All my life, I’ve been obsessed with cholent.
In my childhood home, we never had this rustic stew of meat and beans that many Jews make in a crockpot each Shabbat. My mother is descended from the Bene Israel Jews of Mumbai, so our weekly staples included chicken curry, rice, and chapatti. When I was young, I took Indian food for granted, found it boring. As I got older, it was an awkward reminder that we were different. When I finally grew up and out, Indian food evolved too, and took its place as the most wistful of comfort foods.
Cholent, on the other hand, remained an unchanged fantasy, a perfect and constant curiosity for me. Cholent was what “regular” Jews ate. Its fragrance consumed the halls of synagogues and rabbi’s homes with a sort of importance. And though I only happened upon a taste of it every now and then, I was full of marvel and questions. What ingredients actually went into it? How to make sense of all the accessories — the kishkes and kugels and such? How could anything possibly cook for so long? The drawn-out process alone made it seem like a cauldron of brew from a fairy tale.
Especially as an adult, I was drawn to the cholent pot, and not the least for its practicality. It could be the unicorn of meals, when done right — simple, filling, needing little effort. And yet, because it did not run through my blood, I found cholent never tasted quite right when I made it. I didn’t have a tried-and-true recipe to use. I did my research cold and online, constantly looking for the tricks, the secret ingredients, the perfect family recipe of some other perfect family. Filled with doubt, I improvised with blogger methods that seemed gimmicky, like adding a can of coke, or letting the whole stew cook in a plastic bag. I threw in eggs one time, a Yemenite jachnun or chopped Italian sausages the next, without any real sensibility or system. And I was never very surprised when I ended up scraping the sorry crust from the pot: This food was never really mine to begin with.
Outside the kitchen also, cholent became a sore spot. I wrote about cholent in my most recent novel, Consider the Feast, burdening my main character Talia with uncooperative cholent, too. If I had to struggle, so would she.
For a long time, my cholent was something only my family had to suffer through. Yet recently, deliberately, I started making cholent for guests, too. Perhaps a little part of me hoped the dish would unexpectedly turn out delicious. But mostly, I was fed up with the fantasy. It was really a throw-down. And the act of inviting people to partake of it was almost a bluff, a dare, a defiant way of putting the onus of it on others, too: No good — right? Now tell me how to make it better.
And with that, pulling my community into the conversation, something changed. Somehow, my cholent turned a corner. One friend told me you need to mix the kishke right in. Another said, you need bone marrow for the right thickness, and flanken meat. Only a few beans, more barley. Also, chicken stock, not beef. Suddenly, I found, my cholent could be quite tasty after all. In the end, it seemed, cholent was not going to be a recipe that was mine or a recipe that was Other. It could only ever be all of us together there, in the pot.