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Funny, You Don’t Cook Jewish

Shleppy in Shleopard

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?

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12 Responses to “Funny, You Don’t Cook Jewish”

  1. David C Says:

    I think not. My Christian wife and my Jewish self fall roughly along the same gender lines in the kitchen. Perhaps it’s familiarity with the kitchen and/or cook in respective households growing up, and the gender roles our parents trasmitted at the time?

  2. David C Says:

    I think not. My Christian wife and my Jewish self fall roughly along the same gender lines in the kitchen. Perhaps it’s familiarity with the kitchen and/or cook in respective households growing up, and the gender roles our parents transmitted at the time?

  3. Bobbi Says:

    My husband and I are both Jewish – German parents/Israeli born for him, NYC’s suburbs/Eastern European for me. Both raised in the San Fernando Valley of LA. He’s left brain, business/science oriented. I’m right brain, your basic liberal arts major. He proudly refuses to follow recipes. I love to bake because a recipe is comforting and I can follow it obsessively. What does this do to your theory?

  4. Larry Lennhoff Says:

    Nah. I’m a born Jew who never cooked as a child or young adult and consequently follow a recipe as though it was a chemistry experiment, right down to a conviction that if I mess it up it will explode. My wife is a convert who brilliantly improvises with whatever is around, and whose base rule of thumb is ‘double whatever spices the recipe recommends’.

  5. paula Says:

    Hah! My daughter correctly noted, when she emailed me the link to this blog post, that this is NOT the case in our kitchen, where EVERYONE cooks…wives, husbands, daughters, friends.

    I, the former Presbyterian and “jew by choice but not by rabbinic decree” for over 25 years, usually cook in one of two ways:

    METHOD A
    Perusing our pantry, fridge and freezer for ingredients that may (or may not!) be likely companions, haven’t been infested by vermin, haven’t shown up on the table for three days straight…and concoct something. The downside of course is that when asked how I made a dish, its tough to recall…Drives said daughter and her younger sister nuts! Entertaining for me, aggravating for them, apparently.

    METHOD B
    Peruse several recipes (which is dependent on my mood, budget, biorhythms, moon cycle, holiday??), then revert to METHOD A and proceed.

    However, when it comes to baking, I generally follow a recipe, then improvise with flavors, but not the “science” part of the recipe, thereby, averting disaster.

    In fairness, I will let my husband, Jew by birth, speak for himself.

    I also wonder if there is a gender or religious bias towards using the internet for recipe search and resource or an actual real life cookbook? I relish handling the cookbook myself, and collect goofy titles like “The White Trash Cookbook” but do occasionally use recipe websites…How about others?

  6. Lois Leveen Says:

    I’m pretty sure there may be a bias about “The White Trash Cookbook” in particular. . . but it seems that this is one of those things I can’t blame on religious upbringing per se.

    Or, more accurately, I suppose I can keep blaming it on that, but it’s not necessarily true.

    The part where he puts mayonnaise on everything, though, that’s because he was raise Protestant, right?

  7. marlene gross Says:

    I can attest to the wonderful creations my son and daughter-in-law create, often using odds and ends they find wherever (see Paula 2/9/09). I love eating at their home. Often when I make a pasta, chili or meat loaf, I throw in almost anything red that’s in the fridge.

  8. karen Says:

    I think it’s related to your astrological sign. As a Sagittarian, I like to take risks and seldom plan ahead enough to follow recipes. It’s enough to “think like a chef,” doing variations on methods and ingredients I know and then incorporating new stuff from other people, like Paula above! I, too, can seldom reproduce what I made, but it’s usually good the next way anyhow! Now my husband, a Cancer, clings closely like the crab to his habits of wide research and recipe-following, at least the first time he makes the recipe. Then he riffs on elements of the other recipes he’d researched until he has generated the recipe “My Way.” It’s good, too, but to me, it seems like it takes a very long time, and slap-dash Sagittarian me can’t wait that long to get done, and EAT!

  9. paula Says:

    Touche, Karen. If we knew each other, we would be friends since I’m a Sagittarius also. I think you’re on to something!

  10. Caroline Says:

    You could also argue the following analogy: The “Christian” cook is the pastry chef, and the “Jewish” cook is the regular chef.

    Pastry chefs follow recipes. (They have to; you can’t futz with the amount of flour too much in a cake recipe and still have it come out OK.) Ordinary chefs glance at recipes and then replace ingredients, substitute, shift proportions, and do crazy things like “add a touch of something boozy.”

    Or experienced chefs vs. inexperienced chefs. (I’m not saying Chuck is inexperienced, just that cooking newbies tend to follow recipes slavishly.) Or people who ignore rules vs. people who toe the cookbook line.

    By the way, you can always blame the recipe if you need to. Plenty of recipes are terrible, even those in “edited” cookbooks. So blame that book that Chuck was using and tell all your friends to shun it.

  11. Judith Says:

    How DiD you get the pears to taste so peary? Could it be that the pears were so delicious and succulent to begin with? Then the props should largely go to A) the tree and/or B) the dedicated organic farmer who lovingly tended it? No farms no dinner party.

  12. Lois Leveen Says:

    I think the pears, which were organic and locally grown (a good start), were so overripe that they were really juicy and flavorful. Since the oven was on a low temperature for Chuck’s recipe, I cooked them slowly for a long time, resulting in a carmelized flavor. There was no dough or crumb or anything with flour/oatmeal/starch, plus the liquid of the booze. A pearfect storm, as it turned out.

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