There’s no denying that when it comes to food—especially Jewish food—New York City is the center of the universe. Between old classics, like Katz’s and Russ and Daughters, and the new Jewish and Israeli-inspired spots that have popped up, like Balaboosta, Mile End Deli and Breads Bakery, New York is the place to be—or rather, eat.
Yet on Tuesday night, an intimate crowd gathered at New York’s 92Y for “More than Matzah Balls: Food and Cooking in Jewish Culture,” where two of the four bubbly, prominent foodie panelists, Joan Nathan and Pati Jinich, were, in fact, Washingtonians (and members of JFE’s Advisory Council, too). Joining Nathan and Jinich were New York-based Louisa Shafia, the author of the new award-winning book The New Persian Kitchen, and Ari White, owner of The Wandering Que, a Yonkers-based glatt kosher barbecue truck.
Before the event began, we sampled specialties from each speaker: Barbecue Sliders, Norooz (Persian New Year)-inspired Rice with Fava Beans and Dill (Baghali Polo), Crunchy Quinoa Salad with Pomegranate and Jalapeño and Gefilte Fish à la Veracruzana.
Nathan, the moderator, set the spirited conversation into motion with a reflection on developments in the 1960s that have set the stage for today’s American food scene: first, Americans going abroad with the Peace Corps and bringing back foreign dishes; second, Julia Child’s first television cooking show, which included appearances by friends; and third, the American Culinary Federation’s relabeling of the chef profession, from blue-collar to white-collar (“which made a lot of Jewish mothers happy!”).
From there, each participant shared reflections on the food world, Jewish and otherwise. Despite their seemingly different backgrounds, common threads emerged. When Jinich told of how her European Jewish grandparents arrived in Mexico, White piggybacked with a similar story, except in his version, his ancestors were turned away from Mexico and ended up just over the border in El Paso, Texas. (But his family makes spicy gefilte fish, too!)
Jinich and Shafia both shared that only in exploring the food of their cultures as a whole did they learn about those cultures’ respective Jewish communities and foods. Jinich reconnected with her beloved Mexico through food, while for Shafia, who grew up with a Muslim father, who had left Iran before she was born, and an Ashkenazi Jewish mother, her book gave her the opportunity to learn about a heritage she had experienced only through her father and relatives who occasionally visited and turned the family’s kitchen into a round-the-clock food factory. Interestingly, Shafia admitted that she essentially did not know about Iranian Jews until she embarked upon her cookbook project—she had experienced Judaism, and Jewish food, entirely through her mother’s Ashkenazi family.
There’s an idiom that says, “Show me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are.” The foodie variation goes, “Show me what your pantry staples are, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Nathan, who initiated the pantry conversation, revealed that hers are preserved lemons, harissa, s’hug and apricot jam, souvenirs of a fantastic career that was inspired in Israel and has taken her to the homes of Jews all around the world. Jinich’s are chipotles in adobo sauce, cans of refried beans (for “no-time-for-homemade” emergencies), sunflower and pumpkin seeds and tortillas.
Shafia’s pantry has changed significantly since she embarked upon her book project. It now contains Iranian staples like dried mint and dill, turmeric, sumac, cardamom, pomegranate molasses and stashes of hoarded saffron. White’s home pantry—Marmite, Tetley tea and imported chocolate—is his British, vegetarian wife’s domain; at work, “we have a lot of lamb bacon.”
As the conversation wrapped up, the panelists shared their Passover “musts.” Nathan’s is chremsel, a matzah fritter filled with nuts and dried fruit. White’s is matzah balls stuffed with gribenes (chicken skin cracklings), and Jinich and Shafia are inaugurating new haroset traditions—with hibiscus and pecans for the former and Persian-style, with dates and nuts, for the latter. My family makes Persian haroset, too. In fact, to bring everything full circle, our recipe comes from one of Nathan’s earliest cookbooks.