A pot full of beans and love
Sherry Ansky stands at the kitchen window of her Jerusalem home, rolling out dough for dumplings. Liver strips and onions for chopped liver are frying on the stove, and mint, feta cheese and spinach sit in a bowl to fill the dough. She chats, she checks the liver, she dishes out filling and seals the dough pockets with a fork. She mixes all this with stories.
Sherry Ansky cooks and tells stories like she does in her cooking column for Ma'ariv's weekend magazine. She tells stories well, with feeling, a bit of humor and lots of cook's tricks to give the recipes an extra fillip.
Her new book, "Hamin," published by Keter Publishing House this month, is a distillation of this combination: a whole book about the traditional winter dish, also known as cholent in Yiddish. Nearly all the recipes are accompanied by stories, memories and literary quotes. Who knew that a dish of beans and maybe meat could be so poetic?
"I knew," says Ansky. "Hamin, after all, is a lot more than the casserole that starts cooking on Friday and gets eaten on Saturday. It is the meal, the guests, the preparations, the aroma. The ability of every cook, man or woman, to put in their own special additions."
At Sherry Ansky's home, they eat hamin on Saturdays throughout the winter. She served the first hamin of the season in the middle of October. The person who asked her to "start the hamin season already" was the partner of Ansky's daughter Michal, who is studying for her master's degree in Italy. "It was clear that I would make it for him," says Ansky.
As Ansky cooks, it seems as though all the other cooks in the country are calling to consult, to invite, to compare notes and just to chat - Erez Komorovsky from the Galilee, Shaul Evron from Tel Aviv. She gleefully tells all of them with ceremonious irony, "I am in the middle of a newspaper interview."
"Only close friends know how slowly I write and that writing is really agonizing for me," she says. "And every time I finish writing, I feel that yes, after all, this is what I want, that I have a responsibility for the recipes, and I draw satisfaction from the fact that people really do cook based on my recommendations."
Sherry Ansky, 51, is the daughter of Bible scholar Professor Haim Gvaryahu, and was married to actor and broadcaster Alex Ansky, the father of her children Michal and Hillel. She has spent the last 16 years living with photographer Alex Levac, an Israel Prize laureate and Haaretz contributor.
"I never write without showing it to him, and he doesn't take a picture without showing me," she says. She and Levac have one child together, 14-year-old Haim, and she gets alarmed when she sees him pouring himself a bowl of cornflakes despite everything cooking on the stove. To her son's credit, it must be said that a reprimand works - he tastes, and even gives thought-out feedback.
Ansky tells stories with restraint, with a sense of proportion. One example is the story of her trip to Kibbutz Beeri, to the grave of her brother Reuven, who was killed in the Yom Kippur War. He was buried temporarily at the kibbutz, before being laid to rest at the end of the war. She describes the bus full of mourning family members with baskets of food on their way to the cemetery, and she herself sitting far from her parents because of the crowding, in agony, and strangely curious about the refreshments in the baskets, weaving a connection between food and consolation.
"Nu, that's how it is. After all, we aren't living in Switzerland or Denmark," she says. "We are always reminded of that, and consoling food is the essence of it all. On that trip there was a very close connection between food and emotions. These are the things one remembers."
Ansky has always been a cook, even though she began her journalism career as a graphic artist at Ma'ariv. "I loved and I love journalism," she says. "When I was a graphic artist newspapers were printed with plates, and I always used to wait impatiently to see the pages come out."
In 1992 she asked to write a food column and became the paper's "food writer," as she puts it. "I can't give a recipe without a story, without context," she says. "It seems lacking the greater picture."
Ansky grew up in a religious home, with a kosher kitchen.
"Hamin, after all, began as a restriction: It is forbidden to cook on the Sabbath and nevertheless there is something waiting in the oven for the family day, the day of rest. The magic of hamin is the process and the atmosphere surrounding it," she says.
She no longer keeps kosher, "and I have a hard time with prohibitions. Maybe it's a pity that we're losing this, but I can't stand having someone determine for me what I should do and how, certainly not in setting a menu."
She says she spent years working on this book. "I compiled and I collected hamin recipes from different communities: Moroccan hamin, fish hamin from the island of Djerba, Tunisia, vegetarian hamin, side dishes for hamin and light desserts that befit the book's protagonist. And then Erez (Komorovsky) said to me, 'You have material for two books. Stop now and publish it.' I submitted it to the publisher and I started to add and change things, and in the end they also stopped and published it, and now here it is. There are tons of stories in it, my written correspondence with my home. With my mother and my father, who always wanted me to do something else, to be an academic, to write, and here I'm doing it."
One chapter describes Ansky's trip with her mother to her birthplace in the Carpathian Mountains. A goose-fat based recipe starts with a story about her mother standing near her house, watching a drunken villager rolling around in the yard. The village is so remote that "when the Germans arrived there, three years after the start of the war, the people didn't know who Hitler was," she writes. "Raising geese had been a Jewish occupation since the start of the middle ages. All the memoirs of Jewish life in Eastern and Central Europe are full of the aroma and flavor of goose fat, with goose feathers for comforters and pillows flying in the background," she writes.
She tells about her father's correspondence with Menachem Begin about the Bible, about accompanying her son to the army recruitment bureau, about the meals her parents would organize on the Sabbath, attended by "an extraordinary collection of people, because my father saw hospitality as a sanctified heritage. In those days I hated my parents' hospitality and I was embarrassed by it, and today I know that the most important thing that they taught me is respect for human beings," she writes.
"I knew I would have a personal book, but I am surprised at my ability to reveal myself like this," she says, adding immediately, "But I can't do it any other way. Maybe because of that my column costs me my health. I go to France once a year with Alex for vacation, and on the last flight there was horrible turbulence and the only thing I could think about the whole time was how I wouldn't have to write a column. Then of course I got a grip on myself, but I have thoughts like that."
"I'm not a chef," says Ansky. "No matter how much I cook and try things, and slave over the column for a whole week, I can't make several different dishes at one time. Maybe I'm very good at hamin because the preparations are so ritualized and slow. Hey, look at how much time I'm in the kitchen until something is ready."
Ansky isn't content just to cook; she scours the markets, researches vegetables and local produce, consults with stall holders and presents the latest news in her column, in simple and accessible recipes. Now she divides her time between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but she defines herself first of all as a Jerusalemite.
"Since age 20 I've been in this house, which my parents bought me, and I pick mushrooms in the woods across the way and herbs from the garden. When I stand and cook here with this light, it's the best studio I could imagine. And this gives me the strength to write another column."