Posted by Rob Eshman
A shteibel is a small neighborhood synagogue. You pronounce it to rhyme with “Weeble”—it’s as cozy and cute. Every religion has its shteibel. Walk the narrow streets of the Old City of Jerusalem and you’ll see tiny rooms where sock-clad men kneel in prayers to Allah. Rome is full of mini- churches tucked between offices and stores. Peek inside and inevitably you’ll see an old woman and some lit candles, a shrunk-down statue of Jesus on a scaled-down altar—a Catholic shteibel.
My wife can’t pass a shteibel without going in—though I never quite feel comfortable or welcome in them. For me that small, sudden space devoted to eating or drinking—a tucked away bar or café or restaurant—is sanctuary enough. I search them out wherever I travel.
This week I stumbled onto a new one right in my own neighborhood. Dola is a coffee bar unlike any other in LA. You enter a narrow passage between two buildings on Abbot Kinney, just next to the super-chic Gjelina. The passage leads to a patio, fashioned of beaten-up concrete and grass, punctuated with a small forest of melaleuca trees. There’s a modern sculpture sitting smack dab in the middle, inoffensive as a playset.
A sign out front, on a chalkboard, reads:
Intellegentsia coffee, $3 here
$2.50 to go.
Free wi fi
That oversells the amenities. The coffee is in a pump pot, beside a rack of magazines for sale. You help yourself in either ceramic or paper. You sit at mismatched tables under the shade of those trees.
I sat for a few minutes yesterday. It smelled good: the eucalyptus scent of the trees, the fresh coffee. One other customer drank coffee and spoke in his iPhone. I turned to a Japanese lady sitting closest to the cash register and asked who I was supposed to pay. She answered in Japanese—a moment straight out of a David Lynch movie.
Eventually a young Japanese woman came and took my money. She said the same people who own Gjelina own Dola—named after one of their cousins—and haven’t quite decided how to use the space. In the meantime they put some magazines and coffee pots there.
Not just that: in the meantime they created a sanctuary.
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July 23, 2009 | 8:56 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
I give myself credit for very little in this world, but I will take it for discovering Jonathan Gold before the Pulitzer committee did.
Gold is The L.A. Weekly food writer who received journalism’s highest award—aside from the Rockower, of course—in 2007, the first food writer ever to receive a Pulitzer.
He received the $10,000 prize, wrote the judges, “ for his zestful, wide ranging restaurant reviews, expressing the delight of an erudite eater.”
But that’s not why he won it. By that description, Calvin Trillin got robbed. Trillin is not a bit less zestful or wide-ranging, and he was stuffing his face long before Gold gnawed his first pork knuckle. (I’ve met Gold twice—he has made up for lost time). Not only would Trillin qualify by this measure, so does his predecessor, A.J. Liebling. And Gail Greene, and Craig Clairborne.
What sets Gold apart is what I recognized when I wrote what I think is the first article appreciating Gold—who else would spill ink in the pre-Web 2.0 years on a food critic at an alt weekly?
And what set him apart was his ability to draw us together. Whether Gold knows he’s on a holy mission or not, he’s tapped into food’s holy mission: to bring different people to a common table. Gold’s reviews knit together this diverse city, gave unity to our diversity, celebrated it, allowed us to taste it.
I thought of all that as I sat down today to read my umpteenth Gold review in today’s LA Weekly—the first and often the last piece I’ll read in that paper each week (I hate to sound prudish, but I always had a problem with a self-described progressive magazine that helped fund itself by running prostitution ads featuring exploited immigrant women. We’d have a 70 page paper if we took those ads—and many years ago we used to—but it’s just a tawdry way of paying for your high-minded message. That said, I gotta read Gold).
May 27, 1999
Good as Gold
When the editors of Gourmet named Jonathan Gold the magazine’s restaurant critic, an obvious question came to mind: Why don’t they just stick a fork in our hearts? To his fans in Los Angeles, losing Jonathan Gold cannot hurt much less.
Gold has been writing restaurant reviews in Los Angeles for about a decade, first at The Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles magazine. Occasionally he goes national. Food & Wine has carried his reports from the food bazaars of Southeast Asia. Rolling Stone, Details and Spin all run his music criticism. But lately his local fans have become spoiled by turning regularly to Gold’s Counter Intelligence column in the LA Weekly.
Most big-city restaurant critics describe meals you can’t afford at places you can’t get into. Gold can do this too, mercilessly. His recent review of the must-be-seen-at Lucques dressed it down for overcharging. A man who ranks the Green Fish-Ball Curry at Thailand Plaza as one of the city’s ten best meals is unlikely to be wowed by yet another rare whatever-crusted ahi at twenty-two dollars for five ounces. Gold’s passion—his bread and butter—has been reporting on his meals at the hundreds of Shanghainese, Cantonese, Japanese, Indonesian, Pakistani, Isaan, Persian, Arabic, American regional, Korean, Mexican, Peruvian and other micro-ethnic eateries that lurk among the strip malls and boulevards from San Gabriel to Agoura. Places whose addresses include fractions, places where the phone is answered in unrecognizable languages, places unknown even to members of the ethnic group whose food they serve. When a Guatemalan friend wanted a special place to take her sisters for a taste of home, she asked me. I searched the online archives for Gold.
His writing is passionate, concise, and muscular—a cocktail of Tom Wolfe and Elizabeth David. “At first glance,” he writes of the signature dish at the South Indian vegetarian restaurant Daswaprakash in Cerritos, “pessret looks like a working maquette for an Eero Saarinen structure, a beige, lentil-flour pancake with the dull, smooth sheen of a freshly pressed pair of gabardine slacks, as big around as a phonograph record and bent into a kind of ‘50s-curvilinear shape. Thin, crisp edges work to a slight, sour chewiness at the center. The pancake encloses a mixture of green chile and minced raw onion—a sort of elegant counterpoint of slight bitternesses—and the package is spicy—hot as an East L.A. taco.”
Gold fits neatly into a little known but much appreciated type: the Jewish -American food writer. Think about it: A.J. Liebling, Raymond Sokolov, Jane and Michael Stern, Jeffrey Steingarten, Seymour Britchky, Calvin Trillin, L.A.‘s own Merrill Schindler. The Jewish cultural appreciation for the importance of food and eating has no doubt helped launch at least a dozen notable careers, Gold’s included. Stand aghast if you must that these writers happily left behind the food strictures of their faith. Trillin has written odes to barbecued pork, and Gold’s favorite local dish is something called the pork pump. You could be religiously, morally, or dietetically sworn never to go near the stuff, but still be entranced by Gold’s vivid description.
Like most of these fine writers, Gold has chosen a life that rewards him for eating whatever doesn’t eat him first. For those who keep kosher, his Rabelesian approach to the world’s larder has got to be chilling. After all, it hasn’t been that many generations since Gold’s ancestors abhored what he seems to crave.
If that offends you, there is good reason to forgive Gold his appetite, and that has to do with the other lines he crosses. You could map the area of the average restaurant reviewer’s travels, and it would pretty much overlap with Visa’s preferred zip codes. Los Angeles is a city segregated by lack of good public transportation, by massive freeway systems, by staggering home prices, by race. We don’t live in one another’s neighborhoods. We don’t, usually, eat in one another’s restaurants. Gold drives across these boundaries like Il Postino peddling his bicycle from village cottage to hilltop villa. His reviews draw us Angelenos near in a way that a thousand flowery mayoral speeches on tolerance and diversity cannot. Anyone who’s heard Korean pop knows that music is not really the international language. A tour among the grasshopper vendors at a Bangkok market will convince you that food isn’t either. So what is? Appetite. We are all hungry for something, The Farm Dogs memorably sing, and why not take them literally. I wouldn’t eat the “particularly stinky fermented-shrimp sambal” at Sudi Mampir on a bet, but Gold seems to thrive on the stuff. And he describes the glee the Indonesian proprietors express when their loyal customers, longing for a taste of home, feel better after eating it.
We may not understand what our neighbors eat, but we understand their devotion to their grandmothers’ recipes, to the familiar smells, to a finally perfect slice of something eaten a thousand times before, as something very human. Without Gold, a little of the stitching has gone out of the LA fabric. Score one for the Forces That Pull Us Asunder. In the building where I work, the easiest way for me to start a conversation with the Phillipino consular officials, the Korean bankers, the Latino journalists, the black lawyers, is to ask them about the food I know they are hungry for. Without Gold, how will I know?
Read my Gold piece in its native habitat here.
July 22, 2009 | 7:09 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Wednesday is Food Section day—one of the holiest days of the week.
For me the observance of Food Section day began in 1982, when I graduated college and moved into a room in a crumbling Victorian pile in in San Francisco. Now the neighborhood is fashionably called the Lower Haight. Back then it was just a dumpy street near the barbed wire encased Federal Mint, in a no man’s land between the hippie cool Haight Ashbury and the gay cool Castro. Every Wednesday morning I gravitated toward the Castro, which had a newspaper stand selling the New York Times. I needed the Food Section.
Some of the best writing, word for word, was in that section. And in the days before the Internet, it brought me the most current possible news of what people in New York, Paris, London were sitting down to eat that week.
It was an education: Pierre Franey’s cooking in 60 minutes, Craig Clairbornes explorations of New England clambakes, and reviews of three stars restaurants I could only aspire to visit. You have to understand, this was at a time when you couldn’t type “miso” into a search engine and instantly find 3,000 articles, recipes and videos on fermented soy beans. If you wanted to watch people cook on TV, you had to wait for the one PBS show each week. If you wanted to see color pictures of food, you had to suffice with the stuffy layout over at Gourmet or the garish calorie-counting articles at the women’s magazines. But the Food Section was the whole meal: it offered quality and quantity, and—the hallmark of any great restaurant—consistency.
It was also an escape. I paid my two quarters for the Times, found a table at a local coffee shop, pulled out the Dining Section, and took in the front page. If there were recipes I imagined them in my mouth, flavor for favor, as I read them. If there were stories of pressed duck at a Paris restaurant, I was transported there. I was making minimum wage as a cookie baker at the first Il Fornaio to open in America. I belonged to no group larger or more important than the cast-offs and kooks who populated the kitchen—not to mention my two indelibly quirky housemates—but the Food Section put me in touch with the wide world of like-minded believers, people like me alive in cities far away, people who thought, like me, that food is important. People who started every Wednesday with the Food Section.
Today, Wednesday, July 22, 2009, I bought The New York Times again, shuffled into its thinning corpse and pulled out Dining. I unfolded it, still excited, as I ate my avocado sandwich downstairs at the office lunch room. There’s no question that in the era of ChowHound, Epicurious and 1000 other food web sites, magazines and blogs—including nytimes.com—the midweek hole in my life that it used to fill just isn’t as big.
But it’s still special, like ritual is special. We have electric lights all week, but we still gather to light candles on Friday. I can’t quite let go of the printed Food Section, though I know that time is near. One day a Wednesday will come and go and I’ll forget to get the paper, I’ll even forget about forgetting—and all the anticipation and ritual that went with Wednesday will have vanished from my life—probably like what happened after the printing press came along, and took the last parchment scroll from the caves full of believers.
July 20, 2009 | 5:10 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
I learned a new word this week: gastrosexual. That’s a straight man whose knowledge of food and proficiency in the kitchen makes him attractive to women. A gastrosexual is a metrosexual who doesn’t decorate. A man might know many things—how to please a woman in bed, how to replace a timing belt, how to play the stock market—but a gastrosexual knows one thing, and knows it well: she doesn’t have to have sex, fix her car, or work every day, but she has to eat, three times a day, for the rest of her life. Long before the word came to be, I was a gastrosexual.
My shtick was this: I was a freelance writer, consistently underemployed. I drove old cars whose dents I couldn’t afford to fix. And I was poet skinny, six feet two and a hundred and fifty pounds—you could serve soup out of my hip sockets. But if I could just get a woman to my kitchen, I could usually get her to my bedroom. I don’t think it was because my food was always so sensational that it made them swoon and lose control. I think the act of being served, of being taken care of, of knowing they would be taken care of, was seductive to the women who I found attractive. Gastrosexuality worked for me.
Until I met the rabbi.
The moment I saw her I knew I wanted to marry Naomi. My friend Justin Rudelson and I had been taking a course in Jewish mysticism from a
bearded Chabadnik, He taught in a classroom that was part of a Conservative synagogue in Venice Beach, Mishkon Tephilo. I didn’t
understand a word the rabbi said. We read these deep religious books and listened to him explicate the authors theories about the layers of
holiness, the essence of being. I was in the class for the same reason every guy there was: we were lost. And if we could just draw close to God and unlock the mysteries of the Universe—we were golden. But as soon as the earnest rabbi started speaking, I knew it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t experience God. So how could I intellectually understand Him? It was all just words… words…words, and then:
“Hey, you guys want to go meet the new woman rabbi?”
The young Chaadnik, beard down to his collarbome, finally said something I understood. We rushed out of our chairs and out the hallway, toward the sanctuary. And there, in that narrow space, I saw her coming toward me. “This is Rabbi Levy,” our rabbi said.
She was wearing a green Ann Klein businesswoman’s suit. I could overlook that. She was slender, with thick brown hair and sensitive, wise eyes. She
“Hello,” I managed.
She winced a smile and walked past.
To this day she swears she doesn’t remember seeing me in that group. But from that day on I was smitten.
There was a long, agonizing period of months that followed, during which I tried every legal way of getting her to notice me. I came to
services every Shabbat, Friday night and Saturday morning. The words and melodies never moved me—I was still far, far away from the whole
God thing—but her presence really did shine a light for me. I wanted to be near her, and I knew if she gave me a chance I could sway her. The thing that worked before, I figured, would work again: food.
Naomi announced to the congregation she’d be teaching a class called, “Love and Torah.” It was a look at the Biblical idea of love through
the lives of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. It sounded mildly interesting to me, until she said the day and time of the class: Wednesdays at noon.
Perfect, I thought. There were a lot of young eligible men in the congregation after the single rabbi, but they were all successful, with real jobs. My Wednesday noons were free. As were my Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday noons. Saturday I was in synagogue stalking Naomi—I mean, communing with God and my People—and Sundays I usually had catering gigs.
I showed up to the first class and saw the brilliance of my plan: inside the rabbi’s study sat the rabbi herself, and six stay at home moms.
I pressed my case, again with food. The day Naomi read from the Song of Songs, the most sensual of all the Biblical passages, I brought in
three cartons of ripe strawberries from the farmer’s market. The day before she got to the passage about frankincense and myrhh, I
drove 30 miles to a bodega in Burbank to find real frankincense and myrhh. To me, it was a major score. The other women knew I was going for
extra credit—they knew exactly what was goin on. Naomi, my rabbi, remained oblivious. I had finally met someone who seemed impervious
to the senses, who couldn’t be swayed by ripe beries or beautiful smells. Was that even possible? Was she truly so involved in the higher spheres, in God and the soul and the Holy Books and their 1000 laws, that the things of this world held no power over her? Food had worked wonders for me before on every woman I had set my eyes on. But now that I had found The One, food was getting me know where. My arrows comprised of one of life’s great pleasures—one of my great pleasures—struck her chest and fell dull and bent to the floor.
And then, my next big chance came. I had one arrow left.
One afternoon, at the conclusion of services, Naomi asked if I wanted to walk her home. Sure, I said. And my heart leapt: there are kitchens in homes.
We walked the mile to her apartment, she invited me in. I was hungry, and I bet she was too. Services went from 9 am to 1 pm, with only a
light spread afterwards—and she was always talking and greting people during it. Not that I was watching or anything. Anyway, I had visions of using whatever she had on hand to whip her up an amazing lunch. It was a warm day, I’d pull some white wine from her fridge, set out a platter, and that would be that.
She let me in her apartment—aground level one bedroom with a living room window facing the distant but shimmering Pacific. We began to
talk. And talk. I figured at some point the conversation would veer toward, “Are you hungry?” or “Want a drink?” but it never did. She asked me about
myself, what I wrote, my Jewish education. At one point she offered me some chamomile tea, and I said yes, but she never seemed to move to
get it. Finally, Naomi excused herself to go to the bathroom.
When I heard the door close, I jumped up from the couch and made for the kitchen. I was hungry. Services had gone from morning until 1
pm, and I hadn’t eaten anything before, just black coffee. Afterwards there was that spread— dry challah, dry cookies, tuna salad that
looked like it came from a jar, cream herring and some grapes, all picked over by a mob and tempting only to people with direct
experience of the Holocaust.
Now I’d been sitting on her futon couch for over an hour, and all she offered me was chamomile tea. Which she never brought out. I opened the first cabinet, above the counter. It was empty save for a few ceramic plates. I picked one closer to the stove. Empty. A tall cupboard by the refrigerator, the pantry cupboard in most normal homes. Barren. I heard the toilet flush. Last cupboard, just across from the sink. Three cans of tuna fish and a small white bag of Passover potato chips. And a box of chamomile tea. During Passover observant Jews will only eat special potato chips fried in certain oils—cottonseed is one of them. The bag was open but only half eaten.
Who was this girl? What kind of person has only a couple cans of tuna fish and some chips fried in cottonseed oil? What kind of person opens a bag of chips and only eats a little bit at a time? And who really likes chamomile, the urine sample of the tea world?
Naomi appeared behind me. I grabbed the tea box.
“I can make it,” I said. “Want some?”
She nodded. She didn’t seem to care that I was in her cupboards—she didn’t seem to use them much herself.
“Can I ask you something?” I said after we started sipping our teas.
“What do you eat?”
“I mean, what do you eat? You have no food.”
“I have tuna.”
“What do you do with it?”
“I eat it.”
“You mean like a sandwich?” I asked, though I hadn’t sen any bread, mayo, celery. I suppose if she had said yes I would have pegged her
for an eating disorder right then. She said no.
“Like in salad?” I didn’t see any no olive oil, no lettuce, tomato, bread. The kitchen didn’t have a crumb. Or a pot or a pan, for that matter.
“No,” she said, “I just eat it.”
I tried to hide my disbelief. “Out of the can?” I said. “Like a cat?”
She was starting to get annoyed. I knew that, but I couldn’t help myself. The women I dated until then had either been in the food
business or food-obsessed. The caterer, in oakland the sous-chef in Santa Monica. Sara in Israel who couldn’t buy a kilo of fresh guavas
without eating half of them with her hands, right out of the bag. Katie in Venice who warned me that when her last boyfriend dumped her
he said, charmingly, “You always have to have your holes filled.” Women of appetite.
And Naomi saw my questions as a judgment. And she bristled at the nerve of me even presuming to think she cared for my opinion on what
she ate. But I pressed on. “Not even with a squeeze of lemon?”
“Then you have to cut it,” she said. “I have salt.”
I just stared. I was smitten all right. I had passed the point of caring what I found in her cabinets that afternnoon. I WAS IN HER APARTMENT. If I
had reached in and pulled out sheep’s intestines and a dead cat I probably would have found it charming and kind of sexy. I’m in, I thought. She doesn’t know from cooking. She doesn’t know from EATING. I’ll cook for her. I’ll bring in my skillet and she’ll help and it will be cute like Harrison Ford and Meg Ryan on a date. And then, I’ll seal the deal. Seal the deal with a meal. A gastrosexual ahead of his time.
“Hey,” I said. “I have an idea. One day I can bring a bunch of stuff over and we can cook together, a great lunch. Or dinner. “
I waited, the hook was floating in the eddy and I just needed her to bite. Who wouldn’t? Who hadn’t before? The guy who cooks. The straight guy who offers to shop and make dinner. I didn’t have enough fingers and toes to count how many times this worked. I waited. And waited.
Finally, Naomi shrugged.
“That’s okay. I like tuna. “
She sat on the couch. I sat on the chair across from her. This was not going to be work. Something else was called for here. At the time I
didn’t know what. I couldn’t rely on dinner. On food leading to love leading to sex. Naomi had splintered the triumverate. What was going
to work? A great fear over took me. She was speaking, but inside I was trembling. Naomi didn’t want dinner. She wanted a relationship.
“Naomi, ” I interrupted her.
“Can I have some of your potato chips?”
She looked at me. “I have potato chips?”
July 17, 2009 | 8:14 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
If you can get past the thousand swinging penises, bare bottoms and endless dildos that fill most of the screen in Bruno, you can appreciate creator Sacha Baron Cohen’s genius for wrapping biting social commentary in fully-realized comic moments. What I’m talking about is hummus.
About 100 naked penises into the movie, fabulously gay Bruno decides he must do something major to become famous. So he jets off to Israel to make peace in the Middle East. Cut to Bruno/Baron Cohen sitting between former Mossad officer Yossi Alpher and Palestinian negotiator Ghassan Khatib.
Bruno takes advantage of their kindness by purposely confusing hummus the dish with Hamas the Palestinian terrorist organization.
A lot of stories quote a line or two from the exchange to show how Cohen duped the former Mossadnik, but the entire scene, in context, shows Cohen managed to make a much more important point.
“Why are you so anti-Hamas?” Bruno asks. “I mean, isn’t pita bread the real enemy here?”
“You think there is a relation between Hamas and Hummus?” Khatib asks.
“Hummus has nothing to do with Hamas,” Alpher responds “It’s a food. We eat it, they eat it.”
“You think there is a relation between Hamas and Humus?” Khatib asks.
Bruno looks confused. “Was the founder of Hamas a chef? He created the food and got lots of followers?”
Alpher begins to lose his patience. “Hummus has nothing to do with Hamas. It’s a food, okay? We eat it, they eat it—”
—“It’s vegetarian, it’s healthy, it’s beans,” Khatib says.
Then Cohen goes in for the kill: “So you agree on that,” he says.
Underlying these cultures, both locked in a vicious war, is a commonality that is perfectly symbolized by a bowl of “healthy, vegetarian” beans.
Cohen, you have to understand, has an Israeli mother. (His dad is from Wales, which I guess doesn’t lend itself to as many funny food scenes). When I met him two years ago, we spoke almost entirely in Hebrew. He lived on a kibbutz for a while, and he has a degree in political science from Oxford. I’m going to posit that in a serious conversation about the Palestinian Israeli conflict, he would astound Alpher.
But by playing the hummus card, he made one of the most powerful points he could about Jews and Arabs, and about food. People who share the same food usually share the same fate. That’s true whether they know it or not, whether they act as if it’s true and learn to cooperate, or strive to ignore that truth, and turn their knives on one another.
The columnist Tom Friendman has famously written that countries with McDonalds never go to war with each other. His point is that spreading democracy and free markets spreads peace. But Friedman’s McDonald’s theory begs a question: how can people who eat the exact same foods kill one another?
They can and do.
On an unmarked street in the Christian Arab part of the Old City of Jerusalem, find Lina’s. I go there on every visit to Israel. Seven tables, no fan. The owner stands in an alcove by the entrance, pounding a wooden pestle into a simmering vat of garbanzo beans. He pours in fresh ground tehina, he sprinkles in lemon salt and garlic, and all the time he keeps moving that stick-sized pestle, until the mixture is smooth and almost white, and fluffed with air. There’s no menu. You sit, a young man puts a slice of onion, a pickle and a tomato wedge in front of you, some warm pita, then the owner ladles some warm hummus onto a plate, drizzles it with olive oil, and sends it over.
It’s not 100 percent safe for anyone who looks too Jewish to get there—Jews have been attacked walking the Old City alleys, and Israelis will tell you it’s too dangerous—but there are always Israeli Jews in Lina’s. If you want the best hummus in Israel—I believe it’s the best I’ve had in the world—you have no choice. So what does that mean? Israelis will risk their lives to eat hummus with Arabs—they just can’t seem to make peace with them.
When I returned from my last trip to Israel, I decided I needed to recreate Lina’s hummus, or a close facsimile, in my kitchen. Rule number one is: no canned chickpeas. To make good hummus, you need to soak your own garbanzo beans. For great hummus, make it and serve it warm.
Almost Lina’s Hummus
1 cup dried garbanzo beans
1/2 cup good quality tahina
2 cloves garlic
1 T. plus 1 t. baking soda
1 t. cumin
Juice from 1/2 lemon
1 t. salt
1/4 c. olive oil
Paprika and Chopped Parsley
1. Rinse beans well and cull any dark, broken ones, and any pebbles, too. Soak beans overnight in water with 1 T. baking soda. Drain beans, soak in fresh water for an hour.
2. Put in saucepan with water to cover by two inches, with 1 t. baking soda. Bring to boil, skimming foam, then simmer and cooking til very soft, about an hour.
3. Remove from pot (do not drain away cooking water) and place in blender or Cuisinart with a 1/4 cup of the liquid, the garlic and cumin. Blend until smooth. Let cool 5 minutes, add the rest of the ingredients and enough of teh cooking liquid to make a very smooth mixture, the consistency of soft sour cream (it hardens as it cools). Taste for seasoning.
4. To serve, pour onto plate, drizzle with more olive oil, sprinkle with paprika and chopped parsley, and serve with warm pita bread.
5. Now go make peace.
July 16, 2009 | 4:31 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Many years ago, in the days when I supported my part-time writing with full-time catering, I cooked Christmas dinner at the home of a Hollywood star. It was a sprawling Craftsman mansion on the best street in the Pacific Palisades. Its vast dining room was decked out with green pine boughs and red velvet, and set, just for this occasion, with Villeroy & Boch Christmas-pattern china. Me and my partner cooked ham, yams, puddings—a meal pretty much out of Charles Dickens or Martha Stewart.
But with one exception.
Along with the catering contract, the actress handed us her mother’s recipe for stewed brisket: full of onions, garlic, dried apricots and prunes, a dish I was pretty sure is nowhere described in A Christmas Carol.
I looked over the ingredients then looked back up at her. “Brisket?” I asked.
“Uh-huh,” she said, “It just wouldn’t be Christmas without it.”
The star had tenuous affiliations with her heritage—I didn’t even know she was Jewish, and my Jewdar even then was highly refined. But her mother was Jewish, and even if the she was unwilling to celebrate a holiday, even Christmas, without that taste of home.
And here’s what shames me now: I looked down on her.
For a long time I actually looked down on all Jews whose only evident connection to 4,000 years of a remarkable heritage was a proclivity toward lox and bagels, brisket and kasha. The kind of Jews who called themselves Deli Jews, Lox and bagel Jews, as if after it all— slavery, Exodus, Sinai, Torah, the Temples, Spain, the Holocaust— they were content to reduce it all to a sandwich. It wasn’t Judaism they were passing on to their children, I sneered, but brunch. I came up with a word for it: Foodaism, a kind of ignorant, happy-faced Jewish lite.
Little did they know—I sneered—that the treasures of Judaism are not found on a deli menu: the pursuit of justice, the world of learning, prayer and mitzvah, the ritualized ideal of a universal Oneness. When Thomas Cahill wrote “The Gift of the Jews,” it shouldn’t come as a shock that he left Langer’s pastrami and rye off the list.
Besides, the fact that we are a People obsessed over our food doesn’t make us Jews—it makes us human. Anthropologists study food ways as a primary vehicle for cultural transmission: anyone who has spent time in a Chinese, Italian, Arab or Indian home knows that we’re not the only tribe for whom food rises to the level of devotion. The WASPs who surrounded us all seem to be the exception to the rule: most cultures like a little nosh with their alcohol.
But somehow between that evening in the star’s kitchen and today, I’ve changed my mind. I don’t turn my nose up at the idea of Foodaism anymore. In fact, I believe I was wrong.
A lot of things conspired to change my mind. Mostly, life. Growing up, becoming aware of the things that moved me, excited me, centered me. And dammit if to be dead honest with myself, those things didn’t somehow revolve around food. It wasn’t that I replaced God or religion with food. It was that I found God and religion in food. I’d found a new definition of Foodaism. It’s not Judaism lite. It’s close to a religion unto itself. And for me, it’s a pretty good one.
This blog will cover all aspects of my new favorite religion—one I’d been a true believer in long before I recognized it, or admitted it. I’ll write about my journey, I’ll write about the food world here in LA, in Israel and elsewhere, I’ll write about how the foods I touch touch me. If you’re a believer, I hope my words, photos and recipes resonate with you. If you’re not, maybe I’ll convert you. You might come to understand, that love and ritual, truth and justice, even God Herself, can come to us in a slice of brisket, that foodaism is a religion for the rest of us.