Reina Victoria Kutner is someone whose glass is always half full. Despite a rocky 2009 with a layoff and a life-threatening illness, she manages to maintain a quirky sense of humor. Since December she also maintains a blog called “Young, Broke and Kosher” (youngbrokeandkosher.blogspot.com), in which the writing is as good as the recipes, the sense of community is as important as the food, and the so-called restrictions of kashrut are fraught with possibilities.
“The best part about food is coming together, being part of a community, and telling stories,” Kutner said. “It’s not just about what you eat, but the key is to make the occasion special and create memories.”
Both Kutner’s interest in cooking and her desire to keep kosher involved an evolution. A Thousand Oaks native with a Sephardic background, Kutner said that her grandmother, who hailed from Turkey, was an “amazing cook.” She added, “I got her genes for personality and cooking skill, and it influences my sense of cooking, experimentation, and hospitality. I went off to college with a cookbook but no sense of flavor. I watched shows and decided to use other ingredients.”
After starting college in the San Fernando Valley, Kutner moved to Orange County to attend Cal State Fullerton, where she graduated with a B.A. in communications focusing in print journalism. She has since interned in Washington, D.C., and worked for both Los Angeles and national news organizations.
Kutner began keeping kosher during the fall semester of her senior year in college. She met her husband, Ari, through Cal State Long Beach’s campus rabbi, Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, in 2005, and moved to Long Beach in 2007 to marry him.
About two weeks after Kutner got married, she started experimenting with cooking. It started with chicken soup she made when she and her husband got a cold. It was no ordinary chicken soup, because it contained a Middle Eastern spice called za’atar. The cooking experiments continued with ingredients Kutner had in the house, and the rest is history.
In the words of her own blog, Kutner had an epiphany: “Using what I knew about cooking, I could become a great cook. I started to experiment, and found great enjoyment in developing my own trademark dishes. I may not be a gourmet and fancy-pants chef, nor have I been professionally trained, but I can tell you that most of the people who come to my house like my food quite a bit.”
She added, “Everything has a touch of freshness when it’s made with your own hands. You can taste the difference.”
Kutner, who is active throughout Long Beach and Orange County in both young professionals groups and philanthropic organizations, had her life turned upside down in 2009. She had fought for her life at the age of 21 when she was diagnosed with five blood clots, three of which had become pulmonary embolisms. She learned that she had a genetic disposition for producing blood clots. Kutner was given a course of Coumadin for six months, but the doctor warned her that “One more clot, and you’re done.”
As her blog says, “July 31, 2009, and I was done. Blood Clot #6 made its appearance in my left calf. Although I wasn’t hospitalized like the last time, it meant Coumadin until the day I left this earth. It also meant monitoring my diet like mad. For those who aren’t familiar with this drug, it is thrown off by the simplest things, whether it’s the amount of exercise or the foods that you eat — mainly, dark green leafies and green tea. This is due to the presence of Vitamin K, which is a clotting agent. It messes with your blood levels, which you get tested at the doctor’s office on a regular basis.”
Depressed enough by the lifelong need for Coumadin, the need to wear a MedicAlert bracelet, the dietary restrictions, and the likelihood that she would be unable to have children, Kutner became depressed. Two weeks later, she was laid off. “I lost my sense of identity,” she said. “I worked so hard to get where I was.”
As the end of the year approached, Kutner resolved to write more – specifically to do a memoir/cookbook called “Young, Broke and Kosher.” Sensing that it needed a jumpstart, she took it to the Internet and created a blog that now has a following. Not only does it contain recipes, but it provides a window on Kutner’s life and thought processes.
For instance, Kutner talks candidly about keeping kosher and keeping Coumadin. The green vegetables are back in her diet, but the worries are still there. Still, there is an upbeat side to Kutner’s personality that comes shining through the blog.
“I view kosher food differently than most people,” she said. “I don’t view the limitations. I view the possibilities.”
Kutner eats vegetarian and fish when she goes out while keeping strictly kosher at home. She believes it is the best of both worlds to be able to dine out with friends while adhering to the standards of kashrut and making the cuisine interesting at home.
Kosher dining “should not be just about the brisket but what you do with it,” she added. “Experiment, play around with it, and come up with new recipes.”
Kutner, who would love to open a kosher restaurant, thinks kosher food should be good for everyone. “When you limit things, it sets you free. That’s true for cooking and writing.”
She concluded, “Kashrut is not for everyone, but it’s for me. It’s part of my journey.”