Put down your pastrami on rye. And your chopped liver. And your lox and bagels. And even your chicken soup. Let me wax rhapsodic over an authentic Jewish delicacy. Not one that is consecrated merely by nostalgia and sensory gratification, but by divinely inspired mandate.
Cholent — proof positive that the Jews, not Louis Sullivan, first discovered that wondrous gifts ensue when form can follow function. For, cholent is the ingenious, robust, aromatic answer to the biblical admonition not to kindle a fire on the Sabbath day. How, some valorous hausfrau of bygone ages asked, can the children of Israel have a warm, nourishing Sabbath lunch without kindling a fire? And in the Council of Sages, a solution was born: cholent.
Before Friday sunset, set the oven very low, take a little bean, a little barley, a little meat, a few potatoes, a sprinkle of salt, and abundant garlic. Water it down well, cover it tight, and cook ad infinitum. When the spirit has finally been sated by a morning spent in Sabbath worship and song, it is time to sate the ravenous appetite with more earthy delights.
The house is permeated by a seductive aroma that entices us to the dining room. The lid is lifted, the mystical pillar of cloud ascends, and we are transported simultaneously back to Sinai, to Jerusalem, to Anatevka, to dingy tenements on Delancey Street, and at the same time, forward to the long-awaited Messianic era.
The ancient melody we chant at meal’s end affirms the spiritual ecstasy to which we attain through this lowly quagmire of beans-and-barley, for we have indulged soul as much as palate with a “foretaste of the world-to-come.”
Indeed, some folk-linguists theorize the origin of cholent is in the German schule ende, meaning “synagogue is over.” More likely, however, cholent takes its name from its most essential religious calling card: It is hot, on a day when hot foods are at a premium. Caliente in Latin, to chaud in French, to cholent in Yiddish, the mother tongue of Eastern European Jews.
My brethren of German extraction tend to call it schalent and use it more generically to speak of anything that is cooked for a long time in a deep dish. The Germans are especially devoted to what they call apfelschalet, conclusive proof that, along with the dirigible balloon, Brunswick stew, and the crockpot, Jews also invented deep-dish apple pie.
The magic of this savory stew engaged the hearts and minds of the most profound poets and philosophers. Heinrich Heine, who spent the better part of his life vacillating ambivalently between Judaism and Christianity, maintained that cholent should become the secret weapon in Christendom’s arsenal to make their conversionary efforts toward the Jews more effective. He went so far as to pen a parody to Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” in which he extols cholent as “kosher ambrosia, spark struck from God.”
His colleague, Moritz Sappir, who did embrace Christianity, nonetheless wrote an entire treatise on the glories of cholent. Theologians have propounded that one’s ability to awaken after Saturday afternoon’s cholent-induced coma is definitive proof of the doctrine of resurrection.
My own encounters with cholent have been less philosophically sublime, but no less passionate. As a young yeshiva bochur, I routinely risked a month of in-house suspension just to steal down to the dormitory kitchen late Friday night and surreptitiously skim off the crusty goodies that were forming on top of the cholent destined for Saturday’s lunch.
My grandmother, who otherwise shunned the deeper theology of Judaism, indulged my cholent fixation by nestling gefilte helzel atop the bubbling cholent. Gefilte helzel: skin of the chicken neck, stuffed with a mixture of matzo meal and cornflake crumbs, sewn shut meticulously as only a woman from the garment trade could, so as to resemble a miniature football.
Not inclined toward needle and thread, I replace gefilte helzel with a dumpling-like mixture of matzo meal, cornflake crumbs, oatmeal and Grape Nuts, which my mother remembers being called a jakoi, presumably a Slavonic word meaning “rest-in-belly-like-cannon-ball.”
The following is my favorite (only!) cholent recipe. I give no proportions, because cholent must be an uncharted adventure. Tinker with it until it touches your ethnic core. Definitive research by Yeshiva University has concluded that cholent served occasions other than Saturday afternoon descends to the taste of, God of Abraham forgive us, cassoulet.
CHOLENT ALA WILIDJANSKI
- Mixture of beans (navy, pinto, lima, kidney, and/or great northern)
- (At least) 8 ounces of barley
- Sizable chunks of short ribs, brisket, and/or chuck
- Handfuls of chopped onions
- Chunks of potato, peeled
- Salt, pepper, paprika
- Lots of garlic, preferably fresh crushed
Layer bottom of heavy Dutch oven or crockpot with chopped onions and garlic. Add meat. Season. More onions and garlic. Add barley and beans. Season again. More onions and garlic. Add potato chunks. Season again. Sprinkle liberally with paprika. Cover with water ’til the tips of the potatoes peek out like the crest of Ararat above Noah’s flood. Cover with heavy lid and cook at 225 degrees from sunset Friday ’til after synagogue Saturday noon. Don’t peek!
JAKOI (REBBETZIN SILVER’S DUMPLINGS)
- 2-3 eggs, beaten
- Mixture of matzo meal, cornflake crumbs, oatmeal, Grape nuts
- Sautéed chopped onion and garlic
- Salt, pepper, paprika
Blend all ingredients thoroughly, adding enough water to make mixture drop-from-spoon consistency. Heap mounds of mixture atop cholent potatoes and sprinkle liberally with paprika. Cover pot and cook as above.
Eat. Enjoy. Remember the most fitting epitaph for a hearty Sabbath dinner of cholent, first spoken by the brother of my grandfather’s second wife. “That was delicious. Would anyone care for a Tums?” (San Francisco, 1967)
WILUDI (Rabbi Marc Wilson) writes from Greenville, SC. You my reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org