To continue our Jewish American Heritage Month celebrations, guest host Laura Shaw Frank, AJC's director of William Petschek Contemporary Jewish Life, speaks with Chanie Apfelbaum, author of the popular food blog Busy in Brooklyn. Chanie joins us to discuss her new cookbook, Totally Kosher, the intersection of Jewish culture and food, and the future of kosher cuisine. She also shares how the murder of her brother, Ari Halberstam, who was killed in a 1994 terrorist attack on the Brooklyn Bridge, has inspired her career.

*The views and opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect the views or position of AJC. 

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Transcript of Interview with Chanie Apfelbaum

Manya Brachear Pashman:

People of the Pod is celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month by devoting all our May episodes to what makes us Jewish and proud -- food, music, and our mission to repair the world. Last week you heard from AJC CEO Ted Deutch about why we should set aside a month to celebrate. This week nods to our obsession with food. 

And for that, I’ll turn it over to my guest co-host, Laura Shaw Frank, AJC’s Director of Contemporary Jewish Life. Laura, the mic is yours.

Laura Shaw Frank:

Thanks, Manya. Happy Jewish American Heritage Month! 

As we celebrate Jewish American culture and history this month, it feels like we would be quite remiss if we didn’t spend some time talking about Jewish food. Food plays an enormous role in Jewish tradition and culture. Jews have foods linked to particular Jewish holidays and of course Shabbat, ethnic foods linked to particular places where Jews lived, and of course, lots of Jews, myself included, keep kosher, follow the laws of Kashrut, which deeply influences the way we cook and eat. 

I think I’d be pretty safe in saying that Jewish food is really important in Jewish life. Not surprisingly, statistics bear this out. In the Pew Survey of Jewish Americans in 2020 over 70% of American Jews, young and old alike, reported cooking or eating traditional Jewish foods. Which is why I’m so excited to be joined by today’s guest, Chanie Apfelbaum. Chanie is a food writer and photographer whose blog “Busy in Brooklyn” is chock full of delectable recipes and beautiful pictures of amazing Jewish foods. Her newest cookbook, Totally Kosher, hit bookstores in March 2023. Chanie, welcome to People of the Pod.

Chanie Apfelbaum:

Thanks so much for having me.

Laura Shaw Frank:

I'm thrilled to have you and really thrilled to talk to you about your new cookbook. So before we get into that, though, let's take a step backward. How did you get into kosher cooking?

Chanie Apfelbaum:

Well, I was born Jewish. That's the first step, always. I always say– learning your way around the kitchen is just a rite of passage when you get married. And being a Jewish housewife, obviously, we have, you know, Shabbat dinner every week, and so many holidays, and Jews are always just celebrating around food. I actually never stepped foot in the kitchen before I got married, never really helped my mom, my older sister used to help with cooking. It just looked like a chore to me. I am a very creative soul, very artistic. And it just seemed like a whole lot of rules. And I just wasn't interested. And then I got married. And I would call my mother every Friday and like, how do I make gefilte fish and potato kugel, and chicken soup. And I started hosting a lot. And people started asking me for my recipes. And I realized that I kind of had a knack for presentation. Because I've always been artistic. And you know, like composition and things like that. And my food always was presented nicely and looked beautiful. So it kind of got me you know, a little bit interested, piqued my interest. And I realized that it could be a way for me to explore my creative side. 

So I I started watching The Food Network a lot. And I subscribed to Bon Appetit Magazine, and started looking at cookbooks. And then when I had my third child, I didn't want to really work outside the house anymore. So I was like, What should I do with myself, I'm not the type of person that could just be a stay at home mom, I would lose my mind. So I was like, Okay, I'm gonna start a blog. And there really weren't any food blogs and no kosher food blogs. 

This is back in 2011. There was Smitten Kitchen, there was Pioneer Woman, those are both pioneers in the blogging world, in general. And there definitely weren't any kosher blogs. And I just, you know, I started my blog. And like I said, I wasn't cooking, you know, the traditional Jewish, heimish Ashkenazi food that I grew up with. Talking a little about being a mom. I had my crochet projects on there. And it was just like my place to get creative and have an outlet. And then feedback really started pouring in, everything I was posting, people were so interested. It didn't exist in the kosher world. 

And despite not being a big foodie, I just continued to just do my thing and taking terrible pictures in the yellow light of my kitchen island, on automatic, with my terrible camera. And over time, just my food started to evolve, my photography started to evolve. 

And fast-forward a couple of years, I went to a kosher culinary school, which really helped me kind of opened my mind to new flavors, which I was I think stuck a little bit in the Ashkenazi palate of paprika and garlic powder, as I like to say, and just tried all these Indian food and Thai food and all these flavors that I literally never ever experienced. And it just blew my mind open in so many ways. 

Being creative, a few of my friends kind of started blogs around the same time. And every time a holiday would come around, it was like who's going to come up with the coolest latke or the coolest humentasch, or the most creative donut. So it really pushed my competitive side and also my creative side. And I just started really thinking outside the box and doing a lot of these cool twists on tradition and fusion recipes and caught a lot of attention in mainstream media and everything went from there, I guess.

Laura Shaw Frank:

That's amazing. I want to pick up on one thing that you said. You said when you started blogging that so many people got in touch with you. And you were obviously bringing them content that they hadn't seen before. What do you think was missing from the conversations around kosher food before you entered the space? I mean, I'll just you know, tell you when I got married, everyone got the Spice and Spirit cookbook from Lubavitch. I still use it, by the way. It's a fantastic cookbook. It's a more traditional cookbook. And so tell us a little bit about what did you bring that was different to kosher cooking?

Chanie Apfelbaum:

You know what, there's one story that sticks out in my mind that really, because I've always been this person that picks up hobbies along the way, like every creative thing. I'm knitting, I’m  crocheting. I'm scrapbooking, kind of all these type of things. I pick up a hobby, I do it for a couple of months and then I kind of let it go. So I always asked myself, like, what was it about food blogging that really stuck for me, and I think that I realized the power of it. 

One year, I made this recipe for the nine days when we don't eat meat, you know, between before Tisha B’Av, some people have accustomed not to eat any meat recipes, because it's a time of mourning, it's a serious time before the anniversary of the destruction of the Holy Temple. So wine and meat are more celebratory things that we eat. So those are restricted for nine days before Tisha B’av. 

So I made this recipe for Chili Pie in Jars. And it was a vegetarian chili, a layer of cheddar cheese, and cornbread, and you bake it in a mason jar in the oven. So each person has basically their own pie.

So I made this recipe and I put it in on my blog, and this is before Instagram, can't DM somebody a picture, it's before smartphones, you can’t just take a picture on your smartphone. So somebody took out their digital camera, took a picture of their families sitting around the table, everyone's holding their own mason jar, and like, took the SD card out, put it in their laptop and sent me an email. This is early days of my blog.

I get this picture. I see a whole family sitting around the table eating my recipe and I'm like, oh my god,  how powerful is this, that I have the opportunity to bring families around the table, it is so special. 

And I think that that's something that really stuck with me through all my years of blogging and really at the core, for me, what keeps me going because I realize the power of food. Especially, as a proud Jew, to celebrate our traditions through food, because, thank God through my platform, I get messages from people–someone sent me a message from literally Zimbabwe making Challah for the first time. It’s just so special to me. 

So, obviously, as a mom of five, I'm always cooking dinner, and it can feel like a chore. I get cooking fatigue like everybody else. And cooking Shabbat dinner every week. I always say in the main world, they make this big deal about Thanksgiving, you know, you have to plan your menu from Sunday, and then your shopping list from Tuesday and all that but like we literally have Thanksgiving every Friday night. It's a three course or four course meal sometimes. So yeah, I get the cooking fatigue. 

And for me, I want to show people how to bring the love back in the kitchen. You know, how food can be more than just a way of sustaining ourselves, it could be a way of celebrating our Jewishness, it could be a way of bringing our family around the table, it could be a way of

getting pleasure out of life. Food can be so delicious, and it can open your eyes and experience global cuisine. That's so cool and amazing. So I had that aha moment for myself, and I want other people to have it too.

Laura Shaw Frank:

That's amazing. I love that. So what you're really saying is that food and culture are really intertwined with one another. And you gave this example of the nine days before the Jewish fast day of Tisha B’Av, which takes place in the summertime, when it's traditional among religious Jews to not eat meat and wine and talking about sort of adjusting recipes. Could you give us a couple of other examples of ways that you see sort of Jewish history, Jewish culture, Jewish tradition embedded in food?

Chanie Apfelbaum:

Look at the holidays, right, Rosh Hashanah, we have a lot of symbolic foods. Most people know of apple and honey, but there are actually a whole range of symbolic foods that we eat. The actual names and Hebrew of those foods, point to different things that we want for our year,like we eat a fish head because we want to be like a head and not a tail.

For me that really helped me kind of zone in on what is my niche here, right? I am a kosher food blogger, but how do I define my skill or who I am because every blogger kind of has their thing. And for me a lot of it is centered around the holidays because first of all for me like I have so many beautiful memories growing up. 

My mother is very much a traditional Ashkenazi cook, making kugel and gefilte fish and cholent and matza ball soup. She doesn't veer away from that. Those are the dishes that I grew up on and they're so nostalgic for me and there's a place for that. Our home was always open, we had so many guests. I actually grew up in Crown Heights.

So I really zone in a lot on holiday foods, but putting my own spin on it, because I feel like people want something fresh and new and exciting. And I definitely think there's a place for the traditional foods. You want to mix it up and have a little bit something fresh and new and something old, that's great.

We're lucky that we have that core of our heritage and our traditions throughout the year with so many Jewish holidays that allow us to get together, with family, with friends, and celebrate our Jewishness.

Laura Shaw Frank:

So, my husband and my three sons are all vegan.

Chanie Apfelbaum:

Oh, wow.

Laura Shaw Frank:

My daughter and I are not – but my husband and my three sons are vegan. As I was thinking about interviewing you, I was thinking about how kosher cooking is always intertwined with the places that it's located in and the time in which it's occurring.

Do you feel like your cooking has been influenced by the recent trends toward vegetarian and vegan and more plant based eating?

Chanie Apfelbaum:

I definitely, just as someone who grew up eating a lot of heavy Ashkenazi food. Being in the food world, seeing what's out there. Besides for the fact that it's trendy. I feel like after Shabbat, I want to break from meat and animal protein. I mean, we're eating fish, we're usually having three courses. We're having fish, we're having chicken soup or having some kind of meat or chicken. Sunday we're usually having leftovers because there's just so much food from Shabbat. So come Monday we do in my house–in my first cookbook, Millennial Kosher, which came out in 2018. I had a Meatless Meals chapter. And that was really new for any kosher cookbook. You don't find it, you find definitely very heavy meat chapters. But it was important to me because I instituted that in my house many years ago. And I have it in this book as well.

And I got so much amazing feedback because there's a lot of people out there who don't eat meat. There's a lot of vegetarians. There's a lot of vegans. And they were so happy that I was bringing that to the kosher world, and of course wanted to bring it again. And also my kids love it. Like come Monday they know it's Meatless Monday in my house. God forbid I didn't have time to think of something and I bring chicken they're like, What, what's going on here? Ma, it's Meatless Monday. It's like a rule. So I include this in the book where I talk about the way I structure my week because it really helped me kind of take the guesswork out of what am I making for dinner.

I have a loose framework, while still allowing me the possibility to be creative because I love you know, playing Chopped with my kids, with whatever's in my fridge or my pantry. I want the possibility to be creative but I still need a little bit of framework. 

So Sunday's we'll have leftovers if there's no leftovers, we'll do a barbecue or sometimes a restaurant if we’re out for the day. But Monday's Meatless, Tuesdays is beef. Wednesdays is chicken, Thursdays is dairy. Shabbos is Friday night, it's always a little bit different. And then, Saturday night is eggs. And it gives me the base protein, I know what I'm working off of and then from that I can kind of play around. And I think that really helps people that are like so overwhelmed with the idea of what am I making for dinner? You wake up on a Tuesday morning, you know, it's meat day, okay, I got to take out some kind of meat from the freezer. I'll figure out what I'm doing for later. Maybe I'll make tacos. Maybe I'll make spaghetti Bolognese maybe, you know, maybe I'll make burgers, but you took the meat out, you know.

But going back to your question. So you know, Mondays is meatless in my house and we're a big bean family. My kids love beans. One of their favorite dinners are my refried bean tacos that are my first book. I have these amazing smashed falafel burgers in this book. Like I said, we love beans, I do curries I do, Falafel I do. Once in a while I'll try and play around with tofu. My kids don't love it too much. Tempe is something - I have tempe shawarma in the book which is really amazing. 

Let's not forget to mention plant based beef which I think totally revolutionized the kosher experience because when can we ever make you know, meat and dairy together because that's one of the basic rules within the kosher kitchen. You can't mix meat and dairy together in the same dish. My kids love when I make smash burgers for dinner. And I always said like, I don't love vegan dairy products if you just don't get that cheese pull, but like with the vegan meat products, with the new plant based impossible beef, it's really close to the real thing. It really is.

Laura Shaw Frank:

We love impossible burgers in our house and I want to try that tempe shawarma.

Chanie Apfelbaum:

Oh, it's really good.

Laura Shaw Frank:

What recipe would you say was kind of the biggest surprise for you? I mean, it seems to me like you often work from traditional Jewish recipes, but seems like you also are constantly innovating and making up your own recipes. So is there a recipe that just kind of surprised yourself and couldn't believe how it turned out?

Chanie Apfelbaum:

My favorite recipe in the book is my Pad Chai. And it's kind of a Middle Eastern spin on Pad Thai, where I use harissa and silan and lime and tamarind in the sauce. It almost feels like pad thai with just that little hint of Middle Eastern flavor. Pad thai is always finished with crushed peanuts, and I put crushed bamba over the top. And it's just so fun and playful. And I also love fun names. So I love just the name of it, but it's really a reflection of, first of all my favorite flavors, like I love middle eastern food, I love Thai food, marrying them together. And it's colorful and beautiful and so flavorful. Everything I love about food, and was really inspired by the pad thai made in culinary school. And it was one of the dishes that really, really transformed my palate completely. So it's kind of an ode to that.

Laura Shaw Frank:

You're getting me very excited to go home and make dinner for the next few nights.

Chanie Apfelbaum:

You see right there.

Laura Shaw Frank:

So your latest cookbook, Totally Kosher, is being published by Random House. And that's a really interesting thing for a kosher kind of a niche cookbook to be published by a very mainstream publisher. So I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how it came about that you got, first of all, that you got Random House to publish your cookbook, which is amazing. Second of all, why you left the more Jewish the more orthodox publishing world.

Chanie Apfelbaum:

I’m with Clarkson Potter, one of the imprints of Penguin Random House, that's an imprint. They haven't written a kosher book in many, many, many years. Thank God, I've been in this industry for 12 years. And I already wrote a very successful book. So my name is really out there. People know me as being the kosher cook. So they did approach me to write the book, which was really an honor. I had a very good experience the first time around working with Artscroll. Artscroll is like the main Jewish distributor of and publisher of Jewish books. My book was beautiful, and their distribution is really unmatched, but it's really only in the Jewish world. they’ll get your book and every Judaica shop in the world, but not in Barnes and Nobles, and not in you know, in mainstream, indie booksellers. 

I really wanted to reach a larger demographic of Jews. As a blogger, people have come to know me and my family. I wanted to put more lifestyle photos in and most Jewish publishers don't actually publish photos of women in their books, which is something that I definitely want to see change. And I put beautiful pictures of my family, me and my daughters lighting Shabbos candles which is something that, the moment of my week that I look forward to and a special time for me that I really feel like I connect with my Jewishness. And you know, my book is dedicated and in memory of my Bubbie and to my mother and to my daughters and for me, it's really about the Jewish family and Jewish pride–not just about food, but really about family and I wanted to be able to portray that through the photos in the book. So that was another of my reasons for moving mainstream.

Laura Shaw Frank:

I think it's just amazing. And I just think it's so wonderful that you are illustrating your cookbook, with pictures that are not just about Jewish pride, but also about the special pride of Jewish women and the special…you know, of course, not only women cook, you know, men cook too, I have to say, my husband cooks dinner a lot more than than I do. And kids cook and lots of different people find a lot of wonderful fulfillment in the kitchen. But, of course, we do have this very long tradition of women cooking for their families, even as we change it up today. And I just think it's beautiful that you actually intentionally use pictures of women, of your family, in your cookbook.

Chanie Apfelbaum:

And my sons are there too.

Laura Shaw Frank:

Excellent. Let's make it a family experience.

Chanie Apfelbaum:

Exactly, exactly.

Laura Shaw Frank:

Speaking about family experience, you’ve written about why it’s so important to you to encourage family meals with everyone sitting around the table together, whether it’s on Shabbat or holidays or even just a weekday dinner. Could you share with us why that’s so important to you?

Chanie Apfelbaum:

Well, I grew up in a very open home. My mom always had guests for Shabbat or holidays. I grew up on the block of 770 Eastern Parkway, Chabad Lubavitch headquarters, and our house was just always open to guests. It’s something of value that was instilled in me from early on. 

And I don’t know if you know this, but my brother Ari Halbersham was actually killed in a terrorist attack on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994. That’s something that I feel like, I don’t think people realize, when you lose a family member in that way, it’s not like, OK, you just lost your brother. But it affects the whole family, really for generations. And I think that one of the things that I lost was having those experiences around the table. And especially so many memories with my brother at the table as well. 

So for me, I find so much healing–first of all healing, but also just, I see the greatness and the power to bring families around the table. To create family memories. So many that I draw great comfort from, I want other people to be able to experience that. It’s important for me to do that, also as a way to remember him and celebrate what he lived for and what he died for.

Laura Shaw Frank:

Ok, that’s incredible. And it’s an incredible message to all of us to be in the moment and treasure those moments around the table. 

So the last thing I want to ask you is, so you have this cookbook that's being published by a mainstream publisher. And we know that not a lot of Jews keep kosher. The percentages are not that high. Do you think your cookbook appeals beyond just a kosher audience?

Chanie Apfelbaum:

Well, I'll tell you that I have a lot of–forget about non- kosher keeping. I have a lot of non-Jewish followers on Instagram that buy my book, because they just like my style of cooking. I know it's called Totally Kosher. And obviously, it's a celebration of kosher and celebration of our Jewish heritage, and our customs and traditions, but at the same time, it's just good food, it’s just good food, despite it being kosher, and really, I really want to break that stigma that there is about kosher food - that kosher food is brown, and it is brown. You know, like I can't take it away. Matzah ball soup is beige, and gefilte fish is beige, and potato kugel’s beige, and brisket’s brown. And you know, there's a reason for the stereotype.

Laura Shaw Frank:

Cholent’s brown too.

Chanie Apfelbaum:

It is. And if you look through my book, one thing that will pop out at you is how colorful the food is, and how beautiful the food is. And like I said earlier, I came to food by means of artistry. They say people eat with their eyes first. And it has changed and I think in the mainstream world, they haven't quite realized how kosher has evolved. I mean, there's so many different restaurants, kosher restaurants now, that celebrate different global cuisines. There's a Peruvian Japanese restaurant in the city, there's a Georgian restaurant in Queens. It's not just your Bubbie's stuffed cabbage anymore. And I want, like I said, the stigma to change and make waves in the mainstream world to see kosher a little bit differently.

Laura Shaw Frank:

Well, I'm for one very excited to start making some recipes from Totally Kosher. And I just want to thank you, Chanie, so much for coming to join us on People of the Pod. I think that you are bringing such a fresh take. And such a warmth, such a deep sense of Jewish culture and peoplehood, and family, and love to your work. And it's really more than just about kosher cooking. It's really about something much bigger. And I just want to thank you for that. So thanks so much for joining us today and I know we're gonna have a lot of listeners going to buy your cookbook.

Chanie Apfelbaum:

Thank you for having me.