In a tsholnt un in a shidukh kukt men nit tsufil arayn.
“There’s nothing like a home-cooked meal!” We’re all familiar with this evocative sentiment. It no doubt brings to mind images of the archetypal Italian grandmother shooing her salivating kin out of her kitchen so she can toil away on her tiptoes for hours at the stove, tweaking her famous tomato sauce.
Well, I hate to call out the Emperor for being without his clothes, but not everyone’s grandmother can cook. Believe me, I know! To me, that image is as foreign and fanciful as that of Mr. Claus and his minion of mercurial munchkins. I myself was not blessed with a gastronomically gifted grandma (although she could schmear schmear like nobody’s business). You see, with Bubbes especially, it can be a real crapshoot. Some have it and some don’t. (To be fair, the fact that they’re saddled with staples such as liver and onions and a roster of ingredients that includes matzah farfel puts them at a serious disadvantage.)
But regardless, clichés are born of someone’s truth, if not necessarily my own. Somewhere out there exists a variety of matriarch whose culinary wizardry is so abounding that her offspring are compelled to utter the above sentiment without a trace of sarcasm ... fascinating.
Will all this said, there is perhaps no greater litmus test (a fitting analogy considering the potential for acid reflux) for a Bubbe’s skills in the kitchen than the infamous Cholent. For those of you lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the dish, Cholent is a meat stew born of Shabbat restrictions. Because Jewish law prohibits us from lighting a fire on the Sabbath, this stew is assembled ahead of time then simmered for at least 12 hours and usually eaten for kiddush. Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it? The truth is, this dish can be quite literally a recipe for disaster.
- As a rule, a nosh born of necessity rather than flavor is often a clinker (think matzah).
- Since Cholent is constructed at the week’s end, many cooks see this as an opportunity to clear out their fridge of its dregs and, as a result, odd combinations of limp veggies, leftovers, and unidentifiable trimmings often form the base of this brew.
- The misconception that no matter how mismatched the ingredients, if they simmer together in a stove-top schvitz long enough (remember, this concoction traditionally cooks for at least half a day), everything will work itself out. If only!
Regardless, even the most coordinated components are often robbed of their palate-pleasing potential (not to mention discernible texture) after half a day or longer on the fire. In short, it takes one hell of a balaboosta to pull off a tasty Cholent, and with odds like that I’d sooner put my money on the fat man in the red suit. Whether one observes the laws of the Sabbath or not, for many Jews—even secular ones—the tradition of eating Cholent has inexplicably lingered. Much like the very stench generated by my grandmother’s recipe.
Given the risk involved with Cholent, you’ve probably concluded that this proverb, with its comparison between our meat stew and all engaged couples, is among our harshest. It may surprise you but even I think this particular saying is unfairly biased toward the cynical. While it may be true that some betrothed, like some Cholents, should only be approached after a generous glass or three of Manischewitz, there are plenty of engaged couples who could easily stand up to even the closest scrutinizing, and, all joking aside, the same is true of plenty of meat stews. With this said however, we should certainly not dismiss this metaphor. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s because of the existence of such a duality that the comparison is especially appropriate. The proverb’s slanted statement doesn’t make it wrong, just not completely right. With engaged couples, as with meat stews, there’s a lot of risk involved; sometimes it works and sometimes it gives you an ulcer. The truth is, in both cases, ingredients (be they meat and veggies, or lovers and in-laws) are thrown in a pot (literally or metaphorically) and left to simmer in the hopes that the flavors will successfully marry.
Warning: the following disclaimer is uncharacteristically schmaltzy!
It must be said that I am in no way implying there is any correlation between savory cholents and successful engagements. Take me for example, since the Great Scales of my life have balanced out so nicely: my Bubbe’s litmus paper may have burned a fiery red, but my marriage could not be yummier.
Abigail and Jerry are enjoying their evening ritual of dinner and Jeopardy. On tonight’s menu: leftover cholent and The Teen Tournament (both of which Jerry is doing his best to endure). ...
Abigail: “Jerr, guess who I ran into today at Nordstrom’s? Marci’s daughter and that fiance of hers. What a shame. All day I can’t stop thinking about that poor girl ... what could she possibly see in that Trombenik? She’s a doctor, and he? He’s at Nordstrom’s on a Tuesday afternoon, letting her buy him a suit! And the whole time we’re talking, he’s got one eye on his reflection!! Useless! That poor girl! And Marci, my G-d! What a shonda! I tell you, Jerry, I don’t get it!”
Jerry: “It’s like my grandfather used to say, With a meat stew, as with an engaged couple, one does not look too closely.”
Abigail: “I see what you did there, Jerr. You’re a regular Jackie Mason. So eat with your eyes closed if you don’t like the looks of it!”
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