Journalism turned out to be a rewarding, lifelong career for Bonnie S. Benwick, but once she joined The Washington Post Food section in 2004, it provided the perfect intersection of cooking, writing and research. As the Deputy Food Editor/Recipe Editor, Bonnie writes the section’s weekly “Dinner in Minutes” column and the Post magazine’s “Plate Lab” column with Joe Yonan, Food Editor.
Bonnie contributed to Icons of American Cooking (2011) and edited The Washington Post Cookbook: Readers’ Favorite Recipes (2013). She is also a member of the JFE Advisory Council. When people are surprised to learn that she’s Jewish, she never quite knows what to make of that.
Jewish Food Experience: What are your childhood memories of Jewish food? Tell us about what you ate, when and who fixed it for you.
Bonnie Benwick: Much of it centers around mass quantities! It’s the only way my mother knew to cook for the holidays. My parents were Canadian, both from big families. Soon after they were married, they landed in Jacksonville, Florida, where one of my mom’s brothers and his wife had settled. So Passover Seders were split between our house and theirs, about a mile away. Our matzah balls were floaters; theirs were sinkers. Guess which ones I liked better?
I grew up in a two-sets-of-dishes household. No pork, no shellfish. My dad came home to eat cold borscht for lunch just about every day, with a big dollop of sour cream in the middle of it. My mom taught me how to make it, and tongue—in a scary fizzy pressure cooker!—by the time I was 10.
JFE: Do you remember the first time you went to a “Jewish” restaurant? What do you remember about that experience including, of course, what you ate?
BB: We attended a family wedding at the kosher Hotel St. Charles, in Atlantic City. I was 12 and secretly thrilled at the sight of sardines on lettuce leaves at the breakfast buffet. At the big dinner, I remember being the first one served at a kids’ table of 10…a first course that didn’t look like anything I’d ever had before. The waiter whispered “calf’s brains” when I asked about it. I took him at his word and dug in. The texture was unusual. I remember the best part was telling the rest of my cousins what it was, just to watch their reactions.
JFE: Have your cousins ever forgiven you for that? You do sound like an adventurous eater, even at a young age. Where do you think that came from?
BB: I’m no Andrew Zimmern, in terms of being adventurous, just interested in tastes of things. I am, to this day, easily put off by aromas of certain foods, which makes cauliflower and Brussels sprouts extra challenging. My closest cousins have vague to no memory of the calf’s-brains episode, which might tell you where my head was at.
JFE: For many years now, your professional life at The Washington Post has been all about food, and I’m guessing much of your life outside of work, too.
BB: Honestly, I feel like I’m in learning mode—even at this age. My background’s Ashkenazic, so getting acquainted with Sephardic food has been a boon. Some dear friends held regular Shabbat dinners when our kids were young. Whenever we’d go to those, it felt like such a warm and natural way to punctuate a week.
JFE: How do you decide which stories about Jewish food to include in the Food section?
BB: It’s a combination of weighing good story pitches and coming up with ways to cover the topic in a different way. Some years feel like a good time to revisit the basics, while others present opportunities to discuss trends. I can say that whatever we do, the feedback from my fellow Jewish cooks is: It’s never quite right, and never enough!
JFE: How have your ideas about or understanding of Jewish food changed over the years?
BB: Tradition is strong motivator and thread, certainly.
A good deli should not be taken for granted.
Passover desserts have come a long, long way.
Blintzes remain, for me, a near-perfect food.
I have a much greater respect and understanding of kashering. How better off would we be if our food inspection system had somehow patterned itself after that?
JFE: What do you think is the most interesting Jewish cuisine that you’ve explored so far?
BB: Not sure I could pinpoint a particular one—what’s most compelling to me is how Jewish dishes have been shared, how they have morphed in different cultures. I’m pretty keen on what’s been happening in Israel in the past decade or so, with a focus on fresh ingredients and a light touch. It all makes me appreciate the scholarship of the likes of Joan Nathan and Gil Marks and Sheilah Kaufman. If you get the chance to listen to Sheilah speak about the history of Jews and chocolate, don’t miss it. (See Sheilah’s JFE story on the topic here.)
JFE: Was there ever a Jewish food recipe or a story that you got at The Post that really surprised you in some way or was particularly memorable?
JFE: With all the food that you’ve researched, written about, tested and tasted, what is your favorite Jewish food today, or should I say that in the plural—Jewish foods?
BB: Brisket’s right up there. I consider it a perk of the job that I get to taste and try so many ways to make it, year after year. Have to say, I’m glad we’ve gotten away from the onion-soup-mix era. I think I was in college before I realized brisket didn’t have to be gray and so, so salty. And apple-y haroset—why isn’t that an official Food of Fall for everyone? (Again, the Ashkenazic bent comes through.) There’s a world of overnight/Shabbat cooking recipes that need to be reintroduced, I think.
JFE: Are there certain Jewish cookbooks you think are must-haves for today’s cooks?
BB: In no particular order and I fear I’m leaving out something important:
Arthur Schwartz’s Jewish Home Cooking
Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food
Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America
Marcy Goldman’s A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking
Janna Gur’s The Book of New Israeli Food
Faye Levy’s International Jewish Cookbook
Gil Marks’s Encyclopedia of Jewish Food
And just about any old, spiral-bound collection of Hadassah or Sisterhood recipes. I’m a sucker for those.
Top photo by Dori Phaff.