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Savoring the Melting Pot: Unearthing the Delicious Tapestry of Jewish-Italian Cuisine




Benedetta Jasmine Guetta, an Italian food writer and photographer. She was born in Milan, but she lives in Santa Monica, California. In 2009, she cofounded a website called Labna, the only Jewish/Kosher cooking blog in Italy, specializing in Italian and Jewish cuisine. Since then, she has been spreading the word about the marvels of Italian Jewish food in Italy and abroad, teaching the recipes of the cuisine to a growing number of people in cooking schools, synagogues, and community centers, among other institutions. Her work has been featured in numerous news outlets in Italy and abroad, including the Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Elle à Table, Saveur, and Tablet. Benedetta has previously coauthored two cookbooks in Italian, and Cooking alla Giudia is her first English-language cookbook. Benedetta also owns a small coffee shop in Santa Monica, called Café Lovi, specializing in sandwiches made with challah bread.


Listen to the full episode here.


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IN THIS EPISODE

[01:43] Benedetta Jasmine Guetta on what she’s most passionate about

[02:10] Benedetta Jasmine Guetta on when her passion started

[03:38] Benedetta Jasmine Guetta on what inspired her to switch careers

[04:56] Benedetta Jasmine Guetta on how she started her blog Labna

[07:53] Benedetta Jasmine Guetta on the intersection of Italian and Jewish Cuisine

[14:23] Benedetta Jasmine Guetta on her research for her book

[19:36] Benedetta Jasmine Guetta on the story that most impacted her on her travels

[22:47] Benedetta Jasmine Guetta on how she book her talking events

[24:35] Benedetta Jasmine Guetta on what drew her to the U.S.

[26:29] Benedetta Jasmine Guetta on where she’s traveling to next

[27:08] Benedetta Jasmine Guetta on what inspired her to open Café Lovi

[30:57] Benedetta Jasmine Guetta on her experience as a photographer and food stylist

[34:16] Benedetta Jasmine Guetta on her biggest professional challenge

[36:35] Benedetta Jasmine Guetta on her childhood in a Jewish community

[41:23] Benedetta Jasmine Guetta on what advice she’d give to younger girls

[43:02] Benedetta Jasmine Guetta on she will have another book coming out

[46:25] Benedetta Jasmine Guetta on the cuisine of Libya

[49:03] Benedetta Jasmine Guetta on traditions of her family

[49:34] Benedetta Jasmine Guetta on where she could be anywhere in the world and eating anything


TRANSCRIPT

Passionistas: Hi, we're sisters Amy and Nancy Harrington, the founders of the Passionistas Project Podcast, where we give women a platform to tell their own unfiltered stories. On every episode, we discuss the unique ways in which each woman is following her Passionistas talk about how she defines success and explore her path to breaking down the barriers that women too often face.


Today we're talking with Benedetta Jasmine Guetta, an Italian food writer and photographer. She was born in Milan, but lives in Santa Monica, California. In 2009, she co-founded the website Labna, the only Jewish kosher cooking blog in Italy, specializing in Italian and Jewish cuisine. Since then, she's been spreading the word about the marvels of Italian Jewish food in Italy and abroad, teaching the recipes of the cuisine to a growing number of people in cooking schools, synagogues, and community centers among other institutions.


Her work has been featured in numerous news outlets in Italy and abroad, including the Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Elle à Table, Saveur, and Tablet. Benedetta has previously co-authored two cookbooks in Italian, and Cooking alla Giudia is her first English language cookbook. Benedetta also owns a small coffee shop in Santa Monica, California called Cafe Lovi, specializing in sandwiches made with hollow bread.


So please welcome Benedetta Jasmine Guetta.


Benedetta Jasmine Guetta: Hi. Thank you for having me today.


Passionistas: We are so excited to talk to you about this. We love cooking. We love Jewish heritage, we love Italian heritage, and so this is just the perfect interview for us. What are you most passionate about?


Benedetta: Well, I guess that's an easy one. That's a really easy one. The thing I'm most passionate about is definitely cooking. So, I, I have many passions. I like to think that most people have many passions. At the end of the day, life is long, and you get to, you know, cherish and get passionate about many things. But definitely the one thing that has been a constant in my life is cooking.


Passionistas: So, when did that passion start? Have you been fascinated with cooking since you were a little girl?


Benedetta: So, I have a, I have a mother that cooks. Very well. Uh, I wanna say most Italians probably would say the same, so I don't think that makes me unique. But, uh, so I've always looked up to her and I've, you know, seen her cooking.


However, she is also a stay-at-home mom, so for her, the kitchen was pretty much her territory and her kingdom. So, it was always a bit of a, not really a conflict, but a bit of a, you know, um, a push and pull situation where I wanted to find space for myself in her kitchen. And she was like, yeah, no, this is my place.


You can look, uh, and perhaps, you know, have small tasks, but you will not really be allowed in the kitchen. So, I had to wait virtually until I moved out of my own parents' home to really be able to, um, to pursue my interest for cooking. And then I've done it, you know, every minute I had in all of my spare time, you know, whenever I had the chance ever since.


So, I've, I've seen it happening all over my childhood. But to really own the kitchen, I had to wait until I moved out.

Passionistas: But you didn't, um, start doing cooking as a career for a while. You initially started studied literature and worked in digital marketing. So tell us a little bit about that career and then what inspired you to make the switch?


Benedetta: Yeah, I think like you mentioned, the fact that, you know, you, you focus on women on these um, um, interviews and I think it's important, especially for women to be able, and maybe it's a luxury at some point in life, to figure what is your true passion, because I was doing, I've, I've been working for over 10 years as a marketing specialist, and I knew that I was doing a good job.


I mean, I'm a diligent student and I'm a diligent performer of any tasks that you're, you're gonna throw at me. So, I was like, I can do this job, I'll do it. Well, um, it works. It pays the bills, and it gives me some satisfaction. Yet it didn't make my heart skip a beat, it didn't make my eyes shine. Um, and I knew what I really like to do.


Cause as soon as I got home from work, I would go ahead and do something else, which was my blog. Um, and that really made me happy. Um, it, it gave more meaning to my life than my daytime job. So as soon as I was able to sort of afford the risk of, uh, taking some time off my other job, um, I tried to turn my real passion into a job.


Um, that took a while and I think it took more than anything, a big leap of faith. Um, but that was probably the most important thing I've done for myself in my life. Cause I could have happily continued to do what I was doing, but that wouldn't have really fulfilled me, um, as much.


Passionistas: So how did you start the blog and what is the blog?


Benedetta: So, the blog actually started in 2009, and I like to joke and say it's been my longest lasting relationship, uh, more than any boyfriend or anything else in life. Um, so it's been a while. And, uh, it started off, uh, actually not even out of my own intention, but from the intention of my, uh, best friend Manuel, uh, he was teaching cooking classes and I was tagging alone cause I really liked cooking, so I was looking for every possible chance.


uh, to cook. Um, and so as he was teaching cooking classes, we, I was assisting him and we were recording the recipes that we were teaching so that the people that came along to one of our classes could just have, um, a place to find those recipes. Cause in my experience, every time you give somebody a recipe on a piece of paper, it just gets.


Terribly lost. It never ever makes it home. So, so we started recording our recipes and we didn't really know what people were interested in. Um, in particular, we were teaching our cooking classes to the Jewish community in Italy. Um, so it was a mix of things, but we never really wanted intentionally to focus on Jewish food.


Um, however, over the years we found that, that there was in Italy a growing interest towards kosher and Jewish cuisine. Uh, mostly because Italy has a very small Jewish community. There's about 35,000 Jews uh, in the entirety of the country. And there's a lot of curiosity towards the Jewish world. Cause as a, you know, as a Christian, um, I mean, Italy is a Christian state and so most people are just, you know, belong to another religion and they could just go their whole life without ever meeting the Jew.


So, we found ourselves online as their spoke people of the Jews in Italy in a way. So, we were not planning on writing about Jewish stuff, but, you know, the Jewish holidays came along, and we were telling people how we celebrated the Jewish New Year, and, and there was so much curiosity. It was like, oh, do you guys have another new year?


Like, do you, do you celebrate the other one and this one? And like, do you, you know, in Italy you eat lentils for New Year? And they're like, do you eat lentils? And we were like, nope um, it's a Jewish thing. We eat other food that have other meanings, so, as that happened, we started to stir our content more towards the Jewish, um, sort of field.


Mostly because, like I said, because that was the demand, uh, and it's been very satisfying and fulfilling cause there's so much, like I said, curiosity, um, towards the Jewish culture. And it's been a, a honor really to, to be able to answer that curiosity.


Passionistas: So, describe the intersection of Italian and Jewish cuisine so that people can understand it. And, and why was that, is that so appealing to you?


Benedetta: Uh, first of all, I just wanted to say I really appreciated what you said at the beginning. You know that these are two really appealing cultures. Everybody loves Italian food. Everybody loves Jewish food. Um, if you could have two grandmas, those are the two grandmas you would want to have, right?


You would have, you want to have a Jewish grandma and an Italian grandma. I always like to say. So, um, what is interesting about Jewish, Italian food, um, however, the way I have tried to present it and explain it is that it's not a fusion cuisine. Like, don't imagine, you know, matza balls spaghetti. Uh, I'm just making it up.


Um, what is interesting about it is, and that most people don't know, is that Italy has a really old Jewish, um, culture. Um, Jews have lived in Italy since the Republican days, so, um, very, very many, um, centuries ago. And, uh, the fact that we have had this very ancient culture has, um, has allowed the Jewish, Italian, um, community to grow and evolve in different ways from all of the other communities that we generally think of when we think of Jewish culture or Jewish food, um, in America, mostly due to the fact that the vast majority of the Jewish population is of Ashkenazi origin.


We tend to associate the Jewish culture and Jewish food in particular to the Ashkenazi, um, influence. So, people would think again about Matza bowls or they would think about fil the fish, I dunno, all of those things, black and white cookies. Um, while. The Italian Jewish, Italian culture is an entire other thing.


Like on my table, you would never find matzo balls. They're not a thing. Um, so I try to present a different way of being Jewish in a way, which is the Jewish, Italian way. Um, and it's something that goes through every aspect of life. It, um, reflects in the cuisine most visibly, but it also reflects, for example, in the way we pray, our prayers and songs are different.

So, uh, it's a very specific and unique niche, um, or identity within the Jewish identity. So, when it comes to food, uh, the question was, what do I call Jewish, Italian food? When I started writing my book, my editor was like, can we narrow it down? Cause I had like 400 recipes I wanted in the book. And she reminded me that the book would've been tiny it up too thick if I tried to put 400 recipes in it.


So, I try to answer this really sort of fundamental question of what is Jewish, Italian food. And I eventually went down with two really, um, substantial sort of trends. One is the food that is historically Italian, Jewish. So, food that we attribute to the Jews as the creators or the inventor of, of that specific food or sometimes even that specific ingredient.


So, where there's like some sort of a physiological approach and we can see that the food has a specific Jewish identity within the Italian context. Um, and then I try to also give some space to the way the Jews have evolved Italian food. To meet their needs and standards. Cause obviously being Jewish comes with, uh, a number of rules.


Uh, we have to follow about the way we eat. So, um, the prescriptions of, um, eating kosher have also in a way change the way somebody in Italy eats as a Jew versus the way somebody eats in Italy as a regular Italian. So, these were the two aspects that I tried to record in the book. And, uh, and it's, it's been very fascinating cause it's a very small, uh, but interesting niche that people don't really know about.


When I moved to the US and I started telling people that I was writing this book, there was just so much, I don't wanna call it ignorance cause it's wrong, but there was just so much awareness of the existence of my culture. People were like, oh, are there Jews in Italy? And I was like, yeah, um, here's one.


Um, and, and the ones that had accidentally, you know, been on a tour of Rome and probably walked through the ghetto and knew that there are Jews in Italy. They still knew nothing about our culture and nothing about the way we eat, so I really felt that there was an opportunity to present, um, our story to wider the audience.


In addition, the fact that we are such a tiny community, um, has somehow given me a certain amount of anxiety because a lot of the traditional recipes and stories that have been there for centuries are somehow on the verge of getting lost. Cause like I said, the numbers are shrinking. The community is more people, many just don't care.


They, they're, they don't have such a strong, uh, connection to their religion. So I also felt it was a tremendous opportunity to be able to present the Jewish Italian culture to the US in particular. Cause here there is an audience, there are people that care. And so there is a chance that all of these stories and recipes, um, are gonna.


Reach a wider audience and live on, um, better than they would have, uh, in the sort of shrinking, uh, Italian environment.

Passionistas: Wow. Yeah. It's a very, um, powerful book. I was surprised how moving it was to, uh, to read it because one of the things I love about what you did is you give the history of Judaism in Italy, which I think is beautiful.


The Jewish people in Italy, you also talk about. The food regionally and the communities regionally, which I think is really fascinating and I think people think of sometimes just kind of generalize a culture like, oh, Italians all eat spaghetti and meatballs, like you were saying earlier. But Northern Italians eat different food than Southern Italians.


So then to add into that what the Jewish community eats in northern Italy versus in southern Italy. I think you did beautifully. And in each case, you also talk about the history of that area. So, um, so we, you learn a lot beyond just the recipes themselves. So, talk about writing the historical elements of the book too.


What kind of research did you do to do that?


Benedetta: Um, so first of all, I'm very glad that somebody appreciates the effort that went into that. Uh, when I was narrowing down the famous 400 recipes that I had at the beginning, another one of my concerns was to give a fair amount of representation, uh, to every part of the country.


Um, specifically cause like you noted, Italy has a very fragmented territory. Um, it's been historically fragmented at all times. Um, and uh, so every area of Italy, every region would have its own very specific, um, you know, first of all, weather, climate, um, ingredients and therefore flavors. Uh, and that applies to Italian food at large, just as much as it applies to, um, the Jewish, uh, specific aspects of food.


Um, in particular, one of the, one of the reasons why I like connecting the geography to the history, um, is that it's hard to really understand food, uh, unless you appreciate the context in which it developed, uh, both historically and geography, geographically. Um, so whenever I have a chance, I like to give things some sort of a frame.


Um, in addition to that, the other reason why I decided to sort of provide a bit of, uh, context again, was that people are very curious of Italy. Um, there's always a great interest in Italy as a country and, but it tends to be always done with a very broad brush. Like you said, it's spaghetti and pizza. Um, and there isn't usually as much depth, um, when, when it comes to, um, our geography and our history. So, I try to give some, you know, to shed that bit of light, uh, on those topics. Now, in terms of, uh, to answer your question in terms of research, um, History in a way is easy to research, especially if you just need to provide a bit of context. Uh, it, it, it doesn't take, uh, a huge amount of genius, but what I felt was valuable in what I did in preparation for the book was I went and visited a lot of, uh, Jewish communities and people all around the.


Um, and I, I really try to collect more of their firsthand experience of, uh, you know, being Jewish, wherever is it that they lived. And, uh, that really speaks, um, their, their food speaks about their land very often. So, for example, if you visit, uh, Lombardi, my region, uh, you would find that there are many dishes featuring pumpkin.


Uh, and that's because it was the Jews who originally, um, really uh, started to promote pumpkin as an ingredient in the region. And it's just region where it geographically grows easily. It's easier for, it just fits the territory. Um, and so you would find all of these Jewish dishes with pumpkin that you wouldn't find in southern Italy. Um, by the same token, for example, in Venice, uh, Venice was so close to, um, Northern Europe, to the German and the Austrian influence that you would find the number of Jewish dishes with goose cause the Germans were used to farming geese. And so, the Jews of Italy took from the German juice the habit of cooking with these ingredients.


So, wherever you go, you can really see how the, um, Territory on one hand has influenced the way people eat. And on the other hand, how the history has influenced it. Cause like I said, for example, in the case of the goose, it was the fact that so many German Jews were moving towards the peninsula in the Middle Ages, that we started to cook with those ingredients.

Uh, or by the same token again. Um, another good example would be the usage of almonds. There were all the Portuguese Jews that had to leave Spain and Portugal, in 1492. And so those Jews brought with them ingredients that other way we wouldn't have cooked with. So, you can just eat the food and it's great, but I don't think that, uh, placing it in contest just gives it more, um, more interest.


Passionistas: It's just so fascinating and just something that I think most people really don't even think about. You know? I know, I know. We recently just discovered that our ancestry goes back. To, to the Jewish people, and we grew up our entire lives being told we were Italian. You know, our, our mother's family was Italian.


We know the village where they come from. They've lived there for centuries, but we just recently found out that their name was Sacco. But it. Was originally East Saco, which is Isaac, and, and, and so it's like, it's kind of mind blowing and it's, it's something that like, well of course it makes sense historically when you think about it that yes, there were Jewish people in Italy, so.


Hundreds and thousands of years ago, but it's, it's fascinating to learn about it. Um, so is there a story, you said you traveled around talking to all these different women in your travels, is there a story that sort of sticks out as one that you really remember most fondly or had the most impact on you?


Benedetta: Sure. Uh, that's an easy one. The one that had the most impact on me, and actually the reason why I eventually in the back of my mind at least, decided to make this into a book, um, was a visit that I did to the Jewish community of Venice. Um, so the Jewish community of Venice is very small. There's like 400 Jews there, more or less, give or take, um, average age a million years.


Uh, don't quote me. Hopefully they don't listen. Uh, but yeah. Um, not in great shape, um, in many ways. So, but they do have very nice traditions, one of which is, Uh, for the Jewish holiday of Passover, they get together before the holiday and they, uh, bake, um, kosher for Passover cookies for the whole community.


So, the community gathers, the women work, uh, the rabbi, supervisors, um, and then the goodies are distributed, um, within the community. So of course, I wouldn't miss the opportunity to go learn all of these recipes that they make for this Jewish holiday. They bake like five different types of cookies, and they've been baking them for centuries.


So, I went there, and I spent the day with them, and I had a great time. I made the cookies. I ate the cookies, and you could see that there were all of these older ladies. Um, they knew that I have a website. This was way before I had the, I wrote the book, but I was collecting information and, uh, but they knew that I had a website, and I was taking pictures.


So, and it was very endearing cause they were like, oh, it's so great that you're recording these recipes. We can't wait for the world to see them. Cause you know, either on the internet or once they're on the internet, everyone will know about them. And I was like, damn. I mean, I don't wanna tell them that.


It's just gonna be like probably a few thousand breeders. Um, cause they just had this really idea, this idea that really, I would give them a window, um, on the world that their recipes would, you know, Be passed on for potentially a really wide audience for very many generations. So, and, and it's true in a way that those recipes.


Don't, I don't think that those recipes have a really long future ahead, unless it is through what I can do for them, like through the service that I can do to their community to have those recipes, um, live on and reach wider their audience. So, I felt invested of this sort of responsibilities from these grandmas that I would take the recipes to the world.


And again, the world was a bit ambitious. It's not really the world. But they crossed the ocean, which is, I guess further than they would've ever, um, made it if they stayed in Venice. So that's, I guess, progress.


Passionistas: Well, and that's amazing. I mean, think about that, think about getting a thousand people to know about those recipes is huge. It it, the oral tradition of passing them down from generation to generation didn't impact that many people at a time. So, the work you do,


Benedetta: Yeah, I guess it's.


Passionistas: Yeah, it's so incredible. So, talk about how you do get out and share this information with people cause you said you do a lot of speaking in, in temples and different places. So how does, how do you book those events and everything?


Benedetta: I do. So, since the book came out, uh, I've especially, I, I mean, I always did it, but also since the book came out, I've, I've been going around teaching to virtually anyone who invites me, and I'm, I'm very available. So, um, I guess I've visited either in person or online.


Uh, a ridiculous number of Jewish communities, uh, all around the US. In Italy, I used to teach mostly to, you know, the communities within Rich in Italy. But, um, the US is obviously a much wider scene, so also through the help of the Jewish Book Council, which is a great association. Um, I have presented the, or cooked along or done demos or, you know, whatever other format, um, in a number of, uh, places.


Um, def it, it did help that the book last, uh, like a few months ago, one, the ju, the National Jewish Book Award in the. So that, that beside being a, you know, a, a, a great, uh, an exciting thing has, um, given some, uh, more attention to the topic, which has allowed me to, again, reach a wider audience. Um, I've always felt that it was a bit of a mission to, to really educate on, on, on the topic of Jewish Italian food. So, the fact that there is interest and the fact that there is demand just means the world to me. Like literally every time somebody reaches out and says, hey, would you like to do that? I'm like, yes. Don't tell me anything else. Just tell me where and when, uh, I'll be there.


Passionistas: That's great. And so, you're so entrenched in Italian culture, but you move out of Italy and go to the US. So what drew you to the US and what specifically drew you to California?


Benedetta: Uh, so I've actually moved out of Italy much earlier than when I moved to the US in that I have lived in Germany and in Israel before.


Um, I love Italy. Uh, I love our culture, yet I've always been eager to expand my, um, I guess, ex, or horizons as they say. So, I've lived abroad ever since I was, I think 18. Um, I, and that has been very enriching. I, I just love the fact that, uh, um, I've, I've, I've had the privilege to live in so many different places.


Um, however, So I eventually moved. Let's do it like that. I eventually moved to the US for love, um, cause my partner, um, lives here. Um, we, we lived in Israel together for a year and then we, um, moved to the US mostly. Cause his job takes him here um, and he has a daughter. So, I committed to living in California for the next five years until his daughter goes to college.


Uh, I didn't choose California, and I don't mean to be ungrateful. It's, it's lovely. Uh, but I'm not sure it would've been my number one choice. Um, so I can't really own it as much, but, but it's it, but it's as good as it could be. Um, and I must say over the years it has grown on me. Um, there's still many things that are difficult for a European, I wanna say.


Um, one of them is traffic and the fact that everything is just so far. Um, but, um, but it's been a very enriching experience and I feel as time goes by, I grow more and more Californian. So, I think that by the time we will probably move out in five years, I will definitely miss this.


Passionistas: And do you have, do you have a place you're gonna go next?


Benedetta: Um, we, well, we have not really figured it out. We thought we would live in Israel, but for a number of reasons, eventually Israel didn't logistically work out for us. That's where my hide is um, I, I, I just really loved living in Israel, but uh, but we will see, we might end up gypsy, like we often say we do, um, between different places, like, uh, a bit in Italy obviously, cause I've got my family and a bit here cause my partner's daughter will still be here most likely. And, uh, and we'll see.


Passionistas: So, um, so while you're in California, what inspires you to open Cafe Lovie?


Benedetta: Um, I dunno how to put this in a nice way, but as a European, you don't have very many options to be legal in this country. Um, so when I moved to the US I moved as a student. Um, but you can't study indefinitely despite the fact that I love studying.


Um, and so. To make sure that the United States Customs Office or whatever they're called, the border patrol, don't kick me out. Um, I had to pick a visa and a very easy visa to work with uh, is the investor visa. So, I fig, which substantially says I'm gonna put money and open a business. Um, and I'll contribute to the United States by creating jobs and, and employing people and things.


So that made sense for me. I enjoy cooking now. I'm more of a writer and a photographer and a historian than I'm an actual cook. Um, I'm not trained as a chef. I'm more of a geek. Um, but I was lucky to meet the guy that works with me, who is a chef. His name is Toffer. Um, and together we opened my cafe lobby, which is this tiny, um, coffee shop that I have in Santa Monica.


Um, and again, for a number of circumstances, the place doesn't really fit the whole kitchen. It's very tiny. Um, we literally can barely move the two of us in the back of the shop, so all we could fit in there was sandwich making. And so I was like, I know exactly what sandwiches I like. I like challah. Challah is my favorite thing in the world.


I could eat challah for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. If I were to end up on a desert island, the one food I would like with me is challah. So, So I told Toffer we're gonna make sandwiches on Challah. And he never, he didn't even know what Challah is. So, I was like, here, try. Um, and he was sold and then he told me, you know, what would make it even better?

We're gonna toast it with butter. And I was like, butter. Um, and so he was right. I mean, challah is amazing, but if you toast it with butter, just even more amazing. So that's how we started making our sandwiches. And that's. What do we do? Um, then obviously being Italian, I was obsessed with coffee, and I wanted a good coffee.


Um, and so we make coffee and sandwiches. That's what we do. It. It's been actually very cute how, um, the neighborhood and, and people are supportive of small businesses. I've never worked in a small business. I've, all of my previous jobs were big corporate jobs. Um, And, and it's been very, um, endearing to see, um, how nice people actually are.


A lot of the time we imagine a world full of Karens that scream at people and tell you how they want their cappuccinos. Uh, but most of the time, uh, people are really nice and really appreciative. So, it's been actually very fulfilling to have a job that has. Put me more in touch with, uh, the sort of end consumer, uh, that, that has taught me a lot.


Passionistas: We're Amy and Nancy Harrington, and you're listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast. In our interview with Benedetta Jasmine Guetta.


Visit her food blog, Labna, to get a copy of her new book, Cooking alla Giudia connect with her on Instagram at Labna.

So, you mentioned earlier that you are a photographer and food stylist as well, right? So, can you tell us a little bit about that?


Benedetta: Um, yeah, sure. So, when I first started my blog in 2009, I wanna say that those were really not actual jobs. Uh, at least not in Italy. It wasn't a thing. But, uh, if you liked creating content for the online world, you ended up trying to be not only a cook cause you had to cook, but you also wanted to present your food, uh, in an appealing way.


And over, when I say over the last 10, 15 years, the standards have become stellarly high. Um, you couldn't just show a recipe. You had to show it with all of the fancy. You know, um, aspects to it, and there's something about the way you present food that also really needs to tell the story of that food. So, the narration of, of a recipe, uh, really sort of seemed to, um, involve not only, you know, the ingredients and the procedure of how a recipe is made, but um, the story that you can convey through the images.


At the end of the day, if you're not gonna taste the food, uh, you want the, um, readers to at least be able to imagine it. Uh, and the best service you can offer to the imagination is to provide images. So, so when I, when I was, uh, you can see at the very beginning in the early recipes of my blog, the pictures were dreadful.


Um, and then I had to teach myself how to take better pictures and how to style the food. So, it would be better cause you might have an amazing stew, stews are particularly nasty. Um, you might have an amazing stew, but it's brown and it looks the red for so. You wanna give that stew a chance of appealing to people, yet it can be rather unappealing unless you start, you know, sprinkling some parsley on top and putting it in a fancy bowl and having a prettier background than your kitchen marble.


So, uh, so eventually all of these things ended up, uh, uh, like, I mean, I, I ended up growing into all of these fields just because I wanted to offer a reader better. Um, Better experience of the food despite the fact that they wouldn't be eating the food. Um, so, so I pretty much started to learn, and as always, when you enjoy something, learning is easy.


Um, And, and in that one of the, and it just brings to my mind the fact that we were talking about the fact that eventually I should pass on, um, the testimony to someone that you can interview next. Um, there have been so many women, especially, um, in this field, that I have inspired me, that I really look up to, and that have brought me from, you know, my early days of my blog looking absolutely dreadful.


To, uh, food photography that I appreciate and I'm proud of, um, today. So that's, I guess, one of the many things that not only my passion, but the passion of other people have, um, allowed me to learn, uh, and to grow into.


Passionistas: Along your journey, what do you think has been your biggest professional challenge and how have you overcome it?


Benedetta: That's a very hard question that no one has ever asked me before. Um, I think I'm thinking, so the first thing that comes to mind is insecurity. Like a lot of times I think, especially as a woman, I don't think that's such a manly experience, but especially as a woman, you question yourself and you're like, oh, am I good enough?


Is this thing that I did good enough? Um, is it finished really? Should it? Is it perfect? Should it be better? Could it be better? And so, I find that in many ways, I'm often the worst enemy of myself and I often stand in my own way. So, the biggest challenge has probably been to be able to say, look, we did what we could have.


We don't know if it's perfect and we don't know if people will care there. There's a number of things that are not in our control. But we just need to take the famous leap of faith that I mentioned at the beginning and let it go and see what happens. Cause uh, like many people try to explain to me that, um, I had a teacher that used to say that, um, that good is better than perfect, cause perfect you'll never really get.


Uh, but all of my life I've been striving for perfect. And that's where everything just does not happen. Like, that's where you get stuck. So, getting stuck in the search of perfection has often been very, very bad. Um, the book itself took me three years to write, and that's not like the research, it's the writing, the research was before.


And looking back, had I been maybe a little bit less strict with myself and a bit more understanding, it could have been done faster with most likely just the same results. Um, so yeah, just knowing when to stop and when to just let things take the course that they should, without being too afraid, too insecure to, you know, to uncertain. That would probably be helpful in general. And as a lesson for the future.


Passionistas: Given that there's such a small Jewish community in Italy, what was it like for you growing up as a young Jewish girl? In that country?


Benedetta Jasmine Guetta: Uh, good question. Uh, I love your question. You both have such thoughtful questions. I'm sorry. I just have to say cuz I get interviewed a lot, but these are such thoughtful questions.


It really feels like you spend the time to, you know, research things. Um, so the community is small, but it's tight and it's concentrated in substantially. Very few cities I grew up in the second biggest city. Uh, the, the biggest city is Rome. I grew up in Milan, which is the, like I said, the second biggest.


Um, and I was lucky to go to the Jewish school from elementary school all the way to middle school. Um, so, you know, my parents felt that I would get a Jewish, a proper Jewish education, but then my parents also wanted me to see the world. So in high school I went to public school. Um, so. I feel like I was lucky to have the best of both worlds in that I had a strong Jewish foundation to rely on.


Um, yet I was able to be, you know, a citizen of the world. Uh, in the rest of the time. The Jewish community of Italy in particular compared to that of the US is, um, I dunno, how do I explain our, our, our way of being Jewish is more black and white than things are here. Uh, when I moved to the US, I was very confused cause there are just so many different ways of being Jewish.


Here you can be a bit conservative and a bit modern and a bit reformed and I mean the, being Jewish here has just so many flavors and sauces. Uh, in Italy there is just one way of being Jewish. You can be Orthodox or. You're just Jewish, but you break the rules. So, there's either you stick to the rules or you break the rules.


But we don't call breaking the rules a denomination, I dunno how to say. Um, we just call it breaking the rules. So, and that's something Italians do really well, like that's our specialty. We break the rules all the time. So, the way you are raised as a Jew is you're told what are the things you should be doing?


And you're gonna be trying your best all your life. And then you're gonna have to deal with the fact that your best is insufficient. Uh, cause you're really not sticking to all of the rules, but, but by that time, you're old enough to make, you know, peace with it. So, I was brought up, like I said, in a, in a fairly orthodox context, our synagogues are.


Quite orthodox, um, our school, we would be taught all of the prayers and all of the proper things. Um, but then, you know, what's your thoughts? Sort of crashes clashes against reality. Cause in reality, it's harder to stick to all of those rules. So, I always felt like I was somehow a bad Jew. And now in the US I'm told I'm a reformed Jew and I'm like, great.


Um, so, so that's been lucky moving to the US and suddenly finding that I'm just not a bad girl. I'm, I'm, I'm among other bad people like me. Um, And, um, other than that, you as a Jew in Italy, like I said, first of all, we're very lucky in Italy there is very little anti, virtually none. Um, despite the fact that it's a Catholic country and it's been fairly bad to its Jews for centuries, I wanna say, to be during, in Italy today is relatively easy.


I mean, I was never, I never had any challenges. Um, Unlike, I would imagine you would've in France or in other, um, places in Europe. Uh, this however, is also sort of aided by the fact that most Jews of Italy lead the. Fairly secular life. So like I said, you can, you can be a Jew in Italy and people wouldn't really notice, like you're just an average Joe.


And none of us goes around. Uh, you know, I dunno. With the long sleeves and the long skirt and a wig, not many. So, so you're, you're fairly anonymous among people of other religions. Um, the only substantial difference would be like, I dunno, when I, when I went to high school, my snack wouldn't have prosciutto I, it, it would have Turkey deli, um, like daily Turkey or something like that.


But other than that, you're pretty much the same as everyone else. Um, so it's some somehow like, um, I wanna say meme experience, like you're just part of the context. You have your own special things, but they sort of build on the Italian identity. They don't, uh, substantially change it or they don't like, it's not like one identity robs you of the other.



Passionistas: What advice would you give to that young girl growing up in Milan?


Benedetta: Probably the one thing is to try and think even bigger. I always felt like I was thinking bigger than the average person there. Uh, but the world is so much bigger, and the opportunities are so much more numerous. Um, A lot of us, I think especially in Italy, but in in many countries, and I think Europe in general, we don't look a lot outside our comfort zone.

Um, even when I, even me moving abroad and changing countries and doing many things, it was ambitious, but it wasn't like the most ambitious thing one could have done. Um, and I think not being afraid of pushing the envelope, of trying new things, of going out of that comfort zone. Cause that's really where the fun happens is what I wish I could have done more for myself as a younger um, Person.


Um, I gave up on a few opportunities cause at the time I was like, oh, that's scary. I don't know. Is it safe? And safe is never a great place to be um, in general, I think that's what I feel like I've learned to, to, to grow and to, and to make progress. Safe is not, uh, the place to be. So be less safe would've been, uh, probably a good piece of advice.


Passionistas: So, you said that this book started with 400 recipes.


Benedetta: Probably even more, but yeah. Call it 400.


Passionistas: Round it down to 400. So, what are you gonna do with the rest of those? Will there, is there another book coming?


Benedetta: Uh, I don't think there's another, I don't think there's part two of this book. Um, I'm working on some Italian version of it, hopefully at some point.


And, uh, and there, there's a few other things that will rotate around it, but I think that book is done for now. So. Um, I have another project that I'm working on, which is even more niche, is even more weird and geeky. Um, so I don't know that it will have an audience at all. Uh, I'm still shopping around for a publisher, but, um, but the, the book is sort of happening in my head.


Um, we call it Wishful Thinking, um, which is a book about, uh, the, the cuisine and the traditions of the Jews of Libya. Um, my most people can't even place Libya on a, on a map, so don't worry. Uh, it's all good. You go home, you Google it. If you're one of those, it's no offense taken. Um, but Libya is the country where my father's family came from.


Um, it's a very interesting place and I think, um, actually it, it fits within the fact that there's. A number of people I think worldwide in the Jewish, um, world that are trying to claim back there, um, what they call the rahi, um, experience. So, the experience of the Jews that lived in the Arab world in North Africa.


Um, until fairly recently, most of these Jewish populations live there until the forties, the fifties, the sixties, um, and then they're gone. There are no more Jews left in those countries. Libya has zero Jews as of today. Um, all of those Jews had to flee those countries for their life. Um, and, uh, they, um, had a very, very specific experience cause these were people that left their countries not like me to, you know, have more opportunities or learn or have fun.


These were people that had to live their countries against their will. So, they have a very conflicted identity. Um, they moved somewhere else a lot. In the case of Libya, most of them moved to Italy cause it's just across the Mediterranean. And the many of them moved to Israel, some to the us. So, they embraced another culture.


They, a lot of them grew up in another culture cause they were younger, they moved, but their heart remains in the country of origin, and they have cherished their recipes, their traditions, their way of praying and all of that stuff. Um, for decades and for generations, um, while obviously not being allowed to go back to their motherland.


So, I dunno. It's, it's a culture that fascinates me and, uh, um, and the other half of my identity, the other half of the way I grew up. So, it's, uh, it's a cuisine that I'm very interested in that has virtually not really been. Um, recorded in writing just yet, um, mostly cause these populations were very lowly educated.


Um, so just mostly for lack of poor logistical opportunities. And so I am, um, yeah, I'm, I'm doing my documentation and collection of recipes and things and putting together a book proposal that hopefully somebody will buy.


Passionistas: Tell us a little bit about the cuisine of Libya. Something most people don’t know much about.


Benedetta: Yeah, no, I, I, I wouldn't, like I said, uh, it's not surprising cause it's just one of those countries that are not really much on a map. Also, for most people. Like, I mean, Libya, the very few times that Libya is in the news is because there's some crazy dictator that is like, you know, um, acting out. So, um, tough country to be in.


And, um, so their cuisine, their cuisine is obviously very Mediterranean. There's a great deal of tomato, a great deal of spices, um, a lot of stews and things that are very flavorful. Um, uh, cous obviously like everywhere else in the Mediterranean. Um, and, um, amazing sweets, uh, very, very, um, delicate, uh, crafty desserts.


Um, and, um, and, and, and a lot of very specific Jewish things, uh, that correlate to the Jewish holidays and to, um, to, you know, the specific Jewish dietary needs. So, and, and, and another aspect to it, which is not exactly the, um, the cuisine, but, um, but a lot of, uh, stories and, um, how do I say, traditions that are, that are very interesting.


Like these Jews were Jewish a hundred percent, but they did a number of other really weird things. Um, and they, they had their own customs and habits that are completely different from that of the Jews of other places. Um, like there are marriage traditions and holiday traditions, um, that I, uh, find very fascinating.


And some of them pertain to food. Some of them don't strictly pertain to food. Um, but for example, on, on, I dunno, at, at the end of Passover, you would, uh, bring your, um, spouse, uh, a bunch of salad and flowers. So, I was like, why, why would they bring a bunch of salad? Like you, you would go with a bowl of, um, lettuce.


So, your spouse, and I remember my grandfather did it at the end of Passover, he will come to my grandmother with flowers and a bunch of salads. So, um, just, just some really weird customs and some of them have to do with food. Or for example, if you're, if you're gonna get married, um, the, the week before the marriage, they used to make a stew with the heart of a cow cause that symbolized the way the cow, the heart was going from this, from the guy that was getting married to the, uh, to the bride. So, I dunno, a lot of weird, interesting customs and the, you know, the geek in me is big, uh, recording all of this stuff.


Passionistas: And what is the origin of bringing the salad? Do you know?


Benedetta: Yeah. That, that was, uh, that was a mar. It used to be before Passover was the time you asked for a woman. You asked a woman to marry, uh, to get married. And, uh, the, the custom would be to bring some, some food to the family. So, some people would bring a salad and for some reason, still, even though people are married at the end of Passover, you present the, the salad.


Passionistas: If you could be eating anything at all anywhere in the world right now, what would you wanna have?


Benedetta: What would I want to have? I would want to be with my mom like everybody does, I guess. Cause mom's food is the best food. Um, and what would I like to eat in particular? Um, my mother makes just so many yummy things. Um, probably my mother is lasagna. The cost of sounding like a cliche Italian person. I'm just gonna say lasagna and I'm gonna own it.


Passionistas: Thanks for listening to the Passionistas Project and our interview with Benedetta Jasmine Guetta.


Thanks for listening to the Passionistas Project podcast and our interview with Benedetta Jasmine Guetta. Visit her food blog, Labna to get a copy of her book Cooking alla Giudia. Connect with her on Instagram at Labna. And if you're in Los Angeles, have lunch at Cafe Lovi. And be sure to visit ThePassionistasProject.com to sign up for our mailing list.


Find all the ways you can follow us on social media and join our worldwide sisterhood of women working together to level the playing field for us all. We'll be back next week with another Passionista who is defining success on her own terms and breaking down the barriers for herself and women everywhere.


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