Ritual guides our Jewish lives, particularly at the table. We light Sabbath candles, read the Haggadah at Passover and build the sukkah. We preserve traditions passed down through generations. Emily Paster wants us to bequeath a tradition of preserving, too.
In her new book, The Joys of Jewish Preserving, Paster offers up well-researched recipes from both Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions. Recipes range from Shtetl Raspberry Syrup to Pickled Okra, from Deli-Style Kosher Dills to Abraham’s Greengage Chutney. Each recipe is packed with stories, flavors and pairings that reflect the global influences throughout Jewish cuisine.
Paster, a native Washingtonian who now lives in Chicago, comes from a tradition of great eating. Her grandmother Hortense Paster was a talented cook who invoked the familiar flavors of Ashkenazi cuisine at holiday meals. Paster has no romantic memories of standing at Hortense’ side as she cooked. “She was one of those very territorial women in the kitchen, so I don’t have a memory of cooking with her, rolling matzah balls, but I do remember that the food was amazing.” Washingtonians will recognize Paster’s aunt, Hortense’ daughter, Ann Brody Cove, as an vital leader in the local food movement beginning in the 1980s.
An interfaith upbringing meant Paster carried a sense of her Jewishness rooted in food, but a college semester spent in France opened new avenues. She lived with the Zémors, a Sephardic family in Paris, who “showed me what it felt like to be Jewish.” In this year abroad, Paster’s sense of herself as Jewish blossomed beyond a cultural appreciation.
After college, Paster attended law school where she met and married Elliot Regenstein, who was raised in a Conservative, kosher home. Before marriage, Paster went through a conversion process (her mother is not Jewish) and in so doing, incorporated religious observances with her already deep appreciation for the cultural traditions of Judaism. Stepping from the mikveh (ritual immersion) into her new married life, Paster drew on Hortense’s teachings, the glories of religious life learned at the Zémors’ and her conversion studies to create her own Jewish home.
Unlike many who convert, Paster grew up with Jewish experiences. She had memories to draw on, but going through conversion gave her the wherewithal to “talk about and put forward my history. Growing up, Judaism was almost entirely about the food. We never went to temple. It was all holiday food and meals. No one quite knew the prayers—we just ate. I identified as Jewish, but I knew there was a big piece missing and I wanted to fill that gap. Conversion gave me the confidence to put myself out there as a Jewish person, a Jewish mother.”
Like many home cooks in America, in 2007, Paster picked up preserving—making jams, pickles and relishes—at first as a hobby designed to take advantage of the bounty of seasonal foods. Before long, that hobby led her to create a Food Swap in Chicago, a monthly meeting of cooks and preservers, foragers and farmers, where attendees pay a small fee to trade and exchange foods with the other attendees. Paster’s views of preserving expanded through the exposure to other cuisines and traditions. Her first book, Food Swap: Recipes and Strategies for the Most Irresistible Gourmet Foods to Barter and Share, details how to swap and provides dozens of recipes for swappable foods.
As Paster writes in the introduction to The Joys of Jewish Preserving, “I was inspired by the fruits mentioned in the Bible and the Talmud, life in the shtetls of Poland and Russia and the abundance of the Sephardic Mediterranean and Middle East.” She researched far and wide, finding that many of the classic Jewish preserving traditions fell to the wayside when America began to offer kosher products in grocery stores.
“Crisco and margarine meant that mixing meat and [what might have been traditionally] dairy dishes happened more easily. At the time, Jewish preserving sort of disappeared, but when preserving and fermentation came back into fashion in the early 2000s, it opened the door to my research.”
She slips chilis into pickles with a Sephardic flair and cooks spoon fruits with sugar and spices of the Ashkenazi tradition. To write the book, Paster learned fermentation and calls homemade sauerkraut a revelation. “If you think you don’t like sauerkraut but haven’t had homemade, you’ll change your mind. It’s crunchy, not slimy.”
While writing her book involved extensive research, a passion for food underlies every word, a passion that began at Hortense’s table, influenced by her aunt, and was further encouraged at the Zémor home. That passion is a part of the Jewish experience, and Paster wants us to find it in the simple art of preserving. That’s a tradition we can all pass along.