Sometimes comfort food can come in the form of books—that is, you always know you have something enjoyable to read, and hearing the author’s name brings out good feelings. This is the case for me when it comes to Stacey Ballis’ novels. I first read The Spinster Sisters in the summer of 2007, and it helped me through a rough period in my life of moving to a new town and trying to make friends and find a job. I then went on to devour Ballis’ other books, and they were equally enjoyable. They all take place in Chicago and feature Jewish women, elements I could relate to. Ballis writes beautifully about food, making all the meals in her stories jump right off the pages and onto my table. So when she decided to foray specifically into “foodie fiction,” I knew she would come up with some treats. I have loved her recent novels that focus on food (and Jewish characters, of course) and look forward to Wedding Girl, which comes out this spring. While I haven’t yet met Ballis in person, I feel a kinship with her just through our e-mails.
Jewish Food Experience: How were you first inspired to write “foodie fiction”? From where do you draw inspiration?
Stacey Ballis: Food has always been one of my great passions, and I have always been keenly aware of the role of cooking and eating in our lives. So when I began writing, food became another character in my books. The way my heroines cook and eat is a way to know them better.
I’m inspired by so many things—it could be a nostalgic memory of a childhood favorite food, a new and exciting dish at a restaurant or a story someone tells about a meal they once had.
JFE: What was a memorable Jewish food experience for you as you were growing up?
SB: My grandmother, Jonnie, taught me all the classic Jewish dishes. She lived in the condo below us when I was growing up, so I was always in her apartment helping her cook. She is a “taste, taste, taste…little bit of this, little bit of that, no recipe is ever the same twice” kind of cook, and it made me fearless when it comes to veering off recipes and putting my own twists on things.
I remember specifically when we made teiglach, little rounds of mandelbrot-style cookies bound together with a honey syrup. They are fussy and complicated and have a zillion steps, but they are delicious and totally worth the effort. Preparing that recipe with her, seeing her joy at being in the kitchen and just following the steps bit by bit, more excited about how the sweets would make her family happy than she was at the seemingly endless task—that changed my heart forever. It showed me that cooking is an act of love, and there is enormous joy to be had for cook and consumer alike.
JFE: Which Jewish holiday is your favorite when it comes to food?
SB: Passover, for sure. It’s a fairly simple meal, but one that has so many memories, and I love the connectedness of it. Plus I love a challenge, so the limitation in terms of ingredients is always a fun puzzle for me!
JFE: Which has been your favorite of your “foodie fiction” books to write? Why?
SB: Off the Menu, because it was inspired by my courtship with my husband and is a love letter to him.
JFE: Which recipes were you most excited to feature in your novels?
SB: My godmother Susan’s banana cake with chocolate frosting, for sure; my recipe for scrambled eggs, which is a game changer and Salad Bar Soup, which proves to even a non-cook that something simple and delicious can come out of your kitchen.
JFE: Tell us about a unique twist you’ve given to a traditional Jewish recipe.
SB: I once used duck fat instead of chicken fat in my matzah balls—that was pretty yummy. And I have seasoned my brisket gravy with everything from Indonesian kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) to Marmite (a spread made of yeast extract); I’m always looking for that deep, rich umami layered in under the sweetness.
JFE: What are a must-have ingredient and a must-have cooking item (utensil, pan, blender, etc.) in your kitchen?
SB: There are always lemons in my kitchen. Lemon saves everything. And my must-have cooking item is my slow cooker. Winters in Chicago are brutal, and I love making a pot of chili or stew or soup first thing in the morning and leaving it simmering all day, making the house cozy. Plus it is a workhorse for holidays. I use it to keep the matzah balls hot without having to put them in the soup pot and making the broth cloudy, or to keep the mashed potatoes warm while the rest of the meal comes together. I only have four burners on my stove, so for entertaining, anything that keeps those clear is a godsend!