Honoring biblical women with food by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

On the Jewish food scene: Honoring biblical women with food by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When I graduated from college and was given a monetary gift and told to buy something for my new, non-student apartment, I, of course, chose books. In the years before the Internet, some books were vital. Since I already had a dictionary, the other necessities were my own copy of “The Reader’s Encyclopedia” and a book containing opera plots. (I’ve never been a fan of listening to opera on CD or radio, but I loved the stage performances – and, in those pre-supertitle days, a basic understanding of the story felt necessary.) I also had one cookbook: “The Settlement Cookbook.” Why? Because in addition to recipes, it also told you how to do the basics, for example, the time it takes to cook a chicken or how to cook every imaginable kind of egg. 

That was the only real cookbook I had for years. Since I was on a medically restricted diet, I learned to adjust and adapt recipes to fit my needs. For example, I used to make Bisquick impossible pies from recipes I found in magazines, only I did it without the Bisquick – substituting whole wheat flour and other ingredients. I also managed to make whole wheat biscuits from scratch by adapting a recipe that used white flour. In those days, there were few books that catered to those on specific diets. In fact, in those days, being on a healthy diet was considered weird. I even had people feel insulted when I said I couldn’t eat their food. (My motto, that I usually didn’t say out loud, was: You’ll feel bad about it, but I’m the one who’ll be sick and I hate being sick.)

It would have been wonderful in those days to have had a cookbook like “Feeding Women of the Bible. Feeding Ourselves: Uplifting Voices of Hebrew Biblical Heroines and Honoring Them With Simple Plant-Based Recipes” compiled by Kenden Alfond (Turner Publishing Company). Alfond is best known for her website Jewish Food Hero, https://jewishfoodhero.com/. I might not have been as interested in the sections on Jewish women then as I am now, but I would have appreciated the recipes and beautiful photographs that accompany them.

The work is really a group effort: different women write about the 20 biblical women Alfond features. Each section features the story of the woman, a few relevant verses from the Bible, different themes found in the story and the writer’s commentary on those themes. The sections conclude with questions readers can ask themselves or debate with others. Following this are two recipes – from a variety of individuals or from the Jewish Food Hero website – that connect to the biblical story. The recipes range from appetizers to desserts, with some beverages included. One could stage several meals by combining the different recipes. There are too many to list, but some of the ones that appealed to me are “Curried Winter Squash and Apple Soup,” “Roasted Eggplant with Tomato, Onion, and Za’atar,” “Galette with Pesto, Summer Squash, and Cherry Tomatoes” and “Chinese Tofu Matzo Balls in Tianjin Sweet and Sour Sauce.” Even though I’m not familiar with all the spices used in them, they are definitely something I would try if offered them in a restaurant.

The beauty of these recipes is that they are vegan, meaning they are all kosher pareve (neither meat, milk or fish-based) and can appeal to Jews from all branches of Judaism. Some of the writers come from liberal Jewish backgrounds, while others are Orthodox. All profits from the work are being donated to Jewish non-profit organizations each year. 

I enjoyed reading the sections about the biblical women, which offered interesting and sometimes unusual ideas, and looking at the recipes. I have to confess that I haven’t made any of them yet, although I would love to try them – meaning I would be happy to eat the result of someone else’s cooking. It’s not that they’re difficult: it’s more that I tend to stick to the recipes I already know. OK, I also don’t do much complex cooking. However, this book would make a perfect gift for a friend who loves to cook. It could also be used as part of a cooking club, where people read sections of the book and discuss them while eating the food relevant to those biblical women. I imagine that would be great fun. If you enjoy vegan recipes or are interested in biblical women, Alfond manages to combine the two in a book that’s beautiful to look at and fun to read.