Jewish food for thought from Writers’ Week director

Writer’s Week head Louise Adler thanked the Adelaide Festival board for its support after stepping in at short notice to co-host a session without scheduled Middle-Eastern food writer Claudia Roden.

Mar 07, 2023, updated Mar 07, 2023
Writers' Week director Louise Adler (left) with Amanda Vanstone. Photo: Roy VanDerVegt

Writers' Week director Louise Adler (left) with Amanda Vanstone. Photo: Roy VanDerVegt

Adelaide Writers’ Week director Louise Adler, under fire for programming Palestinian activist authors with controversial views on Israel and Ukraine, leant into her Jewishness while co-hosting a session about Middle-Eastern food writer Claudia Roden on Monday.

When organisers failed to raise Roden, who is in her 80s and was due to stream from London, Adler joined former Liberal MP and Radio National broadcaster Amanda Vanstone to talk about Roden’s work, digressing into her own experience with food.

Adler – who praised Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food as an encyclopaedic account of recipes, history and culture – said she prided herself on her Ashkenazi Jewish cheesecake, a sweet baked cake made from soft white cheese, fruit and a hint of lemon.

“But it cracks!” Adler said. “It’s delicious, I may say immodestly, however, it looks terrible – like an earthquake has struck.”

Adler said cooking during Passover, observed by Jewish families for eight days, was constrained by a ban on the use of leavened bread or flour. She kept on her phone a recipe for Sephardic charoset, made with apple, honey, and sometimes date syrup or hazelnuts, which was traditionally eaten on the second night of Passover when the story of the biblical exodus of Jews from Egypt was retold.

“It was a very long meal and it goes on and on and on and there are umpteen courses,” she said. “There was a two-minute reading you could do, and often in our family we would say, ‘yes, we suffered, we came, we left Egypt, we were made free, let’s eat’.”

Adler, who promised to re-program Roden if possible, made a point of thanking Vanstone, who is a member of the Adelaide Festival board, for her support during the Palestinian author controversy.

“It has been remarkable. We have had a very interesting couple of weeks here but Amanda, the chair of the board Judy Potter, and the whole board have been wonderfully supportive,” Adler said.

Vanstone, a fearless home cook who makes multi-layered cakes and braises ducks, was hoping to ask Roden how she felt being remembered for her orange and almond cake after 50 years of food writing.

“The damned orange cake,” Vanstone said. “Here is a woman who has made a fabulous contribution during her life and everyone says, ‘I like your orange cake’.”

Vanstone said Roden helped generate interest in Middle-Eastern food and had persevered even when her books failed to sell. Egyptian-born Roden, a budding artist who was denied the chance to go to university, would seek out recipes by asking people on trains what they cooked at home, or by going into rug shops where the owners were Middle Eastern.

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Vanstone, always blunt, gave short shrift to celebrity food writers. She admits to having Yotam Ottolenghi in her vast cookbook collection, but drew attention to the lesser-known Australian Middle-Eastern food writers Lucy and Greg Malouf, who make a wonderful ginger cake – and are not celebrities.

“I’m a bit over celebrity. I think we’ve got a problem with it in journalism where people want to be a celebrity before they are a journalist, and where some cookbook writers want to be celebrities so they can sell books more than they want to learn,” she said.

Adelaide Writers’ Week continues in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden until March 9. InReview will be reporting from Writers’ Week each day – read coverage of other sessions here

Read more 2023 Adelaide Festival stories and reviews here on InReview.

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