Toward a Cholent Ethos
Wimbledon Synagogue always makes an excellent kiddush, but the Cholent Ethos (as I term it) is something between a kiddush and a lunch. Making a kiddush with Cholent means living in a grey area, it is comfortable and undefined, amorphous, not quite kiddush, not quite lunch. One could decide for oneself, in the moment, to make it lunch if one ate just a little more, or one could have a tiny amount and then proceed on to a lunch somewhere else. It’s a bit like a nap on the settee, not quite a proper sleep in a bed, but a little more than resting one’s eyes…vague…indulgent…and oh so sweet.
By now I hope that word of the Wimbledon cholent experiment has spread. If one were unfortunately not present, or has not heard by word-of-mouth, Wimbledon synagogue presented a vegetarian cholent and potato kugel for our kiddush a few weeks ago. We hope it is the first of many.
Keep a lookout for our next Cholent Kiddush, and make sure to leave time for a slow, social, and sleep-inducing experience. Moreover, if you have a Cholent recipe that you like, or a recipe for Chamin or Dafina or Kuban that you would like to offer to the community, please seek out our Kiddush team led by Liz and Lynne, or myself. If you would like to participate in preparing a Cholent, likewise seek us out.
What is Cholent, and why are we making it (and why is the Rabbi going on and on about it)? Cholent is an old stew made especially for the Sabbath. The first mention of it by name is over 800 years ago in southern France, but the origins of the dish go back to at least the year 200. It is often made (and voraciously eaten) by Jews of ashkenazi families. It basically involves root vegetables and barley or bulgur (and fatty meat in most versions) in a broth, simmered on a very low heat overnight. It is topped (in ashkenazi versions) with kishka (lit. guts). Kishka is a form of sausage that is the ashkenazi version of haggis, it’s the cheapest (kosher) organ meats that are combined and stuffed in a casing. The vegetarian version of kishka is made of carrots and spices, and still imbues the flavor of cholent with a delicate and delicious richness. It is inexpensive and easy to make, and feeds lots of people with a satisfying, stick-to-your-ribs kind of kiddush experience.
Traditionally, cholent was made of whatever root vegetables were lying around, and whatever cheap meat or bones were accessible to add fat and flavor. Each community, indeed each family has its own recipe, which sometimes leads to cholent-cook-offs in communities who are fond of the slow-cooked-Sabbath-stew. In my own case, I enjoy lots of paprika (in our recent Wimbledon version, we used an entire small bottle of the stuff), garlic, and eggs floating on top that hard boil and take on the flavour and colour of the stew.
Cholent (or its regional equivalent) is a quintessential Shabbat food, as it starts cooking Friday afternoon and is served hot on Saturday. Thus, it adheres to the traditional prohibition against “cooking” on the Sabbath. If you’re interested in the details of why, we may (hint hint) eventually be running classes on the history of the dish!
Finally, the most important thing about Cholent however, is the smell of it wafting out from the kitchen to get stomachs rumbling towards the end of services. It is the anticipation and eventual fulfillment that makes Cholent so delightful. In making it for the community, we hope that people will casually linger around the shul after services to chat, or even…dare I say it…nap on one of our settees.