Wednesday, June 03, 2020

What is it about cholent that makes otherwise rational people go slightly nutty? Recently while attending a Kiddush where I was nestled near, you guessed it, the kugel and cholent table, a disturbing thing occurred. Suddenly there was an abrupt and alarming announcement.

“We just ran out of cholent!”

No one could believe it; there was shock followed by disbelief, and yes, some anger as well.

“What do you mean, really? C’mon, no more cholent? Check the kitchen, there’s just gotta be more in there.”

This went on for about five minutes, back and forth, between the Kiddush attendees and the cholent servers. The servers were getting flustered as the people refused to acknowledge the news and snubbed the potato kugel too. There was increasing agitation and tension, but finally an epiphany. One of the servers rushed back into the kitchen and brought out a huge tin.

“Oh look, there’s more cholent,” cheered the cholent crowd who still stood loyally by the table waiting.

“No, this is chicken marsala, and it’s delicious!”

“What? Chicken marsala? Are you kidding?”

One by one the cholent loyalists slowly left the table, the reality fully sinking in as they shuffled sadly away to the gefilte fish table.

I understand their disappointment because I enjoy my weekly dose of cholent as much as the next guy. For the record, cholent hadn’t touched my plate either. But now, having free reign of the chicken marsala, I stood alone at the table eating my second helping, and they were right—it was delicious. I wondered: Why such a visceral reaction to a little lack of cholent? What is it that stirs up such heated emotions? I needed to figure this out, and decided to do some cholent research.

As it turns out, we have quite a history and relationship with cholent from way back. Imagine the Friday preparations of your Great Bubbies in the shtetls of Europe. My great Bubbie, who I never met, came from Plinsk in Poland. Among all the other chores like baking challot and chopping fish for gefilte fish, they also prepared their cholents and sealed the pots with a flour and water paste. Before sundown, exhausted Bubbies by the dozen shlepped their cholents to the baker’s ovens where they would be given metal tags with numbers in order to retrieve the right pots. Then on Shabbat morning, the men and children went to pick up their pot on the way back from shul.

Now imagine this scenario: It’s Shabbat lunch and the family is eating their first bites of the delicious smelling cholent. Aaaah, everyone is happy, except for Bubbie who is chewing very slowly and looking pale, and she says, “Someone switched my cholent pot. This is not my cholent!”

No one has ever seen Bubbie this upset, practically speechless, and finally she sputters,  “This is definitely Yenta Schwartz’s… everyone knows she uses too much salt and not enough potatoes! I keep telling her not to use so much salt, but does she listen to me?”

Now, that’s a reaction I can understand. If people regularly switch coats in shul, it stands to reason they could switch pots at the baker’s oven too. Mistakes happen, but how would you go about returning a pot of cholent?

These reflections make me grateful for my old beat-up crock pot. I usually prepare my cholent on Thursday night and begin the cooking process early Friday morning, then head off to work. Since my Bubbies came from Eastern Europe, I like to continue the tradition and use a basic Polish recipe: barley, potatoes, flanken, kishka and spices (and a little American ketchup and duck sauce too!). While doing my research, I learned that there are many other kinds as well: Indian, Italian, Lamb Supreme, Texas Cholent and Vegetarian Cholent. Also, the name cholent derives from Medieval French, chault meaning hot and lent meaning slow, regarding the long cooking process. It’s such a versatile and easy dish to make that most people like to experiment with different ingredients.

I tried a vegetarian recipe once using tofu instead of flanken, and the word “once” says it all. That creative touch didn’t go over well in my family, and I caught some angry glares and some grumbling about missing flanken. Fortunately, no one said a word or seemed to even notice when I dropped the beans a few years ago.  That was a long time ago though, and now I’m ready to spread my wings and try some new recipes.

I’ve always wanted to go to Italy, so an Italian cholent may be the next best thing for now.

Esther Kook is a Teaneck resident. She’s a teacher and a freelance writer.

By Esther Kook