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Kitchen Conversions

Intermarried couples must learn new holiday recipes and traditions

Joan Nathan
September 01, 2010
Gabriela Herman
Barbecued smoked brisket, as prepared by Joan Nathan.Gabriela Herman
Gabriela Herman
Barbecued smoked brisket, as prepared by Joan Nathan.Gabriela Herman

I was leading a tour of Jewish culinary sites in Philadelphia at a conference about 20 years ago when Julia Child showed up. “Why are you here?” I asked. Always direct, she told me that she was interested in what I was doing, and one of her relatives had married a Jew, and it was a very good marriage, so she wanted to learn more about Jewish food.

Learning about food traditions is a major challenge in every mixed marriage, but perhaps more so when one partner is Jewish and the other must learn from scratch how to navigate both kashrut and the culinary customs that characterize the cycle of holidays that kicks off anew next week, with Rosh Hashanah.

“When you grow up outside the tradition you don’t know the holidays,” said Colleen Fain, 63, a community volunteer in Coral Gables, Florida, who converted to Judaism when she got married more than 40 years ago. “You have to learn the rituals, and it’s hard to pass that down when you are not familiar or comfortable with them. The convert has to work really hard to understand the customs so they unify the family.”

For Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks, 54, who converted when she married writer Tony Horwitz, Judaism was a natural progression. “I didn’t know any Jews growing up,” Brooks said over a glass of wine on the porch of her Victorian home on Martha’s Vineyard, far from Australia, where she was born and raised. “For some reason my father was a lefty Zionist Socialist who got caught up with the Zionist movement, even though we were not Jewish. It rubbed off on me.” As a teenager, Brooks started wearing a star of David because “of my rabid history reading, especially about the Shoah to express identification with the Jewish people.” Conversion seemed “like the natural thing to do,” she said. It was a move “much more about history than faith, I wasn’t going to be the end of the line of a faith that survived so many years.”

Brooks knew Jewish deli food in New York and Ashkenazic cooking from Tony’s family, but she likes the Middle Eastern cuisine of Israel best. “When I lived in Cairo as a writer, I kept visiting Israel and loved the Levantine-inspired food,” she said. For breaking the fast after Yom Kippur, she goes Sephardic, sometimes serving Poopa Dweck’s Syrian brisket with fruit from her cookbook Aromas of Aleppo and other times harira, a rich Moroccan lamb-based vegetable soup often used to break the fast during Ramadan, which she first tasted when she was in Morocco in the late 1980s. “It was the only thing that got me up in the morning,” she said. “You feel like you have been fed with that.”

Brooks speaks passionately about cooking. When she doesn’t get challah from her son’s class at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, where the students make it, she bakes it herself. “I like to get my hands in the dough, and I get some of my best novelistic ideas when making challah,” she said. “I chew over the issues from my morning’s writing and sometimes gnarly plot points resolve themselves. Turning the compost works well too.”

Tom Ashe similarly follows the Jewish rituals of his spouse, Joanne. The son of a police officer from Queens, Ashe converted when he married Joanne 33 years ago. The couple cooks together (during the holidays he plays the role of assistant; the rest of the time he’s in charge) and rarely host fewer than 10 family members on weekends in their home in Placitas, New Mexico. “Since I am a convert, each holiday brings back memories of when I was in my mid-20s and chose Judaism,” said Ashe, 58, a real estate developer. “They are definitely my holidays too, and I look forward to the foods, the smells, and the traditions. The Jewish palate is more eclectic than what I grew up with as a young Protestant boy in Queens. Jews have the whole world, from Middle Eastern to Asian foods.”

Although the Ashes still pull out Joanne’s mother’s recipes for the holidays, they occasionally tweak dishes, as in a delicious smoked brisket holiday recipe more reminiscent of the far West than Eastern Europe.

Veronica Goode knew nothing about Jewish customs growing up in Venezuela and had to learn everything—from Shabbat candle-lighting rules to what ingredients to include in a holiday meal. “Cooking Jewish is a real shock,” said Goode, 36, a social work student in Washington, D.C. “When I got married, I didn’t know how to cook anything Jewish, even brisket, so I called my step mother-in-law.” Veronica now makes her recipes with lots of onions, tomato paste, and long cooking. Her one complaint: “I haven’t learned to make matzoh balls yet.”

Goode underlined a lament I have heard from many converts I meet at book signings and other events. Judaism is intimidating, and they need a gentle soul to mentor them through the traditions.

“The best thing to do is to ask friends and relatives for recipes and don’t be afraid to try them,” said Fain. When she first wanted to make kugel, for example, she asked her sister-in-law, Sally Ann Epstein, who had a family recipe from a cousin for help. Fain was not afraid to ask, Epstein was flattered, and now making that kugel—a dairy version more appropriate for a break-fast—is a family tradition. “If I had married someone else, I wouldn’t know how to make kugel or brisket,” she said.

Imagine life without that!

Adapted from Geraldine Brooks

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large onions, diced (about 4 cups)
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2-inch knob of ginger, peeled and grated
3 celery stalks, diced
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut in rounds
2 zucchini, diced
8 cups good lamb, beef, or vegetable stock
12-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 19-ounce can chick peas,
1 cup barley
1 cup chopped fresh mint
2 cups chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon cardamom or to taste
1 teaspoon cumin or to taste
Pinch of saffron
Salt to taste
¼ teaspoon white pepper or to taste
1 teaspoon hot red pepper or to taste
1/2 teaspoon black pepper or to taste
½ cup vermicelli noodles, broken up

1. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot and sauté the onions, garlic, ginger, celery, carrots, and zucchini for a few minutes.

2. Add the broth and the tomatoes and bring to a boil. Then continue to simmer for another 20 minutes.

3. Add the chick peas and the barley, half the mint and half the cilantro, the cardamom, cumin, saffron, salt, and the three kinds of pepper. Continue to simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes, adding 1 to 2 cups water or as needed.

4. Add the vermicelli and continue simmering about 5 minutes or until the pasta is cooked. Stir in the remaining mint and cilantro. Adjust the seasonings to taste and serve.

Yield: 10 to 12 Servings

Adapted from Tom and Joanne Ashe

5- to 6-pound Grade-A choice brisket
6 sliced garlic cloves
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 sliced onions
¼ cup liquid smoke
1 bottle Heinz Chili Sauce
1 16-ounce can tomatoes
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 cup of wine or enough to nearly cover the brisket

1. Wash and dry the brisket and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Pierce holes in the brisket and insert the garlic cloves. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Heat the oil and sear on both sides.

3. Put the onions on the bottom of a heavy casserole, just large enough to hold the brisket. Put the brisket on top and then add the liquid smoke, chili sauce, tomatoes, and tomato sauce and pour over the brisket. Cover with the red wine.

4. Cover with tin foil or a top and bake in the oven for 4 hours.

5. Chill overnight, remove fat that has accumulated, slice, reheat and serve.

Yield: about 10 servings

Adapted from Colleen Fain, Sally Ann Epstein, and Bobbi Mayer Joslin

8 ounces broad, flat, egg noodles
½ cup sugar
12 ounces whole milk cottage cheese
1/2 cup milk or a little more
1/2 cup salted butter, melted, but not hot
1/2 cup golden raisins
2 large eggs, slightly beaten 1 cup sour cream
½ teaspoon cinnamon or to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 350-degrees and grease an 8-cup casserole.

2. Cook the noodles in a large pot of salted water and drain, then rinse to cool down a little.

3. Mix the sugar, cottage cheese, milk, melted butter, raisins, eggs, and sour cream in a large bowl. Stir in the noodles, transfer to casserole dish and liberally sprinkle the cinnamon on top.

4. Bake for 40 minutes until browned on top. If you use a flat casserole you will need slightly less time for cooking.

Yield: about 8 servings

Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.