Cooking in the White House for President Barack Obama was never on Susan Barocas’ bucket list.
And yet Barocas, 68, eventually served as a guest chef for three of Obama’s White House seders, expanding the menu to include Sephardic delicacies like charoset balls and huevos haminados, or long-cooked hard-boiled eggs, a nod to her heritage.
Barocas’ Sephardic and Ashkenazi sides showed up in the dishes she ate as a kid — her Ashkenazi mother would make fleishig classics like chicken soup from scratch and cow tongue, while her Sephardic father would whip up lentil soup and fasoolya, made with chickpeas and green beans.
Barocas now works to bring awareness of non-Ashkenazi Jewish experiences using food as her tool.
“People need to know that Jewish food is not just brisket and bagels,” she says. “It’s a whole world cuisine. And that’s one of my missions — that people understand the diversity of the Jewish experience through Jewish food.
“There are so many different histories and cultures and cuisines,” she continues. “And to lump it together as Sephardic…is to lose the Maghreb from North Africa, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria… is to lose Mizrahi like Persian Jews, is to lose the Yemenite.”
Barocas didn’t immediately seek a job in cooking, though. She worked several jobs in public relations, TV and film including roles as associate producer for Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America and as director of the Washington Jewish Film Festival.
But in the last decade, she has focused on food, serving as the founding director of the Jewish Food Experience, a Jewish Federation of Greater Washington initiative that works to bring people together over Jewish food.
Wanting to write more about food, she reached out to several media outlets. She now pens regular Jewish holiday stories for the Washington Post including a COVID-19 era article about Passover during quarantine.
With COVID-19 putting big holiday meals on pause, Barocas tires of cooking for a party of one. “The truth is, I miss feeding people,” she says.
But Barocas has helped people feed themselves through virtual classes through organizations like Lilith, the Sephardic Brotherhood of America and Around Town DC. She also taught a class as part of the Great Big Jewish Food Festival.
“Nothing is ever, ever going to replace a hug,” says Barocas. “Nothing is ever going to replace standing next to someone in a kitchen and cooking together. But if that’s not available, how do we do the next best?”
The virtual events have been so successful that people are reluctant to leave the calls. As the clock ticks, many stay on Zoom long enough for their dishes to finish cooking in their ovens, schmoozing in the meantime.
“We can make this time be productive,” says Barocas. “And my way of doing it is to connect people through food.”
Making the most out of rough times is an age-old Jewish experience, she says. She recalls how Jews have repeatedly been run out of places, compelled to restart, and how Jews always seem to find ways to thrive in difficult moments like this one.
Barocas will keep teaching these next few months. She’s also doing some tikkun olam: Barocas chairs the Hesed Cooking Team at her synagogue, Adas Israel Congregation, and led a virtual class during quarantine. People cooked the same recipes and dropped food off at the synagogue parking lot. It was then donated to those in need.
Next up for the Hesed Cooking Team: A COVID-friendly iteration of the annual Honey Cake Bake-a-thon. Participants, social distanced and mask-clad, will collectively make hundreds of honey cakes in the Adas Israel parking lot.
Barocas also made and sold dozens of baklava bites as part of the Bakers Against Racism virtual bake sale earlier this summer, and she donated the proceeds to Color of Change, a civil rights advocacy organization.
And on the side, Barocas is slowly adding recipes to her eventual cookbook, incorporating ones she’s testing out in her virtual classes. She hopes to feature recipes that are both tasty and accessible.
Asked why she piles on projects — teaching cooking, freelance writing and creating a cookbook during quarantine — she replies, laughing, “Because I’m a Gemini?” But she loves keeping busy and using her self-described “cooking gene” from her parents for good.
“I love feeding people, I love the creativity of it, I do find the kitchen really endlessly creative,” she says. And while life is different in quarantine, Barocas sees the potential for positives. She says: “Is it the same? Oh gosh, no. But can it still be good? Yes! We can make this time OK.”