SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
You know, even Nigella Lawson has had recipes for crock pot cooking. They're a convenience for many families. You throw in some kind of protein, beans, spices; hours later - dinner. This kind of meal is part of a long and cherished tradition among many Jewish families known in Yiddish as cholent. The meal is cooked for a full day before being served on the Sabbath when, for Orthodox Jews, lighting a fire or cooking is prohibited. Reporter Deena Prichep reports on a dish full of beans and affection.
DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: For Devora Wilhelm and for observant Jews across the world, Friday afternoon usually sounds like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRACKLING)
DEVORA WILHELM: Now, I fry a bunch of onions, and we're going to peel potatoes.
PRICHEP: Wilhelm, like many religious Jews, doesn't do any sort of work on the Sabbath, from Friday night to Saturday night - including turning on the stove. So, how do you have a hot lunch on Saturday? You make a long-cooked stew, starting a full day ahead. It's called cholent.
WILHELM: I'm going to throw in pinto beans and barley. And I'm going to put in potatoes, some chicken.
PRICHEP: Over a day of slow cooking, flavors infuse, beans soften, and tough cuts of meat become tender. The version Wilhelm is making goes back to a family friend from Eastern Europe. But cholent itself, in one form or another, goes back much further.
GIL MARKS: The dish comes out of the Middle East, and then it spreads to North Africa, and by the ninth century it's already found in Spain.
PRICHEP: Food historian Gil Marks has traced different versions of cholent, from theses starting places on through Eastern Europe and into America. The names vary, from cholent to adafina to hamim. And so do the seasonings.
MARKS: If you go to Morocco, you'll find cumin, maybe coriander or cinnamon mixed in. Once you get to Hungary, you'll find paprika.
PRICHEP: And Marks maintains that cholent didn't just change shape in different countries - it gave rise to new dishes. From French cassoulet:
MARKS: We do find a number of French sources from the Catholic Church forbidding Christians from eating a long-cooked bean dish because it's Jewish.
PRICHEP: To Boston baked beans, which the Puritans picked up during their time in Holland.
MARKS: They took a dish of beans cooked in goose fat with honey. And they don't have goose, so they substitute pork. And they don't have honey, so they substitute either maple syrup or molasses.
PRICHEP: Unfortunately, these cholent theories on Boston baked beans and cassoulet can be difficult to really prove. But cholent has changed modern American cooking in ways that are undeniable.
LENORE NAXON: My dad's name was Irving Naxon, and he was an inventor. He had over 200 patents.
PRICHEP: Lenore Naxon's father came up with patents for everything from washing machines to sending data over telephone wires. But one of his most popular ideas was inspired by his mother's stories of making cholent in Lithuania.
NAXON: She would walk it over to the village bakery, where, as the ovens were turned off for the Sabbath, the pot of cholent would be put in the oven, and that slow residual heat over the course of the 24 hours would be enough to cook the cholent.
PRICHEP: After services, the kids would pick up their pots for a warm Sabbath meal.
NAXON: So, my father heard that story, and thought, well, how can I take the crock and electrify it with some slow, even heat?
PRICHEP: His invention was called the Naxon Beanery, later renamed the Crock Pot. It's an idea that went from the Middle East to a little shtetl in Lithuania to millions of American homes. And in some of them, it's still being used to make cholent. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) And you can mark my words, that feast will happen real soon. Cholent-powered rockets will take me to the moon. Cholent, cholent, cholent.
SIMON: L'chaim. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.