From M.D. to Baker, Beth Ricanati’s Memoir of Challah

California-based physician Beth Ricanati is the author of Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs (She Writes Press, 2018), a chronicle of her decade of weekly challah baking and its spiritual benefits. Elizabeth Michaelson asks her some questions.

What’s the story behind Braided?

About five years ago, I realized that baking challah had taught me a lot of lessons that were universal; maybe they would be helpful to someone else.

What life lessons?

When I started baking challah, I was stressed and unhealthy, as both a doctor and a mom. By making challah, I was able to reclaim some sense of self. I realized that making challah was a ritual—and this got me thinking about the importance of having a ritual in one’s life.

It also got me thinking about community. I’d serve the challah on Friday nights, and if my kids had friends over for dinner, they’d have challah, too. Then I’d get these calls on Saturday from my kids’ friends’ mothers, and they’d say ‘I don’t know what it was you made last night, but I want to learn how to do it.’ So I’d make challah with some of my children’s friends’ mothers, and [now] I make challah with other women here in Los Angeles or as I travel around the country sharing Braided; we are building community together.

We’re not just building community, we’re sustaining it, too. In 2019, the world is pretty stressful. You can see that just by opening the newspaper. But on Friday I can make challah here in L.A., and I know that Meredith is making it in N.Y., and Miriam is making it in Tel Aviv, and Allegra is making it in London. We’re all doing this activity for the same reason, and the world doesn’t feel like such a scary place.

There’s a real value in having sustaining ritual. It’s a different way of practicing medicine.

Do you read other people’s food memoirs?

I love them—Anthony Bourdain, Peter Mayle, Ruth Reichl, Kathleen Flinn, Kate Christenson… I have several of Laurie Colwin’s books. But I didn’t see what I was doing as a food memoir at first. In fact, it wasn’t until after my manuscript was complete that I realized that what I had braided together—a memoir, a cookbook of sorts, and a self-help/how-to book—could fit into this category.

You grew up Reform, but in the book it’s clear you’re more observant now. Was that prompted by the challah?

I probably started inching towards it before then. My husband grew up keeping kosher, and when our kids were very little, we found Judaism such a wonderful framework for parenting. But what challah gave us was the ready-made Shabbat practice. When there’s fresh challah, it’s very easy.