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.)