No matter the occasion, from births to bar mitzvahs to deaths, we Jews always rush forward with food. Whether in celebration, commemoration, or bereavement, nothing says “Jewish” like food.
One of our lesser known, yet strange and intimidating foods is called cholent (CHO-lent). This is a traditional stew of meat, potatoes, beans, barley, and sometimes, kishke (a sausage casing stuffed with a flour mixture), and has been part of Jewish gastronomy for hundreds of years. Since Jews do not cook on the Sabbath itself, cholent is set to simmer on Friday afternoon in a slow cooker or hot plate. By lunchtime the next day, it is aromatic, soft, filling, and a more powerful sleeping agent than bear tranquilizers.
Jews seem to either love cholent or wouldn’t touch the stuff with a staff as long as that of Moses himself. I myself am militantly anti-cholent, much preferring lighter fare and saving my mega calories for chocolate chip cookies. I take comfort that other cultures have their own intimidating and strange foods. Swedes and Norwegians have lutefisk, a fish that marinates in lye for several days before it is cooked. Scots have haggis, which is sort of like kishke, only made with sheep tummy. And Christians of many ethnicities have fruitcake, which may be the only fitting dessert after a dinner featuring lutefisk.
As a cholent-intolerant wife and mother, I had smugly assumed that my home would always remain a cholent-free environment. I figured, if anyone in the family wanted to eat that heavy, dark, artery-clogging stew, they could help themselves at the synagogue-sponsored kiddush.
But my children had other ideas.
“Why don’t you ever make cholent?” they insisted, demanding I get recipes from other mothers in the neighborhood who dished up cholent as a matter of religious and ethnic pride. I had no answer, other than perhaps I had had a traumatic childhood experience with the stuff.
I didn’t like where this was going. If I caved in to the demands for cholent, could boring old gefilte fish be far behind? On the other hand, I also had to think about our family’s reputation. I was haunted by the idea of my kids overhearing whispers: “Those poor Gruen kids. Their Mom doesn’t make cholent, you know. It’s so sad.”
I finally broke down completely, no longer flagrantly violating the 11th Commandment: “Thou Shalt Make Cholent!” In submission, I reached for a cookbook and made my maiden batch. The recipe was so easy; how bad could it be?
When I saw the kids pouring mounds of salt, ketchup and hot chile sauce into their bowls, I had my answer. My cooking ego was on the line. I vowed to improve my cholent-making prowess. The next week, I found another recipe and received rave reviews. “Not bad, Mom,” one mumbled. (Bear in mind, coming from a teenager, this is wild enthusiasm.)
Only after lunch did I discover that the successful cholent had been “helped” by my 14-year-old son, who confessed that he had slipped in several ingredients to the pot when my back was turned. Among his additions were “lots more garlic, barbeque sauce, a chicken leg, and some stuff you probably don’t want to know about.” I’m sure he was right.
I happily turned the job of making cholent over to the kids, who had a vested interest in this cholesterol-laden, culinary creation, allowing me to stay focused on making my healthy salads, vegetable sautés, chicken dishes, and cakes. I dare not look at what they throw in the pot.
To humor them, I have begun to take small spoonfuls of it each week, but I find it hard to swallow in more ways than one. And I have to wonder: if this stuff is so great, how come nobody will eat the leftovers on Sunday?