As the oldest of five children, Beth Schenker found herself in the role of the family's head chef, figuring out her way around the kitchen from what she describes as a "ridiculously young" age.
"I learned some things from my mother, but she wasn't the greatest cook. So you know you just kind of learn by doing," says Schenker.
When she became a mother, she continued to be the one responsible for ensuring the family ate dinner together almost every night. But once her daughter grew up and moved out, Schenker says she took a long break from the kitchen.
Now she's back in it along with a brand new podcast about Jewish cuisine called, The Big Schmear. Once an independent producer for public radio, Schenker says it's fun to now put herself "on the other side of the mic," speaking with some of the Jewish culinary world's biggest names. Through her interviews with top Jewish chefs like Joan Nathan and Laura Frankel, along with her research involving the latest cookbooks and trends in the world of Jewish food, Schenker's reawakened her own creativity in the kitchen, and hopes to similarly inspire listeners when they tune into The Big Schmear .
JUF News caught up with Schenker on the phone from her office at Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership, where she is assistant dean for Jewish Studies.
What inspired you to start a podcast?
Beth Schenker: I'd been wanting to do something creative, and I wanted something where I had the last word, and I defined what the rules were for it. I missed doing radio, and I felt like this was a way to bring that back into my life because podcasts are radio basically. I had no idea what I was really getting into. It's still a learning process in many ways, but it's been a great opportunity, and I feel like it's a new way for me to grow, which is always a good thing.
Why did you decide to make the podcast about Jewish food?
For as long as I can remember, I've been really interested in what goes into cooking; what food means to people; what it can conjure up; and what kinds of things can happen around food. I'm never going to be a professional chef, and I'm not going to run a restaurant. So I was just trying to figure out how could I get food to be something I explore in a more serious way. This seemed to be the perfect match for that because I get to talk with the experts and learn all kinds of things, and hopefully share that information and enthusiasm with people who are listening…
What's one tip you think your average home cook would appreciate that you learned from the professionals?
One thing that comes to mind right off the top of my head is you want to keep trying. You want to be persistent. Just because you try something and it doesn't work the first time, doesn't mean that you're a failure. Any great chef, anybody who cooks seriously, knows that things go wrong. And you can take a lot of things away from that. You've got to be able to pivot and figure out how to work with things, and that can make a very creative experience out of something that you thought was a negative. Everything takes practice, so why shouldn't cooking?
Sometimes cooking can seem daunting, especially in today's world of celebrity chefs and perfect food photos on Instagram. Have any of the chefs you spoke with addressed that?
I interviewed Jamie Geller with Joy of Kosher . She's gone out of her way to [help people spend less time in] the kitchen, but [still] cook. That's what's great about it. Here you can make this meaningful meal, whether it's holidays or Shabbat or just your every day dinner, and you can feel good about what you've made, and it was easy. There are not 100 ingredients and 45 steps. Not that there's anything wrong with that either. But she's talking about families that are busy. Here's a way to look at easy food prep, really healthy meals, and you can do it. It doesn't take tons and tons of effort. That's a cool takeaway.
For more information or to listen to the podcast, visit
Mimi Sager Yoskowitz is a Chicago-area freelance writer, mother of four, and former CNN producer. Her work has been featured on various sites including Kveller, Brain, Child Magazine, and in the anthology, So Glad They Told Me.