Amelia Saltsman's Fresh Take on Tradition

By Robin Chotzinoff • Photography by Staci Valentine

My copy of Amelia Saltsman’s “The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook” was just about worn out, so when her new cookbook, “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen,” arrived, I got into bed and read it like a novel. I then went into the kitchen and produced gvetch (the “Romanian ratatouille”) and zucchini latkes, and experienced a psychological breakthrough. I used to think of Jewish food as either wonderful (my father’s chopped liver with hard-boiled eggs and bits of onion) or god-awful (a chicken boiled into submission by someone’s mother in 1950s Yonkers). But it turns out that the cuisine of my forefathers contains both nuance and breadth. And even though this book’s organization follows the yearly cycle of Jewish holidays, it’s an everyday ethnic cookbook for seasonal chefs of any religious or cultural background. “Even if you don’t know the names of all the holidays,” Saltsman writes, “a year’s worth of Jewish food bears a striking resemblance to any market-driven cook’s seasonal road map.” I like that almost as much as this: “Schmaltz, chicken or duck fat cooked low and slow with onions, and gribenes, cracklings made from poultry skin and onions, are at the core of the Ashkenazic food identity. Over the decades, they have gotten a bad rap by some as unhealthful, outdated and overused. I have three words for you: duck-fat fries.”

“The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen” has a little bit of everything—Saltsman’s own story, the wide-ranging culinary history of a wide-ranging people, political activism on behalf of sustainable farmers and enticing photographs starring Saltsman family heirlooms and California produce. Because she likes “looking and cooking and reading and digging around,” Saltsman has unearthed some traditions that may surprise even the most observant Jew. “Simchat Torah,” she writes, “is one of my favorite holidays: a celebration of books and learning, with music, dancing, and throwing back vodka shots to mark the end of the holiday season. What’s not to like?” Not much. Ditto for the Iraqi funnel cake recipe, the story about the oyster knife and the loving portraits of two grandparents from two continents. How did Saltsman cram all this into a book? Read on.

You’re a citizen of where—Santa Monica, right? But also…the world?
I’m a mutt! But really, my heritage is one of great diversity. My mother’s family is from Romania, my father’s family is from Iraq, my parents met in the Israeli army, I was born and raised in California, and I think I was Italian in another life.

Were you always a food person?
I was exposed to a lot of different flavors early on. When I became a food writer, I realized that I had powerful food memories that I could still recall in a sensory way—moments where my palate was defined. Somehow, from my earliest childhood—and I’m not kidding about early—I was always extremely open to food from anywhere. We lived in a primarily Japanese neighborhood and I remember my parents saying, What? She needs to stop at the Japanese store and get the dried cuttlefish?

What was your experience of Jewish food, growing up?
As the child of Israelis, newly immigrated to the United States, who had come to study at the university, I lived in my own kind of diaspora. I wasn’t with my extended family except on special occasions, but we traveled back to Israel when I was a child and that exposed me to the fact that there was something different than what I was raised with.

I was interested to read that not all Jewish food is the Ashkenazi food I grew up with. Your book also made me wonder if the foods I thought were Jewish were actually Russian.
For most Americans, Jewish or not, Jewish food means deli meats, herring, bagels, lox and cream cheese—it’s defined by Eastern- and Central-European Jewish immigrants from the late 19th century. But if you stop and think about the fact that Jews have been on the move for thousands of years, you realize that Jewish culture is exceptionally diverse, and by definition, exceptionally opinionated. I wrote this book as an outsider, realizing that your definition of Jewish food and mine might be very different. And now when someone says, “Wait…that’s not Jewish food!” I can say, “Well, yes it is.”

Take a dish like hummus. People might think it’s Jewish. Or Arab, or Israeli or Lebanese or Palestinian. Everyone can claim the patrimony of hummus. So what is it? An exciting, ethnic flavor. I’m not claiming that the foods in my book are only Jewish, just that they belong in the Jewish canon. Oh, and when you ask if a food is Russian or Jewish, I would say that basically, Jewish food is regional. There are Jews everywhere in the world, and before you could fly a peach 10,000 miles, what was there except regional food and local cooking?

But that was true for everybody, Jewish or not.
Right, but on top of that is a layer of religious mandates and dietary law. Take the Jews of Central Europe—that’s not an olive oil region, it’s an animal-fat region and the primary animal fat was pork. The Jewish cooking of Central Europe is regional cooking, plus cultural adaptation.

So, no pork fat? Chicken fat instead?
Schmaltz and gribenes, and from there, it’s not a very far leap from cassoulet to cholent. I like that there’s a back-and-forth. [Cholent is a traditional, slow-cooked Jewish stew eaten on Shabbat that contains meat (chicken or beef), potatoes, beans and barley. Originating in the south of France, cassoulet is a traditional, slow-cooked casserole that contains most of the same ingredients, except that pork is widely used.]

Speaking of which, you write about “fennel and eggplant moving from Jewish food into mainstream Italian cuisine.” I didn’t know that.
It was a journey of discovery and exploration for me, too.

I never knew it was a bigger mitzvah (good deed) to feast before Yom Kippur than to fast during it.
Neither did I. Honestly, my own traditions are very varied, and I’ve come to appreciate that mix of experience. That’s true for a lot of people.

Did you go to synagogue as a kid?
Nope. The only year I went was the year my mother taught Sunday school. I was four or five. And we used to go to holiday celebrations at the Israeli consulate.

So you made your own Jewish traditions?
There are a lot to choose from! I have photos of three generations at the stove making latkes together—my mother, my kids and me—each with our own skillet and spatula. Cooking together is so entwined in what we do that two days after my son Adam was born—during Hanukkah—we were all making latkes and drinking champagne.

In this book, you divide the seasons into two-month sections. How well do you think that works for the United States? It seemed to line up pretty well with what happens in Austin.
As a student and teacher of the seasonal approach, I realized that thinking in two-month increments is a lot easier and less overwhelming. It helps break through the “summer is this and winter is that” mindset. Looking at it through a Jewish lens, I saw that the Jewish lunar calendar lined up with these two-month increments. The High Holy Days might fall at the end of August or the beginning of October, but they basically occupy the September-October period. Same thing with Hanukkah—it falls right into November-December. The foods of the Jewish holidays are so utterly seasonal. After a lifetime of seasonless everything, thinking in seasons can be a big shift.

Wait, wait. Who had a lifetime of seasonless everything?
Everyone did. We shopped at supermarkets and as a society, we lost our sense of seasonality. Because if there are peaches in December at Whole Foods, I guess peaches must be in season. We’re starting to realize that doesn’t work.

Going back to Hanukkah for a moment, I loved that you included an entire guide to latkes in your book. You don’t seem like a negative person, but I’m here to tell you people can really screw up latkes.
Soaked in oil or burnt on the outside before they’re done on the inside. Believe me, I was on a mission to fix that bad rap.

What are some of your go-to recipes for winter seasons—November-December or January-February?
I want people to be aware of two things: winter salads and roasting vegetables to bring out flavor. We think of salads as lettuce, tomato and cucumbers 365 days a year, but there’s so much more—winter slaws, quick-pickled turnips and beets—to wake up our taste buds and bring us color and joy. As for roasting, being able to throw something in the pan, shove it in the oven and produce a brilliant result makes our lives easier and brings out the best in whatever we’re cooking. It’s a way of paying respect to the ingredients.

Any plans for Tu B’Shvat [the birthday of trees] this year?
In this time of drought and climate change, I’d like my family to go tree-planting with TreePeople, a Los Angeles organization. If the weather is nice, I’d like a picnic that includes winter fruits, vegetables and grains: citrus and avocado salad with spicy greens; one of my grain-bowl dishes that works at room temperature (freekeh with kale, butternut squash and smoked salt); and squares of spiced date and walnut oatmeal cake for dessert.

In your recipe for pomegranate-orange gelée, you write that “gelatin desserts deserve a comeback.” Why? And what’s the difference between gelée and Jell-O?
Gelée is just French for Jell-O! Actually, Jell-O is a trademark brand name for an industrialized gelatin dessert. I was scarred, as a child, by Jell-O. But now I’m intrigued. The equivalent of Proust’s madeleine could be the old Jell-O mold recipe someone’s mother made. But the artisanally produced, home-cooked or restaurant-made version is always going to taste better.

This cookbook actually isn’t just for Jews, is it?
No! Jewish food is for everyone, because everyone eats Jewish food whether they know it or not. It’s a cultural cuisine and a patchwork of regional cuisines, seasoned with meaning.

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