I grew up in a stereotypical and extremely supportive Ashkenazic family. Overprotective mother. Hoarding grandmother. Slightly inappropriate uncle. The nucleus of our family was not a person, but the dinner table with each and every gathering reflecting this. Did my mother make enough brisket? Did Aunt Lotte make her meringue cookies? Who’s picking up the chocolate cake from Costco? I swear to you my Aunt Susi once burst into tears saying that my mother didn’t prepare enough carrots for Passover. With such a passionate emphasis on food in my upbringing, it’s no surprise that cooking for others has become my primary expression of love.
When I met my husband, Alex, I found purpose in cooking for him, pouring my heart into everything I prepared for him in a very Ina Garten-Jeffrey dynamic. However, the challenge I faced was that even though he was the quintessential nice Jewish boy, Alex didn’t grow up with brisket or babka. As an Iraqi Jew with family raised in Iran, he was brought up with a different repast repertoire made up of fragrant stews, spiced rices and sweets brimming with rosewater and cardamom.
I knew I wanted to learn how to make each and every recipe for him, though I hit a roadblock. From this point, I’d only had experienced Alex’s incredibly supportive immediate family, spending time in the kitchen with his mother and aunt who both have sets of queer children. However, it was the elder women who had many of the recipes I was looking to learn, still making it for the family as the matriarchs.
Their community skews towards conservative, where the public announcement of having a queer child (which would be a shock to begin with), will most likely be met with an “it’s probably just a phase” response. I was the rogue reform Ashkenazi coming in and trying to learn about Jewish-Iraqi food. Now, add on the fact that I was the first homo partner thrown in the mix and things get interesting.
I remember our second Passover as a couple involved departing from my family for one evening to spend it with his aunt in Great Neck. From the inclusion of rices galore (Ashkenazim don’t eat rice during the holiday) to slapping each other with scallions when you sing Dayenu, I was exposed to a Middle Eastern seder that ventured far from any Pesach I had experienced before. Other than the incredible feast, the one thing I vividly remember feeling dismissed when introduced to the older aunties. I was simply “Alex’s friend.”
They had no interest in me or my place in the family… until I wanted to make kubbeh. This is a labor-intensive Iraqi dish of chicken and rice dumplings cooked in a sweet and sour beet stew. It also was Alex’s favorite childhood dish. I delicately began asking his aunt if she could present the request to her mother without having any gauge of what to expect.
Knowing that these family recipes needed to find a home for future generations, she graciously welcomed me into her kitchen where she put me to work. “How many glasses of rice should we make?” she asked me as she grabbed a glass mug to begin measuring the rice. I quickly stopped her as I poured the mug into a dry measuring cup to confirm it was indeed one cup and made note on my phone.
“You just need a cup, any cup will do,” she insisted as she dismissed my method of measuring. There I was, measuring scale and cups in hand, realizing that learning the dishes of Alex’s family wasn’t just going to be an email blast for recipes. While some were roughly scribbled down in notebooks or on loose pieces of paper, most only lived in the heads of these talented women, of whom I was now harassing to let me measure their rice. Anything I wanted to learn had to be through spending one-on-one time learning and connecting with them.
Much of Iraqi-Jewish food would take hours to prepare, allowing the women to gather in the kitchen where they would be able to chat and gossip (the OG kiki). As we rolled kubbeh together, we quickly grew closer. I learned about her family’s journey from Iraq to Egypt and back before fleeing to Iran and then to America. We discussed Iraqi-Jewish cuisine in depth, exploring her personal spice blends, preferred variations on classics and even a crash-course pronunciation lessons. My genuine interest in their food culture transcended our unconventional relationship.
In a true game of yenta telephone, news traveled fast. I began getting approached by family at Shabbats or bat mitzvahs asking me if I’m the one who makes kubbeh. Alex’s aunt began calling me to discuss who wants to teach me which dish, typically with a “because she really makes it the best in the family” thrown in.
What began as a labor of love to bring these dishes into our home quickly became the common ground that allowed me to break down walls between myself and Alex’s family. My immersion in their food culture brought as much joy to my new Iraqi family as it did to me to feel so welcomed by them.
As the queer section of the family continues to grow with my sister-in-law and Alex’s cousins integrating their partners, here’s hoping they’ll all join me in the kitchen to roll kubbeh. We’re going to open the minds of every family member, one cooking lesson at a time.
Jake Cohen is a food writer, recipe developer and nice Jewish boy from NYC. After working in some of Manhattan’s best kitchens, he transitioned into media, working in the test kitchens of Saveur Magazine and Tasting Table and as the Restaurant Critic of Time Out New York. His work has been featured in Food52, Huffington Post, Real Simple, Genius Kitchen, Food and Wine, Buzzfeed and PureWow. When he isn't cooking, he's constantly eating and documenting it on his Instagram, @jakecohen, where you can slide into his DM’s.