The life of a food critic from Greenbelt

From left, Nancy Solomon talks to food critics Phyllis Richman and Todd Kliman, who grew up as members of Mishkan Torah in Greenbelt.

Phyllis Richman and Todd Kliman’s experiences growing up as members of Mishkan Torah Synaoguge couldn’t be more different. Richman and her family helped to build the synagogue, while Kliman didn’t begin Hebrew school until he was nearly 10 years old.

Yet, somehow the two both became successful, and nationally acclaimed food critics. Nearly 140 people gathered at the Greenbelt synagogue on Sunday to hear about their journeys, how their upbringing played into their relationship with food and where to get the best bagels in the area.

The discussion, moderated by Nancy Solomon, the office manager, covered a wide variety of topics and decades, beginning with Richman’s birth in 1939.

“Everybody’s been fascinated that we came from the same town, not only the same town but the same shul and I thought it would be interesting to get her in the room with me and dive into that, figure out what made that happen. We’ve had some fascinating conversations over the years,” Kliman said.

As he rose through the world of food criticism, he said he was aware that Richman had grown up in Greenbelt. And he knew her history.

She had begun her works as a food critic at the Baltimore Jewish Times and soon moved to become the food critic at the Washington Post. But, it wasn’t until they met in 2003, that they discovered their shared congregation.

During the afternoon event, Richman recalled that her passion for food began with a childhood maid who enjoyed cooking, and she picked up her passion for the trade.

“All she wanted to do was cook, she didn’t want to clean,” Richman said, “We ate very well in those days.”

She recalled how she set up a lemonade stand to raise funds to build the synagogue and how her Sweet 16 party was one of first events held there.

Kliman recalled how he and his parents would sneak out for barbeque, as their house had been kashered under the demands of his devout older brother.

“I had a choice to make,” he said. “Was I going to follow his path or my path? The ribs were very influential.”

Neither of them directly addressed the synagogue as their inspiration for becoming a food critic, it was more of their Jewish heritage and upbringing that instilled them with a love for food and the community built from that.

Much of the talk of the day also focused on the concept of Jewish food and on the “Jewish table,” a term coined by Solomon.

Kliman said, “So to me, the idea is that the table is the locus of the house. I grew up with a family, where we didn’t like to have the plates cleared…It’s this thing that binds people. Everything I know about the world, how to think about the world came from [the family] table.”

After the talk ended, the audience, made up of members and non-members alike sat down for a meal of homemade Jewish foods, including rugelach, matzah ball soup, smoked salmon, kugel and charoset.

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