Is there a Jewish — and thus also a non-Jewish —way to cook?
I’m not talking about kashrut, which defines what one cooks. I’m talking about how one cooks.
Actually, I’m talking about how I cook, and how my not-a-member-of-the-tribe partner Chuck cooks. I’m wondering if like so many other aspects of our lives, the differences reflect our disparate religious upbringing.
My male partner was raised Christian in Canada, achieving a veritable trifecta of soft-spoken repression, at least compared to this loud Jewish woman from New York with whom he’s chosen to spend his life. The manifestations of our differences range from the onerous to the hilarious. And we’ve begun to wonder if our cooking styles are among the things affected.
A few weekends ago, we had friends over for dinner. Chuck eagerly picked up a cookbook that we’d recently received as a present and planned a three-course menu (stuffed dolma; lentil soup; and pureed squash and parsnips). Eying the pears I’d bought a week and a half earlier, which were languishing toward rot, I figured I’d throw together something pear-themed for dessert.
Chuck read over his recipes. He copied out the ingredients so he could purchase exactly what was needed in the prescribed quantities. As we stood in the yuppie-mart and I looked over our grocery cart, I raised an eyebrow at the container of crème fraîche.
We have crème fraîche at home I said.
Not enough he said.
So mix in a little sour cream I said. Peter [the friend who'd given us the cookbook] said you can.
I gave Chuck the look that meant: crème fraîche is 7 times as expensive as sour cream; we never bought it before that snobby Peter needed it as an ingredient when he was visiting the week before last, and even he admitted he could have just used sour cream.
He gave me a look that meant: you want me to cook dinner, don’t you? so why are you butting your shnoz in when I am perfectly willing to do this on my own?
I decided to make myself scarce in the produce section.
Back home, we each went to work. Chuck followed every step of all three recipes, word for word. Meanwhile, I peeked at the recent jcarrot posting of Leah’s apple and pear crisp recipe, then at a few other online recipes. I cut away the browned patches of the pairs, chopped out some candied ginger, threw in a few spices and a touch of something boozy (I don’t mean to be obscure; it’s just that I don’t remember what exactly I added).
I slid the pear dish into the oven on whatever temperature Chuck had it on for his dishes. With nothing better to do, I gave him a bit of commentary on his efforts.
You should steam the dolmas I said.
The recipe says to boil them he said.
Can you guess how this story goes? We served our friends a plateful of falling-apart dolmas that had all too much of the delicious flavor of the filling boiled away. The soup was good but not quite spiced enough — which meant no one wanted to dilute the flavor with a little crème fraîche on top (certainly not enough to warrant a second container). The puree was lovely.
But the big winner? My dessert.
How do you get the pears to taste so . . . pear-y? One of our guests, a notoriously wonderful baker asked. And though I was thrilled to have impressed her, even as I related my impromptu approach, I felt kind of lousy for poor Chuck, who’d worked so hard and not gotten the same results.
Why not? Well, I’m positing it’s because Chuck treated the cookbook just like his fundamentalist Christian mother treats the Bible—as the literal word of a higher authority to be followed unquestioningly.
But me? Let’s just say, People of the (Cook)Book though we Jews may be, between Torah and Talmud, Mishnah and just the mishegas of life, it feels like I’ve been better trained to observe a few commandments absolutely (the ones that stave off food poisoning, for example), while still reveling in debate and interpretation. And of course the substituting in whatever you happen to already have in the fridge.
So what do you think, dear reader, is this a religious/cultural distinction?