For Orthodox Jews, stewlike cholent is the food of the Sabbath

March 22, 1992|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

Three generations of Soclofs are standing in Grandma D's kitchen doing what many women in Northwest Baltimore do on a Friday. The beans and barley are doled out, the beef stripped clean of fat, the potatoes peeled.

These are the basic ingredients of what Dena Soclof (Grandma D to her six grandchildren) likes to call "Jewish soul food" -- cholent, a stewlike creation prepared by generations of Orthodox Jewish women and served on the Sabbath. It is perhaps the single most sought-after recipe requested by new brides of their mothers, the meal for which the local kosher supermarket tries to offer a meat special every week, and the fare most frequently invoked when friends are invited to lunch after synagogue Saturday morning.

It's a culinary tradition prepared over the centuries, from the bakers' ovens in the shtetls of Eastern Europe to the Crock-Pots of working mothers in Pikesville.

Because Orthodox Jews are prohibited from working on the Sabbath -- and cooking is considered work -- food must be prepared and edible before sundown on Friday, the start of the Sabbath. Cholent (pronounced "cholnt") cooks for 18 to 24 hours.

"In the old country, what they used to do is, the baker had ovens and each person would bring their own identifiable pot, sealed, and they would bring it to the baker's Friday and he would put it in the oven, which would remain on," said Rabbi Leonard Oberstein, of the Randallstown Synagogue, "and [the next morning] each family would come and pick up their pot of cholent so everybody would have something hot and filling on the Sabbath."

As a child, Rabbi Oberstein never ate the stewlike concoction. "I come from Montgomery, Ala. My mother never made cholent," he said.

Growing up in Teaneck, N.J., Jonathan Switzer could always tell the strength of his mother's cholent by checking the leftovers. "If it was a strong, good cholent, it would eat through the tin foil," said Mr. Switzer, meat manager at the Seven Mile Market on Reisterstown Road, Baltimore's kosher supermarket. "It's a very filling and heavy, heavy meal. With people who have weak stomachs, it gives them a good case of gas."

Andy and Shana Goldfinger, married 19 1/2 years, have yet to resolve the argument over what makes a cholent.

"My cholent philosophy is that cholent can only have three ingredients: meat, onions and beans," said Mr. Goldfinger. "I would call myself a cholent purist, which is after all just a diplomatic way of saying 'fanatic.' My wife's family comes from Poland and Russia, and she puts in things like potatoes and barley, which is kind of like adding chocolate syrup to beer."

So, Mr. Goldfinger, on the Sabbath what do you eat?

"Whatever my wife makes," he said, "and I'm happy for it."

While cholent may be the standard Sabbath fare in many Orthodox households, it's not something Sarah Zalesch's family tires of.

"My granddaughter is third-generation, and she says, 'Awesome, Bubbie,' " said Mrs. Zalesch.

If there's one thing about cholent on which everyone agrees, it's this: No two cooks cook it alike.

"If you talk to 10 different people, you will get 10 different answers on what they do," said Reva Tokayer, a 31-year-old mother of four who lives in Pikesville. "It's very hard to get a real recipe for cholent. There is a lot of tradition involved. There is a little bit of this and a little bit of that."

When the parents of Yeshivat Ramban decided to put together a cookbook to raise money for the Jewish day school, Karen Katz offered a recipe for cholent, featuring the standard "flanken," a crosspiece of beef. A convert to Judaism, Mrs. Katz learned to cook it from her mother-in-law.

"The longer it sat, the better it tasted. I said, 'This is the kind of cooking for me,' " said Mrs. Katz, 35. "My recipe kind of comes from her, and after that you learn. You experiment. Cholent is in the eye of the beholder."

After complaining about the bland taste of her mother's cholent, 16-year-old Menuchah Getz was given this challenge: "If you don't like it, make it yourself." And she didn't. So she does.

"My mother's was too watery and wasn't too tasty," said the teen-ager, who lives in Upper Park Heights. "I decided to take the responsibility for making it. I put ketchup in. And brown sugar makes it sweet."

Just how or when the first cholent was made is the stuff of legends. The etymology of the word includes Yiddish (cholnt), Old French (chaloir) and Hebrew (hammin). And while the tradition may have originated in Eastern Europe, even Iranian Jews have a recipe for it -- they substitute rice for barley.

"Hungarians make cholent. Russians make cholent. Germans make cholent. The Polish make cholent," said Mrs. Soclof, of Polish ancestry, who left Germany in 1949. "I don't know what the French do.

There are chicken cholents and vegetarian cholents; ones made with beans and ones made without. It can be seasoned with ketchup or cooked atop marrow bones. Some add kische, a Jewish delicacy, or hard-boiled eggs.

"I am the inventor of the cholent taco," said Mr. Goldfinger, a physicist. "You take your leftover cholent from shabbas and you make a taco with it. It's very good."

But no matter how it's served, the cooks agree on the saying, "Your cholent is only as good as your company."

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