The following is a transcript of Episode 108 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome back to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on Friday, September 2nd, 2022.
We’ve been on a much-needed break for the past month, resting from an intense summer and from about two years of a lot of these episodes. So thanks for sticking with us. And we do have a great season of shows ahead.
Okay, so here’s my favorite personal Jewish peoplehood story. So about a dozen or so years ago, soon after I started this job, we started working on an experimental program collaboration with the Samuel Broman foundation. The foundation was actually the first entrepreneurial funder of our work here in North America. And for a few years, we partnered on some really interesting educational collaborations with them.
One of my colleagues there was a person with the title “External Relations Coordinator,” I actually went back in my emails to find that, um, named Shannon Sarna and we built a nice rapport working together. And as one does, we became friends on Facebook. And one day I noticed something odd. Why was my grandmother’s cousin, Lillian Rosen, commenting on Shannon’s status? Anyway, long story short, it turns out that Shannon and I are cousins kind of.
You know, one of those third cousins once removed by marriage situations, but my feeling is, close enough. Many of us have played the Jewish geography game when you meet someone new, and usually the best you can hope for is that maybe you know someone in common from camp or from a youth group, but discovering a cousin is great. I loved it. And in the way that kinship and peoplehood works, Shannon and her family have felt like family ever since.
The best part of all of this for me though, is that our newfound kinship has given me a front-row seat in watching Shannon’s rise as a star in the burgeoning Jewish food industry. And it really is quite an industry. Kosher food alone, which is not the same as Jewish food, maybe we’ll talk about that a little bit, but it’s a key subset, is itself a 20 billion industry.
Jewish food is the prompt for a huge number of cookbooks, Instagram influencers, which is something we covered on this show, a growing network of restaurants, especially when you factor in Israeli food as a related cuisine. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see even more mainstream media on Jewish food in the coming years.
I think there’s a lot behind a lot of this growth. Some of it as, is the case whenever you have a Jewish trend in America, it’s just Jews participating in larger social trends, and food, which has always been big business, has become a major driver of the entertainment industry. Food celebrity is ready-made for our social media age. And if you can master the recipe for social media influence with all the key ingredients, good writing, good photography, quick wit, we know there’s a big market for all of that.
But I think it goes deeper. Jewish food culture is a great product for an American Jewish community that is starved literally and figuratively for content that would fill us up. And for more texture that would bind us to a sense of authenticity in the present and to deeper relationships with our complicated past.
Food is such an ideal technology of relationship. It connects us to those around us as a social lubricant, as a tool of generosity, it reminds us of the past of people and of stories. It helps us mark time, especially along the Jewish calendar, when you eat special foods on an annual cycle. It enables us to access other Jewish communities and legacies that would otherwise feel foreign. To taste and to smell something is to know it differently. Every time I smell the first burst of fresh mint in the spring harvest in the supermarket, I’m viscerally reminded of my Bubbe, who had wild mint growing in her backyard in Brooklyn. I haven’t been in that house in nearly 40 years, but food enables time travel.
Actually, while we’re on the topic of my Bubbe, I, I don’t think she was a great cook. I don’t remember her that way, but she was a great eater, which is also a valuable and underrated skillset. It’s a way of living life. She came of age during the period that I think we can all agree was probably the worst cooking phase in our recent history, the 1950s housewife with all of its aspects and other concoctions.
And there was this one thing she cooked that was so delightfully weird. She called it fricasee. There’s an actual dish called fricasee and this ain’t it. Her fricasee combined, wait for it, meatballs, chicken wings, and matzo balls. I’m pretty sure it originated as a situation with not enough Tupperware for a diverse array of leftovers, which eventually then got heated up.
But I still think about that dish, which is kind of the point. And what wouldn’t I give to be sitting at my Bubbe’s table again, with her, eating the fricasee, and laughing with her about it. Comfort food doesn’t just taste good or warm us up. It’s the embodiment of nostalgia and relationships and a lot more.
So Shannon joins us today on the occasion of the publishing of her newest cookbook, Modern Jewish Comfort Food. I’ll do that thing I always do on a podcast, which is hold up the book, even though none of you can see it. The book f, the book follows the lead of Shannon’s really successful first book, Modern Jewish Baker, and it follows a similar outline.
It identifies key categories of comfort food, like meatballs and latkes and dumplings. And then each chapter offers a whole array of innovative recipes within each category. I should note that Shannon’s cookbook too is dedicated to her Bubbe. Shannon is also the editor of the Nosher, a popular Jewish food blog that covers vital subjects, like a map of the best kosher deli in each state in America. And her work is published regularly in Jewish and non-Jewish media outlets alike.
Shannon, thanks for coming on the show today. Um, let’s start on comfort food. We’re coming out of a pandemic. I kind of wish I had this in April of 2020, but tell us a little bit about how you weathered the last couple of years and a little bit of where this book comes from and whether it has to do at all with the pandemic, or this was something that was brewing for you for a long time beforehand.
Shannon: um, first of all, your intro, just like, I wanna cry like seven times over.
Yehuda: Every time I talk about my Bubbe, yeah.
Shannon: No, I think that’s, that is like, you, you really, um, encapsulated exactly what that connection is, right? Like it’s, it’s beyond even the food being good, right but it’s about the memory and the smell and the connection.
There’s sort of like the real story and then like the story I would tell, but I’m notoriously bad at lying and making stuff up. So, the truth is like this book was brewing for a while. However, it sort of took on different meaning and a new iteration as I started actually writing it in 2021. We had I think first of all, so many blessings, we’ve weathered pandemic very well. I’m grateful for health and having stable jobs and all of that.
But we were like, you know, when’s a great time to sell your house and move? June of 2020. So we moved and then we moved again at the end of December. And then I quickly started writing this book. So it was extremely sort of. A crazy timeline and an interesting time to sort of be holed up in your house, working on these recipes. And um, I ate a lot of stuffed vegetables in, uh, February and March of 2021. And I, I was over it by the time the cooking was done, with that part.
Yehuda: I’m always curious about that, by the way, like, you took the greatest foods of all time, basically, and wrote a cookbook on it, but you probably had to eat a lot of them in long stretches. Did anybody get, or like, please stop giving us potato kugel, it’s the best food of all time, but please stop feeding it to us?
Shannon: Actually, no, and like, look, I’m like, get it outta my house, get it outta my house. So, you know, we, we did eat a lot of Syrian stuffed onions, which ended up being Jonathan, my husband’s, favorite dish in the book. And it is amazing, but like there’s so only so many times you can eat it, you know, week after week when you’re, when you’re testing something like this.
Um, I love sharing when I’m recipe testing or when we were shooting the book. I love giving out the food to my friends and community members. And I try to like spread it out. So I, no, if anything, it’s like, okay, but when are you making the rainbow cookies? And when am I gonna get my batch? Right. Like, you know, Jews, are like a little demanding about stuff.
Yehuda: Yeah. Yeah.
Shannon: But to answer your question, like, there was a concept of writing a savory version of Modern Jewish Baker and then comfort food really felt like the right topic for the moment. And as I was writing and researching some of these recipes, there became this common thread of these foods, you know, not only nostalgia and comfort, but also frugality and like, what sort of binds us, what sort of like ties us to our past and how we created these dishes to begin with.
And so then it finally sort of like all came together. I, and there’s so much I didn’t get to include in the book. And I think that’s when I look at it, that’s when I’m like, oh, if only I had been able to do this dish and this dish.
Yehuda: It’s interesting thinking about the idea of comfort food. You know, you talked about frugality as a piece of it. I’m interested in like the, the emotional or the sentimental thing that makes us want certain things at certain times. So like in our house, I made a dish early in the pandemic and, and, you know, pandemic changed our whole life in a lot of ways. And one of which is I stopped traveling and started cooking cause I was home every day.
And so like for the first time ever, we had dinner together as a family every night for two years, totally transformative. But I made a dish early in the pandemic and then like it started to become a thing that every couple of months the kids asked for it, at like weird moments.
Shannon: Aw. What’s the dish?
Yehuda: It was like a peanut butter, cauliflower, tofu thing. It was fine. But I don’t think it was about the dish. I think it was like kind of a reminder of hearth and home. So like what do you think are the drivers for why we crave certain things that we either grew up with? Or what is it that attracts people to the kind of recipes that you’re, you’re putting together in this book?
Shannon: I think there’s like a rhythm to the Jewish year. Right. And I think food on holidays play such an integral role in that. Like we were saying about your grandmother’s cooking. And by the way, my grandmother’s cooking too, Bubbe Phoebe, God bless her. Almost 98 years old, still alive.
I hated her food growing up. It was, it was not good food. Right. But the smell of her chicken soup, of walking into her house for Rosh Hashana or for Passover and the smell of the chicken soup in the house, it’s a smell that I will never forget. And every time I get a whiff of it, sometimes like at a deli or someone’s home or something, I’m immediately transported.
So I think there’s something extremely sacred and comforting for those foods that we have at different intervals throughout the year. And it’s almost, like, you hear this, like it’s not the holidays without this, but it’s more than just that. There is a comfort to ritual. And I think that food plays a very important part of that.
And I think a lot of these dishes, at least for me, are things that happen on rote in some sense, right? Like my friend, Miriam who’s sambousek recipe is in the book and I learned to make from her. By the way, can we just like shout out to like Syrian cooks are like the best cooks, I think?
Yehuda: The best.
Shannon: Um, she makes sambousek for road trips. They’re going on a road trip. There’s sambousek. For Shavuos, there’s sambousek. That’s what she makes. And when she’s making the sambousek, I’m happy to show up and put out my hand, just like one of, one of her kids, but there is a ritual to it. It happens at certain intervals. Right.
The potato kugel that’s my husband’s grandmother’s Baba Billy, who I didn’t meet, but I learned all of her kugel recipes through him. It’s not a holiday if there’s not potato kugel. And what’s special for me about that potato kugel is not only has it become part of our family from Jonathan’s family. But when my grandmother first had it, she was like, oh my God, this is the taste of my Bubbe’s potato kugel. And then it transported her.
So my husband being the incredibly wonderful mensch that he is, is like, if Bubbe Phoebe’s coming, he makes potato kugel for her. Done. You know, it’s sort of like intangible, but I also think think there is that comfort of like,
Shannon: this is what you do on these days. And like, can have that expectation and how, how good it feels. Even if the food isn’t good. It’s just like, it’s nice that it’s,
Yehuda: Right. Even if the food isn’t good.
Shannon: Even if the food isn’t good.
Yehuda: Yeah. We were just in Los Angeles and my kids have a thing where like, when they get off the plane, they want Nonna’s pasta. It’s like a tomato sauce out of a can. Really good, cause you were just on a flight for, you know, X number of hours. And we literally, this time, landed at 12:30 at night and she was sitting there with a pot of pasta at one in the morning. Um, and it, I don’t know, it’s just now it’s like part of the DNA.
What’s, what are those things in your house, now that you have all of the modern Jewish comfort foods, but you don’t come from Syrian heritage. So it’s not like your kids necessarily are like waiting around for the in your sambousek in your pocket book. Like what are the things that your kids identify with as like the comfort food sacred objects of your kitchen?
Shannon: You know, it’s, it’s my comfort food, which is like I talk about right in the intro, which is egg noodles with cottage cheese. I grew up eating that, my mother-in-law grew up eating that, I know a lot of Jewish families who grew up eating that. And also like, I think for non-Jews or for people who are not familiar with it, like what, you’re putting cottage cheese on noodles. What, like, what is wrong with you?
And I’m like, you don’t, you don’t understand, right? Like it’s only delicious to you because you grew up eating it. And because it’s what my dad fed me my whole life as that like lunch. So for my kids, that’s a dish for sure, that like, you know, when there’s nothing else in the house or like, they don’t know what they want to eat, like noodles and cottage cheese, always.
And when they go to my dad’s house, he’s like, I stocked up on the cottage cheese and noodles for the kids and the broccoli, you know, like, and, and they love that. They know, when they go to his, they call him Grandy, when they go to Grandy’s house, they know they’re gonna have this and this and this and this.
And, they, they love it. They love it.
Yehuda: It’s so interesting. I mean, I go back to my mother-in-law, like my mother-in-law also bought them like the Oreo cereal, just like the worst thing on the planet. They weren’t as excited about that. They were really excited about like the pasta that Nonna made much more than the Oreo cereal, which ultimately thankfully sat in the cabinet.
Um, you know, I’m, I’m wondering like about the precision of comfort food. Part of the ways that comfort food works is that it doesn’t actually have recipes. So there’s something paradoxical about a cookbook that tells you exactly how to make this kind of thing. I wonder if you, what your thoughts are on, like whether comfort food is supposed to be well executed or comfort food is supposed to be like my grandmother’s absurd fricasee, which was not all that good, but it was hilarious and delightful.
Shannon: By the way you’re not the first person who’s told me about this sort of like iteration of fricasee.
Yehuda: Oh, that’s, okay, that’s good to know.
Shannon: But I think it comes out of that, like 1950s, 1960s, like pantry style cooking, you know, like that’s why you have like sweet and sour meatballs where it’s just like, everything dumped together.
Yehuda: Grape jelly. Yeah.
Shannon: Yeah. Which is delicious by the way. Yeah, there’s a tension of like home cooking and cookbook writing in some sense. I think what I focused on for this is, is sort of like the visual cues and also like, there’s parts of recipes and parts of cooking that is almost beyond the recipe. It’s the stuff that your grandmother would show you in the kitchen. Look, this is the right amount of stuffing, right? Which, if you’re stuffing a stuffed cabbage leaf, is gonna change a little bit, depending on the size of the leaf, because a head of cabbage doesn’t have all the leaves the same size, but it’s so hard to like, you know, each cabbage leave is gonna get one cup of filling, right?
Like that’s not exactly right. So part of what I have tried to do in both these cookbooks is to provide visual cues and touch cues for people to understand when something is right. Because the truth is it’s is like as a cook and as a baker, you need to use your instincts and you need to use your senses beyond just like what it says on the page.
One of the things that was like really important to me with some of the Syrian recipes is like, of course there are fantastic Syrian cookbooks, but something that is lost for a non Syrian is like, how you cut the zucchini. If you didn’t grow up with that style of middle Eastern, Syrian stuffed vegetables, you’re thinking stuffed zucchini as an American. And you’re like, oh, a zucchini boat. No, no, no. Right. And if you grew up in a Syrian house, then you’ve eaten it before. So you know what it’s supposed to look like. Like my editor was extremely confused by the onion recipe. She’s like, I don’t think you wrote this down right.
And I was like, no, no, no. Just wait until you see the pictures. So the step-by-step visuals for people to provide that framework map, and like, I always say sort of like empower them to feel like they can take on that task was really important to me. And is for me almost more important than the precision of the recipe, cause the truth is, is like, okay, like I’ll spice that a little bit more, right. And there are some types of cooks who feel very confident to like add and take away spice and ingredients and play around with it. And there are some who do need the precise directions more. So obviously it’s like, it’s a cookbook, so it has to be precise.
Yehuda: Yeah, that’s a great insight, cause it helps me understand. When I got, I don’t remember the name of the cookbook, but Poopa Dweck’s incredible Syrian, encyclopedia of, um, of Syrian food. And I remember I read it for probably two weeks. I just kept like going back and looking at the magnificent photography and, and I’ve never cooked a thing from it. Because I was so intimidated, everything was like 30 steps.
And by the way, a big piece of the aesthetic of that cookbook is like photographs of her and her family doing this stuff. And it’s kind of like, yeah, if I was hanging around in her kitchen, I would learn how to do this, but I was really kind of intimidated by it.
And your recipes don’t do that at all. I mean, they’re really much more accessible and much more straightforward. I think you kind of hit on this of like, you have to tell people kind of exactly what to do, because you’re not gonna be able to capture, this sambousek probably won’t taste exactly like a sambousek that grew up in of someone who grew up in a Syrian household. But you, if you wanna try to do it, you’re gonna have to find a way to do it.
Shannon: Right, right, right.
Yehuda: What were the things that were either too bougie or too lowbrow for you to include in a cookbook like this? Cause it’s like striking an interesting balance, right? It can’t be totally, it can’t be like a trash salad, right? It has to be, has to be somewhere in between.
Shannon: Um, I actually, I don’t there were, if there were things that I didn’t include, it was because I felt like I couldn’t do them justice. I felt like an interloper, and I didn’t wanna put it in just for the sake of putting it in. Right, like I have developed and probably even more as I continue to get older, like a really deep respect for these recipes and the crafts and passing them down. And so if anything, like, I didn’t want to disrespect any of these traditions in some way. And I felt like I couldn’t, there were certain things I wanted to include and I just could’t do it justice.
Yehuda: Just couldn’t do it justice. Yeah. So, um, one of the themes that appears in each of the chapters you start with, let’s talk about, there’s a personal and conversational style to how you write. And it strikes me that lying behind a cookbook like this, are actually things that you wanna talk about.
So I wanna talk about some of those things, that are not just about food. Let’s talk about Jewishness. You talk about this and you write about it. You write about your Jewish father and your Sicilian American mother. Can you talk a little bit about that, like your own, um, not only food influences, but Jewish influences and what’s at stake when you talk about having a Jewish father and Italian mother, what conversation you wanna kind of prompt in the Jewish community about both food and about heritage?
Shannon: I feel like this is the most important conversation, right? Like I think this is what people often miss about what I do as a professional. And especially as an editor, this is the point of view that sort of drives what I’m trying to accomplish, especially with the Nosher. You know, I have not always felt like there was a place for me in different parts of the Jewish community.
I think it’s changed now and also like I’m a 40-year-old mom with three kids. So I have a different level of confidence now. And you know, I’m sort of entering into my don’t give a damn phase of Jewish womanhood.
I want different kinds of Jews to see themselves reflected in food. I think the same way that there is an increase in conversation about representation. You look at a website, you open a pamphlet, you wanna see different kinds of Jews represented. You wanna see yourself represented, you wanna feel like it’s welcoming. And I want that in the food space.
Not just for Sephardi and Ashkenazi food, but for all of the multiple diverse Jewish identities that exist in North America and everywhere else. And I want to give people permission to be their authentic selves through food. I want people to feel like they can enter into Jewish life through food. I loved the language you used before about social lubricant. Right? Look, there’s a lot of things in Jewish life that can feel very intimidating, but food is not one of them, necessarily.
Food is a wonderful entry point for conversation and connection. That’s something that’s very important to me. And so for me to be like, upfront about like, I am Jewish on my dad’s side and Sicilian American on my mom’s side. And like, I’m a Jewish cookbook author, and I run the biggest Jewish food site. I am here and you are all welcome. I don’t say that, but like, I want that message to be conveyed over and over again.
Yehuda: It’s interesting. One of the things I, I really learned from you a number of years ago, when you were back working at Samuel Broman, and we were talking a lot about issues of Jewish peoplehood was exactly around a shift that happened in American Judaism, around the language of whole-Jew and half-Jew.
Like I grew up with the notion of there’s no such thing as a half-Jew, which was an attempt by people to think that they were being inclusive. right. But actually, some people want to be able to say I’m half Jewish or I’m a quarter Jewish and they want to be included with their fractions and their percentages.
And that’s like a weird, that’s like a weird turnabout, because what you don’t do in this book is you have basically, I thought, I think one recipe, which was a nod to your mother, which is Italian American meatballs, and it’s kind of hiding in there as part of modern Jewish comfort food. But what you didn’t do in this book is say anything that Jews cook, from different parts of American heritage or non, quote unquote, not Jewish heritage counts as modern Jewish comfort foods. So you’re kind of dancing somewhere there. Is that right?
Shannon: I, uh, I think my editor was like, why is this, why is this recipe in here? and I was like, we’re keeping it in. I think the definitions around Jewish food, kosher food, right. And like what constitutes Jewish food also, like, does it just count if a Jew makes it, are interesting, right?
And there’s a lot of nuance in there. You know, something that is a continual conversation that I have with the people who pitch me, um, is this notion that like all kosher food is Jewish food. And it is not. And the classic example I gave is like, look, it’s amazing when like a new steak and sushi restaurant opens in Manhattan and it’s kosher and like that’s great, I’m a supporter of fantastic kosher food for, to open. It’s an important thing.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a Jewish story to it. But when there is a non-Jewish chef and her Jewish husband who opened a Jewish-inspired deli and bagel shop in Washington, DC, where there is not a lot of Jewish food and they’re innovating Jewish food.
Like to me, there is an interesting Jewish story to tell both in terms of like, wow, look at this amazing, interesting, exciting Jewish food that they’re creating. But also like this is showcasing a moment of our history as American Jews and what is defined as Jews and how people feel part of it, but also like how Jewish food has become so much apart of the accepted culinary landscape here.
Yehuda: Yeah. So this is interesting, this whole Jewish kosher food thing, because I think I agree with you that just the fact that something is kosher, doesn’t make it Jewish. And that Jewish food is like something else entirely not. It’s also not just the food that Jews cook, just because I make something doesn’t make it Jewish.
And we can have the same debate about poetry or music or any other forms of culture. So I’m with you on that. Although I think the equivalent of steak and sushi might be a whole bunch of food that Jews started making a long time ago when other people were making them and Jews just became associated with them.
But like, let’s go back to the meatballs for a second. Cause they’re an interesting example. I would suspect that any self-respecting Italian American cook making spaghetti and meatballs would say you need to have parmesan in there, but your recipe doesn’t have parmesan and I don’t know why. Like is that because if you’re gonna do a Jewish cookbook, you didn’t wanna have any non-kosher recipes in the cookbook, like, or maybe your mom didn’t actually put parmesan on her meatballs.
Shannon: Well, so there’s a, there’s a couple parts of this and I think you’re identifying, our home is kosher. We keep kosher. I started keeping kosher in my twenties, which is like, not something I necessarily like talk about so much. And I had to adapt what I remembered as my mother’s meatball recipe for a kosher home and try to make it as authentic as possible. My mom died when I was a teenager. So there’s sort of like limited experiences I have with her in the kitchen, but making meatballs is one of them.
So it’s very sacred. And because I had been working on these meatballs for a long time for my friends and, you know, for my family also, it became something that they loved. So it’s back to that sort of like ritual connection of like this dish, but like, I guess that’s the Jewish part of it. Right. And that’s what Joe Nathan would say, right? What’s the definition, you know, sort of like how we moved from place to place in the world and adapted the foods around us to be kosher.
So it’s sort of a representation of my own, you know, journey through Jewish life and taking, well for me, is a quintessential part of my heritage and upbringing and, and taking it into this next phase of my kosher life.
Yehuda: I think it’s a, it’s a clue for readers of this book that they could be doing Jewish comfort food that reminds them of their loved ones, their families, even if it doesn’t count, quote, unquote as being actually Jewish food. It kind of, that’s how stuff gets into the canon.
So let me ask you the flip side of it, which is on the Nosher when you did, you know, for instance, the best Jewish deli in every state. There are a handful of delis that you list that are, have ham and cheese in the menu and, um, and bacon and all these other things that I, I get, like they also have pastrami sandwiches, but how are you thinking about that on the other side of the work, which is, something doesn’t have to be kosher to be Jewish, but there are gonna be things that happen, which maybe call into question whether something gets to hold onto the title of Jewish. So how did you negotiate that on the other side, on the Nosher side?
Shannon: It doesn’t really feel like a negotiation for me, you know? And it, it’s certainly an internal conversation that we have had, but I feel very confident in our definition of Jewish restaurants, you know, which is like, um, it’s not just that there’s a Jewish chef at the helm or a Jewish owner, but that Jewish food has inspired and Jewish stories have inspired in some way the menu and what they’re doing.
And there are innumerable number of restaurants and delis who are serving up matzo ball soup, pastrami sandwiches, Rubens, and also bacon somewhere on the menu. So I don’t see a tension there because most Jews don’t keep kosher, you know, but going into a place that has matzo ball soup is so comforting, or has a knish on the menu, right. So comforting, like it’s, it’s still that connection.
And yeah, of course they eat bacon. Right. It doesn’t keep me up at night in any way whatsoever, but I still get emails from like Ruth and Ada and Norman telling me why what I’m doing is horrible. And, um, I don’t care.
Yehuda: As Jews do.
It seems to me one of the biggest and most interesting food trends, and it appears heavily in your book is, uh, around the global emergence of Israeli food. And this is the other weird example of what is Jewish food because Israeliness ain’t Jewishness, right? 20% of the population of the state of Israel are not Jews.
And Israeli food is heavily influenced by being a middle Eastern cuisine in a lot of ways. And there’s an emergence of Israeli restaurants, we were just at one on the Upper West Side, not kosher, but if you look closely, there’s no pork and there’s no shellfish, and, and was like deeply authentic, I was like, where am I? Eating like really interesting cutting edge Israeli food?
Shannon: D, were you at Dagon?
Yehuda: Dagon. Yeah.
Yehuda: I’m curious, like how, how much Israeliness in your mind hovers around this question and how much did you, I know you endeavored to include Israeli food in here. I think shakshuka is probably the most prominent one, which is an Arabic word. How do you think about the, the emergence of Israeliness in terms of the conversation about Jewish food?
Shannon: Oh my God. I mean like, do we have another hour? It’s like almost hard for me to start, but I think like in today’s culinary world, it’s very hard to separate out Jewish food from Israeli-inspired food, because I think that the lines are blurring more and more.
I once asked the question of a famous chef and I was like, is Israeli food gonna just replace, you know, Ashkenazi Jewish deli style in America at some point, right? Cause like, look, it’s healthier. It’s more beautiful. Right now it’s like a little more trendy, right? It’s more exciting. And he was kind of like, I don’t know, I think it’s entirely possible.
And then I like did a comparison of like how many delis were still open, how many Israeli restaurants were still, like, just trying to like look at the actual data and say it was actually, I don’t think that hypothesis is actually true, but I think that it’s certainly having a moment, which is interesting because Israeli food in and of itself is still defining what it is and, and evolving. So that’s one part of it.
Another part of it is like, look, spending time in Israel has been extremely influential in my life, and experiencing the diversity of Jewish food through my time in Israel has greatly greatly influenced my perspective and on the search for like understanding more and more of the nuance of those cuisines, like Yemenite Jewish food and Iraqi Jewish food, right? Like that are not things that are as prevalent in the United States, but like certainly deserve their place and like telling those stories and also like enjoying those foods is, they’re so opposite of what we grew up with.
I want to continue to elevate those, but like your point about 20% of Israel’s not Jewish and like how that sort of like narrative comes into play is like, first of all, you know, I see it in how chefs talk about Israeli food and what they call certain dishes.
And I see it come into play with questions that we get from the Nosher of like, how can you as Jewish food be posting about this dish? And I think it’s a very interesting conversation starter.
Yehuda: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, we don’t have to go deep on this, but I do have a pet theory that I think Israeli food is gonna have actually huge political ramifications for the whole normalization of Israel in the world. It’s already starting to happen, where like we were in Brattleboro, Vermont last week, and there’s an incredible Israeli-owned falafel place.
Yehuda: And it’s like the most politically progressive basically town in America. And like everyone’s lining outside the door. And of course like eating Israeli food doesn’t mean you can’t still boycott Israel, but there’s, something weird psychologically is gonna happen when we start to understand the way that Israel is changing food culture around the world.
Um, here’s another, let’s talk about, you know, you wrote a piece seven or so years ago, maybe longer. I think it was in Modern Loss about your own career change. It was before your career change, actually, it was like why you were kind of leaning into motherhood, um, and leaning out of a kind of corporate Jewish trajectory in which you were on. And now you’re like back on a totally different trajectory.
So tell me a little bit about like your professional life and, um, and what’s next for you and, and where you’re headed, cause this, this seems to be like a really huge growing part of your life and your work. I, I imagine it’s healthier in the sense that like, you’re cooking, you’re in your kitchen and your kids are around and you can feed them. Don’t quite have to commute to Midtown anymore, but I’m, I’m curious to see where you’re headed next professionally.
Shannon: Oh, God, this is like a therapy session, Yehuda. Jesus. Um, this is such a, a hard topic. In some ways, like, I really wanna talk about like how hard it is as a working mom with three kids who are, by the way, like not particularly well behaved, um, but adorable. And you know, my job at Nosher is full time, right? Like people don’t always understand that.
And like how unsexy my job is most days, right? Like, I’m not like in the kitchen, eating babka with lipstick on, you know, like I’m like here at my computer, yelling at people, please get this to me, you know, it’s like a normal job.
I will say that like the shift from more Jewish corporate trajectory, as you put, to working for 70 Faces was a very different shift and it’s, and I really love 70 Faces, which I started working for before it was 70 Faces because I have always had flexibility in my job. Right. Our culture has always been such that people at any given point were working remotely. And we had staff all over the world. So as I came onto staff and took on more and more responsibility, you know, I did work in the office, which I actually loved being in the office part of the time with my coworkers. I love my coworkers.
And I loved having the ability to be home with my children and be part of their daily lives more and to not have the tension of like, well, Shannon’s not in the office and everyone knows that no work gets done if you’re not in the office. Right. Like I have built up a website, social media followings, and written two cookbooks all from home. So, don’t tell me that work doesn’t happen at home. And of course the pandemic has completely changed that.
Yehuda: Yeah, totally. Totally.
Shannon: So, I found a better balance by finding a company that supported flexible work life with transparency and accountability.
Yehuda: Do you ever end your day when you’re like, no, I’m not cooking dinner. That’s my job during the day. Or no, you’re just like,
Shannon: The unfun part of my job is that I almost never cook or bake anything for work anymore. So actually at the end of the day now, I really enjoy cooking, because I haven’t gotten to be in the kitchen for most of the day, which is sort of, uh, its own challenge and my au pair who is so lovely and wonderful, will be like, do you want me to help you? Do you want me to do anything? And I’m like, no, like I actually wanna chop these onions.
Yehuda: No go away. Yeah, I hear that.
Shannon: Yeah. I also think to just like, go back to your original prompt is like, I think there is a hard moment for people when somebody’s smart and ambitious is like, I’m not sure I wanna do this right now. And for me, after having my first daughter, I had very severe undiagnosed postpartum anxiety coupled with a job environment that was being extremely unsupportive of a new mom.
And it was a very bad combination and I really needed to take a break and, um, regroup for me to figure out what was gonna be the right balance for me.
And I think workplaces supporting parents, but all kinds of people who may be going through stuff and need, there’s a million reasons why somebody may need a flexible work arrangement or need to pick up on other kinds of cues, like I think this is a part of our job as managers. Um, and I don’t know what’s next. Hopefully cooking more.
Yehuda: Yeah, no, it’s, it’s actually a great story, Shannon, because there was like a whole journey here over a 10-year period of like sorting out not only what are you good at, what do you wanna do? But like, there was something holistic and powerful about watching the integration of things you were passionate about and ways you could actually continue to grow as a leader. Um, so it’s kind of awesome.
Okay. Let’s go back to the food and we’ll wrap up with this, which is, we’re coming up on like the, I think the best eating season of the Jewish year, because I
Shannon: I, I agree.
Yehuda: Rosh Hashana is a great eating season. Sukkot I think is probably the best eating holiday because you don’t have to spend all that time in synagogue, there’s none of that, it’s like there is synagogue time, but like it’s basically sit outside and eat. And underrated Jewish eating holiday is Yom Kippur. You’re not eating for 25 hours, but the meal before and the meal after, big payload on those meals. So what should we be cooking and eating this year on the holiday season?
Shannon: First of all, I wanna like, am I getting an invite for Sukkot this year?
Yehuda: Yes, you’re coming back for Sukkot. Now the pandemic’s over you’re coming. Parenthetically, the pandemic is not over. Please do not write to us.
Shannon: Don’t at Yehuda, please.
Yehuda: Um, alright, so what should we cook and eat this, uh, this holiday season.
Shannon: Ooh, great questions. First of all, I’m so excited because I am not cooking for Rosh Hashana. I’m just showing up. Which I,
Shannon: Yes, it is so amazing. Where should we start? So Jonathan Goldberg, my husband, he comes from a place of meat. He comes from the place of meat. Shannon Sarna comes from a place of more digestible vegetarian foods. So we have a little tension in our marriage. So I would say, what should you eat before fasting would be like wholesome foods, vegetable based dishes and some nice fish and you know, maybe a kugel, a little soup on the side, lentils, right?
Not like a big heavy chicken dish. Jonathan Goldberg would say otherwise. So if you want, if you wanna be eating meat before the fast, like I would go with making a chicken soup. The Greek style lemon and chicken soup is of course, a very traditional Sephardic dish for Yom Kippur. So that I might, I might suggest that one.
Yehuda: That’s a good one.
Shannon: Yeah. And then for break fast, which I agree is a really fun meal because I love dairy meals. I think you can just have more fun with it. And butter is always better. There is like a classic sweet noodle kugel recipe in the book that is like as classic American as possible. It’s my friend’s recipe that I tinkered with a little bit.
There was just like so much sugar. I couldn’t stomach it, but I really love the pineapple upside down kugel, which looks like a cake and is sort of a play on a cake and a kugel because it has the caramelized pineapple on top. And you can put the little fun mash, you know, cherries. So like, you know, I think that would be really fun for break fast. And also of course, sambousek. Because, that is like, you can prepare it ahead of time. It’s perfect right after cause you can grab and go and maybe even wanna stick it in your purse when you go to Neilah, you know, no judgment.
Yehuda: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, uh, Shannon Sarna. Shannon’s book Modern Jewish Comfort Food, uh, from Countryman Press is out now and available everywhere. And thanks to all of you for listening to our show.
Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman and was edited by Gareth Hobbs and Corey Cho at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M Louis Gordon. The show was produced with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz with music provided by so-called.
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