For talented chef, teacher and cookbook author Jennifer Abadi, leading a class often comes down to following the lead. Abadi, the author of A Fistful of Lentils and the blog Too Good to Passover, takes her cues from a growing group of eager students at her door. “I teach in three cooking schools,” says Abadi. “At the Jewish Community Center, the Institute of Culinary Education, and the National Gourmet Institute. And over the years I’ve been getting more and more requests to offer vegetarian courses.”
As a professional, Abadi wasn’t surprised: the trend towards meatless dishes had already encroached on her personal life. “A few years ago, my mother and I hosted a Passover Seder and made a million dishes—we invited everyone,” she explains. After countless hours in the kitchen, Abadi expected a chorus of thanks when the food was finally served. But as the plates traveled around the table, one cousin sheepishly demurred, citing his new commitment to vegetarianism. That opened the floodgates. Family members left and right started refusing certain dishes on various grounds, all proclaiming their allegiance to some specific diet. “We ended up with all this food and only two dishes were eaten,” Abadi ruefully recalls.
Adaptability, more than ever, is what defines the modern hostess. Preparing a delicious meal is one thing, but a chef must also cater to the nutritional demands of her clientele. Veganism, vegetarianism, pescatarianism, flexitarianism: as the labels proliferate, the job becomes exponentially more difficult. It’s a thoroughly modern problem, but for Abadi, one with an old-school solution: Parve. Parve is a Hebrew word that denotes a dish without any meat or dairy. Jewish dietary laws consider parve food to be “neutral”, as it can be eaten with both meat and dairy dishes that otherwise wouldn’t be allowed to mix. In Jewish terms, it is the building block of an adaptable meal.
Abadi points out that adaptability was an essential quality for Jewish communities, which were often separated by wide swaths of geography and had to appropriate the local fare into their cuisine while keeping kosher. “They had to be adaptable by nature, but they also didn’t want to lose what was theirs,” she notes. Plant-based plates turned out to be a very convenient catch-all, and meatless dishes gained popularity. “The idea of going meatless goes back centuries in Jewish culture,” Abadi says. “In the Middle East and the Mediterranean, they do eat meat, but it’s typically reserved for special occasions. In the Jewish case, meat was reserved for Shabbat. You didn’t eat it during the week.”
The uniquely modern challenge of pleasing everybody within the constraints of a kosher diet intrigued Abadi. “My vegetarian Passover class came about because I started to see that everybody wants their own—everybody wants to have their own way of eating while still observing the high holidays,” she says. But she points out that the same principle could be applied to secular feasts as well. “Consider a vegetarian Thanksgiving,” she says, “where you’re moving the sides, which people live for, to the front and center of the plate.” Whether a meal is completely vegetarian or not, Abadi notes, is sometimes beside the point. Kosher allows for the eating of meat, but only in a circumscribed setting. “You cannot separate keeping kosher from the Jewish culture,” she explains. “You have to follow the laws—it’s written. You may enjoy the animals, but not without thinking.” It’s this general mindfulness, rather than any one rule, that motivates much of Jewish cuisine. And it’s a lesson that all cultures, everywhere, can take to heart.
Try Jennifer’s Greek Passover Spanikopita for a meatless Passover dish you won’t soon forget.