After the birth of their daughter Sophia in March, Rachel Brodie and Adam Weisberg ate well for two weeks.
Members of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, they were grateful to be recipients of a practice called Shifra Puah, named after two midwives in the book of Exodus, in which a community organizes delivering a few week’s worth of home-cooked meals to a couple with a newborn.
But when the last of the prepared food was eaten and digested, the couple found themselves too busy and exhausted to cook.
It was after what Brodie said seemed like their umpteenth burrito that Weisberg said, “I can’t believe how we’re eating.”
“It was more like grazing,” said Brodie. “We were eating whatever was in the house. It wasn’t healthy, and it was expensive because we were eating a lot of take-out. Adam said, ‘There has to be a way to get Shifra Puah to come back.'”
So they came up with a plan, and both being Jewish educators — she at the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco and he as director of Hillel at U.C. Berkeley — they gave it a Hebrew name, Mitbach Meshutaf, meaning “shared kitchen.”
They thought of a few friends who might be interested in participating in their experiment, but they had to meet certain criteria. They had to be within a five-minute drive in their north Berkeley neighborhood. They had to be kosher vegetarians who still ate fish. They had to be more than mere acquaintances, as they would receive a house key to deliver food when they weren’t home. And they had to be good cooks, or at least, Brodie said, “people whose food we had eaten and liked.”
The idea was that each household would be responsible for cooking for eight people one night a week. After cooking, participants would deliver the food to the three other houses before 6 p.m. In exchange, each household would receive cooked meals three other nights.
When Brodie called her friend Robin Mencher in May to propose it, she told her, “I have a crazy idea.” She suggested that Mencher and her housemate, Debra Perrin, try it out for one month.
Perrin said that excluding restaurants or eating at a friend’s home, she hadn’t eaten a healthy meal in months. She thought, “What a novel idea. But wait, cooking for eight is a large number; what a pain.”
But after some discussion, the two decided “it sounded like a brilliant idea,” said Mencher, who, along with Perrin, is a high school teacher.
So did the other two households Brodie approached, and after the initial trial month, they all agreed to continue.
Brodie and Weisberg are the link to everyone involved, but some of participants barely know each other.
“It’s funny,” said Mencher. “I walk through their houses when they’re not there, and eat food they’ve made for me, but I don’t know some of them very well.”
But they’ve come to know each other’s eating habits. Organic and low-fat are preferred, but not required. However, several items — including some staples of vegetarian cuisine, like eggplant and mushrooms — are banned, because of dislikes or allergies. Green peppers can be used, but must be “pick-outable.”
Each meal must consist of a protein, a starch and a vegetable. And each household must make fish one time in each rotation.
At the start of the week, participants e- mail each other with the genre of food, so that there won’t be any duplications. All four houses chipped in $12 at the beginning for plastic containers that rotate between houses.
And sometimes the chefs get more creative than usual, tucking in personalized menus with jokes, or adding strange items that one would not usually think of. Mencher and Perrin sent out dried cantaloupe one week for dessert — which is not required — which Perrin dubbed “cantaloupe for soldiers.”
They also sometimes use holidays for inspiration. Mencher recalled that one of their fish nights fell on Bastille Day, so adopting a French Revolutionary theme, she and Perrin made Salad Niçoise with “Guerrilla-ed Tuna, served with Sourdough Bread of the People with Goat Cheese.”
The group continually discusses ways in which Brodie and Weisberg’s original concept can be improved. But for the most part, it’s worked out incredibly well. Not only does the system save time — fewer pots and pans to clean, less time cooking — it also saves money.
“Cooking once for eight comes out cheaper than cooking four times for two,” said Mencher.
Mencher said she also appreciated the variety, because “other people make things I wouldn’t necessarily think of.”
Brodie added that “the surprise factor is hilarious.” Although the theme has already been e-mailed out, “you come home from work and open the fridge and you don’t know exactly what you’re gonna get.”
And then, Perrin said, “it’s the best feeling in the world to come home when you’re exhausted from a long day at work and have a really lovely meal waiting for you.”
Though sometimes Mencher and Perrin choose to eat out during the week, they take the meal to lunch the next day.
“I feel like a superstar in the lunchroom, having some rockin’ meal,” said Perrin. “People ask me, ‘Did you make that?’ and I tell them my whole story.”
Many of Brodie’s friends were skeptical when they first heard about Mitbach Meshutaf, but now they’re asking how to start their own. Brodie has written out guidelines and will e-mail them to anyone who asks, in exchange for an $18 contribution to Mazon, the Jewish hunger relief organization. E-mail her at email@example.com.