Need a recipe for blintzes, chicken soup, a variety of latkes and kugels or brisket? Want to add a Sephardic dish to your holiday menu? You can find all these recipes and more plus fascinating stories in the Washington Post Food section before every major Jewish holiday and often in between as well.
That’s because Joe Yonan and Bonnie Benwick really care about Jewish food. Yonan, the newspaper’s Food and Dining editor, explains that even though he doesn’t have “personal historical experience” with Jewish food, he brings his own curiosity and journalistic instincts to the table. Most of all, he counts on Benwick, the deputy food editor and recipe editor. “I trust Bonnie. She has her finger on the pulse of what people are talking about…and she has great institutional memory for what has been done before.”
As for Benwick, she feels an obligation to cover what she considers the biggest Jewish holidays every year, finding there is always something to say about them. She would cover other holidays like Shavuot, if she thought there was enough demand for it.
On the other hand, even though she doesn’t consider Chanukah a major holiday, she knows “people like to feel like they are getting equal time in December,” so the food section often explores other parts of the holiday besides foods fried in oil—like the cheese reference to the Chanukah story and, of course, chocolate and gelt.
These days, the food section is exploring more diverse Jewish food, especially the Sephardic side. “I think Jewish food is a fascinating amalgamation of different cultures,” Benwick says, longing for the time to delve into Jewish and other ethnic foods more consistently. As with other stories about ethnic foods, it’s not just Jews reading about the holiday foods, new delis, chefs making their own pastrami or the latest Jewish cookbook, whether it’s about gefilte fish or babka.
Benwick and Yonan agree that they work on presenting ways to modernize and simplify food so people will make the recipes again. “That’s our holy grail for any recipe,” as Yonan puts it, “something that comes together relatively quickly, but tastes more complicated than it actually is.” And they both find that one of the frequent difficulties around covering food—especially at seasonal or holiday times—is that readers tend to want everything every year, and that’s not possible.
What the food team can do is point people to the newspaper’s terrific archive, the Recipe Finder, where they can access the over 7,000 tested recipes available. Many others are currently waiting for editing, nutritional analysis or a photograph because the recipe appeared in the newspaper so long ago. The recipes accompanying this story are two of Benwick’s favorites from the archive.
Launched in 2006, the “look and friendliness” of Recipe Finder was recently updated along with more intuitive functionality and better searching, recipe scaling and sharing features. Don’t see a recipe you remember or that you have scribbled illegibly on a yellowed scrap of paper? Benwick encourages people to write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Give a sense of time or date at least by the decade, and the staff will search in the material not yet online, often sleuthing successfully.
We really can’t talk about the Washington Post Food section today without talking about the new Food Lab. Yonan and Benwick worked with a designer to create the space and started using it less than a year ago after the Post moved into new downtown DC offices, having convinced the powers that be that the quality of the work would be even better.
“In the old building,” Benwick says laughing, “we had a room in the newsroom labeled ‘food closet.’ It was the size of a big walk-in closet, and it held all of the cookbooks and pantry supplies plus a sink, microwave, toaster oven, an old refrigerator and a table!” Benwick and the recipe testers would prepare all of the food at home for the photoshoots. Then they would gather everything on a cart in the newsroom for a journey through a long hall, down three flights in the elevator and then hand-carried off the cart down old wrought iron steps to a makeshift photography set up.
These days it’s a quick elevator ride to the new, beautifully equipped Food Lab, which features a long counter for prep work, a large walk-in pantry, shelves for hundreds of cookbooks and, of course, burners, ovens, a big new refrigerator and a giant window that lets in natural light. Yonan and Benwick now do more and better videos, Facebook live and all the photos for the stories in the Food Lab. And it’s a space for special guests stop by to fix food and talk, like Dorie Greenspan and Marcus Samuelsson did recently.
“We are so grateful for the increased flexibility and creative possibilities we have now, all in service to the readers,” Benwick says. Those readers are searching for authenticity with renewed interest in Jewish recipes and stories, beautiful foods and traditions that shouldn’t die out, Yonan says, but kept, updated and shared. As for Yonan, he made it clear that what he’s looking for are more invitations to Passover seders. Really. So, keep that idea plus the wonderful resources of the Washington Post Food section in mind whenever you think of Jewish food.
Top photo: On Tuesday mornings, the counter in the Food Lab is packed with ingredients and garnishes for the many savory and sweet dishes for the weekly photo shoot.