Prior to keeping kosher, my husband and I were at a diner we used to frequent in the Chicago suburbs. It was Passover, so we asked for some matzah instead of bread. At first the waitress wasn’t sure what we were talking about, but then my cell phone, which had “Hava Nagila” as the ringtone, started ringing, and she realized we were Jewish and understood. It’s possible, it turns out, to have Jewish food experiences even at restaurants! Just ask Elizabeth LaBan, who recently published The Restaurant Critic’s Wife.
LaBan uses some of her personal background as the framework of this novel. Like her protagonist, Lila, her husband is a restaurant critic, and they have two children. LaBan’s husband Craig is a well-known critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer—but is not quite as anonymity-obsessed as Lila’s husband! New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Weiner calls The Restaurant Critic’s Wife “a guilt free treat that will have you devouring every word.”
Jewish Food Experience: What has been a recent memorable Jewish food experience for you? Have you ever had an unexpected Jewish food experience at a restaurant?
Elizabeth LaBan: Yes! There is a restaurant we love called Abe Fisher in Center City, Philadelphia, that offers a modern and creative take on the Ashkenazi Jewish food traditions. Our favorite dish there is the pastrami-smoked short rib for four. It comes with schmaltz-griddled house-baked rye bread.
JFE: How do you write about food to make it sound appetizing to your readers?
EL: That’s such a good question, and I haven’t thought of it in those terms before. I do know that I write a lot about food; so much so, in fact, that my agent is often asking me to take out some of the food references. In my young adult novel, The Tragedy Paper, for example, the characters live at a boarding school where all the food is local. I had so much fun writing that and thinking about what they might serve—farm-raised beef, local maple syrup, fresh tomato soup. In The Restaurant Critic’s Wife, I focus a lot on restaurant meals. I think if I do make it sound appetizing, it’s because I’m writing about food I like and can imagine eating.
JFE: What is a Jewish holiday food item you could eat year-round?
EL: There are many, but the one we do eat all year long is matzah ball soup. We have it whenever we can, at the deli or at home. If my son doesn’t feel well, it is the first thing he asks for. I even make mini-matzah ball soup to send in thermoses with my kids for their school lunches.
JFE: What is the most unique food you’ve ever tried while dining with your husband, who is a restaurant critic?
EL: I think I accidentally ate some tripe when he shared his phở with me recently, but the truth is I generally avoid what might be considered the less-than-mainstream food. Does it count that I was at the table when my husband ate grilled duck hearts, Sichuan kidneys or French-roasted bone marrow? Maybe next time I’ll try it…
JFE: What is a Jewish food experience you’d like to pass along to your children?
EL: We have a wonderful latke recipe that we make every Chanukah. We hope our kids will do that, too, one day when they have families of their own.
JFE: What was the transition to food writing like for you?
EL: I don’t really think of it as a transition, I just love to write about food in my fiction—whatever that might mean depending on the novel I’m writing at the time. With The Restaurant Critic’s Wife there were so many opportunities to write about food and restaurant moments. I talked through some of them with my husband and read a bunch of his old reviews to spark ideas and remember details. Really, though, I love to eat, so I think it follows that I love to write about food.