The first thing Danielle Crittenden Frum does when I arrive is make us tea—a fragrant and unusual brew full of assorted flowers gathered at various shuks (markets) in Israel during her many trips there.
Her small office is simply decorated, displaying a few of her favorite products from her company Fig Tree & Vine, a Jewish-oriented website and lifestyle platform she launched in April of this year. Long, white paper cuts hang over two windows instead of curtains. They are art, really, that offer a bit of privacy along with lots of light.
As with so many start-ups and small businesses, there are also a couple stacks of boxes of products waiting to be shipped to fill orders. Still, that doesn’t lessen the feeling that I’m here for afternoon tea with an old friend rather than an interview with someone I’ve just met.
Working as CEO and creative director of Fig Tree & Vine is a new career direction for Frum, who has written professionally for over three decades. She went into journalism right out of high school and has since written for numerous major outlets like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Daily Telegraph and Ladies Home Journal. Her media appearances include the Today Show, 20/20, Nightline, PBS, CNN and NPR.
Frum wrote a non-fiction and two fiction books before co-authoring a cookbook, From a Polish Country House Kitchen (Chronicle Books LLC, 2012), with Pulitzer prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum. “Ashkenazic and Polish cuisines are based on people dealing with very limited ingredients and a long winter,” Frum says. “It’s amazing the dishes that they did come up with using all those root vegetables and potatoes in storage!”
The book’s subtitle, 90 Recipes for the Ultimate Comfort Food, is only part of the story, she explains. The book was also a re-thinking of classic Polish and Ashkenazic cuisine into lighter, more interesting food for North Americans. Pierogi are stuffed with duck and red cabbage filling and served with red cabbage cooked with spices and cranberries, a quintessential American ingredient. Perhaps this book was foreshadowing for the new company soon to come; after all, the Fig Tree & Vine motto is “Old World. New Traditions.”
Fig Tree & Vine is very much part of Frum’s own Jewish journey. Married to David Frum and mother of three children, she converted to Judaism when her oldest daughter Miranda, now 24, was born. As a result, she says honestly, “I’m still learning as I go. When you haven’t grown up Jewish, you don’t have intuitive knowledge. Some things are not instinctive.”
That background, Frum believes, has led her to find points in Jewish life that everyone can relate to and not feel alienated. There is an advantage, she points out, because she isn’t “hostage to any particular Jewish background. I have no inhibitions about bringing in other traditions and cultures. I’m not bound by anything.” So, why not a Turkish seder? Or Chanukah decorations that really light up the season?
Fig Tree & Vine is about lifestyle—food, travel and décor—all within a Jewish context. Frum explains, “Normally we have to read about Jewish lifestyle along with horrible headlines and politics. I want to create an experience of the beauty, peace and celebration of being Jewish.” A weekly newsletter to over 2,400 subscribers features Frum’s latest blog post, which can take us from London’s historically Jewish East End to Schwartz’s deli for its famous Montreal smoked meat. There are also new products and recipes like a recent one from Yotam Ottolenghi’s new book, Nopi.
Frum enjoys traveling in search of stories and products in such places as London, Paris, Istanbul, Montreal and, most often, Israel, where she spends a lot of time with chefs and artisans as well as walking through markets. “You feel good about supporting Israel,” she says, “and you get something beautiful out of it.”
She is proud that every product on the website has a story or a person behind it. “They aren’t knock-offs made in China.” Working with artisans to develop outstanding designs, Frum adds new products nearly every week. Many products are connected with Jewish holidays and rituals such as the Home/Shabbat collection with candlesticks, challah boards, havdalah sets and items for a beautiful Shabbat table. At this time of year, the Chanukah collection presents unique menorahs, dreidels, dreidel vases and plates, gift ideas and more. One of Frum’s favorite products is the lost mezuzahs from homes in Poland that are being replicated and cast in bronze by two Warsaw-based artists.
“I’m having so much fun,” Frum confesses. “I realized I wanted to do something to promote the breadth of Jewish culture and lifestyle, seeing how Jews all over the world live…and then creating a whole world of beautiful things and ways to live for people. It’s a chance to say, ‘Wow! I love being Jewish!’”
Top photo by Renée Comet.