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Sunday, March 07, 2010

Did They Really Eat Cholent Before Crock Pots Were Invented? [Updated]

Schalet, ray of light immortal!
Schalet, daughter of Elysium!"
So had Schiller's song resounded,
Had he ever tasted schalet.
For this schalet is the very-
Food of heaven, which, on Sinai,
God Himself instructed Moses in the secret of preparing...
Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) German Romantic Poet

Surprisingly enough, crock pots were not invented in order to make cholent--and those pots are not even 40 years old, according to The Wall Street Journal:
Ms. Hoffman, who died Feb. 9 at 88, was author of "Crockery Cookery," an early entry among books of recipes for an old technique transformed.

Crock-Pots debuted in 1971 and sold in the millions, spurred in part by the increase in working women who wanted to present a fresh-cooked meal when they came home in the evening. But conventional stew recipes turned to mush or solidified because meats and vegetables acted differently when cooked for long periods at low temperatures.

"The cookbooks that came with the Crock-Pots did not work," says Howard Fisher, an editor at HP Books who hired Ms. Hoffman to provide answers.

A home economist and food stylist, Ms. Hoffman had experience developing recipes for another emerging kitchen labor-saver, the microwave oven. She was soon cooking up a storm with 20 or more slow cookers bubbling around the clock.

"There was dinner ready every night, but some of those pots you really didn't want to eat from," says Ms. Hoffman's daughter, Jan Robertson, who pitched in to help with the culinary explorations.
No mention as to what was in those pots, but if it wasn't cholent, it is likely a close relative of it. But of course, if the history of crock pots is short, the history of cholent is longer--and much more varied.


Haaretz has a review of a book about cholent by Sherry Ansky, whose research for the book took her--
to the court records of the Spanish Inquisition, documenting the trials of women who were burned at the stake for preparing this Sabbath dish; to the legacy of women cooks who lived 100 years ago; and to an elderly woman in an ultra-Orthodox old-age home in Jerusalem - in the effort to track down the cholent recipe Heinrich Heine loved so much. She refers to the writings of Rabbi Yitzhak of Vienna, which mention the first Ashkenazi cholent in 1180; to 13th-century Syrian cookbooks that describe a dish similar to Tel Aviv chef Haim Cohen's macaroni cholent; to a Muslim cemetery in Lod and a synagogue in Budapest; to Claudia Roden, the high priestess of Jewish cookery; and to countless other chefs and amateur cooks. Ansky has learned much from all of them, and as a "professional recipe restorer," she is overflowing with gratitude to them all.
An article in Wikipedia elaborates on how cholent was made in Eastern Europe in the pre crock pot era, (based on the book Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food by John Cooper):
In the shtetls of Eastern Europe, religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem and other cities in Palestine before the advent of electricity and cooking gas, a pot with the assembled but uncooked ingredients was brought to the local baker before sunset on Fridays. The baker would put the pot with the cholent mixture in his oven, which was always kept fired, and families would come by to pick up their cooked cholent on Saturday mornings. The same practice was observed in Morocco, where black pots of s’hina placed overnight in bakers’ ovens and then delivered by bakers’ assistants to households on Shabbat morning.
If the origin of cholent goes back to 1180, that would make cholent about 830 years old--a fact that may be verified by some of the cholents I have eaten over the years. Ansky, though, writes about a much wider variety of cholents than I knew existed:
winter cholent, summer cholent, chicken cholent, beef cholent, vegetarian cholent, cholent without beans, fish cholent, macaroni cholent, and even millet cholent, which is traditionally served on Hanukkah in Djerba, Tunisia, when the millet season is at its peak.
One of Ansky's sources, quoted above, is Claudia Roden. There is a podcast of an interview with her where she mixes recipes and some Jewish history into a--dare I say it--cholent of information.

UPDATE: I was--and still am--curious about that mention of how women were burned at the stake for making cholent. I think I found something, in a review of Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain's Secret Jews:
For example, along of the recipes of Beatrice Nunez, we learn that she was arrested in 1485. Her maid turned her in to the Inquisition for the crime of maintaining a kosher kitchen. She also prepared a Sabbath stew of lamb, chickpeas and eggs. Proof enough to have her burned at the stake. Among my favorite recipes is Mayor Gonzalez's Egg and Carrot Casserole. She was imprisoned in 1483 for killing a goose in "the jewish way." Then there is Juan Sanchez's hamin of chickpeas, spinach and cabbage; and Maria de Luna's rasquillas honey pastries that she prepared for the post-Yom Kippur fast. She was arrested in 1505 for this crime. There is also Juan de Teva's Roast Lamb dish. Juan's father was a rabbi who was burned to death i n1484. The authors also include the Roast Chicken with Fruit and Almori recipe of Anton de Montoro. Senor de Montoro was a rag merchat in Cordoba, but is most well known as being the converso poet to the Court of Queen Isabel of Castile. De Montoro was accused of preparing stuffed radishes (a Jewish dish) and Pollo Judio (jewish chicken). Easily, this is among the top three Jewish Cookbooks of the year.
In other words, it's not that somewhere cooking cholent per se was considered a crime punishable by death, but that it was one of the Jewish dishes that could disclose the fact that a forced convert to Christianity was continuing to practice Judaism in secret.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad

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