Slow-Cooked Stews: The Foods We Eat and the Women Who Cook

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March 1, 2012
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Ruth Abusch-Magder

Long before the romance and fervor of the rebbe’s tisch, the table was a holy space for Jews — wherever they lived. When Judaism arose from the ashes of the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, every Jewish home became a “minor temple” and the table became the altar around which people gathered. Throughout the generations and across continents, women became the priestess of this temple, serving to feed the bodies and the spirits of those that gathered in their homes. Before the men would gather around the rebbe to hear Torah, the women would labor to set a holy meal upon the Shabbat table. And while the rebbe’s tisch was a particularly male bastion, the work of creating holy space on Shabbat, while gendered by role, was very much a product of both male and female spheres.

Throughout the week, the domestic sphere moved toward the holiness of Shabbat. In pre-modern and modern religious households, the cooking, cleaning, and washing were geared toward creating a space on Shabbat that was exceptional in comparison to the rhythm of daily life. When possible, special clothes, or at minimum clean ones, were saved for this day, and homes were tidied in its honor. But among the household preparations, those concerned with food held particular importance.

Although the observance of kashrut shaped what Jews cooked and ate as well as how they prepared food, Jewish cuisine strongly resembled the foods of the surrounding communities in which Jews lived. In Iraq, for example, this meant stuffed vegetables, such as those made by their non-Jewish neighbors; in Morocco, couscous; in Poland, piroshkis — just to name a few of the regional influences on Jewish cuisine. Of course, the Shabbat restrictions on lighting fires, combined with the obligation to eat three meals on Shabbat, meant not only careful planning but also shifts in cooking methods. In the days before refrigeration and electric stoves, most food was prepared in the period just prior to its being consumed. Shabbat food had to be made in advance and kept at temperatures that would make it safe for consumption nearly 24 hours later. Across the globe, Jews developed special slow-cook recipes that allowed food to come to the table safely, warm, and full of flavor.

The idea for warm food on Shabbat is an ancient one. As Jews moved around the world, the idea of a slowly simmered thick stew for Shabbat took hold. In Spain, it became known as chamim; in Tunisia, as dfina; in Kurdistan, as matphoni; in Alasce, as shalet; and in Eastern Europe, as cholent. To be sure, stews were not the only slow-cooked Shabbat dishes. In Yemen, Jews ate a rich, flaky pastry called jachnun — sometimes with a raw egg tucked inside that would cook over night. And throughout the Jewish world, starch dishes, such as kugel and rice, were regular Shabbat delicacies. But as chamim crossed borders, adapting to the particular ingredients and tastes of particular communities, it became a staple of the Shabbat table.

Beyond the rabbinic injunction to sanctify Shabbat with warm food, the making of a slow-cooked stew exemplified the ways in which women created Shabbat and community. Without modern ovens, individual families relied on communal ovens whose considerable fires, once stoked, would maintain significant heat even as they burned to embers over Shabbat. From Bagdad to Vologen, women would gather at a shared oven before the official onset of the holy day, stories would be exchanged, and informal blessings shared. And then, on Shabbat, the ritual would be repeated in reverse, with the women timing the removal of their dishes to coincide with the conclusion of the morning prayers, and providing the physical embodiment of spiritual sustenance.

Food elevated the atmosphere of the tisch, distinguishing it from the house of study or worship. While the rebbe held court at the table, the women’s cooking sustained it.

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Ruth Abusch-Magder is rabbi-in-residence at the San Francisco-based Be’chol Lashon, an agency that promotes diversity and inclusivity in the Jewish world. In 2006, she was a Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem, where she developed the pilot curriculum for a Jewish Community Centers Association educational initiative — JCC Journeys: Adult Jews Living and Learning.

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