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Is Cooking a Jewish Issue?

Julia Child

Is it bad that home cooking is on the decline? Should we accept the advice of Harry Balzer, the food-marketing analyst Michael Pollan quotes in his disturbing piece in yesterday’s NY Times Magazine: “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it.” Personally, like Pollan, I don’t like that we are moving from a nation that prefers to watch cooking on television as a spectator sport than to do it ourselves.  But why do I have such a visceral reaction to being reduced to a cultural dinosaur? Maybe it’s partly because living a Jewish life in the 21st century is as much a creative and meaningful “anachronism” as cooking meals at home.

Pollan points out how the new movie Julie and Julia emphasizes the way cooking empowered some women by providing an outlet for their creativity and that it’s significant that that Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking came out around the same time in the early 60′s as Betty Frieden’s  Feminine Mystique. (For a wonderful account of the cultural convergence of these two iconic books, see Laura Shapiro’s  Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America) Moreover, Julie Powell performs her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking some 40 forty years later and blogs about it in a kind of post-9/11 midrash on Julia Child’s work and life, to enrich her frustrating life and job with a meaningful vocation – immersing herself in “the tradition” to cook every recipe in Mastering the Art within a year.

Cooking real food according to a demanding tradition provides an outlet for our natural creativity, grounds us when we feel adrift, gives us pride in accomplishing something difficult, and further emotional rewards when we do it in community – for meals with appreciative family and friends.

It’s an old Jewish strategy, when relatively powerless to influence the public and political spheres, we exert our creative capacities in the domestic sphere, were we still have some control.  This is the turn From Politics to Piety that the Pharisees made under Roman colonial rule according to Jacob Neusner’s book with that title, particularly through a system of rules for acquiring and cooking food that allowed ordinary Jews feel special, dignified – as if they were priests.

Cooking and food preparation, while rightly criticized by feminists for their historic constraining of women’s social roles and freedom of expression, have nevertheless also been at times ways for both men and women to act creatively and autonomously – particularly in Jewish history, though mostly for Jewish males.  But also for women, like Julia Child and Julie Powell.  And for me, a Jewish male, cooking has always been a means of autonomy and creativity. I started to cook when my mother told me “If you don’t like what we’re having for dinner, make yourself a hamburger!” (which I did)and the rest is history.

As a lonely and impoverished graduate student, I attempted a Julie Powell-like effort to cook my way through every recipe in Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food. Though I didn’t come close to succeeding, and I didn’t blog about it (there was no such thing then – but I’m doing it now. Better late than never ;-) ),  I would cook Claudia’s Middle Eastern meals for myself or a few friends because it made me feel like a person – someone worth making the effort for.  I also loved the way Claudia Roden presented Middle Eastern cuisine as multiple variations on certain fixed forms, like the different Tunisian, Algerian, and Moroccan styles of spicing and coloring couscous. From that it was an easy move to shift to cooking kosher and vegetarian.  Though I did not grow up in a kosher home, as a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I found eating kosher appealing because I loved the challenge and artistry of cooking kosher, of creatively adapting the dishes from cuisines I had grown up within the constraints of kashrut and  come up with a tasty result. But best of all was finding a life companion with whom to share these joys of cooking. Our decision to make a kosher home together when we were just roommates eventually blossomed into a romantic relationship; Maia and I will be celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary at the end of this month. I remember the first time as a couple we had my parents in from out of town for a Shabbat dinner.

Our decision to keep kosher had become a point of tension between us and them because I think they felt it was sort of a rejection of their values. But at the meal they remarked, “I didn’t know that kosher food could so gourmet and delicious!” or something like that. So cooking helped me establish autonomy in my new family with Maia vis a vis my parents.

However, I wonder if it was easier for me to feel something ennobling and autonomous about cooking for myself and others, because I’m male and it didn’t come to me as an oppressive social role into which I was pigeonholed. On the other hand, I don’t think Maia feels that it’s her job to cook in our family because she’s the woman; we share the cooking pretty evenly. In fact I might do slightly more, though Maia tends to do more of the shopping.  In any case, some of our greatest moments together have been our collaborations for Jewish holiday and Shabbat meals, cooking up together both food and texts for our family and friends. Cooking, especially Jewish cooking, has contributed tremendously to the quality of my life, of our lives. So yes, cooking is a Jewish issue, and I’m not just going to “get over it” as I see this powerful, creative life skill diminish in our culture.  And we’ve got to get more boys in the kitchen – but real home kitchens, sharing the work, not the macho gladiatorial arenas featured on the Food Network. I think the Orthodox yeshivah home economics classes are definitely a step in the right direction.

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9 Responses to “Is Cooking a Jewish Issue?”

  1. Nina Says:

    Great post Jonathan. Maybe it’s partly being in the world of The Jew and The Carrot and the green market so much, but people seem to be at least, buying food to cook, if perhaps not always cooking it. Of everyone I know, which is certainly not a wide sampling of America, there’s only one person among my friends and acquaintances who eats out much more often than he cooks at home, and he works for menupages. I’m not completely sure I buy cooking becoming a thing of the past.

  2. Jonathan of Wasted Food Says:

    There will continue to be some people who cook–like you and me–even when it’s considered odd. Just as there are some who still grow and slaughter their own chickens. And write letters.

    Nina, on your point that people still go food shopping even though they might not find the time to cook–that’s what I’m sayin! You’ve hit on a significant cause of food waste in our culture. Hopefully, we’ll adjust our shopping according to how often we cook.

  3. Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus Says:

    Part of cooking’s original appeal for me was that it is “odd”, that it’s counter-cultural, particularly for me as a guy who liked to cook domestically. I didn’t anticipate it becoming “odd” as in being a kind of creative anachronism, but in that way it’s like being Jewish in the 21st century. ;-) And Nina, thanks. I agree that being in the jcarrot /foodie world kind of skews our perspective. My wife pointed out that most of our social circle cooks. But I also worry not just about eating out as an alternative to cooking (just tonight we took a break from cooking to have fish and chips on RI waterfront), but more about the attenuation of what passes for cooking at home. Zapping a Hot Pocket in the microwave cooking in the sense we and Michael Pollan are talking about. The microwave, like the desktop computer, is a mixed blessing. Yes, both make many tasks more convenient in our busy day, but both also are delivery systems for addictive, corporate-driven products that are healthy neither for our bodies or our souls.

  4. Sue Fendrick Says:

    Not to state the obvious, but…Shabbat is a great counterweight to the trend in the direction of not-cooking. We might eat like crap during the week, but on Shabbat, we eat full meals, with dishes that we have cooked.

    Jonathan…I just want to thank you for some of the loveliest Jewish experiences and memories of being at your and Maia’s apartment (before and after the onset of couplehood!), with joyfully and beautlfully prepared food at their center. It was definitely role-modeling for me.

  5. Naf Says:

    I catch, kill, pluck, eviscerate, soak and salt chickens each week for shabbos… With my fiance’ Anna’s help. Are we crazy?

  6. Cincinnati Paula Says:

    Huh? My stats:

    Have been married for 26 years TODAY! (to the same great guy I started with)

    We count among our friends, all in our 50′s, many excellent cooks, most of whom are Jewish.

    Our microwave has always been mostly used for heating things, like melting butter or chocolate chips, reheating coffee

    I have never had a “Hot Pocket” pass my lips.

    Our children are all great cooks, they come to all of us (their own parents and “chosen parents” in our neighborhood “shtetl”) and ask us to teach them how to make specific things that they’ve eaten over the years….we even have a cookbook in our Havurah and one of our own is attending culinary school.

    Cooking is dying? Not in our world….

  7. Alan Says:

    Jonathan,
    Thanks for highlighting the myriad ways food and it’s preparation are meaningful to the Jewish people. For me:

    food creation + friends/family = memorable and valued experiences.

  8. Felisa Says:

    Cooking is something that families, communities did together to nourish their bodies, their cultural bonds pretty much until the 2nd half of the 20th century. Now it seems, that, in general, cooking is a lost art. Most people do not cook. Jews are just as guilty of buying prepared foods. If we are to be part of a new Jewish food movement that re-connects us to ancient roots and traditions, we should encourage each other to get back in the garden and in the kitchen.

  9. Jennifer Says:

    Jonathan,

    I really enjoyed this piece and have been trying (as a non Jew) to revive and hopefully master ‘Jewish style’ cooking at home for my reform husband and our children. It is important to keep this cuisine alive for current and future generations, and I find it’s history fascinating.

    It’s been an interesting journey, especially this past weekend!

    My hat is off to anyone who still plucks their own chickens. That’s awesome. I tried my hand at chullah this weekend. Even though I am not Jewish (lapsed Anglican) preparing to feed a crowd on Rosh Hashannah became a great opportunity to talk about food traditions with the kids. And… the joys of making things from scratch. Perilous though it was.

    If you are so inclined to read about it:

    http://www.cooklikeayenta.wordpress.com

    Happy eating,

    Jennifer

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