a food of deliciousness, but a potent symbol of success and plenty for many. I think we all know people for whom that still rings true today.

Chocolate cake on a plate
Chocolate red wine cake cooling (photo mine, April 2020)

This assimilation of delicious cake shows how a food can become Jewish. A food is introduced, then tried because it means something in wider society, and because it looks delicious. (In this case, is delicious.) Other Jewish folks start making it, and soon, the food has a meaning in Jewish communities – even if it is not “authenticper se, or shows off how well assimilated someone is. A few years later – well within the lifetime of an adopter – the food then becomes common across some spectrum of the Jewish world. Chocolate cake shows how creative people can be – and how even ordinary, Gentile foods can be infused with meaning in Jewish communities. You can see a similar process with coffee cakes, lamb stews with chestnuts, and potato salads. Even p’tcha probably started as an imitation of a nobleman’s dish introduced by the Tatars to Central Europe.

Babkas on sale with a Hebrew sticker that says "Chocolate babka, 36 shekels"
Chocolate babkas – another new application of chocolate in the 19th century (Photo Christine Garofalo/CC)

Chocolate cake is a mechayeh – something that gives life – in this time. It is sweet, and tasty, and those are sources of solace enough. But I also think that we can eat it as a sense of worth and achievement: that whatever we are, we are enough, and that we have done a lot – each in our own way. It is also a reminder of the creativity and good taste of our grandparents and great-grandparents in the Jewish world – and that having a community that can find joy in such simple pleasures is having “made it” indeed. You have decades of chocolate cake being used for solace and celebration in the Jewish world to back you up. Stay safe, and eat some cake.


And now, a cake.

I based this recipe on one by Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen, but simplified it to not require a mixer – and to add chocolate from chips as well as cocoa powder. I also added some things from a fluffier recipe at TasteMade. The red wine adds a lovely warmth. Going for simplicity, I left it unadorned and cut the sugar slightly. I like these straightforward, comforting cakes as the sign that I made it. Serve it with whatever you want though – I’ve had mine with homemade ice cream, and a simple sour cream glaze would work well too, as would whipped cream or a lovely dusting of powdered sugar. However you eat it, I hope you feel like you have “made it.”

Chocolate Red Wine Cake

Adjusted from recipes by Deb Perelman and Tastemade

Serves 8-10

6 ounces/170g salted butter (about ¾ of a stick)

⅓ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

⅔ cup white sugar

¾ cup red wine

3 large eggs, room temperature

1 ⅛ cups all-purpose flour

⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 ¼ tsp baking powder

¼ tsp ground cinnamon

Oil or butter to grease the pan

  1. Preheat your oven to 325F/165C. Line the bottom of a round 8” or 9”/20-23cm cake pan with parchment paper, then grease with butter or a non-stick spray.
  2. In the microwave or a bain-marie, melt the butter and chocolate chips together. (I use the microwave – cut the butter up, mix with the chocolate chips, and microwave for one minute on high in a microwave-safe bowl, then stir together.)
  3. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the butter and chocolate mixture with the sugar until thoroughly combined.
  4. Add the red wine. Mix in thoroughly, with the whisk.
  5. Add the eggs. Mix in thoroughly, with the whisk.
  6. Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and cinnamon together. (You do not have to do this but it distributes the cocoa powder more evenly.)
  7. Fold the flour mixture into the mixing bowl with the wet ingredients with a wooden spoon or a mixer. You can also whisk them together, but make sure that everything gets incorporated properly.
  8. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and spread evenly.
  9. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from the oven, and then flip onto a cake rack after cooling in the pan for 20 minutes. Let cool for about 30 minutes, at least, before serving. Serve with whipped cream, ice cream, powdered sugar, or on its own.

Thank you to my housemate AJ Faust for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.

This recipe was updated in March 2021 based on additional experimentation.

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. 

 

Shabbat Brownies

As a busy graduate student, I have largely been sticking to these simpler recipes during my semesters. Sometimes, these are very obviously Jewish, but this time, I am providing a brownie recipe. I call these Shabbat brownies, because they taste great a day or two later – making them suited for baking for a Shabbat lunch! Make them on Thursday night or Friday afternoon for a tasty end to the meal. (Have one or three as a snack in the meantime.)

While the origin of brownies was likely in church communities in central Maine, they became quite popular among American Jews – just like everyone else in North America. There is a certain type of very fudgy brownie that seems to be popular among synagogues across North America. While they are good, I tend to prefer a cakey brownie – one that relies heavily on eggs.

brownie on parchment paper with brownies behind
This stock photo’s brownies look oddly similar to mine, if a tad denser. The photographer is more talented than I, hence… (Photo Pixabay/CC)

Hence this recipe. I used to have a different recipe, but here is my updated version. Thank you to my boyfriend, housemates, colleagues, and classmates for testing the various iterations.

Shabbat Brownies

Makes 24 brownies

2 sticks (1 cup) butter + more for greasing

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1 cup granulated white sugar

½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

½ cup whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

6 large eggs, room temperature

1 ½ cups sifted white flour

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C.
  2. Grease a 9”x13”/23cmx33cm (or similarly sized pan) with butter. Line the pan with parchment paper, then grease the parchment paper again with butter.
  3. Melt the butter and chocolate chips together until smooth. You could do this in a bain-marie, but I just do it in the microwave: put the chips in a deep, microwave safe bowl, add the butter in chunks, microwave on high for a minute, then stir together. Put the melted chocolate-butter mixture in a large mixing bowl.
  4. Add the sugar and cocoa powder and whisk together until thoroughly combined.
  5. Add the milk and vanilla extract, and whisk together until thoroughly combined.
  6. Crack the eggs into the bowl, and then whisk together until thoroughly combined and the mixture is smooth.
  7. Add the flour, baking powder, and sugar. Whisk together until the batter is thoroughly combined and is a smooth, thick consistency. Make sure all the flour is thoroughly mixed in!
  8. Pour the batter into the pan. Bake for 30-45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean or with only a few crumbs. Let cool before cutting.
  9. Store in an airtight container for up to four days.