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Thanking Gil Marks

Posted on December 10th, 2014 by

I never met him, but I and the JMM owe a great debt to the late rabbi and historian of Jewish food Gil Marks, who died on December 5. Marks’ magnum opus, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food was published in 2010 and became an enormously important reference for our 2011 exhibition, Chosen Food: Cuisine, Culture, and American Jewish Identity.  It’s a remarkable work with entries for dishes from Jewish communities around the world, and for the Jewish meanings of foods one would never think of as “Jewish.” His entry on “Challah,” for example, explains the meaning and origins of the name of our delicious Sabbath bread, and describes the sort of loaf it actually referred to in the time of the Jewish Kingdom. He also has an entry on “Salt.” The book also contains recipes and detailed instructions for several of his entries. I have given it as a gift to several of my foodie friends, and I consult my own copy frequently. I highly recommend it as an irreplaceable resource and a fun read.

Recently published remembrances, (links to two good posts:  and )of Rabbi Marks note that even greater than his knowledge of Jewish food and its importance to Jewish culture and identity was his enthusiasm and generosity in sharing his knowledge and work with all who asked. The JMM experienced this generosity first-hand when in 2012 he allowed us to post the recipes for cholent and cholent kugel on our Chosen Food blog. With gratitude for his generosity and sorrow at his loss, here is an excerpt from that post.


I decided to try a cholent made “the right way,” turning for instruction to Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food Here I found not only the recipe, but the fascinating history of this very Jewish food.

Two Jewish girls carrying pots of food for the Sabbath, Chicago. October 20, 1903. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.

Two Jewish girls carrying pots of food for the Sabbath, Chicago. October 20, 1903. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.

Cholent (also called schalet), based on the slow cooked stews (hamin, from the Hebrew word meaning “hot”) of the Mizrachi and Sephardi Jews, reached the Ashkenazim of Eastern Europe in the 12th or 13th century, via Spain and France. The word cholent may be derived from the Old French word for warm (chald/chalt) or it may come more directly from the Spanish escallento, also meaning warm. It became the custom for the homemakers of Europe to bring their pots of stew, lids sealed with flour paste to ensure against non-kosher taint, to the local bakery where the coals were banked to remain hot during Shabbat—a custom followed in Europe until the Shoah, and also brought by immigrants to the United States.

Cholent ingredients

Cholent ingredients

 I arranged the ingredients in the pot, following the order specified in Marks’ recipe. I had a little trouble with “water to cover,” since my pot was very full. (In fact, it boiled over during the cooking, leaving me with a major post-Shabbat cleaning project.) Don’t skip the hour long simmer Marks recommends. The cholent must go hot into the oven.

Cooking in the pot.

Cooking in the pot.

Two teaspoons of salt seemed like a lot to me, but it turns out to be just right. And don’t make the recipe at all if you don’t like the flavor of bay leaves. This ingredient is absolutely essential!

I topped the cholent with Marks’ cholent kugel, rolled into a long log that extended down the center of the cholent, from one end of the pot to the other. When I lifted the heavy lid the next day, I found the loaf flattened into an oval, but it was a beautiful brick red-brown from the paprika. It was surprisingly delicious, if somewhat solid.

How was the cholent? The beans and barley were not only cooked through, they almost lost definition. The meat was melt-in-your-mouth soft, and the seasonings were just on the edge of overcooked. I would have liked a little more gravy; don’t lose yours over the side of the pot!

Recipes (courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, by Gil Marks)

Ashkenazic Sabbath Stew (Cholent)

6 to 8 servings

1 ½ pounds beef or veal marrow bones

About 2 cups any combination mixed dried navy, lima, pink, pinto, and kidney beans

3 medium yellow onions, sliced

2 to 3 cloves garlic, whole or minced

6 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered

3 pounds beef flanken, brisket, or chuck roast

¾ to 1 cup barley

2 to 3 bay leaves

About 2 teaspoons table salt or 4 teaspoons kosher salt

About 1 teaspoon ground black pepper

About 2 quarts water

1. In the order given, place the bones, beans, onions, garlic, potatoes, beef, barley, bay leaves, salt and pepper in a large, heavy pot. Add enough water to cover.

2. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer, skimming the froth from the surface, until the beans are nearly soft, about 1 hour.

3. Add more water if necessary. Tightly cover, place on a blech (a thin sheet of metal placed over the range top and knobs) over low heat, or in a 225° F oven, and cook overnight. Serve warm.

Cholent Kugel

4 to 6 servings

5 thick slices challah or 2 large rolls, torn into small pieces

1 ½ cups (7.5 ounces) all-purpose flour

¼ cup vegetable oil or schmaltz

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1 to 3 teaspoons paprika

About 1 teaspoon table salt or 2 teaspoons kosher salt

½ teaspoon ground white or black pepper

In a medium bowl, soak the challah in water until soft but not mushy, about 2 minutes. Drain and squeeze out the excess moisture. Place in a medium bowl and mash until smooth. Add the flour, oil, egg, paprika, salt, and pepper, adding more flour if too loose; the mixture should be able to hold its shape. Form into a log and place it on top of hot cholent [before placing the cholent into the oven].

 karenA blog post by Curator Karen Falk. To read more posts from Karen click HERE.


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Cholent, “the right way”?

Posted on February 27th, 2012 by

In a recent post for the Aish HaTorah blog http:///, Judy Gruen divides the (Jewish) world into cholent lovers and cholent haters. Heinrich Heine (who converted to Christianity in 1825 but remembered his Jewish roots all his life) described cholent as “ambrosia” and “the food of heaven” in an early ode to culinary Judaism. Put him, perhaps tongue in cheek, in the cholent-lovers category. . . I was on the fence. Head on over to our sister blog at the Chosen Food website to see what Karen has to say!

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When Cholent Goes Bad

Posted on December 13th, 2010 by

Jobi Zink A blog post by Sr. Collections Manager, Jobi Zink

Some people would argue that all cholent* is bad. But some cholent is badder than others.

Genuine cholent recipe from our Voices of Lombard Street exhibition

Genuine cholent recipe from our Voices of Lombard Street exhibition

Take for example, the full, unopened can of cholent beans that was accessioned into our collection in 1992. This can of beans is probably more than 20 years old because, let’s face it, the can was probably in someone’s pantry cabinet for at least 2 years before they decided to give it to the Museum rather than to the Boy Scouts’ canned good drive.

In its early years, said can sat quietly on our collections shelves with various other kitchen-related items, including packaging from many garden variety Kosher foods, c. 1980s.

Then one day, Karen Falk, curator of the upcoming Chosen Food exhibition was perusing the collection for available artifacts. I can’t believe we have this in our collection. A full can? Who has a full can of cholent beans? she thought, holding the can in her gloved hand. Well, we have other, odder things in our collections, she shrugged.

Months went by and Karen continued collecting, planning and developing the exhibit. Then, during a routine inventory of items to be used in the exhibit, she noticed that the can would not sit flat on the shelf. That’s not right, she thought. Was it like that before? she wondered. Nope. The top and bottom lids were distended. Puffy. Ready to blow! Botulism?! Time to bring in the collections manager, Jobi Zink.

Can of Cholent

Karen models the cholent can in question

No need to panic, I told Karen. I know exactly how to handle this. (Thanks to Things That Go Bump in the Night: When Collections Strike Back, a session presented by Rosie Cook, Registrar (The Chemical Heritage Foundation and Museum), Anna Dhody, Curator (Mutter Museum) and Michael Leister, Director (Air Mobility Command Museum) at the 2010 MAAM Conference.)

It’s a simple 12 step program:

  1. Confirm with the Collections Committee that the contents of a collections item potentially containing botulism should indeed be properly disposed of, while the container and its packaging should be saved if possible.

    Can close up

    That's a lovely bump!

  2. Gather the entire collections staff outside to the parking lot on a super-cold day to observe the event. Remind them to stand back to avoid splatter.
  3. Charm the custodian into assisting with a very important collections project.
  4. Have said custodian pierce the top of a can with a drill to relieve pressure.

    Custodian Darrel takes a drill to the can

    Drill baby, drill!

  5. Flip the can over and employ a standard can opener to open the bottom of the can, releasing 20 year old beans onto newspaper.

    employing the can opening, post drill

    How many museum employees does it take...

  6. Discard contents. Preferably wrapped in layers of newspaper. Then industrial strength- plastic bags. Bury deep inside dumpster. Do not inhale. Do not attempt to touch with bare hands.

    Can contents removed

    Doesn't that look....pretty gross actually!?

  7. Without using the new kitchen sponge or Esther’s dish towels, wash the inside of the can thoroughly with a lot of soap and hot running water in the industrial sink.
  8. Wash again.



  9. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
  10. Contemplate ways to eliminate the odor. (oooh yeah, 20 year old beans smell much worse than you imagine!)

    empty can's new, clean interior

    Check out that squeaky clean, botulism-free interior!

  11. Do not store the item in your office. Do not store the item in your collections storage. Make sure you identify the can as part of the collection and not something to be recycled!!!!

    Make sure to keep everything properly labeled

  12. Congratulate yourself on:

a.  saving the collections from a potential explosion (… now about that nitrate film)

b.  not poisoning yourself with botulism

c.  writing an exciting blog post about a can of beans

*Cholent is a stew made of meat, vegetables (onions, carrots), and a variety of beans such as red kidney beans, white beans, cranberry beans, etc. Many people love cholent because it takes hours and hours (like 18 hours!) to make in a crockpot and is therefore Shomer Shabbes friendly.

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