When is a general cookbook actually a Jewish one? When it is infused with Jewish context and wisdom. In this edition of From the Jewish Food Bookshelf I’m doing a brief review of a fairly new cookbook, Naomi Ross’ The Giving Table.
Ross is a kosher cooking instructor, with many years of experience under her apron, and in this book (which I believe is her first) she focuses on a prominent element of Jewish Food: hospitality and giving. While we of course do not hold a monopoly on such activities, Jews open their homes and welcome guests weekly for Shabbat meals, as well as on holidays. This of course reflects the famous trait of our people’s founder, Abraham.
But as Ross highlights throughout her book, there are so many more opportunities and times that Jews share and gift food. After a baby is born, when someone is (God forbid) in the week of mourning, when someone is ill, for holiday meals, for mishloach manot on Purim, and simply when we just see that someone needs a pick-me-up or is in financial need. This (non-exclusively) Jewish value of kindness via food is the modus vivendi of Ross’ cookbook.
So why am I referring to it as a “general cookbook?” Because with very few exceptions, her recipes are for generally good food, but not dishes that are explicitly Jewish in content or style. True, she features three challah recipes, one for sweet potato latkes, and one for a skillet-baked potato kugel. But beyond that, her dishes are modern and internationally inspired, but not specifically Jewish. Which makes a lot of sense, since most Jewish families I know these days do not eat exclusively “traditional” foods, even on Shabbat.
Amping up the Jewish content of her book, Ross also includes Biblical and Talmudic quotes and Jewish sidebar tips. There is not a tremendous amount of specific Jewish Food History content, but what is there is interesting, stemming from the same Biblical and Talmudic sources rather than history of our foods through the centuries of Diasporic wanderings.
Along the way, Ross also includes a large number of general cooking, preparation, and meal planning hints. She also explains how to create and use “building block” recipes that can be used in many dishes. And she even includes a number of general, non-food related household tips and home remedies. In a way, The Giving Table, while not old fashioned at all, is still a bit of a throwback. Many of the earliest English-language Jewish cookbooks similarly mixed such disparate elements together. In addition to classic Jewish recipes, they also included many general ones, tips for managing a modern house, and various remedies for common ailments.
Reading The Giving Table, you will have zero doubt that you are immersed in a Jewish cooking environment, even though the recipes would never suggest that if you were to look at them in isolation. And hopefully the book will also inspire us to be even more giving from our home kitchens, and as Ross puts it, “cook it forward.”