In Israel, legendary chef Erez Komarovsky has a bakery empire and is considered the grandfather of artisanal baking. In the spring of 2020, he invited the Jewish Food Society and lucky attendees from around the world into the lush garden of his Galilee countryside home via Zoom, where he found some of the ingredients for the seasonal stuffed artichoke confit challah they baked and discussed, along with hit cookbook author Adeena Sussman. It was an afternoon of lively conversation, incredible food, and cultural connection — just some of the things the Jewish Food Society does best.
From a Ukrainian Knish tradition kept alive in Canada to a Colombian-American Shabbat meal savored in rural Alaska, the Jewish Food Society is a nonprofit organization that preserves, celebrates, and revitalizes Jewish culinary heritage from around the world.
Archiving generations of family recipes
Founded in 2017 and based in Manhattan, the Jewish Food Society has made it their mission to learn about Stella Hanan Cohen, a cook in Zimbabwe who faithfully maintains 500-year-old Sephardic recipes, and Olga Sternberg, who found sustenance in recipes shared orally amongst prisoners in Auschwitz. Their archive of hundreds of recipes spans from South Africa to Sweden, from Tunisia to Russia. Together, they capture a global, diverse, and delicious perspective of Jewish life. You can find a classic Challah recipe from the beloved Israeli baker Uri Scheft alongside a guide to making Zom, a warm, comforting Yemenite yogurt soup.
“Our archive is the core of our work,” says Amanda Dell, Program Director at the Jewish Food Society and the host of their podcast, Schmaltzy. “From recipe testing, recipe development, and translating, we work in-depth with each family and explore how their recipes relate to their history. We want to capture the taste — the essence — making them exciting and cookable for our community around the world.”
The organization tests and perfects each recipe to make it easy for cooks to recreate at home. (All grandparents seem to have a way of saying “just add a splash;” the organization’s testers and writers help clarify.) They also create all their own visual content, shooting and styling recipes in a fresh, modern way that still honors nostalgia and memories. It’s a style Dell calls “lovingly grandma chic.”
Recipes come to life at mouthwatering events
A big part of Dell’s job is to bring that archive to life through programs and events. Before the Covid pandemic, she organized Shabbat dinners, boisterous Hannukah potlucks, intimate cooking classes, and panel discussions with food luminaries.
The Jewish Food Society’s signature event is Schmaltzy, a storytelling and tasting extravaganza that has brought together an audience of hundreds in New York, Tel Aviv, and San Francisco. In a Moth-inspired style, people from grandmas to chefs to tech entrepreneurs gather to tell personal stories about a significant time or moment in their life that centered around food. Afterwards, the attendees enjoy conversation and a tasting of the foods featured in the stories.
As COVID-19 changed the world and shut down large, in-person events, Dell and the Jewish Food Society had to reimagine how they could connect with their community. Engaging people virtually is not without its challenges, but the plus side was “an incredible bonus of being able to do programs with people around the world, and have an audience tuning in from around the world at the same time” Dell explained, like the challah baking class with Erez Komarovsky and Adeena Sussman.
When outdoor events felt safe, the Jewish Food Society hosted a picnic pop-up in New York City’s Tompkins Square Park with Chef Nir Sarig of Eti NYC, who made vegetarian Moroccan basket lunches for attendees. The picnic celebrated the release of a line of gorgeous limited-edition blankets, inspired by grandmothers from the recipe archive and designed in collaboration with artist Emily Parkinson. A three-piece band went from blanket to blanket, serenading the guests. The event was outdoors, socially distanced, and joyful.
“People got to go home with their blankets,” says Dell, who saw photos of the blankets pop up at beaches from Fire Island to the Caribbean. “The event lived on afterwards, and we got to bring our community together in a safe, meaningful way.”
Telling stories through meaningful conversation
The Jewish Food Society’s biggest pandemic production has been transforming Schmaltzy into a podcast. “It was the biggest lightbulb moment: that we had audio gold,” Dell said of the recordings they had captured from the live storytelling events. “These tastemakers and leaders worked so hard to tell an impactful story — there was magic at these events.”
She got to work transforming that magic into a new medium. Like the in-person events, the podcast version of Schmaltzy uses stories as jumping off points to talk about larger universal themes like love, loss, family, and identity. You can hear Josh Beckerman, “The Foodie Magician,” reminiscing about practicing his first magic tricks as his grandmother cooked chopped liver and kreplach in her Howard Beach, Queens kitchen. Israeli writer Shifra Cornfeld talks about leaving the Orthodox community she was raised in, yet continuing a relationship with her dad through a connection fostered through pecan pie.
Afterwards, Dell interviews these storytellers in a way that feels more like a heartfelt conversation between friends than a podcast interview. “Audio is so intimate,” Dell reflects. “We pop into people’s headphones. I want them to laugh, to cry, and to feel joy and excitement.” She’s digging into work on the podcast’s third season.
Recipes carry stories with them, stories of challenges and triumphs, tradition and change, family and identity. “I grew up culturally Jewish but not religious,” says Dell. Her job empowers her to “engage with my identity and feel proud of it on my own terms,” she reflects. “We provide a platform for people to engage with their cultural identity in a way that’s meaningful but not religious, a way to celebrate our Judaism within the sometimes harsh world that we live in.”
Interested in attending one of the Jewish Food Society’s events? Follow them on Eventbrite to be alerted when new events are added.
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