Schmaltzy Spotlight / Stacey Harwood-Lehman: The case for cooking and kasha in times of crisis
Shared by Stacey Harwood-Lehman
Recipe Roots: Greenwich Village, Manhattan
“There was a time when you could walk into any lobby in the Bronx and you would smell kasha,” says Stacey Harwood-Lehman, a writer and the poet laureate of the New York City farmers markets. She’s referring to the 1960’s when the borough was home to a large Eastern European Jewish community, including her grandparents who emigrated from Russia to escape the pogroms.
The scent of kasha simmering away also perfumed her mother’s kitchen at their home in Monsey, a town northwest of the city. “My mother wasn’t an enthusiastic cook at all,” Stacey says. Infact, when she was 12, her mother “called a moratorium on cooking and my sisters and I had to take turns preparing dinner.” But her mother did have a handful of recipes she turned to, including kasha with brisket, which she took from the back of a box of Wolff’s kasha.
Unlike her mother, Stacey became an avid cook and baker, helping form the second community supported agriculture program in the country and even courting David Lehman, who would become her husband, with challah that she baked, froze, sealed in a shoebox and mailed to him when they were living in different cities.
In their home, kasha was always in the mix of what she cooked through the year, but it wasn’t a regular dish on the table. That changed a few years ago when David was diagnosed with cancer. “When he was first diagnosed, on some primitive level, I believed that it was partly my fault. I thought that maybe through my cooking I could cure him,” Stacey says. She researched healing diets, even meeting with doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering. “I learned they basically don’t work. A diet can’t cure cancer.” She continued to cook for him, however, an act of devotion and love. She prepared simple food that she hoped would be easy for him to digest. But, he struggled to eat them.
Two years after David’s cancer diagnosis, his doctors told them that he has celiac and could no longer eat gluten, even in small quantities. Stacey overhauled her cooking and the kitchen in their tiny apartment near Washington Square Park. Kasha, which despite its somewhat misleading name of buckwheat groats, is gluten free, became a staple. Instead of the brisket that flavored her mother’s recipe, Stacey prefers to make hers with a mix of fresh and wild mushrooms from the farmers market.
Today, David isn’t entirely out of the woods, Stacey says, but he’s healthy. And like the lobbies of the Bronx and her home in Monsey when she was little, her kitchen in Greenwich Village has the warm and earthy scent of kasha coming from it.
Stacey shared a story about her cooking and a kasha dish at our live storytelling event Village Schmaltzy on November 6. Listen here: