It's a real challenge today to maintain family closeness as children grow up, move away, and start families of their own. The family dinner table, which bound all of us at the close of each day, is replaced with phone calls, e-mail, and cross-country visits. When Leah, my oldest daughter, was a student at MIT she tried to create a bit of home by preparing a few family recipes each week for Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath). Thursday night she would invariably call for advice and I would give her recipes over the phone or by e-mail. Soon, my second daughter, Deborah, was doing the same thing at Harvard. I had been keeping a semi-portable collection of family recipes for our sabbatical years in Israel, but these were dog-eared and worn. With the advent of the World Wide Web in 1993, I learned to develop web pages. It was a logical step then, to take my collection of recipes and turn them into a web site for Leah and Deborah (and for my own use). What began as a few dozen recipes soon turned into several hundred recipes, a metric converter, and a recipe advisor. A hard copy of the website accompanied my younger daughter, Rachel, first to Cornell where she was an undergraduate, and later, a fresh copy went with her when she got married. When our youngest, Eve, left for University of Maryland, she took a hard copy and used the website. Now that all our girls are married with their own homes, I'm always tickled to see a well-used hard copy of my web site on their kitchen counters or shelves.
Keeping kosher means following a detailed set of strictures, set down by Jewish law, which govern the ingredients, the preparation method, the implements, and the subsequent handling and eating of everything that we eat. These strictures originate in the Bible and are explained and elaborated on in the Talmud (the oral and written commentaries). In the Bible, the basic rules are laid out: the allowed foods (meat from animals that chew their cud and have split hooves, particular fowl, fish that have both fins and scales, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and grain) and the forbidden (meat from animals such as the pig, camel, etc., certain birds of prey, amphibians, insects, shell fish, and many more). In addition, even allowed animals and fowl need to be slaughtered properly, all the blood must be removed by a special salting process and discarded, and certain parts are even then, not allowed. For example, the sciatic nerve and certain types of fat, either must be removed or the lower portion of the animal is unkosher. Several times in the Bible, we are cautioned against cooking a "kid in it's mother's milk." This is expanded to mean that no dairy products can ever be prepared with, eaten with, or stored with any meat products.
On top of these basic rules are additional obligations to tithe certain foods or abstain from certain foods during the festival of Passover. During the eight (seven if you are living in Israel) days of Passover, leavened foods are forbidden. The consequence of this prohibition means that only particular grain products are allowed during Passover - those which have been watched from the growing stage through packaging - to insure that no fermentation or leavening has taken place. The Jews of Eastern European origin have added to this a prohibition against any food that takes on a flour or grain-like appearance, such as corn, peanuts, or mustard.
Eating and food preparation are part of the larger religious legal framework with strictures surrounding the celebration of the Jewish Sabbath and Festivals. This framework imposes serious limitations on the type of food preparation that can be done on the Sabbath (Friday evening through Saturday night) or Festivals. Because one is not allowed to light fires or "create" anything on the Sabbath, all actual cooking is forbidden. Food can be kept warm on special warming trays that are put in place before the Sabbath and not adjusted or moved until after the Sabbath is over. On Festivals, one is allowed to cook, but not to use electric appliances or certain other implements or to carry out certain specific tasks, so that the cooking is quite limited.
The enjoyable side of all of this is that there is a serious and delicious tradition of Sabbath and festival foods, each of which has been successfully prepared and joyously eaten by generations of observant Jews. In addition, the observant household revolves around the Jewish calendar-the Sabbath and Festivals, the celebration as well as the strictures. The centrality of the kosher framework produces a cohesive community and a tightly knit family.
Keeping kosher or preparing kosher food are relatively straightforward if you've either grown up that way or studied the details and you live in a city with a significant Jewish presence. The challenge comes when you try to find kosher ingredients or prepared items in areas with few or no other committed Jews. Keeping kosher is not something one does occasionally - everything that goes into your mouth has to be kosher. In 1970 my husband and I moved to Champaign-Urbana, IL. The community includes a few observant families but the closest bakery, butcher, or kosher store is in Chicago, 150 miles away. Early on I decided that I would try to prepare everything possible to make ours a fully stocked kosher table. I had studied under the best, my mother and her mother, known for their fine cooking and baking. I made all the traditional Ashkenazi dishes (food in the Eastern European Jewish tradition) including challah, gefilte fish, and kugels. Soon, though, we began to travel and take sabbaticals. In each place we sampled as many new kosher foods as we could, bringing many into our diet. We were also fortunate to have several orthodox Jewish families come to Champaign-Urbana (the home of the University of Illinois) on their sabbaticals from Israel. Each family taught us their recipes and traditions.
We've always tried to taste whatever foods we could in our travels. I've tried to prepare kosher versions of appealing dishes in cookbooks, cooking magazines, or food articles. Our rule of thumb, though, has been to only use really good ingredients and to forget about recipes that necessitated heavy chemical substitutions to make them kosher. For example, veal Parmesan is out-there is no way that artificial cheese makes a palatable dish. Similarly, most recipes that rely heavily on the taste of butter or cream should not be converted to pareve (no milk or meat products) versions with artificial substitutes because the quality sacrificed is too great.
If we had been in a larger Jewish community, I wouldn't have had to learn to make my own bread, pizza, bagels, or marshmallows. But I wanted our family to enjoy being kosher. I wanted my girls to develop sophisticated palettes and to have a ready source of the foods they saw around them (kosher version, of course). So our family gradually became kosher "foodies." In a sense we were just one of the many culturally distinct families within a small, but diverse community. Food is one of the defining elements in such a community, and there are many families there who focus on the preparation and preservation of their particular food heritage. Although we moved to Skokie, IL in 2000, where kosher food is readily available, we've continued in the same serious "foodie" tradition. Now, though, we have a wide circle of compatriots with similar requirements and interests.
In 1970, when we arrived in central Illinois, there were few ethnic foods available - kosher or non-kosher. Thus we've always known other families who needed to bring in prized ingredients or who have needed to learn to prepare complex ethnic dishes that their parents might have purchased, already prepared, in their native country or community. When we travel, we bring back ice chests full of imported kosher cheese or pÃ¢tÃ© de fois gras. We order dried mango and exotic dried dates, maple syrup, wild rice, and other items from distant distributors. We also take advantage of the local availability of a wide range of wonderful fresh produce, Middle-Eastern ingredients, and many Asian products (all with kosher certification). The result is an eclectic diet with a traditional, yet International Jewish focus - almost all of which is prepared in our own kitchen.