Food And All Its Blessings
How a Queer Jewish Cookbook Served Comfort to a Community Coping with AIDS.
Food And All Its Blessings
Susan Unger was 26 when she moved to San Francisco. It was 1982 and Unger, a lesbian, found a gay wonderland. She got an apartment at 17th Street and Guerrero, technically the Mission but close enough to the Castro to make Unger feel she’d landed someplace crucial. It was the terminus of a great migration west for gays and lesbians that began in the early 1970s, almost immediately after the Stonewall rebellion in New York.
Unger had a gay older brother, Steven, who had made it to SF first. Together, though on a different schedule, they’d slipped from the physical orbit of their family in Chicago. For lots of gay people, the move to San Francisco or New York was an act of resistance against the gravitational pull of tradition, as if the gay ghettoes’ rainbow flags formed a flapping shield against the forces of hate deployed by outraged strangers and even relatives. Many who came out publicly knew the anguish of rejection by parents. “People being separated from their families, alienated: that was a huge aspect of gay life in San Francisco at that time,” Unger says today, looking back. “So many people had moved there to be their authentic selves.”
And yet, despite the fog that spilled over Twin Peaks and into the Castro most afternoons, San Francisco gleamed. For many who flocked there, it was an experiment in freedom. Even the food was brave and brash and in love with the harvest of the material world.
In 1983 The Village Voice sent its critic, Jeff Weinstein, to witness the burgeoning of new restaurants on the coast, a thing food editors in New York had jammed together under the category “California Cuisine.” That meant anything from grilling over mesquite, to welding Chinese, Japanese, or Mexican ingredients onto vaguely French dishes, to dribbling balsamic vinegar over literally everything. Weinstein ate at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse and Jeremiah Tower’s Santa Fe Bar and Grill and wrote, “The mid-sized stage-set city on the bay has a bubbling political life, cultural life, business life, ethnic life, and gay life, but if you happen to see a pair of hands flapping away in the air, punctuating vital conversation, you may assume the party is discussing food.” Food was the language of civic life.
It was the city’s obsession, maybe because so many had come to San Francisco to find a purpose in pleasure, or to probe the senses as a source of wisdom, or at least to glimpse an inkling of meaning in physical experience, like blow jobs on poppers at the back of the leather bars in Soma or group hot-tubbing at the sage-smudged women’s bathhouse on Valencia. Though many slipped into San Francisco’s semi-private queer spaces as separate tribes, everybody shared an intimate public relationship with eating. Together, they’d talk about the black bean cakes at Stars, or the orange-zest sticky buns at Zuni’s brunch, or the baked goat cheese at Chez Panisse, and argue what went into a proper mesclun mix, or just how slack a true risotto should be. Weinstein had witnessed this in two weeks; Unger learned it nearly as fast.
Though many slipped into San Francisco’s semi-private queer spaces as separate tribes, everybody shared an intimate public relationship with eating. Together, they’d talk about the black bean cakes at Stars, or the orange-zest sticky buns at Zuni’s brunch, or the baked goat cheese at Chez Panisse, and argue what went into a proper mesclun mix, or just how slack a true risotto should be.
She’d taken a job with a revolutionary wholesale produce company, Greenleaf. A couple of gay men started it in 1976, when they’d drive their van to the wee organic farms of Bolinas and Santa Cruz and haul the world’s most beautiful lettuces, figs, tomatoes, and herbs back to SF and Berkeley. Unger became a sales assistant. She took telephone orders and packed crates for the delivery trucks.
A chef might call and ask how the apricots tasted. “I’d eat one,” Unger says, “and describe it to her over the phone.” Producing gorgeous meals in the Bay Area’s restaurants depended on an intricate network of collaborators, a revelation that helped Unger decide, one morning at 3:30 as she pedaled her bike to the produce terminal, to launch a project that would organize a lot of people in San Francisco around a shared purpose of food. It occurred to her to write a cookbook—or, more aptly, orchestrate one—in part to ease the pain of a scourge.
That scourge, of course, was the mysterious and terrifying thing dubbed AIDS in 1982, the year Unger arrived. (It was previously known as GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency; the epithets “gay cancer” and “the gay plague” would linger for years.)
AIDS was the fear, at first rumbling and easy to dismiss, later quaking and instinct with panic, that shook the Castro and the city around it. An alarming number of young gay men would see their doctor with symptoms (fatigue, spiking fevers) that they could not diagnose. Some would lose their jobs after skin lesions showed; most would be dead within six months. “People were dying very quickly,” Unger says.
She came to feel how loss could gnaw at a loose community, and absolutely waste a tight one. Because Unger didn’t just count herself a member of San Francisco’s tribe of miscellaneous gays and lesbians, she belonged to a synagogue: a queer one in the Castro.
Sha’ar Zahav (“Golden Gate” in Hebrew) came together in 1977, as a Reform congregation intent on outreach to gays and lesbians. Its act of tribal selection was every bit as potent, for queer Jews, as the initial migration to San Francisco. “There is no way to describe how it feels,” wrote an early member, Nancy Meyer, “to choose what is yours and make it your own, surrounded by a beloved synagogue family that knows, cares, and understands what that choice means.” The year Sha’ar Zahav took form, Harvey Milk won his seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Ten years after the start of the gay liberation movement, there were enough authentic selves in San Francisco to braid a strand of queerness into the complicated fabric of civic life. (Though non-religious, Milk showed up at Sha’ar Zahav for Rosh Hashanah services in 1978, less than two months before his assassination.)
Early members of the synagogue wrote non-sexist liturgy for the Friday night prayer book, and later took on the Passover haggadah. The drafting committee wrote parodies satirizing the minefield-crossing effort to reach wording wiped of militarism and the patriarchy. “Bless you, She,” read one, “our almighty but non-aggressive Concept, who creates the crust of the quiche.” They erased the unspoken rules of gender, as a founder recalled of Sha’ar Zahav’s first Chanukah, when men, not women, made the latkes. “In 1977,” Bernard Pechter said, “this was a big thing.”
The tiny synagogue pinged around, meeting first at Glide, a radical Methodist congregation in the Tenderloin, then to other churches, a Buddhist monastery, and a lesbian and gay community center. By 1987 Sha’ar Zahav had 300 regular members, and more than a thousand showed up for the High Holidays. The congregation had acquired a building, an old Mormon church in prim craftsman style, perched on the neighborhood’s tallest hill. It had peaked, mullioned windows like the one in Grant Wood’s American Gothic and a ceiling vaulted with naked beams.
The cookbook Unger pitched to the congregation was to mark all of that, its 10-year anniversary, the successes, and its compassion for those struggling with an ever-present disease, in remembrance of men suddenly absent who would never come again.
“In our discussions,” Unger says, “it was like, ‘Well, we can produce this, but there’s thousands and thousands of cookbooks, why would anybody buy ours?’” Unger searched bookshops for other Jewish cookbooks, to see how they were organized. She bought The Jewish Holiday Kitchen by Joan Nathan, published in 1979. Unger’s flash came from another book, The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews by Edda Servi Machlin, on Jewish cooking—cucina ebraica—as it evolved over hundreds of years in Italy. “It really tells the story of this whole way of life,” she says, “of time and place and culture and social group.”
The queer Jews of Sha’ar Zahav had their own particular way of life, manifested in holiday meals with chosen family, first-date vegetarian suppers, and weeknight meals with partners: a convergence of time, place, culture, and social group as distinctive as that of Roman Jews in the early 1900s. To write a cookbook that captured the Castro in 1987, Unger looked for inspiration in something far less distant. “I knew that other synagogues had developed cookbooks,” she says. An epiphany came when Unger remembered something had always been around her family’s kitchen when she was a girl.
The Fairmount Cookbook was published in 1948 by the Fairmount Temple Sisterhood, a group of women in a Reform congregation in suburban Cleveland, where Unger’s mother had grown up. “It wasn’t what you might call gourmet,” Unger says , “and it also wasn’t kosher.” One recipe named “The Famous Weenie Casserole” called for brown sugar and an entire bottle of chili sauce. Still, with recipes contributed by the women of the congregation, it had the flavor of shared purpose Unger was searching for.
For the book they’d produce, Unger and her committee settled on donations to the SF AIDS Foundation’s food bank: three dollars from every $12.95 copy. A note inside the front cover would let the reader know to drop off non-perishable grocery items at the synagogue, to be delivered to the AIDS Foundation.
It was a charity cookbook, put together to raise money for a new temple roof or to launch a Hebrew school. Cookbook scholar Juli McLoone, a curator at the University of Michigan Library's Special Collections Research Center at Ann Arbor, says the first American charity cookbook appeared in Philadelphia in 1864. A Poetical Cookbook, by Maria J. Moss, raised funds to improve the living conditions of Union soldiers fighting the Civil War. These books proliferated in the late 19th century, mostly as Protestant church cookbooks. In the early 20th century other organizations, including synagogues like the Fairmount Temple, produced them. “A feature of charity cookbooks,” McLoone says, “is that they were done by women organizing for a cause.” Since theirs was a collaboration by women and men, Sha’ar Zahav was already disrupting the traditional charity cookbook, blurring gender roles the way they did with the Friday night prayer book.
Self-published as a trade paperback in 1987, Sha’ar Zahav’s cookbook is a founding document of queer food at the end of the great lesbian and gay migration. It’s clear that, while Joan Nathan’s book on holiday cooking might have given the cookbook committee ideas for organizing food around occasions, it didn’t copy them. The menus stand like notifications in a queer calendar of significant events from the 1980s: “Coming Out Cocktail Party for 25”; “Gay and Lesbian Pride Day Pre-Parade Buffet”; “Commitment Ceremony Lawn Lunch.” There’s a “Women’s Havurah Potluck Supper” for feminist bonding over tofu loaf, with a noodle kugel named for someone’s Granny Ethel.
The committee spent hours hashing out a title before it came up with Out of Our Kitchen Closets. “The idea was we needed to be out there about who we were,” Unger says. Ralph Frischman, a congregation member with a showy interior design business, knew an artist, Carol Romano, who could illustrate the cover. Romano came up with an impressionistic rainbow that delivers a pile of vegetables and fruits (peppers, carrots, tomatoes, strawberries, red cabbage, eggplant), each aligned to one of its six colors.
The order of Romano’s rainbow colors doesn’t match original designer Gilbert Baker’s pride-flag scheme. He stuck green at the top next to yellow, instead of clustering it mid-flag with the cool tones; maybe she decided the bell peppers belonged together. Even so, it works as an allegory. Queer identity, worn as prominently as a rainbow streaks the sky, can turn into something corporeal, a tangible good: food and all its blessings.
So many gays and lesbians who’d come to San Francisco were forced to leave behind the comforts they knew as kids - favorite dishes, holiday nostalgia, the inextinguishable sense-memory of cook smells - no matter how conflicted they might have been about their blood families. The committee argued long over the order of the words in the book’s subtitle, San Francisco Gay Jewish Cooking. “We felt that ‘gay,’ ‘Jewish cooking,’ and ‘San Francisco’ were three of the best cards in our hand,” Unger says, “and we had all three together.” The three are in balance: none greater, none lesser than the others.
Unger thinks one of the best things about putting the book together was that members of the congregation had to reach out to mothers and grandparents for recipes they loved. “It created a wonderful way to reconnect in a very positive, meaningful, loving way,” she says. Assembling Out of Our Kitchen Closets was an act of reclaiming those things, and its cover offered a symbol of optimism—of hope—during one of the bleakest times in modern gay history. Though the Sha’ar Zahav cookbook is a work of celebration, AIDS casts a shadow. “Even during the making of the book,” Unger says, “a couple of people who were working on it died.”
The congregation printed 500 copies initially, and demand was robust enough to justify printing 1,500 more. Today it’s scarce; copies on Amazon start at $50. Now and then, one shows up for cheap.
A few years ago, Unger heard about one such copy from an old friend, a woman she first met on a kibbutz in Israel when they were 17. Over the decades they stayed connected. A while back her friend got in touch to say that her son, who was in his twenties and living in New York, had been struggling with coming out. “He realized he was gay,” Unger’s friend told her, “but was really conflicted.” The son had found a copy of Out of Our Kitchen Closets in a thrift store in Manhattan. “He sent it to his mother,” Unger says, “and she opened it up and found my name.”
The scarred book with a rainbow on its cover helped her friend reconnect with her son, which was just, Unger says, “amazing.” After 30 years, a cookbook written in part to alleviate the pain of loss for a queer generation still had solace left to give.