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We Are What We Eat: Cholent and the Cook-Off of 2011

Russet potatoes sweet potatoes pinto beans kidney beans Bush's baked beans chick peas pearl barley-hard-boiled eggs onions carrots mustard seed smoky-hickory-sweet-tangy-honey-barbeque-sauce tomato juice Heinz ketchup Frank's Hot Sauce onion soup beef soup chicken soup Lawry's seasoned salt Kosher salt fresh ground black pepper cumin Montreal steak spice rutabaga leeks chili powder fresh garlic garlic powder slice-of-lemon coca-cola half-fat full-fat beef pastrami spare ribs falling-off-the-bone-flanken hot dogkishka-in-the-foil and kobe-wagyu beef – pounds of it – slow cooking in sixteen bubbling crock pots, emitting an intoxicating haze of spice and oil and flavor and zest. Simply dump-it-in—mix-it-up—turn-it-on—sit-and-wait—there-you-have-it—piping-hot…cholent.

It doesn't sound particularly appetizing – and looking doesn't help either – but cholent has overcome these aesthetic speed bumps to become the most popular, enduring, and important food in the Jewish world today. After all, no one is clamoring for a gefilte fish bake-off or a chopped liver grind-off. Instead, they seek cholent in all its infinite variables and nuances.

It is the snowflake of stews, identical from a distance but exquisitely unique up close. Any aficionado will tell you that each pot of cholent tells its own story; that no two batches have ever come out the same; that the ingredients seem to matter less than the care and love that go into making it. They'll also tell you that it is uniquely delicious.

Buried beneath layers of potato, meat, beans, and barley, these sixteen crock pots have become the clairvoyant equivalent of Yiddish tea leaves – if you know how to read them properly – guarding the answer to arguably the most significant questions facing Orthodox Judaism today:

What makes a good cholent?

What does that mean for the Jewish people?

***

Welcome to the 2011 Yeshiva University Cholent Cook-Off, a competition that transcends the typical culinary metrics of taste, texture, and appearance to include such intangible factors as faith, tradition, family, and innovation. On Wednesday, April 6, sixteen teams of YU students assembled in Weisberg Commons to whip up their own champion batch of cholent – a slow-cooked beef stew traditionally eaten on Sabbath afternoon – and submit it to the discriminating palettes of seven expert judges. The winning team would take home an incalculable measure of pride, glory…and an iPod touch.

Got your attention?

However, the prizes – which also included restaurant gift certificates and cafeteria money – were secondary for most of the contestants, who competed primarily for bragging rights and ego points, eager to demonstrate the superiority of their cholent methodology. The mood on that Wednesday night was congenial but competitive, as rival teams maintained a calculated distance in order to protect their secret arsenal of ingredients. In this competition, "victory" meant more than just first place.

At the same time, the notion of crowning a "winning" cholent felt sacrilegious somehow, roughly akin to choosing the world's best mother. Who could possibly claim the culinary, historical, and religious authority to determine what good cholent should be? And how can a group of culinary experts identify the "best" cholent when the very nature of the food transcends mere taste?

Of course, there had to be a winner, leaving the judges in a delicate situation. For many teams, this competition was a referendum on family tradition, a chance to celebrate the authenticity of family recipes tracing back centuries. For others, tradition took a back seat to innovation, as certain teams felt compelled to experiment with ingredients that Bubbe may not have recognized in the Old Country.

In either case, each team embodied a distinct philosophy and vision for what cholent should be, and by extension, what Judaism should be. It's amazing what meat and potatoes can represent.

***

Historically, cholent developed as an attempt to reconcile the parallel and paradoxical obligations of the Jewish Sabbath. The Sabbath is meant as a restful and joyous day – "a delight" according to the prophet Isaiah – complete with hot, festive meals. At the same time, the Bible commands "You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath day" (Exodus 35:3), and the rabbis include cooking as one of the thirty-nine categories of labor prohibited on the Sabbath.

This conundrum was disputed and debated over thirty pages of Talmudic text, ultimately yielding the legalistic solution: one may leave a pot of partially cooked food on the stove to continue cooking over the Sabbath as long as he does not stoke the coals.

Enter cholent. Guided by the Talmudic ruling, diverse communities of Diaspora Jews simultaneously developed their own hot Sabbath foods, assimilating local ingredients, influence, and names. In this manner, the development of cholent followed an evolutionary model of adaptation and descent. The resulting creations are generally similar but specifically unique, as diverse and nuanced as the people and cultures that produced them.

This parallel development has also made it nearly impossible to pinpoint the first cholent in history. Baladhuri, a seventh century Arab historian, records that Yemenite Jews prepared harisa, a coarse wheat dough stuffed with meat and spices and slowly cooked overnight on the Sabbath. The isolated Jews of Kurdistan enjoyedmabote, made from ground wheat, chick peas, and stuffed cow intestines. And Persians ate khalebibi, a casserole of beef, turnips, leek, cabbage, beans, lentils, and rice that resembles European cholent in many respects.

But cholent as a beef-bean-potato stew did not appear until the 12th century, where it is first mentioned by Rabbi Isaac of Vilna in a tangential discussion of Jewish dietary laws. According to Rabbi Isaac's account, the consumption and preparation of cholent had become a communal affair, with families bringing their uncooked stews to the local baker, who kept a stove lit throughout the Sabbath. On Saturday afternoon, each family would retrieve their pot, which had slow-cooked overnight.

Cholent later gained genuine religious significance as part of a dogmatic debate between Rabbinic Jews and Karaites in the fourteenth century. The Karaites, a small sect of Biblical literalists, rejected the Talmud's cooking loophole and thus refused to prepare or eat cholent on the Sabbath. Cholent became a distinguishing marker between the two groups, leading to an increased emphasis within the Rabbinic community on preparing and serving hot foods on the Sabbath. Abudraham, a Spanish Rabbi, even ruled that any Jew who did not eat hot foods on the Sabbath was flirting with heresy.

By the 20th century, cholent had become uniquely – in some cases prohibitively – Jewish. In one apocryphal story recorded in the Israeli newspaper Mishpacha, a prominent Hassidic Rabbi cast aspersions on the lineage of an Eastern European student who had recently become religious but did not like cholent. Drawing on the Abudraham's obscure fourteenth century ruling, the rabbi declared that this student obviously lacked legitimate Jewish heritage and must undergo a conversion. Which he did.

***

By Thursday afternoon, the smell in Weisberg Commons was intoxicating. After simmering for sixteen hours, the pots of cholent had coalesced and congealed, transforming from individual ingredients into a uniform whole. Hundreds of students, staff members, and visitors prowled the room with fork in hand, eager to sample the competing cholents and test their own palates against the expert judges.

The range of flavor and texture derived from each group's "secret ingredients." At the Cholent Cook-Off, all sixteen teams began the competition with the same staple ingredients – meat, potatoes, onion, barley, beans, and ketchup – while adding five of their own "secret ingredients."  The teams ultimately produced sixteen unique creations, manipulating the collective and individual ingredients to generate tastes that ranged from "well-balanced" to "subtle" to "rich," according to the judges.

One group overtly embraced the historical roots and significance of cholent. Calling themselves Alte Heim (Yiddish for Old Country), the teams was comprised exclusively of grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Striving for a cholent "as authentic as Warsaw in 1930," chef Aryeh Samuel used his grandmother's recipe from pre-war Europe. The secret, he said, was no secret – Team Alte Heim stuck with humble and basic ingredients, using grated potatoes and finely chopped onions to create an almost creamy texture and robust taste. They received a score of 55 (out of 70) from the judges, seizing the early lead.

The Herring, a team of Toronto natives, opted for a more layered approach, utilizing hot sauce and maple syrup as their dual flavors. "Cholent is a battle waged overnight" explained team member Avi Gordon, "and what emerges from that battle is the synthesis that is cholent." Unfortunately, the judges found their "synthesis" cloying rather than complimentary – The Herring received a 43.

As the judges moved from pot to pot, they found the competing cholents solid but unspectacular. One group had created a "dessert cholent," according to the judges, which sounds simultaneously horrifying and irresistible. Another cholent came out too loose, forcing the team leader to explain that "it is meant to be eaten with crusty bread!" Alas, there was no bread to be found – they received a 41.

But no team could catch Alte Heim. With only five pots remaining, they clung to a narrow lead and seemed destined for victory. It felt right, somehow. Their history-laden stew represented something more than meat and potatoes – it was an edible personification of traditionalist Jewish thought, the sense that modernity and innovation can never improve on the Eastern European experience. A victory would demonstrate that the Shtetl still stands tall against 21st century culinary advancement. And by extension, 21st century everything.

***

What is it about cholent?

Sure, it's legitimately tasty and fairly easy to make, but at the end of the day it comes down to "a good beef stew with beans," according to judge Alan Riesenburger, catering director and executive chef of Fairway Market. When did cholent develop into the representative Jewish meal? More elusively, why?

It's almost too easy to draw touching and corny conclusions about the significance of cholent to the Jewish people. It serves as the perfect metaphor for unity, community, and collaboration. It can represent the melting pot of modernity or the timeless resonance of history. "It represents the essential contribution that every Jew – like every ingredient – makes to the Jewish People," explained one student, "it shows that together we are greater than any of us alone."

Of course the ingredients, proportions, and cooking time all matter, but a good cholent is hardly about taste alone. For some, it represents family. Riesenburger began to wax nostalgic about eating cholent as a child at his grandmother's house in South Africa. "I think the best way to describe it," he said, "is comfort food. It's soul food."

Others emphasized the communal experience of eating cholent. "You can't eat cholent by yourself," explained judge Elan Kornblum, president and publisher of Great Kosher Restaurants Magazine. "It is family, warmth, comfort, community."

Maybe it is the symphony of ingredients: "With a good cholent, everything works," said YU Housing director Jonathan Mantell, "it's like an orchestra coming together."

All agree that cholent cannot be captured by ingredients alone. "Cholent, after all, is much more than a casserole that starts cooking on Friday and gets eaten on Saturday," according to Israeli chef Sherry Ansky, author of the cholent cookbook Hamin. "It is the meal, the guests, the preparations, the aroma. The ability of every cook, man or woman, to put in their own special additions."

Some contestants traced cholent back even further. "I think God made the first cholent," said one hopeful chef. "Yeah, that was the primordial soup."

The judges betrayed their own cholent ideologies through distinct evaluation styles and criteria. Alana Newhouse, editor-in-chief of Tablet magazine, opted for first-impression scores while preferring savory flavors; Dr. Esther Joel emphasized the importance of "heat"; Jamie Geller, authorof Quick & Kosher: Recipes From The Bride Who Knew Nothing, preferred honey and coarse black pepper.

Chef Avram Wiseman, senior culinary instructor at the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts played the part of deconstructionist, judging each cholent based on categories of taste, seasoning, texture, and color. Marking notes on a legal pad, Wiseman would practically imbibe the cholent, absorbing the bouquet of flavor and aroma. He specifically sought to avoid making an intuitive judgment, he said, given the time and effort that the teams had invested in their creations.

But can one really deconstruct a cholent? Can it ever be anything more or less than the sumptuous whole?

***

The first Cholent Cook-Off took place in 2007. YU Housing director Jonathan Mantell and assistant director Sean Hirschorn developed the idea for a competition as a means of boosting student involvement and generating a sense of buzz around campus. The two settled on a Top Chef-style food competition. But what would students make? "We're YU," advised Dean Victor Schwartz, "we do cholent."

After a two-year hiatus, the Cook-Off returned last year with a bang. The event received publicity in the New York Times Events section, and the competition itself came down to the wire. While some cholents opted for novelty rather than excellence (even a year later, a grotesque chocolate, marshmallow, and graham cracker concoction stood out to Mantell and Hirschorn), three teams tied for the lead after the round of expert judging. They called in YU President Richard Joel to break the tie. In perhaps the greatest perk of his job, President Joel crowned Team Heerlijk as the Cook-Off champions, praising their cholent as "quite tasty."

What began as a modest student competition has blossomed into must-see event. At this year's competition, YU's weekly radio show "Who's on Furst?" ran a live broadcast from Weisberg Commons, while a reporter covered the event for The Jewish Network. In addition to raising school spirit, the competition also raised money for local charities: "The charity component is one of the main ingredients, so to speak, of this event," said Mantell. Last year's competition benefited the Upper Manhattan Food Bank, while this year, each team's $20 entry fee went to Students Helping Students, a YU scholarship program.

***

But in the end, tradition gave way to innovation. Alte Heim and their Shtetl cholent was soon usurped by Team Mofongo, which earned a resounding score of 63 from the judges and garnered especially high marks for cultivating a balanced, robust flavor. Their secret? "A special blend of middle eastern spices," according to team chef Jon Adler, highlighted by notes of cumin.

Adler had been perfecting the recipe for nearly eight months: "I've been making this cholent every week since school started in September," he said. The judges appreciated Mofongo's culinary maturity, as chef Wiseman commented, "it didn't have that barbeque sauce sweetness that other groups had; this cholent was memorable."

The ingredients followed no established recipe – certainly nothing from pre-war Europe – and instead reflected Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and American influences. As much as any team, Mofongo embraced the malleable nature of cholent, lacing tradition with a healthy dose of modern innovation.

Perhaps Mofongo's victory over Alte Heim reflects the evolving palate– and religious sensibilities – of the American Jewish community. Perhaps the melding of Ashkenazic and Sephardic tastes along with the addition of novel ingredients marks the end of tradition as the all-powerful guiding force. After all, if cholent can adapt, is anything truly sacred?

***

At the end of the day, only the pots remained. They sat alone in the empty auditorium, bearing the burnt, crusty remnants of meat, potatoes, barley, and 2000 years of Jewish history. Discarded plates and forks framed the pots as a record of the carnivorous tornado that came and went over the course of a single hour. All the pots were empty – the good and the bad alike, – stripped clean by students and adults eager to sample the past and future of the Jewish people.

How does it taste?

"Very delicious," as President Richard Joel put it. "Very succulent. It's filling, it has a spicy kick to it – very lovely."