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September 17, 2014 / 22 Elul, 5774
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Online Kosher: A Brave New World


Once upon a time, your bubbie would have cooked up her flavorful masterpieces by throwing in a pinch of this, a handful of that, recreating recipes passed down from her own bubbie, which she had learned at her mother’s side.

In my mother’s generation, Jewish women collected cookbooks, which would wear out as they lovingly thumbed through pages, searching for the next family favorite.

My mother didn’t really cook, so looking through cookbooks was as far as she got (she didn’t want to feel left out).

When it came to my turn, I was cast adrift. I wrote Quick & Kosher – Recipes from the Bride Who Knew Nothing because, seriously, I knew nothing. And I had married a man who came from a family of inspired cooks. These were people who expected to eat delicious home-cooked meals and they expected me to cook some of them.

Despite being a “champion eater” and the first to suggest a restaurant as the prime evening activity, I was clueless how to produce in my own kitchen.Then I had my infomercial moment there’s got to be a better way: Exquisite kosher meals prepared in 15 minutes!

The cookbook came out in 2007. Now, just two years later, publishing has been radically transformed and cooking is online. We’re not only hitting the Internet for shopping, social networking and entertainment, but also for food, cooking advice and recipes. And the kosher culinary world is no different.

Not that bubbie’s recipes aren’t still a treasured yerusha, but the Internet has added new vistas to our kosher heritage. There’s no question that the American kosher palate has become more international, refined and diverse over the past few decades. And the Web has enhanced this trend; we can now explore the world through our fingertips, even ordering ingredients from around the world that may not be available in our local kosher supermarkets.

But the appetite (actually, for some people it’s more of an addiction!) for food and cooking information is infinite, so websites have had to do much more to meet demand. The Web lets people explore culinary avenues not available to them in the past. The availability of new and different products makes it possible to cook in ways that our bubbies would find dizzying (though my bubbies could definitely hold their own).

Take fish for example. In many kosher communities, sushi has even taken the place of gefilte fish as a fish course for some people. When we were first married, we lived in Far Rockaway and shared a two-family house with the most wonderful young couple. We were all in our mid-twenties and were great friends. They were chassidish – granted baalei teshuvah chassidish – and used to splurge on sushi as the Shabbos fish course. We loved being invited to their house.

Now almost every kosher food establishment serves sushi, whether it is a Chinese restaurant, dairy eatery or steak house. It seems you can’t shop in a kosher supermarket worth its weight in salt if it doesn’t have a sushi counter. My grandmothers passed away 14 years ago and I can’t say for certain, but there’s a 99.9% chance they did so without a piece of sushi ever passing their lips. I imagine it was not regular fare in the cities, towns and shtetlach where they grew up in Transylvania.

Food sites are also transitioning from being online stores to being lifestyle destinations. Nowadays consumers want a “place” where they feel comfortable – a destination they can trust to deliver sound cooking advice and the latest cooking trends alongside their groceries. That’s why I sometimes think of the Internet as my very own personal “Cyber Bubbie.”

We’re all familiar with how kosher cooking used to be (and sometimes still is) portrayed: an endless stream of yiddishe mamas talking about chicken soup and brisket. Now, I love chicken soup and brisket as much as the next gal but that’s just not me; I’m a different kind of yiddishe mama. And I’m not alone.

I do serve chicken soup and brisket, but love to mix it up with other, more exotic non-traditional fare – like creamy butternut squash soup with coconut milk and thyme, or avgolemono soup, a lemony chicken rice soup I call kosher Greek penicillin.

I love avocado and seared tuna steak salad with green and red onions and a light sauce made from lime juice and Tabasco; California avocado salad, dressed in rice vinegar, ume plum vinegar and toasted sesame oil; and beef sukiyaki.

Even simple fare like Caesar salad can be “dressed up” if you add sun-dried tomatoes and homemade whole-wheat croutons. Now, all props to the Salonika Jew-crew, but my ancestors were definitely not messing around with avgolemono soup and beef sukiyaki.

That’s why I think the Web has become the first stop for people looking for information about food and cooking. They can always find things that reflect their lives and interests.

The Internet combines an unprecedented ability to connect people with a treasure trove of information; it’s the natural home for virtual coffee klatches, recipe exchanges and cooking videos.

Whenever I am stuck for a recipe or looking for a creative way to update a traditional recipe, I usually look to the Web first. And there are lots of people out there who do the same thing. Gourmet Magazine, a staple for foodies since 1941, will no longer be appearing on magazine racks, though the name will stick around on the Internet.

Turn on your television and there are cooking shows 24/7 for almost every taste and interest. And while there are no cooking shows dedicated to strictly kosher viewers (there used to be one on PBS with Jeff Nathan, but now it only airs in Israel), the Internet is another matter all together.

I currently host two online cooking shows, “Quick & Kosher” and “Simply Kosher.” And if you need information, try running an Internet search on “kosher food websites.” You’ll get over two million results. Not all of them are kosher stores, blogs or online recipe resources, but the point is, there is a lot of material out there. Yes, it can be overwhelming, but I prefer to think of the surplus of information as enlightening, even educational and enough to keep us cooking our kishkes off forever!

Everyone is online these days (and I do mean everyone – kids, moms, bubbies, grand-bubbies and zaidies, too), or so it seems. Here are some statistics to boggle the mind: According to the website Internet World Stats, which features up-to-date world Internet usage, as of June 2009, 73.9 percent of all North American residents were using the Internet. Since 2000, usage has jumped 132.9 percent. The PEW Research Center reports that 66 percent of online Americans have purchased at least one product via the Web during their Internet lifetime.

In these tough economic times, large numbers of people are choosing not to frequent restaurants but are instead revving up their stay-at-home food repertoires. To facilitate this, many are turning to Internet recipe sites to enhance their home cooking in adventurous ways. And many Internet sites, like Kosher.com, often become online communities where people can share or exchange ideas as well as cost-saving tips like cooking in bulk and freezing ready-made meals.

According to the website comScore.com, which measures the digital world and offers digital marketing intelligence, there were 45.6 million unique visitors to food websites in September 2008, up 10 percent from 2007. Leading the pack is allrecipes.com, which had 7.3 million visitors just in March 2009 alone. In the kosher online world, we can also hold our heads up high. Visitors and their online orders to Kosher.com have tripled since our newly re-launched website went live before Rosh Hashanah.

With so much domestic entertaining taking place, cooking can stir up a bit of the old human competitive nature. I have some friends who still debate whether it’s better to have their bubbie’s knaidel recipes be floaters or sinkers.

Not that we should compete with friends, but in some Jewish and non-Jewish communities there is overwhelming competition to impress, from a culinary standpoint. Hostesses (and hosts) can feel tremendous pressure to produce superlative fare for their family and guests. Perhaps some of the popular food television shows are also turning many of us into amateur food critics, laying unnecessary pressure on even the most mild-mannered home chefs.

And if our zaidies could see Jewish men now, they would be astounded. Many competitive cooks are men. According to the market research group NPD, over the last few years the number of men doing the household shopping has gone up about five percent. Kitchens may still be mostly under the control of the woman of the house, but men are slowly but surely making inroads into claiming shared territory.

If you stop and think about it for a second, it’s kind of funny. Most of the professional chefs of the world are men. But in the home, the domestic chefs are generally women. When my grandparents moved to America after the war, my grandfather became a gourmet chef and restaurant owner in a few very successful Philadelphia restaurants. One of his restaurants was in a posh area called Chestnut Hill and while some of his clientele even had personal chefs at home, they just kvelled over my zaidie’scooking.

In the restaurants my grandmother was the waitress. But at home, she never let her husband in the kitchen, cooking and baking up a storm of delicacies all on her own. After she passed away he threw on his apron and took up her perch as the family chef, making Rosh Hashanah, Thanksgiving, Chanukah and Pesach like nobody’s business, hosting all of us at his table well into his 80s.

Jewish men are routinely asking for online assistance with kosher cooking. One stay-at-home dad used to e-mail me questions like, “Would frozen tilapia work here in place of fresh?” or “How much fresh ginger is equivalent to the ground ginger amount in this recipe?” He even came to an appearance I did at the Cherry Hill JCC. It was him and about 100 women and he proudly got his book signed as he shared with me how thrilled he was to be able to cook easy, quick meals for his family.

Too often, American Jews look at kashrus as a barrier instead of a blessing. My own personal journey as a ba’alas teshuvah (I like to think I went from being a plain bagel to a sesame bagel with cream cheese and lox) opened my eyes to the possibilities of foods and recipes that could be prepared for a kosher kitchen.

As my career progressed, I realized how much more accessible our once insular world had become and I made it a personal mission to enable other kosher cooks to go boldly where no kosher cook has gone before. And the Internet has made my mission that much easier.

With the Web’s help, our cooking habits are evolving as we learn about Jewish traditions around the world. In many American Jewish communities, the traditional Ashkenazi majority has been transformed over time.

Most communities now have a real blend of Oriental (Eastern, or Jews of African or Asian origin) and Sephardic (Jews of Mediterranean, Balkan, Aegean, and Middle Eastern lands) Jewish populations. This demographic change has brought an infusion of customs, cultures and foods different from those we might have grown up with. Using the Internet, as well as old-fashioned face-to-face recipe sharing enables us to experience a diversity of flavors, without ever leaving our homes.

Take the upcoming holiday of Chanukah and the traditional food favorite, latkes. Growing up in my household we ate the best – traditional Idaho potato latkes with sour cream and applesauce. These days, many people still follow those recipes, but if you go online, it’s possible to expose your palate to different tastes. And people are definitely interested in trying new things, like un-fried latkes.

Due to high demand, this year I actually created eight new healthy Chanukah Quick & Kosher delicacies including South of the Border latkes served with Black beans, Samosa latkes, Steakhouse latkes, Sweet Potato latkes with gingered sour cream and non-potato latkes made from cauliflower and carrots and, since you now have calories to spare, baked sufganiot (which really are delicious).

From lovingly passing down recipes through word of mouth, to cookbook collections, to the World Wide Web, we have certainly come a long way in the world of food interest and preparation.

And while there are some who worry about possible ill effects of this modern technology on our Jewish traditions, I firmly believe it’s a blessing. When used properly, the Internet will not hinder but will help us hold on to treasured memories of food and family as well as move us forward into the future with new, exciting and, yes, tasty opportunities.

In ten years we’ve added oat, spelt and millet matzah to the world. What will the next ten years bring – quinoa matzah? I can hear bubbie saying: Millet, schmillet. Ah, progress what a mechayah!

Jamie Geller is chief marketing officer at Kosher.com, author of “Quick & Kosher: Recipes From The Bride Who Knew Nothing,” a regular contributor to The Jewish Press and an award winning TV producer. For more articles, blogs, tips, tricks, shopping and her Healthy Chanukah recipes visit her at www.Kosher.com.

About the Author: Jamie Geller was "The Bride Who Knew Nothing" - until she found her niche as everybody's favorite kosher cook next door. She is the author of the best-selling Quick & Kosher cookbook series and creator of the Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller magazine. Join Jamie and the world's largest kosher food community of joyofkosher.com to discover 5,000 FREE kosher recipes, inspiring menu ideas, how-to videos, and more! Follow more of Jamie's Quick & Kosher cooking adventures on Twitter @JoyofKosher and on facebook.com/joyofkosher.


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