A James Beard Award winner for her popular and much beloved blog, PoorMansFeast.com, Elissa Altman has written two books about her experiences with growing up Jewish, the food that goes along with it, and how it all shaped who she is now. Her first book, Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking, which is based on her blog, is about finding sustenance and peace in a world of excess and inauthenticity, demonstrating how all our stories are inextricably bound up with how we feed ourselves and those we love. Her latest book, Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw, came out in September and explores the tradition, religion, family expectations and the forbidden in her Queens, New York, childhood. You can find Altman at her website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Jewish Food Experience: What was it like to transition from cookbook editing to writing a memoir?
Elissa Altman: I have been an on-again/off-again editor for years at this point, and started writing my narrative blog, PoorMansFeast.com, back around 2007. In many ways, the blog was the jumping off point for my writing memoir; after a few years of blogging, I knew that a memoir was going to be next, and Poor Man’s Feast (the memoir) was published in 2013. Editing is a passion—it’s something I’ve done since graduating from college in the mid-1980s, and I know that it can make or break a cookbook. But writing memoir (and also fiction, which I’ve started doing recently) is, for me, like breathing. I still edit from time to time because I like to, but thankfully no longer because I need to.
JFE: Since you have spoken about trying to eat more healthfully, including less meat, what is a traditional Jewish food item that you’ve adapted to be vegetarian or vegan?
EA: Having grown up in an assimilated Jewish home in the 1960s and ’70s, with a father who had lived through the Depression and a mother who was born at its end, there was not a lot of vegetarian food in my house because it was seen as the food of poverty (which obviously is not the case.) And to be clear: there is a lot of vegetarian and vegan food out there that is very much not healthy—it can easily be laden with fat and simple carbs. All of that said, I love good vegetarian food and also good vegan food: I’ve made cholent that’s vegan and kasha varnishkes that are vegetarian, and nobody ever complained!
JFE: What was a memorable Jewish food experience for you when you were growing up?
EA: The clearest memory I have—one that has always stayed with me—was my maternal grandmother, Gaga, making chicken soup on Friday night. Regardless of how the world was changing around us, everything stopped on Friday night while she stood in our tiny galley kitchen in Queens and made a pot of soup that we had with dinner. Leftovers were always reheated in the bottom part of my mother’s glass coffee percolator. I can taste it, even now.
JFE: How is food associated with love for you?
EA: Food is sustenance, nurturing and history; it guarantees the symbiosis of past and present. The world could be coming to an end and the act of feeding someone a small bowl of something good, of caring for them, is a wordless expression of devotion. It is associated with love, but I also very definitely associate it with basic human kindness and compassion. And without it, we’ve got nothing.
JFE: What is your favorite Jewish holiday and favorite Jewish food?
EA: My favorite Jewish holiday is, without a doubt, Passover: it’s inclusive (or is meant to be) across all cultures, and I love how the foods of the holiday change as they reflect the ethnicities of the people cooking them. Sephardic Passovers are vastly different from Ashkenazic Passovers when it comes to the table (apart from the Seder plate, which are more or less the same). My favorite Jewish food is savory matzah brei, cooked in a scramble, with caramelized onion and salt and pepper. The crack cocaine of our people, without a doubt.
JFE: Your work history has always been focused around food. How did you get into food? If you had the chance to take on a different career path, what would it be?
EA: Well, actually, my work history started not in food, but in publishing. I stepped away from it briefly in the late 1980s and went to work for Dean & Deluca (the original store, at 121 Prince Street in Soho) during the day, and attended cooking school at night. And that was it: I was completely hooked, and surrounded myself with everything culinary I could find. I read the works of the greatest food writers—M. F. K. Fisher, Edna Lewis, Liebling, Waverly Root, Paul Bertolli, Deborah Madison, Laurie Colwin—and devoted myself to learning everything I could about food and the act of cooking as history, art and culture. Eventually, I went back to publishing because I didn’t have the knees or hips strong enough to allow me to work a professional kitchen line (although I had been offered a gig being a sous chef at a now-defunct Manhattan restaurant called Eze; I turned it down when I learned that the hours were 2 pm until 2 am). If I had the chance to take on a different career path, it probably would have been as a linguist, or a language professor. Even then, I’m sure I would have been inclined towards food and writing about its place in the human heart.