I became aware of Gil Marks from a Shavuot baking class he gave at the JCC on the Upper West Side. I had been married for a couple months, and was really trying to figure my way into Shabbat and holiday cooking and entertaining. We lived a few blocks from the JCC, in a great 5th floor walk-up down the street from the Park and the legendary Dakota Building. The cool old-school Manhattan apartment combined with the giddy exhilaration of being a brand newlywed had me in a convivial mood. I wanted to celebrate, and create jubilant scenes centering around good music and delicious food. My ambitions outstripped my abilities and dwarfed my experience.
I signed up for the Shavuot cooking class blind. And I was a little surprised when I walked into the kitchen and saw that the instructor was a kippah- wearing, beard-sporting rabbi, with a slight southern accent. He introduced himself as Gil Marks, and briefly told us his culinary origin story. He began his career by teaching at a boy’s yeshivah high school and found it so frustrating that he’d come home and unwind by baking. I often have a hard time relating to rabbis, but here was a rabbi I could understand.
He told us about mamaliga and blintzes, but his New Yawk cheesecake was the takeaway, for me at least. Dense, creamy, and just the right amount of sweet, using lots of sour cream and even more cream cheese, real vanilla ( he emphasized real), and fresh lemon juice for those who want to double down on a zingy-tart flavor profile (why not?). I found my cheesecake. I still have the photocopied recipes he handed out, and like all great recipes it’s covered in kitchen shmutz.
After listening to me enthuse about the class, my Mother gave me The World of Jewish Cooking and The World of Jewish Entertaining, crucial textbooks to my nascent culinary education. When I heard him interviewed on NPR and learned that he was mentioned in glowing terms on the Saveur 100, I felt both proud and a sense of ownership, because I viewed him as my teacher.
Eventually I logged in enough time cooking and baking to be able to create my own recipes. Although really are there any completely original recipes? Everything’s based on the flavors and dishes that came before it. Gil Marks’ cookbooks were as close to the source as one could get. I riffed on his Meggy Leves recipe, reimagining it as a sweet-tart summer cocktail. The Shabbat Stew in my cookbook is based on his Yemenite Soup. The observation I heard him make on NPR remains salient: Jewish cooks are traditionally not culinary inventors, they’re adapters.
On one long summer’s Shabbat I stretched out with his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food and read it pretty much cover -to-cover. His style was knowledgable but not pedantic, historical but not dated, friendly but not cloying. And after ingesting his extraordinarily definitive work I felt like I had just crammed in 4 units towards my education.
Last year I attended a Kosher industry dinner where he was among the honorees. I waited until there was opening for me to gush in a (hopefully) credible manner. He listened to me, and was happy to tell me about what he was working on: American-style Cakes. And believe me I was happy to hear about it. But what was even better was how he was engaged in our conversation about southern layer cakes, listening and considering my opinions and ideas in the way that good rabbis/teachers do.
This cole slaw is inspired by Gil Marks’ recipe from Olive Trees and Honey for Yemenite Red Cabbage Salad with Tahini. It’s a great thing to put on hot dogs, burgers, or top with grilled chicken. Also great as a flavorful parve side dish for fish. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds or sliced almonds for even more nutty flavor.
- ½ small red cabbage (about 3 cups), thinly sliced or shaved
- ½ small green cabbage (about 3 cups), thinly sliced or shaved
- Bunch of thinly sliced scallions (about ½ cup)
- ½ cup fresh chopped parsley
Tahini- Lemon Dressing:
- ¼ cup tahini
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1-2 teaspoons honey or sugar
- 1-2 teaspoons garlic powder
- ¼ cup+ 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- Dash (or two or three) hot sauce
- Salt and pepper
- Combine and toss cole slaw ingredients in a large bowl.
- In a jar with a screw top lid vigorously mix together tahini, sesame oil, lemon juice, honey or sugar, and garlic powder. Once well combined, drizzle in olive oil, give a few more solid shakes. Season to taste with hot sauce, salt and pepper.
- Pour evenly over cole slaw and toss to cover flavorfully.
Makes 4-6 servings, recipe can be doubled.