From Italy with Love

“Meal and a Spiel,” a new cookbook from Young Patrons Circle member Elana Horwich, gives Italian food a California accent.

 

If you were to take the most delicious Italian dishes, translate them for healthy contemporary California consciousness in recipes seasoned with Jewish comic timing, you’d have the necessary ingredients for a fascinating cookbook.

That’s just what AFIPO Young Patrons Circle member Elana Horwich has done. Meal and a Spiel: How to be a Badass in the Kitchen is a beautiful addition to any kitchen shelf. However, with healthy portions of engaging personal anecdotes and insights into Jewish-Italian history, it may soon find its way to your nightstand. The 480-page, full-color, beautifully illustrated, hardbound book has a denim cover and the elegant touch of gold lettering.

As self-publishing goes, this is three-star Michelin fare.

The recipes are Horwich’s own creation, born out of a love for Italian cooking developed during her years living there, then refined in the cooking classes she has taught in the United States, also under the banner of Meal and a Spiel.

“These are all recipes I’ve concocted,” Horwich said recently from a stop on her book tour. “But it’s not like I’m reinventing the wheel. This is how anyone can make authentic Italian food that tastes the way it should, but using the ingredients we find in the grocery stores here.

“I use humor and wisdom to teach intuitive cooking,” she continued. “It’s like Amy Schumer meets the Dalai Lama meets Julia Child, and I write ‘spiel’ with each recipe that encourages, empowers, and inspires others to create their own stories as they cook.”

 

HEALTHY INGREDIENTS

Born in mid-’70s Southern California to fourth generation Americans, Horwich and her two sisters grew up with no connection to an old country cooking heritage or a kitchen in which to practice it.

“My mom never cooked,” Horwich said. “She was a Berkeley-educated feminist who had three daughters and thought the kitchen was a weak place for women to be. She wanted her daughters to be dynamic career women out in the world and not be ‘slaves in the kitchen.’ I guess that’s the way she and other women of her generation had experienced it.”

She jokes that as a girl at Hawthorne School in Beverly Hills, this made the kitchen the one place her mother would never find her. Horwich was accepted to Brown University, where her burgeoning interest in the Humanities led her to Jewish-Italian Studies. An “epiphany” led her to travel to Italy halfway through her college experience and she fell in love with the culture.

Early in her time in Rome, while walking through the Jewish ghetto, she realized that “my people were older than the ancient Roman columns still standing there. Before this experience I had not been interested in my Jewish heritage.”

She learned to cook from an Italian mamma at a Tuscan villa. When an additional year’s stay would only be possible if she were enrolled in a program for credit, she found a program at the University of Rome, and then returned to Brown to be an Italian studies major.

“On the Brown faculty was David Kertzer, renowned for his books on the Pope and the Church, and especially Jews in Italy,” she said. “He inspired me to spend that year really focusing on the Jews in Italy.”

Delving into the history of Jews in Italy and the art of Italian cooking produced another epiphany. 

“The Italians – like Jewish families – like to go loud at the table,” she laughed. “They talk over each other: arguing, disagreeing, sharing their opinions. But their food is just so fantastic, so much better, and I believe that creates a common sensual experience that allows the commonalities to outweigh the differences. I learned that the kitchen is a really powerful place for women to be,” Horwich said. “I experienced La Dolce Vita – which really emphasizes the importance of soaking in the senses of beauty, not just the cerebral productivity that a lot of us Jews were raised with.”

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

At the heart of Horwich’s cooking and classes is a belief that “cooking is much more than following a recipe.”

“It’s an act that utilizes all of our senses and that creates an experience of connection,” she explained. “And when approached that way, my students and the readers of this book begin to create their own stories, their own journeys and it takes on a life of its own without needing me anymore.”

With that in mind, Meal and a Spiel was flavored with elements of healthy California cooking. In the chapter “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Pasta,” for example, she shows how to make a delicious lasagna that is both noodle-free and sans pork.

“There’s no such thing as a no-noodle lasagna in Italy,” she explained. “But in California we don’t always want to eat pasta. And pork is usually used for meat sauces in Italy, so I had to figure out how to make it just as delicious without the pork. The answer is grated nutmeg.”

There are also Jewish-Italian recipes in Meal and a Spiel, some authentic and some concocted by her. They give her a chance to write about the history of those recipes and the history of the Jews in Italy.

“I have a recipe for sfratti, Jewish-Tuscan cookies that are made on Rosh Hashanah,” she said. “Sfratti translates to stick or eviction notice, and before they’re cut they’re shaped like the stick that was used to beat delinquent tenants out of their homes or to beat Jews out of the city.”

In the cookbook, the cookie’s recipe is accompanied by its history, which goes back to the small town of Pitigliano, also known as Little Jerusalem. When, from the 1500s through the 1800s, Jews were ghettoized throughout Italy, forced to go to Catholic mass and only allowed to perform certain jobs, they had immunity here.

“In Pitigliano they were so essential to the economic survival of the city that they were granted immunity and lived there peacefully,” she explained. “There was a mikvah and a synagogue in this town. They’re still there to be visited and there’s a bakery where you can buy sfratti.”

Another recipe is Jewish-Sicilian chicken meatballs, which, she admits no one actually makes in Italy. However, it is popular with her students and gives her another opportunity to talk history.

“They use raisins and capers, and the use of raisins in Italian food is one more contribution of Jews, who were in the South and Sicily before the Inquisition. When you find raisins and pine nuts and capers in Italian cuisine, it is considered emblematic of the Jews, who were traders in Sicily, obtaining spices and other delicacies from Arab traders. Even eggplant came to Italy through Jews trading with Middle Eastern merchants.”

 

COOKING LESSON

“I learned that the kitchen’s absolutely not a weak place for a woman to be, or a place of slavery,” Horwich concluded. “It’s a place of enormous power and a place where you get to express yourself and share love with people. For me it’s a way of tikkun olam, it’s a way of adding goodness to the world, one meal, one love-filled meal at a time.”

Once her current book tour winds down, she expects to schedule a special cooking class for the Young Patrons Circle members she has met while attending YPC events at the Hollywood Bowl, such as an Itzhak Perlman performance. Her parents, Ada and Jim Horwich, still live in the Los Angeles area, and are regular gala attendees and last summer joined the AFIPO trip to Aspen.

“Elana is incredible,” said Justin Pressman, AFIPO Associate Director, West Coast. “Her new Meal and a Spiel cookbook is a testament to her superpower for connecting with people and sharing her passion for cooking. ​​Meal and a Spiel isn’t just about making food, it’s about connecting more deeply with oneself, with the world around us, and reminds us of our shared humanity – a mantra that deeply resonates with the mission of the Israel Philharmonic.”

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Click here to purchase a copy of Meal and a Spiel: How to be a Badass in the Kitchen on Amazon.com. To visit the Meal and a Spiel website for more information on Elana and her cooking classes, click here.