Rena Rossner was inspired about ten years ago while eating a hot bowl of red lentil soup. That fateful soup began a journey for Rena that culminated in her first cookbook, Eating the Bible. Eating the Bible takes us through the weekly Torah portions with quoted verses and a little bit of commentary that connects us to a recipe. Rena find connections similar to the way I do in our Shabbat Menus and I had fun going through and finding new ideas I had never thought of before. I also love the way Rena explains her connections going into just the right amount of detail and adding alternative recipes options as well as questions to help keep the conversation moving from cooking to table. Let's learn a bit more about Rena and preview a few recipes here:
The red lentil soup served to you the same week we read about the one Esau sold for his birthright inspired your journey. What else inspired you through the whole process?
Well, first, I think that creating these recipes gave me a reason to read the Bible/Torah much more closely. My husband was always reading and learning and connecting to the Torah every week, and this gave me a reason to spend as much time, if not more time, analyzing the texts. But I was doing it in a way that was interesting to me, and I was looking for something completely different – not erudition, but rather, nutrition! It was fascinating not just to see how food played a part in people’s lives in Ancient times, but also which food items were critical to their lives and which types of food played (often a really important part!) in these stories.
Did you always think you would write a cookbook?
No. Never. I love food and I love cooking and baking. My mother is an amazing cook and baker, and so was my grandmother, and I grew up cooking at their elbows, but I never thought that what I did was different or special enough to warrant a cookbook. When I got married and finally had a kitchen of my own I got tons of cookbooks for my bridal shower and I started creating elaborate menus and trying recipes I’d never had the opportunity to try before. Creating a meal for me became something like an artform. I didn’t realize then that as I worked my way through nearly every recipe in these books that I was actually taking everything to the next level.
What is your earliest memory of cooking?
Wow. That’s a good question! I think it must be watching my mom make birthday cakes. My mom is an amazing cake decorator, and for every birthday she always made something fabulous. I learned to decorate cakes just by watching her, and I remember every cake she ever made for me. I think something in that speaks to what I’m trying to do with EATING THE BIBLE. Why do I remember those birthday cakes? Because they were tactile memories. And I want EATING THE BIBLE to create those memories for everyone, so that people don’t just have tactile memories that they associate with holidays (think Turkey=Thanksgiving,) but also tactile memories of the Bible. How cool would that be if your mouth watered every time you read your favorite Bible stories? That’s what I want to do. To make it come alive.
Did you find that your study of Torah was enhanced when you looked at it with this food lens?
Yes, absolutely. It was a way for me to connect with the texts in my own way – to bring the stories alive in a way that spoke to all of my senses. Also, from a historical/academic perspective one of the things that was most fascinating to me was creating the index of food items mentioned in the Bible that’s found at the back of the book. What I discovered was amazing – the Bible can also be a blueprint for healthy eating! Wheat was surprisingly a mainstay of the Biblical diet, goat’s milk (which is supposed to be healthier for you that cow’s milk,) dates, olives, figs, and very little meat. Meat only on special occasions. It’s really very interesting if you think about it.
How do you expect/want your readers to enjoy your book?
I’d love people to use my cookbook to enhance their weekly tables and to help them bring meaning to their meals. I’d be even more excited if people loved my recipes so much that they returned to my cookbook to make the recipes again and again, just because they taste good!
Now that it is out there, have you thought about writing any other cookbooks?
Oh, well that is the big question! I have enough recipes from all my weekly columns to put out a second cookbook (Eating the Bible Revisited?) and many of my friends joke around with me about it giving new suggestions: Drinking with the Prophets? Eating Ecclesiastes? But in all seriousness I think it would be fascinating to take a look at the Prophets or at the Song of Songs. There’s lots of rich language in there and I think it would be a poetic and culinary challenge. Who knows. We’ll see!
Which was more difficult for you, creating the recipes or finding a connection to the parsha?
Definitely finding the connection. Some weeks were super easy. I could write an entire cookbook just about certain chapters – Genesis alone has enough for hundreds of recipes. I actually thought Leviticus would be the hardest when I first started doing this, I thought it would be all meat from the sacrifices, but it was easy! So many of the sacrifices involved grain and oil and spices that it wasn’t a challenge at all. Deuteronomy was actually the most challenging – there were many chapters there that had absolutely no connection to food and I admit that sometimes it was a stretch.
Are all the recipes easy to make and good for Shabbat?
Most of them, yes. One of my main goals in creating this cookbook and these recipes was to make things that I myself would make easily and be able to bring to my table. But, because I know that not everyone finds cooking and baking as easy as I do, I also added “Alternatives” in a sidebar that give “quick and easy” ideas so that everyone, no matter what experience they have in the kitchen, can find a way to bring more meaning to their meals and help bring the Torah/Weekly Portion to life. Admittedly there are one or two recipes that are quite involved – The Gingerbread Tabernacle is a prime example, but I think every cookbook needs one or two challenge recipes in it, don’t you?