Jennieke Cohen is the author of the new historical novel “My Fine Fellow: A Delicious Entanglement.”
Jennieke Cohen is the author of the new historical novel “My Fine Fellow: A Delicious Entanglement.”

Author Jennieke Cohen draws on her Filipina-Jewish heritage in new take on ‘My Fair Lady’

England, 1833. Queen Charlotte, King George IV’s only child, sits on the throne. A lowly orphaned baker hawks his savory pastries on the streets of London. Two students from the Royal Academy of Culinaria Artisticus, an elite culinary school, cross paths with him at Covent Garden. Swayed by the bold flavors of his Salvadoran-style empanadas and his rugged charm, they decide to take him on as an apprentice as part of a school project.

In order to turn him into a “gentleman chef” who might one day open his own pastry shop, they must teach him proper cooking techniques, etiquette and grammar. But there is one big problem: Unbeknown to the students, the baker is Jewish, and merchants must take a Christian oath in order to operate a business.

So begins “My Fine Fellow: A Delicious Entanglement,” a new gender-swap retelling of “My Fair Lady” by local author Jennieke Cohen. The young adult novel is Cohen’s second set in an alternate 19th century Britain, and her first with Jewish characters, along with several original recipes. While “My Fine Fellow” diverges in places from the true history of the era — in reality, Princess Charlotte of Wales died at age 21, before both of her parents — it hews closely to it in other places. For example, as Cohen writes in a historical note at the end of the book, Jews were not permitted at the time to attend certain universities, practice law, hold public office or own stores. (Some got around the last restriction by identifying a Christian employee as the owner in official records or by setting up their stores to look like warehouses.)

“I love this time period, and I thought I should put something in about all the different people who existed other than just white Christians, which is sort of where this genre tends to sit,” Cohen told J. in a recent Zoom interview. In addition to the Jewish character, Elijah Little (born Levin), Cohen made Penelope, one of the culinary students, half Filipina like her. Those characters bond over their shared feelings of alienation in high British society.

“My Fine Fellow” received a starred review from Kirkus, which called it “a compelling novel that showcases the diversity of 19th-century England.”

Born in San Francisco, Cohen, 38, was raised there and in the suburbs of Sacramento, where she still lives today with her husband. She recalled feeling “othered” at her elementary school in Loomis, a small town in Placer County, by peers who made antisemitic comments behind her back. “When we moved there, I felt so isolated,” she said. “I don’t think anyone had met a Jew. I was it. And, you know, it didn’t help that my mother was Filipino as well.”

Cohen’s mother, Vivien, moved to San Francisco from the Philippines at age 14. She converted to Judaism after she met Jennieke’s father, Jonathan, a developer of planned communities whose own father, Rabbi Jehudah Cohen, led UCLA Hillel in the 1940s and ’50s.

Jennieke, age 6 or 7, (right) lighting the menorah with her father, Jonathan, and brother, Aaron.
Jennieke, age 6 or 7 (right), lighting the menorah with her father, Jonathan, and brother, Aaron.

Named after a Dutch model her parents saw on television, Jennieke (pronounced JEN-i-kuh) eventually switched schools, but the harassment scarred her. There are echoes of it in “My Fine Fellow,” as when Elijah is called a “dirty Jew” by a fruit stall owner. “One of the major reasons I wanted to show a facet of the Jewish experience in the book was because, like many, I’d been watching the rise of antisemitism over the last years with apprehension and worry,” she explained. “Clearly, being a Jew back then was far worse than what we deal with. But it is amazing to me that antisemitism never goes away.”

It was in middle school that Cohen discovered the novels of “the classic ladies of literature from Britain,” including Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, Charlotte and Emily. During college, she spent a summer at the University of Cambridge studying British history. Although she majored in economics at UC Davis, she was not sure what path to take after graduation. She briefly considered going to culinary school, having watched many hours of PBS and Food Network cooking shows over the years.

Her now-husband encouraged Cohen — a voracious reader of romance novels by Lisa Kleypas, Christina Dodd and Julia Quinn, among others — to write one of her own.

“At the time I was not a big fan of writing just because I had gotten so tired of writing college essays,” she said. “But I decided to give it a shot.” She enrolled in a master’s program in writing at USC and published her first novel, “Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance,” in 2019.

She wrote “My Fine Fellow” entirely during the pandemic, composing the first draft by hand on legal pads in her backyard. “I felt closer to the time period,” she said of the experience. “I was like, ‘Oh, I guess this is what Jane Austen must have done or Charlotte Brontë, sitting at their writing desks, handwriting their novels.’”

Asked why she gravitated to the young adult genre, she replied, “I guess I still could relate to what teenage life was like in my late 20s and 30s. I felt like I could understand them still.”

Tobie Easton, a YA novelist in Los Angeles and a friend of Cohen’s, praised the new book for the “thought-provoking insights” it offers on race, class, religion and friendship.

“She deftly explores deep questions and fresh perspectives without losing any of the fun, glamor, and romance readers expect when they pick up a historical novel set in London’s aristocratic ballrooms,” Easton wrote in an email to J. She added, “It meant a great deal to me, as a fellow Jewish author, how much careful thought and fascinating historical research Jennieke put into the portrayal of her Jewish characters in 1830s Britain.”

On top of writing full time, Cohen is teaching a playwriting class to teens through the Sacramento Theatre Company. Before the pandemic, she did opera training and performed in community theater shows. She played Hodel in a 2014 production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Auburn. “I would love to get back into theater once it’s safe again,” she said.

Since “My Fine Fellow” was published on Jan. 11, Cohen said she has received many kind notes from readers. “People are saying that it makes them very hungry, so that’s a win,” she said with a laugh. “And people are actually making one of the recipes I have in the back for coconut chocolate empanadas.”

“My Fine Fellow: A Delicious Entanglement” by Jennieke Cohen (HarperTeen, 352 pages). Available to order from Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley and other online retailers.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.