I’ve long been fascinated with the relationship women have with their own bodies and appetites. While the subject of weight and body image and struggling with sexuality and attractiveness is universal to all women, when I speak to groups of Jewish women, these issues seem heightened somehow. And it is a topic that comes up frequently when I meet with people to discuss my books.
As a novelist who happens to be a plus-sized Jewish woman, I am often asked to speak with gatherings of Jewish women about my work, which often features Jewish plus-sized women. In fact, all of my previous books have had heroines who are Jewish, and they have ranged in size from 14-24. It is important to me, in a world where the heroines of books are significantly petite gentile girls, to show women like me, women like my friends and family, in my books. My work is not particularly Jewish, although there are holidays that appear when appropriate, and some references to Jewish organizations. Non-Jews who read my work aren’t alienated, the books aren’t mired in Jewish-ness. But for Jewish women, the little references seem to be a touchstone that is often missing from their casual reading experiences.
This is particularly true when I write about the complicated relationship Jewish women have with food. As a people, we struggle with our weight more pervasively, it seems, than many other groups. We are the “Eat something! Oy, you’re getting fat!” ethnicity. Family members will be vocal about their concern for a woman, especially a single woman, who is heavy and encourage them to lose weight. Then, the emotional trauma of a difficult conversation completed, they will suggest a meal to make everyone feel better.
Our traditional foods say it all…no other culture takes a heavy dish of sweet potatoes, carrots, prunes and apricots, swimming in a dessert-like brown-sugar syrup and thinks “You know what would season this perfectly? No, not herbs… No, not green vegetables… I know! SHORT RIBS!”. And that is just a side dish. Traditionally served with brisket. Forget the South Beach diet, this is the Miami Beach diet, and it will kill you….slowly and deliciously. We take pride in the abundance of our tables, but not the resultant abundance of our tushies. We love to be known as great cooks and hostesses, but often fight with the demons of feeling embarrassed about our love of food, and ashamed of our bodies, whatever shape they may be in.
My new book Good Enough to Eat features a heroine who has faced down her weight problem head-on. In the novel, Melanie Hoffman, a chef who was formerly nearly 290 pounds, has worked diligently with a holistic nutritionist, and through healthy eating and exercise, is now a toned 145 pounds, and has opened a healthy gourmet take-out café. And then her husband leaves her. For a woman twice her size. For Melanie, her consistent struggle is not only with who she was, but who she has become. She has to learn to live and love in her new body, and in her new reality. Her relationship with food needs constant management, her battle with her own demons manifests itself in myriad ways, and surprisingly, her journey of self-discovery requires that she embrace the complexity of what food means to her. The book celebrates that dichotomy by including over 40 pages of recipes, often with dual versions of the same food—one a decadent version, one made healthier.
I want for my readers what I want for myself, a good long healthy life. My own struggles to get to a healthy weight are constant, I’ve lost 40 pounds in the past year, but that is only about a third of the way there, and every pound comes back at least once or twice before it really gets banished. But I also want my readers to love themselves, no matter what their size. To know that they are beautiful, desirable, spectacular creatures who can live a full and wonderful life regardless of what number is on the scale. I want us as a group to agree that while we should eat as healthy as possible, and exercise regularly, that good food is a gift and a celebration and we should stop beating ourselves up for indulging in dessert.
My greatest revelation, and the one lesson I hope people take from Good Enough to Eat and Melanie’s journey, is that there is no such thing as a forbidden food, just rational portion control. There is nothing in the whole world we cannot incorporate into a healthy diet, as long as we are smart about moderation. The higher the fat, calories, and sugar content of any food, the smaller the portion should be. Eat the whole salad, all of the veggies, and half the meat and potatoes. Have two bites of dessert, not two helpings. And most importantly, know that every meal is a new opportunity to make the smarter decisions, regardless of what may have happened the meal before.
I love that I have the opportunity to put characters out into the world that acknowledge the diversity of women, and show the complexity of our experiences. I hope that my readers continue to embrace these women and everything we get to watch them learn and everything they have to teach us.
In honor of Good Enough to Eat, I thought I would give you two of the recipes from the book…one sinful and one saintly. Cook and enjoy!
Guilt-Free Chocolate Cupcakes with Vanilla Cream-Cheese Frosting
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup egg substitute
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon instant espresso granules
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup fat-free buttermilk
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Dash of salt
1 (8-ounce) block 1/3-less-fat cream cheese, softened
Preheat oven to 350°.
To prepare cupcakes, place the first 4 ingredients in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well blended (about 2 minutes).
Combine flour and next 5 ingredients and sift. Stir flour mixture into sugar mixture alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture; mix after each addition just until blended.
Place 16 paper muffin cup liners in muffin cups; spoon about 2 1/2 tablespoons batter into each cup. Bake at 350° for 18 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center of a cupcake comes out with moist crumbs attached (do not overbake). Remove cupcakes from pans; cool on a wire rack.
To prepare frosting, combine powdered sugar and remaining ingredients in a medium bowl. Beat with a mixer at medium speed until combined. Increase speed to medium-high, and beat until smooth. Spread about 1 tablespoon frosting on top of each cupcake.
Decadent Dark Chocolate Cupcakes with Vanilla Buttercream
8 T. unsalted butter, cubed
2 oz. high quality bittersweet chocolate, (Valrhona, or Callebaut) chopped
½ C Dutch-processed cocoa powder
¾ C all-purpose flour
½ t. baking soda
¾ t. baking powder
2 large eggs
¾ C sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
½ t. salt
½ c sour cream
10 T. unsalted butter, softened
½ vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
1 ¼ C confectioners sugar, sifted
½ t. vanilla extract
1 T. heavy cream
2 T sour cream
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position; heat oven to 350 degrees. Line standard-sized muffin pan with baking-cup liners.
Combine butter, chocolate, and cocoa in medium heatproof bowl. Set bowl over saucepan containing barely simmering water; heat mixture until butter and chocolate are melted and whisk until smooth and combined. Set aside to cool until just warm to the touch.
Whisk flour, baking soda, and baking powder in small bowl to combine.
Whisk eggs in second medium bowl to combine; add sugar, vanilla, and salt and whisk until fully incorporated. Add cooled chocolate mixture and whisk until combined. Sift about one-third of flour mixture over chocolate mixture and whisk until combined; whisk in sour cream until combined, then sift remaining flour mixture over and whisk until batter is homogenous and thick.
Divide batter evenly among muffin pan cups. Bake until skewer inserted into center of cupcakes comes out clean, 18 to 20 minutes.
Cool cupcakes in muffin pan on wire rack until cool enough to handle, about 15 minutes. Carefully lift each cupcake from muffin pan and set on wire rack. Cool to room temperature before icing, about 30 minutes.
In standing mixer fitted with whisk attachment, beat butter at medium-high speed until smooth, about 20 seconds. Using paring knife, scrape seeds from vanilla bean into butter and beat mixture at medium-high speed to combine, about 15 seconds. Add confectioners’ sugar and salt; beat at medium-low speed until most of the sugar is moistened, about 45 seconds. Scrape down bowl and beat at medium speed until mixture is fully combined, about 15 seconds; scrape bowl, add vanilla, sour cream and heavy cream, and beat at medium speed until incorporated, about 10 seconds, then increase speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down bowl once or twice. (To frost: Mound about 2 tablespoons icing on center of each cupcake. Using small icing spatula or butter knife, spread icing to edge of cupcake, leaving slight mound in center.)
As I mentioned before, my Judaism, while deeply rooted and very important to me, is something that falls more on the side of culture and tradition and less specifically on the side of religion or spirituality. But there are certain aspects of every holiday that resonate for me, and one of the things I appreciate about being Jewish, is that I can feel free to cherry pick the pieces I like and leave the rest behind.
As we look towards the High Holidays, I thought I would share some of my traditions with you, and some of my traditional recipes.
As we did not, nor do not, belong to a temple, the High Holidays were always spent with family and friends. Actually, the friends in question are basically family. I’m blessed with several families, extra parents abound (all of the love and advice and support but none of the discipline or college tuition), and I’ve got enough siblings-by-choice to sort of feel fundamentalist Mormon (without the polygamy or prairie clothes). Not to mention a truly ridiculous number of bonus nieces and nephews. Some of my earliest memories are of spending the High Holidays with different configurations of these special friends. Often we gather at my family’s weekend place in the country, a place away from the hustle
and bustle, with plenty of trees and green, wide open sky and fresh air. A place where, if one is inclined to commune with a higher power, it seems like the kind of place the deity of your choice just might be hanging out.
Stacey Ballis‘ newest book, Good Enough to Eat, will be available September 7th. Check back all week for more delicious posts from Stacey for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog series.
When people ask me what I love most about being Jewish, the images flash before my eyes.
Succulent slices of slow cooked brisket, moist with rich tomato-y gravy. Latkes, crisp on the outside, melting in the middle, with applesauce and sour cream. Light as air matzo balls, floating in a pool of golden chicken soup, dense sweet noodle kugel.
I mean, yes, of course I love being a part of a religion that allows so many different ways to worship, that holds such a long tradition of philanthropy and artistry, that has such interesting traditions and rituals. Even though I have never been particularly observant, I chose Brandeis as an undergraduate in large part because the school represented the best of educational excellence and social activism. Getting all the Jewish holidays off didn’t hurt my feelings, either. But while my matriculation there did wonders for my Yiddish vocabulary, it didn’t make me any less secular. For me, someone whose upbringing always felt a little bit Jew-ish, as opposed to really Jewish, food is where I have always felt most connected to my people and my history.
Don’t get me wrong, we aren’t non-practicing, we just found our own style. We may not have belonged to a temple, but my sister and I were both bat mitzvahed, we just did it with a private tutor instead of Hebrew school and with a borrowed torah at our weekend place instead of on a traditional bimah. And for mine, a Chinese buffet luncheon to follow.
We share the major holidays with friends and family, choosing readings from books in the living room over synagogue services. Our Passover seders may be brief, but they have deep meaning and we take them seriously, adding our own traditions over the years. But always, the celebration centers on food.
In my writing, my heroines have always been Jewish, at varying levels of observancy, but always connected to the culinary history of our people. In my new book, Good Enough to Eat, Melanie Hoffman is a chef specializing in healthy gourmet food, and during the course of the book we see her make a pilgrimage to the Holocaust Museum, speak at a JUF luncheon, and make brisket for her boyfriend’s family seder. Even though the character is only half-Jewish, and non-observant in the religious sense, she is connected to her heritage through her cooking. Because for me, and by proxy, my characters, food, both the specifics of traditional recipes, and the generic feeling of gathering friends and family around the table, is always something of a Jewish experience at its core. Breaking of bread, or matzo where appropriate, sharing of stories, the sense of unity created around a dinner table, this is where I feel the most direct link to our shared past. I have always believed that when a people have been forced to work hard at maintaining community, bringing people together for meals becomes an essential part of how you keep faith.
Rosh Hashanah has always been one of my favorite holidays. Chicago weather tends to be lovely, the first inkling of fall in the air, crisp and cool but not yet cold. We usually spend it with our best family friends, once we were two couples and five kids, now there are seven couples and seven grandkids with another on the way! We have spent the day walking the Botanical Gardens or at a local state park. We have gone to the zoo, or been out in the country. We have gone apple picking for the apples we later dip in local honey as part of the holiday meal. I associate the holiday with love and laughter and the great outdoors, and an amazing dinner!
One new tradition I used in my book The Spinster Sisters is to not make personal New Year’s resolutions, but to make resolutions for your friends and family. You can resolve that your sister should sign up for the guitar lessons she has always wanted to take, or that your parents should finally visit Israel, or that your brother should apply for graduate school. By resolving these lovely things for them, you may give them the spark they need to fulfill some of their dreams.
As you look to the Jewish New Year, I hope you take a moment to be grateful for your blessings, and remember to bring sweetness into the coming year.
Good Enough to Eat will be available next week. Check back on Wednesday for Stacey’s next post for the JBC/MJL Author Blog series.