Workshop explores roots and rites of Jewish cuisine

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About 15 women — grandmothers and college students alike — passed up workshop titles like "Anachnu Kan — We are Here: Lesbians and Bisexual Women in the Jewish Community" and "Finding Our Voices Through Midrash" to talk about a Jewish cultural staple: food.

Saratoga pastry chef Roberta Weber joined Sephardic cooking teacher Regina Waldman, a Libyan native, in leading the 90-minute dialogue, which was titled "Chicken Soup, Huevos Haminados and Being Jewish."

"Why is chicken soup [considered] the Jewish penicillin?" Weber asked. "And what is Jewish food anyway?"

Participants tossed out quick responses: Bagels. Brisket. Gefilte fish. Chopped liver.

But what about adafina, which is Moroccan cholent; or North African fried fish seasoned with chili powder, turmeric, cumin and ginger; or the Italian Sukkot favorite, masconod, which are pasta rolls filled with Parmesan cheese and cinnamon? Waldman was raised on these dishes.

While workshop participants could not agree on a definition of Jewish cuisine, most agreed massive portions are essential, as is the underlying notion of nurturance.

By trading food stories and recipes, participants honored the conference's themes of celebrating diversity and creating community.

"I remember my great-grandmother. She used to smoke while she cooked," Weber said. "The gefilte fish has never tasted the same since she died. Occasionally a stray ash would get in the fish. It added something."

One young woman told of a mother and daughter preparing Shabbat dinner together. The mother quartered the brisket and the daughter asked why.

"I'm not sure. Grandma always did it this way. Let's call her," the mother said.

"Oh," the grandmother laughed. "My oven wasn't large enough to fit the whole brisket in."

Some shared their secrets for the best chopped liver. Others asked for advice in making matzah balls "that aren't like lead."

One Sunnyvale resident remembered the West Virginia town where she grew up. Jews formed a line every Sunday in front of the lone bakery that produced bagels.

The woman now carries on that weekly ritual with her own family, rushing out early Sunday morning to Sunnyvale's House of Bagels.

Another participant recalled the burnt-on-the-bottom bagels her grandmother used to bake.

Weber interjected that bagels are actually an American creation.

Bagels "weren't always boiled. And they weren't always round. That happened in New York.

Waldman's stories came from Libya, Italy, Switzerland, England and America. Many had political and cultural implications.

"My mother used to give food to our Egyptian neighbor upstairs. I wondered why. She said, `You never know when we might need him,'" Waldman said.

When war broke out in Libya in 1967 and Jews were being expelled from the country, the Egyptian neighbor protected Waldman's family by telling authorities no Jews lived in his building. He did the family's banking and shopping.

"Food saved our life," Waldman said, adding that to this day she carries on the tradition by preparing food for her neighbors in Tiburon. "They think I'm crazy."

Waldman recalled lighter moments too. Her mother and grandmother erected round ovens on the roof of their apartment building in which to bake Sephardic Passover matzah.

Waldman told the group that when she arrived in the United States as a young woman in 1969, she asked her mother for Sephardic Jewish recipes. Through trial and error and swapping stories with other Jewish transplants from North Africa she mastered couscous-stuffed vegetables and other Sephardic dishes.

She said she learned to make a mean chicken soup as well."I married an Ashkenazi Jew. He loves Sephardic food but I had to learn to cook for his father-in-law. He's a Berliner. A boiled potato is already too [spicy] for him."