Family Recipes, Latke Toppings, and Virtual Holidays: A Hanukkah Q&A with the Jewish Food Society
Join us tonight on Instagram Live to continue the conversation
Hi friends and Happy Hanukkah!
Today, I’m excited to share a Q&A with Amanda Dell, the program director of Jewish Food Society, a women-led non-profit organization that works to preserve, celebrate, and revitalize Jewish culinary heritage from across the globe. Whether or not you celebrate Hanukkah, Amanda has great tips for connecting with friends and family from a distance. And a huge thank you to paid subscribers for making special content like this possible!
Join us tonight on Instagram Live at 6 pm EST to continue the conversation and let us know your favorite Hanukkah food in the comments.
Amanda is the host of Schmaltzy, a new podcast exploring the intersection of Jewish identity and food through live storytelling. Prior to joining the team at Jewish Food Society, Amanda was the co-director of Food Book Fair: a bicoastal, biannual, festival of writing about eating. Her past life in restaurants included guarding the guest book at NYC institution Gramercy Tavern. She never turns down a good Negroni on the rocks (ed note: same).
Q: By now, Jews have celebrated many of their biggest holidays virtually and with Covid precautions. What adaptations and innovations have you seen?
A: Well, I think a lot of older people have had to learn to become more technically savvy! One of the best trends we’ve seen is families “cooking together” even though they are apart. Whether it’s cooking the same recipe in real time or even some family members making batches of dishes and then dropping off or shipping to relatives — it’s been great to watch how creative people get. If there is one silver lining to the pandemic, I think it’s the younger generations realizing how precious family is and being motivated to connect with their relatives, ask questions about their roots, and just connect with them virtually.
Recently, one family in our community made a Turkish pastel over Zoom across three generations. Noa, the granddaughter, was in the North Fork of Long Island, her mom was in Tel Aviv and her grandmother was in Bat Yam, Israel. You can find the delicious recipe on our archive and saved to our IG stories.
Q: Hanukkah is a favorite holiday in part because of the delicious food. Do you have any favorite food memories from Hanukkah? What's your favorite Hanukkah food or recipe?
A: I think the classic potato latke is my most vivid memory. I can picture my grandmother Helen really getting a workout with the box grater. She used to grate the onion on that too. If there weren’t a few scrapes along the way, did it really even count? It was truly blood, sweat and tears.
Also, more than any other fried foods, I really remember the smell. It would linger for days. On your clothes, the house and definitely in your hair. Not sure what it is about latkes but that smell is so specific and hard to get rid of!
Q: How has the Jewish Food Society shifted programming this year due to the pandemic?
A: Ordinarily we host cooking sessions in homes both in the states and Israel and have a robust roster of in-person public programming such as education panels, cooking classes, holiday dinners, our storytelling event Schmaltzy. Clearly we knew we had to adapt and move as much of our programming online as possible. This was a huge change for us as in-person events were integral to the community aspect of our mission. We are definitely looking forward to gathering IRL, but one silver lining to virtual programs is being able hold events that our community all around the world can “attend” at the same time. (Ed note: I felt the same about our virtual seder)
Some virtual programming highlights included a “wild” challah demo and garden tour with renowned Israeli chef Erez Komorovsky and cookbook author Adeena Sussman, a session with scholar Darra Goldstein and chef Sasha Shor to explore the history and recipes of Russian dacha picnic traditions, and a lecture by fashion curator Yaara Keydar on the history and cultural significance of the apron.
Additionally when the pandemic hit New York hard in the spring, we knew we had to expand our mission to provide meaningful support to our community of restaurants that carry the cultural DNA of who we are as a Jewish people. We hired NYC institutions like Russ & Daughters and Katz’s to provide meals to frontline healthcare workers in the tristate area. Over 75,000 meals were delivered with the generous support of the PES Foundation, the Aronson Foundation and individuals across our community.
Q: Can you tell us about your new podcast, Schmaltzy?
A: We felt that the power of the live stories from our Schmaltzy storytelling events would resonate with our community around the world and that creating a podcast based on the live stories would enable us to share the power of storytelling with an even bigger audience. Each episode revisits a live story from the Schmaltzy stage, then the storyteller joins me in the studio for a one-on-one interview, diving deeper into the story and the themes around it such as identity, family, love and loss.
We launched the podcast this fall with two special high holiday episodes featuring TV personality Adam Richman and pastry chef Zoe Kanan. Additional episodes this season feature Katz’s deli owner Jake Dell, Umber Ahmad of Mah Ze Dar Bakery and chef Einat Admony.
I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to create a new platform to share our work and the incredible stories from our community.
Q: Jewish culture is often passed down through stories and recipes. Do you have any tips for people to connect remotely with family and friends around the holidays?
A: My first tip is just start the conversation! We often “chat” with our family, but the holidays can provide an opportunity to have a more focused talk about your family’s culinary traditions.
You make think you know a story or recipe and have heard it or eaten it many times. Ask to hear the story again. Get the details: the sensory memories, time, geographical place, etc,. This is a chance to dive deeper and uncover a tidbit or anecdote you haven't heard before.
Google Docs is a great tool. Start a document and give your family access. That way everyone can contribute their memories and comment on each other's entries. Or, encourage family members to record a voice memo on their phones and then send it to the whole family.
Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception about Jewish food?
That it’s gray and bland and not healthy. At Jewish Food Society we show that Jewish food is vibrant, seasonal and global. It’s not all bagels, pastrami and babka (those are really good of course!) Jews have lived all over the world and each community's “micro-cuisine” reflects the ingredients and seasonality of the region.
On JFS’s recipe archive, we have Bahgdadi-Indian recipes like Spayty (a chicken, bamboo and coconut curry), recipes from a Brazilian community including a tangy fish escabeche and a fried apple recipe for Hanukkah from a family with roots in Milan. The common thread throughout is they tell the stories of how and where Jewish people live, celebrate and the way they cook.
Q: I grew up in New York City, where Jewish food is somewhat ubiquitous. Where did you grow up and did you feel different because of the food your family ate?
A: I grew up in NYC too! I feel very lucky to answer this question and say I grew up eating so many different types of foods, whether it was attending a family friend’s Sephardic seder or Mexican food from our local spot in the East Village. At home, our meals were simple and healthy. My dad loved to cook Italian food and BBQ when we were in the Poconos. My mom was determined to serve salad and vegetables at every meal. I always begged my parents for junk food, especially soda and “sugar cereal” which were only allowed on special occasions.
My grandmother Helen was a major part of my life as a child. As she got older, she cooked less and went out more. One of her favorite places to eat was Second Avenue Deli and she would bring my sister Leah and I there often. I memorized her order for the table pretty early on: all-sour pickles only, pastrami on rye with mustard, mushroom barley soup and kishke. I miss her and going to the original location of Second Avenue Deli very much.
Q: What's your favorite Jewish food to cook at home?
A: This summer when I was in Fire Island (my favorite place to be!) I made challah inspired by our “wild” challah demo with Israeli chef Erez Komorovsky. I used beach plum flowers, fresh herbs and scallions to weave into the braid. #BeachChallah is now a tradition I hope to continue every year.
Q: Applesauce or sour cream?
A: A little bit of both is the way to go. Creamy from the sour cream plus a bit sweet and tart from the applesauce with a hot, crisp, salty latke is an ideal bite.
Q: What are your favorite Hanukkah recipes and what are some different kinds of latkes you've made?
A: I dream about having a huge Latke party in 2021. The centerpiece would be a topping bar with smoked salmon, picked onions and plenty of herbs. I’d also include stracchino, an Italian cheese that was the tradition of a Milanese family we recently profiled on the JFS archive. The latke is a perfect vehicle for a build-your-own-adventure experience. I am a purist in one sense though — you have to eat the latkes as soon as they come out of the pan.
For dessert I love to make and eat Egyptian Zalabia (free-form doughnuts) — it’s so fragrant with the orange blossom syrup that’s part of the recipe on our archive.
Listen to Amanda’s podcast Schmaltzy for more Jewish food and stories (highly recommend the latke episode) and check out recipes and more on the Jewish Food Society website. See you tonight on Instagram live!