Interviews

Devra Ferst


June 22, 2017

Of course, Devra, a food writer, offered us ice cold beverages and tasty snacks the moment we stepped into her Brooklyn abode on a very hot summer day. As we sipped and snacked, Devra delved into her on-again, off-again Jewish observance, her unexpected path to food writing, her deep dedication to za’atar, and much more.

What is the story behind your name?

My name is Devra Aliza Ferst. My parents really liked the name Deborah, but they didn’t want me to become Debbie.

There are 2 Devra Fersts in the food world, which is funny. We just met this year at the James Beard Awards. We get each other’s emails all the time.

What was your kid personality?

Hyper and awkward. I had trouble fitting in at school, but I fit in really, really well at camp. I felt like there were two different Devras.

At Camp Ramah, I got lucky. I was in the right bunk at the right time and made friends easily. You could be outside and run around and be loud.

No one ever told you to speak in an indoor voice at camp. That was freeing.

What are your best camp memories?

The kitchen staff was so nice, and you could tell that they were really well intentioned, but the meals were atrociously bad.

Shabbat dinner at camp is lots of really brown chicken and maybe some kugel and tzimmes. To this day, I don’t understand tzimmes. Saturday lunch at camp was one of the worst. Lots of really bad cold cuts.

One of the best meals at camp was “Ramah-co Bell.” Nobody in Mexico would consider this Mexican food. There was this dirty rice. There was salsa. You would get a bowl of cheese. Lettuce. Maybe there were olives. You got tortilla wraps. If that was on the menu, people were really, really excited.

What advice would you give your teenage self?

I’d want to teach my teenage self how to breathe. For a lot of my life, I have been a nervous person. As a teenager, I didn’t have any idea how to deal with that. I’d also try to remind myself that high school is only 4 years and it will end. I had a lot of fun senior year, but the first 3 years were pretty terrible.

What role did Judaism play in your upbringing?

Judaism was a big part of my household growing up. We had to be home for Friday night dinner. We could have as many friends over as we wanted. There were times when I invited my whole camp bunk and there were 15 girls around the table. I went to Hebrew school. I got very, very involved in USY for a phase. We didn’t go to day school, so the compromise was that we went to Camp Ramah.

My mom died when I was 13, and I went through a phase where I was very observant right after that. Community was really appealing. I also think that knowing there was a “right way” of doing things was very helpful and something that I wanted at that point in my life.

My Jewish observance has woven its way in and out.

I started to feel like it was confining by the time I was a junior in college. I lived in Italy for a semester in a small town outside of Venice. There were a lot of things that changed then.

Describe a turning point in your Jewish practice or identity.

It felt like there was a net around me, and it was strangling me instead of supporting me. In Italy, I tried to get rid of a lot of the rules in my life, whether they were religious or personal.

In college, I had a professor who was controversial, but students loved him. Our seminar was about postmodern thoughts, and he challenged you to make arguments that made you feel uncomfortable. We were forced to ask, “How do you look at things outside of the way society has taught you to look at those things? How do you come to your own opinion?”

I was challenging a lot of things that I was doing, a lot of notions that I had about the world and how I should move through it.

How does Judaism play a role in your life now or not?

It’s hard to define, because it feels so interwoven in who I am. I love talking about Jewish food. I try to go to Israel once a year. I’m not traditionally observant. If I go to shul, I know how to daven, but that’s not really how I’m connecting to my Jewish identity at the moment. I’m open to that changing, if it’s something that I feel is going to provide a lot of meaning in my life.

Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up?

A professor of American history. I took the GREs, did really well, had recommendations lined up, was planning to apply…but, I wanted to take a year off and go to Israel.

I lived on a kibbutz and was originally assigned to work with the horses, which was actually one of the jobs that a lot of people wanted. I was the only one working at the stables, and I wasn’t practicing Hebrew, but I was there to interact with people and practice my Hebrew.

I transferred to the kitchen, which is one of the most hated jobs on kibbutz, but it was perfect for me.

Then, I lived in Jerusalem and got a job working at The Jerusalem Report. 3 days in, the Editor-in-Chief asked me to write a 2500 word story. It was entirely rewritten, but it was an amazing experience. I did that, came back to the States, and I got a job at The Forward.

About a year into being at The Forward, they said, “We are thinking about doing a food blog. Do you want to do it?” It was an amazing opportunity that I went wild with. As a kid, I really liked to cook and thought about being a chef and opening up a restaurant. I don’t think I realized that this was a viable career decision.

Describe what you do professionally.

I write for a lot of different outlets. It’s exciting and challenging and, sometimes, scary to write in different voices. Writing for new editors is a great opportunity, but also intimidating. You don’t always know what an editor is looking for, so you do your best approximation of that.

I also work for a professional organization called IACP that Jacques Pépin and Julia Child started. I’m helping them organize a conference and a webinar. There are a lot of people who work in the food world and a lot of skill sharing that can go on. How can we provide support for each other?

I’m figuring out where I belong in the Jewish food world, because, for a while, it was my entire professional identity. It isn’t anymore, but Jewish food is still very interesting to me.

Why are you interested in Jewish food?

In part, because I went to a super diverse high school. I always loved hearing about what people had for dinner. I didn’t grow up with what most people consider to be traditional Jewish food, but I came from a culture with food that had a lot of story and history behind it. It’s rewarding for me as an adult to be able to connect to and explore that.

Even if I weren’t Jewish, the idea of a cuisine of people that don’t originate all from one place within the last couple hundred years is a really interesting and complex concept from a culinary standpoint.

What is Jewish food?

My opinion on that changes all the time. Is Jewish food the food that Jews eat? Is it the Ashkenazi Jewish experience? Is it what you eat in Tel Aviv now, which is sort of Israeli, some of the time Palestinian and not credited as Palestinian, but also Bulgarian or Uzbek?

I think a lot of it has to do with identity and how the people who are serving or eating the food relate to it.

Do you have a Jewish memory that is associated with this? Did your bubbe make this for you? Did you eat it for Shabbat dinner? Did you eat it in college? What’s your relationship to the food?

There are certain historical foods that came out of different Jewish customs. Cholent is a food that exists because of Shabbat.

Favorite and least favorite Jewish food?

If I never eat another dry hamantash in my life, I will be just fine. The only place that makes a hamantash that I actually look forward to eating is Breads Bakery. They make a chocolate one that I love.

I never need to eat gefilte fish in a jar ever again.

My grandmother made gefilte fish for every holiday. I didn’t understand that jarred gefilte fish was what a lot of kids I grew up with.

Favorite? It’s so hard. Challah. But, I love Israeli food. It’s what I cook. Za’atar is one of the only spices that never gets put away. It’s always by my stove and I proudly use it in at least 1 dish a day. It’s great on top of an olive oil fried egg. It’s great in salad dressings. It’s great in a marinade for fish and chicken. I like bright and acidic and herby flavors.

What’s an immediate turn off for you?

Bad grammar and Internet language.

I hate the phrase “all the things.” Say what you are talking about. Define it. Words and language are super, super important in our world. They need to be used and remembered. When you stop using specific words to define things, it makes our language and our world smaller.

What is something that makes you smile?

A really beautiful day and water. I try to walk by the river as much as possible and I’ve never, other than living on kibbutz, which was only 5 months, lived further than walking distance from a large body of water.

I can almost always be happy if I can find myself in a market or a kitchen.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

How much I’ve traveled.

It’s not something that I grew up doing. I’ve never been afraid to get on a plane.

Traveling requires you to stand on your own 2 feet, which can be intimidating, but it has also provided some of the most rewarding moments of my life.

Nothing beats being in a rough situation with people who you trust and love and adore, together.

There was this group of girls that I lived with on kibbutz. We were going to go to Jordan. We were in Mitzpe, which is where Makhtesh Ramon is, and we got stuck. We waited for a bus for 5 or 6 hours and it never showed up. We ended up staying in a shantytown.

The next day, we hitchhiked our way onto an army bus near a high level base. The driver said, “I can drive you, but I have to drop off these guys. You have to wait by the side of the road.” It’s super, super hot out. We are in the middle of nowhere. We don’t have our bags. We don’t know if he’s coming back. I ended up picking up a live bullet from an M16 and putting it in my bag and not remembering that it was there. Coming back from Jordan, Israeli border control asked me about it.

There were some challenges on that trip.

At the time, my worldview was a lot smaller. I was anxious of being in an Arab country.

I have curly hair. I was dressing as an Israeli. I was worried I was going to be called out for this or that and it was going to be an issue.

Through that trip, a lot of things changed. In part, realizing that we are 4 intelligent women. We can figure this out. Also, realizing that I feel really comfortable in the Arab world. There is an amazing sense of hospitality. Most people, at least whom I’ve encountered, are really happy to have you around their table. They’re happy to share a tea and play shesh besh.

What’s your favorite place on earth?

Machane Yehuda.

There’s a picture of it on my bookshelf. When I lived in Jerusalem, I went almost every single day. I sometimes went on Shabbat, when it’s not even open.

People say the first place you should go is to the Kotel. For me, it’s the shuk.

What’s one of your favorite restaurants in Israel?

This restaurant in Tel Aviv called Dok. Everything down to the table salt is from Israel. The cheese plate there is amazing. 10 years ago, maybe you could have sourced an interesting cheese plate in Israel, but certainly not with the breadth and depth that they have now. The menu changes every night. You sit outside. You can also tell that the team there has so much fun making dinner.

What is your favorite meal?

Go-to and favorite are really different for me. Go-to is salad, fried eggs with z’atar. I’ll eat that at any hour. I can make that drunk at 3 in the morning. I can make that in 5 minutes or less.

Favorite meal? Always salad. I can and often do eat salad with 3 meals a day. Ice cream for dessert. The best ice cream is at Bassetts in the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. Raspberry Truffle. Make sure that you ask for it in an old fashioned cup. They only give it to you if you know to ask for it. It’s twice the amount of ice cream.

What is a cause that you care about or an issue that gets you really fired up?

Hunger and food waste. We waste 30%, maybe even more, of the food in this country. It ends up in a landfill, because the store is throwing things out before they are actually going bad or people are taking them home and no one ever told them, “This yogurt is a little past its expiration date, but it was never opened, so it’s fine.”

I work in an industry where there is constantly food. That’s a blessing.

There are people in the industry trying to make it better, but we need to figure out this imbalance in access to food. We talk about hunger, and so many people think about the infomercials of starving children in Africa, but there are people walking past you on the street in New York City who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. That’s unacceptable to me.

I strongly believe that we need to be teaching kids in school how to cook. If you know how to cook, you can put a healthy meal on your table for a couple of dollars. To be fair, that also requires you to not be working so many jobs that you don’t have enough time. How do you hold a knife so that you don’t hurt yourselves? How do you tell if something really has expired? How do you follow a recipe? How do you learn to make do with what you can find?

I think that education, long term, can do a lot of good.

Photos by Josh Dormont

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