Once a month Dylan Maysick cooks Shabbat dinner for 90. This Sunday he'll be teaching a Montreal bagel class in an Albany Park shared kitchen. Last Friday he hosted a dinner party for ten featuring, in part, blintzes, stuffed cabbage rolls, and poppy-seed challah—a menu inspired by the pioneering Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook (1938) by Fania Lewanda, who ran a kosher vegetarian restaurant and cooking school in Lithuania before she was murdered in the Holocaust.
Maysick is the grandson of two Swedish-American Christian pastors from Grand Rapids. His grandmother was born at Swedish Covenant Hospital in North Park, and for college he moved to the neighborhood to attend North Park University (founded and guided by the Evangelical Covenant Church). Now he lives in neighboring Albany Park, originally settled by Swedish immigrants, who were eventually succeeded by Russian Jews.
Maysick isn't Jewish, but for the past year or so he's hosted meals and taught cooking classes under the rubric Diaspora Dinners. It's a pop-up series focused on the foods of the Jewish diaspora—and sometimes creative interpretations of them. He's served Sichuan peppercorn brisket for Jewish Christmas; fried chicken with pastrami baked beans and challah Texas toast for a celebration of southern American Jewish food; and eggplant schnitzel with za'atar, pickled mango, and tahini for a series of vegan Middle Eastern dinners.
"We would have never ever gotten there without the rules," he says of the last dish, an animal-free nod to the ever-present veal schnitzels he encountered on a trip to Israel the previous year. "Trying to work around restrictions is the birth of creativity." The kosher dietary restrictions are partially what appeals to him about the global adaptability of Jewish food. And yet, "I didn't grow up eating much ethnic food."
Maysick's first exercise working within a strict culinary framework was making vegan and gluten-free doughnuts he sold at a Brooklyn farmers' market after a stint as a public school teacher. In 2015 he returned to Chicago to reunite with his girlfriend (now his wife) and launched a wholesale doughnut business, eventually headquartering at Bridgeport Coffee's Beverly outpost. If you track his Instagram over the years, blueberry-pomegranate and potato chip-chocolate glazed give way to black-and-white cookies and za'atar-dusted pretzels. By fall 2017 he was burnt out on making doughnuts for people he'd never meet and he hung it up, taking a work-at-home job with his brother-in-law's insurance brokerage.
Maysick's wife, Rachel Ellison, is an artist who creates elaborate ritual Judaica such as ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract, and gematria, Kabbalistic interpretations of proper names or words. Maysick, who considers himself an agnostic, says that in the year leading up to their marriage, "I felt some pressures to convert. There's just an expectation that one person converts. But it just felt like it would cheapen the whole thing to convert as wedding prep."
But he did come to see food as a secular gateway to understanding the Jewish culture he'd embraced. In November 2017, inspired by Ellison's family tradition of Chinese and a movie on Christmas, he applied for funding from OneTable, a not-for-profit organization that provides support for young adults to host Shabbat dinners. He teamed up with his friend Chris Reed, who runs the Indonesian-Cajun catering company the Rice Table, and together they planned their first Jewish Christmas dinner, held after hours at Steingold's and featuring scallion-pancake challah (the recipe is from suburban Glenview native and cookbook author Molly Yeh), orange chicken with tahini noodles, and hot-and-sour matzo ball soup.
A few months later they followed up with the Jewish South, informed in part by Marcie Cohen Ferris's Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South, which details how southern Jews adapted to a cuisine heavy on trayf like pork and shellfish. Along with the chicken and beans, he made sweet potato challah and matzo ball soup with brisket broth and Cajun spices. Vegan Middle Eastern dinners followed, along with cooking classes and occasional pickup pastry boxes featuring black-and-white cookies, pomegranate-glazed challah rolls, and fig-cardamom rugelach.
It's a team effort. Ellison often designs and prints accompanying cookbooks featuring the recipes, and says the kiddush and the motzi, the blessing over the bread and "wine" (at the southern dinners it was bourbon and Coke, at the vegan dinners Manischewitz spritzers). Reed contributes restraint. "He has a sense of what is a reasonable amount of creativity and then what gets into a Fierian space," says Maysick. "Sometimes we're trying to create something that once was, and sometimes it's the ingredients we're excited about."
Maysick offers something or other about once a month, though Ellison is expected to give birth to their daughter in early March and he's planning to take a month or so off for a paternity break. Meantime, he's plotting a Syrian-Jewish dinner for late April or May, which he'll announce on his Instagram.
"I'm not hesitant to, in the most respectful way, try to cook food that's not my narrative," he says. "I'm trying to construct meaning for myself and explore my understanding of Jewish culture and Jewishness through all these other things around it. It feels like I have skin in the game. I never converted, but this is a Jewish home. We're going to raise Jewish kids. I'm looking to the past to understand what Jewishness is. How does that work if I don't even know if I really believe in God? I grapple with all these things, and food is a way to do that." v