Maggie Cooks in Brooklyn — in Cranford

Maggie Cooks in Brooklyn — in Cranford

Two friends go back to Brighton Beach to showcase food there

Margaret Hodges, left, and Jane Gross are in Brooklyn, filming “Maggie Cooks.”  (All photos courtesy “Maggie Cooks.”)
Margaret Hodges, left, and Jane Gross are in Brooklyn, filming “Maggie Cooks.” (All photos courtesy “Maggie Cooks.”)

Maggie Cooks sounds like a character in an old British murder mystery, doesn’t it? All cozy and with lots of tea poured and sipped and spilled, and then the bother with the body in the library.

Maggie Cooks is, instead, the name of the partnership between two longtime friends from New Jersey — Margaret Hodges (that’s where the Maggie comes from) and Jane Gross. The two women, who met when their now-grown kids were in elementary school together in Westfield, form Maggie Cooks.

Not, they say quickly, because it’s more Margaret’s business than Jane’s. That’s just the way the name worked out. “At first we wanted ‘Maggie Cooks and Jane Eats,’” Ms. Gross said; then common sense kicked in. “We are 100 percent equal partners,” Ms. Hodges said.

The two women met through their children — they each have three — bonded over their shared love of cooking, and eventually opened a business together. Maggie Cooks is a catering business; it provides the services of a personal chef, mainly but not only for dinners, Ms. Hodges and Ms. Gross say. The pair has put out a video called “Maggie Cooks in Provence” — created after a vacation they and their families spent together in France — and now they’re about to premiere a new one, “Maggie Cooks in Brooklyn.”

Ms. Hodges and Ms. Gross came to cooking from different directions.

Ms. Hodges, who still lives in Westfield, and goes by Margaret, not Maggie, in real life, is the daughter of a non-Jewish French woman and a French Jewish father. “Cooking is absolutely in my blood,” she said. “My mother’s mother went to Cordon Bleu,” the world-famous cooking school in Paris. “My mother was and still is a fabulous cook. I can’t help but cook.”

Ms. Gross, who lives in Manalapan now, grew up in Brooklyn, in a Jewish family. “I had a different experience,” she said. “My mother hated to cook, and she made the same thing over and over again. Everything was shoe leather. And then I’d see pictures of food in magazines, and I’d say, ‘What’s that?’” Her love of cooking began as a kind of self-defense.

Margaret Hodges, left, and Jane Gross examine melons in Provence.

When the two started to cook together, the food they made was just for themselves and their families, and then for friends. Their business grew slowly. “And then Margaret was getting a manicure one day, and she overheard one woman asking another if she knew any caterers,” Ms. Gross said. Margaret chimed in. She said, ‘I’m a caterer.’ We had never done it before. That was our first job.

“We started doing lunches, and then dinners, and then the holidays,” she continued. “Now we are the place to go for Jewish holidays.”

Here might be the place to note that Maggie Cooks’ food is kosher style, but it is not kosher.

“Maggie Cooks in Provence” showcased Ms. Hodges’ family background. Her father, Alexander Lucien Gilbert, was born in 1925, somewhere in eastern Europe, where the family name was Givelberg; the family moved to France when Alexander was three months old. He married Francoise Godefroy. “They had connections, and managed to get papers and get on the last ship to leave Lisbon,” Ms. Hodges said; it evokes memories of “Casablanca.”

Her grandmother had been a nurse in France; she had a child, Alexander’s older brother, who died when he was 5 years old. The doctor there, Dr. Ginsberg, who was Jewish, took care of her; later, he was able to get to New York, and he sponsored the family.

When the war started, the 18-year-old Mr. Gilbert joined the U.S. Army, and he became one of the Ritchie Boys — so called after the camp where they trained, the often German-speaking Americans were able to work counterintelligence, interpret and explain what they saw, and later interrogate German prisoners. “My father spoke French, English, and Yiddish, which was close enough to German so that he understood it,” Ms. Hodges said. “He told us that he was in intelligence, with a lot of young Jewish multilingual men from Europe.

“He did what he did there. He told us he didn’t do much — that’s what they all said. My brother thinks that he was in France — he was French — and he went ahead to villages to scout them out.

Jane Gross, left, and Margaret Hodges return to Ms. Gross’s childhood neighborhood to explore its food. Clearly there have been some changes in the last few decades.

“After the war, he went back to France and worked at the United Nations — which he didn’t believe in at the time, he didn’t think it could work, and he didn’t believe in it until his dying day, in 2007 — and my mother worked for him. He pointed to her, when he first saw her, and said, ‘She’s the one I’m going to marry.’ And he did.

“Then they came back to the United States, and he went to college on the G.I. Bill.”

Ms. Gross’s story is different.

“My mother” — Beatrice Jacowitz Fitter — “came from New York. There’s no story there. But my father,” Herman Fitter, “who came from Austria, told this story — I don’t know if it’s true — but the story is that my grandmother, his mother, went to the bakery to get bread, and she came home with a bag of money.”

Yes, it’s an improbable story, but it was his story, and he stuck to it. “My father had two brothers, and they all stuck to the story,” she said. “My grandfather was here in the United States already, and the three boys came over with a nanny, although they didn’t have any money except what was in the bag of money. My grandfather came later.”

Ms. Gross grew up in Brighton Beach, the Brooklyn neighborhood that had not yet become Russian and Ukrainian but already was “incredibly Jewish,” she said. “There were a few Black children in my elementary school, and of course I thought they were Jewish too.”

The food there was wonderful, she remembers. “I can still taste the food in the shops there,” she said. “It was so delicious. There was a knish place, Mrs. Stahl’s — it’s been turned into a coffee shop, but it was incredible. In Coney Island, there was Nathan’s — that’s still there. When my father was off from work, he’d take me to Coney Island and we’d play skee ball. Ebbinger’s was around the corner from where I grew up; we’d get blackout cake there.

“That’s what led me to want to cook.”

On Wednesday, May 22, at 6:30 p.m., Jane Gross and Margaret Hodges will premiere their new video, “Maggie Cooks in Brooklyn,” at the Cranford Theater in Cranford. It was filmed in Ms. Gross’s home borough. Margaret and Jane will be on hand to share recipes and tips with their friends. Learn more at

read more: