Sushi and Other Jewish Foods
Several Years ago my wife and I attended a hasidic wedding in New York in which the son of a leading figure in the Lubavitch movement was married to the daughter of a wealthy merchant family. Needless to say, the reception, at a midtown Manhattan hotel, was lavish, the food no less so. What caught our attention, though, was not the generosity of the portions—only to be expected—but their variety. Rather than the customary Jewish wedding food, we encountered a series of “stations,” each with its own samplings of different cuisines: from a sushi bar, where a bandannaed chef expertly placed rectangles of fresh raw fish on ovals of sticky rice, to a table offering individual servings of blini with kosher caviar, to the counter behind which rare roast beef was being thinly sliced. And so, delectably, it went.
The spectacle of sushi-eating Hasidim gave me reason to ponder the strangeness of this moment in the history of Jewish food. The most devout Jews, from the right wing of Orthodoxy, seem able to accommodate themselves easily to the “alien ways” of other cultures, at least at the culinary level (and as long as the kashrut supervision is above reproach). Yet in their homes, one can safely surmise that the meals prepared and consumed on weekdays and Sabbaths leave little room for wasabi, udon, and tekkamaki, remaining firmly in thrall instead to kasha, kugel, and knaidlach. But the range and variety of Jewish culinary interest are hardly exhausted by these possibilities. To judge by a number of recent books, at least three trends can be discerned.
The first, the least distinct yet the most pervasive, is the still-regnant “fusion cookery” that is a byproduct of the acculturated status achieved by American Jews in the generation before our own. The second, represented by the exotic foods at the wedding my wife and I attended, is characterized by an enthusiasm for experimenting with the cuisines, classic or trendy, of many cultures—while staying carefully within Jewish dietary regulations. The third and in many ways most interesting expresses itself as a quest to recover the authentic practices of world Jewish communities, past and present.
By the midpoint of this century, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of recipe collections, some only loose-leafed or mimeographed, had been produced by local Jewish women’s organizations in the United States, often as part of some communal joint effort. I remember my mother reaching for her copy of the spiral-bound volume published by the ladies’ auxiliary of the Hebrew Home for the Aged in the city where I grew up. Though, like other American Jewish artifacts of that era, the preparations in these cookbooks seem a little lacking in zing—perhaps the result of a too-easy accommodation with the surrounding culture—what remains powerfully endearing about them is not only their spirit of cheerful syncretism but the lost community they evoke. Each recipe in each collection bears the name of its contributor, and each collection is a kind of chorus, the voices of individual homemakers joined in an exaltation of sisterhood. Aside from the memorial volumes of destroyed Jewish communities in Europe, we have few other examples besides these in modern Jewish life of a truly collective literature.
A strong solo voice in the chorus belongs to Lillian Kaplun, a veteran Canadian baker and cooking teacher. She grew up in Porcupine, Ontario, a mining town 500 miles north of Toronto, where her father, an immigrant from a Ukrainian shtetl, kept a store. Welcomed into her mother’s kitchen at a young age, Lillian experimented on her own, read recipes in ladies’ magazines, and distilled a successful set of baking techniques based on exact measurements.
Her calling as a teacher emerged in the 1950′s in response to a felt social need. Young women in those days, she recalls in Lillian Kaplun’s Kitchen,1 were “struggling in their kitchens.” Equipped with neither the untutored culinary wisdom of their mothers nor a knowledge of modern technique, they were expected to cook for their families and also to play hostess for an increasingly complex round of organizational and volunteer activities. Lillian Kaplun helped them grow into their new roles.
Lillian Kaplun’s Kitchen provides solid recipes for the standard repertoire of Ashkenazi specialties: blintzes, kreplach, tzimmes, latkes, Passover dishes, and all the rest. What gives her book the specific feel of its era are the American inventions like salmon casserole—complete with canned fish and elbow macaroni—and perhaps also the fact that she makes no effort to be consistent about kashrut. (There is a note to the effect that the recipes can be adapted to the kosher kitchen.) Similarly, the disproportionate emphasis on cakes and desserts testifies not only to Lillian Kaplun’s own intimate understanding of the alchemy of sugar, eggs, butter, and flour but to a generation in which “entertaining” took place in the home and a housewife was judged by the richness of her confections.
To every action there is a reaction. Harriet Roth, the author of a book called Deliriously Healthy Jewish Cooking,2 grew up at the kind of generous table set by Lillian Kaplun in an extended family that gathered around platters “overflowing with fritlach or some other treat lightly dusted with powdered sugar and waiting to melt in your mouth.” But for her, there is no going home again:
Sadly, the way our parents and grandparents ate was not terribly healthful and probably contributed to the health problems that are the source of some sorrowful memories as well. My father developed heart disease at an early age . . . and my mother died young of cancer.
The final blow occurred when Harriet Roth’s husband contracted a coronary condition seventeen years ago.
Since then, she has fought back. Armed with a knowledge of nutrition and a commitment to the Pritikin principles of fat reduction, she can proudly claim to have rescued traditional Jewish cooking from its own internal enemy. There have been necessary losses—griebenes (cracklings), shmaltz (chicken fat), and kishke (stuffed derma) are renounced as unredeemable—but the main corpus has been saved, heart and soul intact even if bones are occasionally visible under the flesh.
There are aspects of Harriet Roth’s cooking that remind me of the Musar movement, the introspective tendency toward moral asceticism in some late-19th-century Lithuanian yeshivas. She knows what sin is, and minutely calibrates it for us at the end of each recipe in grams and milligrams of sodium and saturated fat. And she knows that our attraction to sin can never be fully extirpated, only controlled by a vigilant daily discipline. Fortunately, however, she also makes room for inevitable backslidings. An appendix offers “The Baker’s ‘Deadly’ Dozen,” twelve rich desserts of the sort Harriet Roth used to serve, among them Hungarian butter horns, fluden, babka, and, of course, devil’s food cake. As long as we maintain our commitment to daily practice, she admonishes, a one-time yielding to temptation will not really imperil our health.
Unlike the dour Musarniks, in other words, Harriet Roth has a love of life, and, in the spirit of normal Jewish religious practice itself, she is determined to wring as much pleasure as she can from the world of the senses while remaining within the boundaries of the law. Or perhaps in this case I should say laws: not only the rules of kashrut are knowledgeably adhered to in this volume but also the rules of the Pritikin dispensation. But if each furthers the aims of the other, who is to say that some higher purpose is not also being served?
If Harriet Roth reaches inward and backward to purify the past, the faculty of the 92 nd St. Ykosher cooking school in New York City looks forward and into the distance. The innovative idea behind the school, which embodies the second trend I mentioned above, was to invite expert chefs to adapt their ethnic specialties to the laws of kashrut while sacrificing as little as possible of authentic nuance. In The Kosher Gourmet,3 Batia Plotch and Patricia Cobe offer menus prepared by authorities in French, Japanese, Indian, Moroccan, Turkish, Iraqi-Syrian, Thai, Tunisian, Hungarian, Chinese, Italian, Caribbean, Mexican, Vietnamese, and Russian-Polish cooking.
This is a quintessentially New York book. Nowhere but in the metropolis are the cuisines of so many different cultures represented by immigrant communities, and nowhere else can outsiders sample so freely the food of others. Indeed, the freedom to try on new and different identities is the essence of the metropolitan temper—which is why the great New York question is, “Where shall we eat tonight?”
For the observant Jew, however, there is a small problem. Despite the occasional kosher Italian or Chinese or, lately, French restaurant, even in New York the horizons remain circumscribed. Enter, then, The Kosher Gourmet, a book that, with the exercise of ingenuity, promises to break through whatever obstacles kashrut may present to worldliness by bringing into the observant home the delights available “out there” in the big city and around the globe. (“Feeling like French?,” the jacket copy entices. “In the mood for Moroccan . . . Japanese . . . Caribbean. . .?”)
And The Kosher Gourmet does help to do exactly what it promises. Still, one wonders what audience a book like this is aimed at. On the one hand, it is not a book of basic kosher cookery, and so will be of little assistance to the novice. On the other hand, if you are religiously observant and know your way around the kitchen, then you will certainly be capable of leafing through a book of Indian or Moroccan cooking with an eye toward what you can prepare at home and what you cannot. As it is, The Kosher Gourmet occupies a corner of the same peculiar social realm my wife and I observed at that hasidic wedding, being at once self-consciously “sophisticated” and perhaps already a little behind the curve of what truly sophisticated Jewish cooks are up to these days.
But that brings me to the third trend: recovering the traditions of Jewish cookery itself. Working through written materials and native informants to identify the characteristic dishes and culinary idioms of the major world Jewish communities, a group of authors is attempting to reconstruct how Jews cooked before the great dislocations and disasters of recent history, and then to trace the ways in which those traditions have become transformed under new conditions.
Robert Sternberg’s The Sephardic Kitchen4 and Gil Marks’s The World of Jewish Cooking5 are two estimable books in this vein by writers who also happen to be rabbis. Sternberg, the author of a previous book, Yiddish Cuisine, provides here a very good introduction to Sephardi cooking; the terms are nicely explained, recipes are preceded by informed introductions, and the recipes themselves are well chosen and laid out in clear steps. Gil Marks, the founder and editor of Kosher Gourmet magazine and a teacher at the 92nd St. Y cooking school, offers a collection chosen with a sense of both the typical and the outré; covering both East and West, The World of Jewish Cooking includes fascinating information about the origins of dishes and their variants in different parts of the Jewish universe.
Through no fault of their own, however, both of these books suffer by comparison with the monumental efforts of two other writers. The first is Claudia Roden, one of the premier food writers in England and the author of such prizewinning books as Middle Eastern Cookery, The Good Food of Italy—Region by Region, and Mediterranean Cookery. In The Book of Jewish Food,6 Roden has returned to her roots in Cairo, where she grew up within a privileged enclave of Sephardi Jews that flourished until the rise of Egyptian nationalism in the 1950′s forced them into exile.
This was not an ancient community, but rather comprised the immediate descendants of a 19th-century colony attracted to Egypt’s vital cotton trade from the declining centers of the Ottoman empire. On her mother’s side, Claudia Roden’s family came from Istanbul, on her father’s from Aleppo in Syria. They and other largely French-speaking Jews would gather in family groupings on Sabbaths and holidays around generous tables spread with delectable Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes that had been lovingly prepared by grandmothers, aunts, and servants.
The Book of Jewish Food is endlessly intriguing. Although not arranged like an encyclopedia—in fact, organization is its short suit—it has an encyclopedic quality, filled with learned and entertaining brief essays about Sephardi dishes like kubba or kibbeh (meat-filled bulgar dumplings), filo and other pastry for making borekas, falafel, hilbeh (fenugreek jelly), couscous, harissa, and many, many others, both familiar and exotic. (Only about a quarter of the volume is devoted to an overview of Ashkenazi food.) The recipes themselves, some 800 of them, are introduced with explanatory and classificatory remarks that often include family reminiscences or contemporary vignettes about how a dish is prepared by cooks in faraway places. Happily, throughout, the voice of the ethnographic investigator never overwhelms the nose of the intuitive cook and enthusiastic eater.
From the historical point of view, the chief contribution of Claudia Roden’s book is to broaden and complicate our sense of what Sephardi cooking is all about. After tracing its development from ancient Baghdad through medieval Spain to the Ottoman world, Roden devotes individual sections to Georgia, Salonika, Yemen, Iraq, Tunisia, Bukhara, Italy, Morocco, Turkey, Aleppo, Ethiopia, and the three Jewish communities of India. For the reader untutored in the divergences and connections among these Jewish cuisines, her book comes as a revelation.
Is it because these dishes hail from remote climes that we think of them as more authentic than what we are apt to find on our tables here at home? Perhaps. But then again, it has always been hard for American Jews to take their own history seriously, especially when they compare it with the history of more venerable Jewries elsewhere. In Jewish Cooking in America,7 Joan Nathan, the redoubtable author of such earlier books as The Jewish Holiday Kitchen and The Flavors of Jerusalem, sets out to change that perception.
Joan Nathan differs somewhat from Claudia Roden in her approach to the basic question of whether there is such a thing as Jewish food, and whether one can say what it is. To Claudia Roden, there is indeed such a creature, defined not so much through specific dishes common to all Jewries as through a shared set of transformational rules. In every locale in which Jews have lived, they have adopted the style of cooking of their surroundings, but they have modified it to accommodate the prohibitions against mixing meat and dairy, against eating certain foods, and against cooking on the Sabbath. In so doing, they have created original dishes that, though not the same in every culture, are recognizable, as it were, for their difference. Through their voluntary and involuntary migrations, Jews have also brought these mutated dishes into new surroundings where the process of adaptation has begun all over again.
Joan Nathan, by contrast, argues that there is no such thing as Jewish food except for three special dishes: matzah, haroset (the Passover condiment used in the seder service), and various forms of cholent or hamin, stews with legumes kept warm over the Sabbath eve and eaten at the midday Sabbath meal. The rest is cooking by Jews rather than Jewish food.
Like all debates about essences and definitions—this one reminds me of the question of whether there is such a thing as Jewish philosophy, or only philosophies of Judaism—the assumptions and motives behind the argument are more interesting than any resolution that might be arrived at. Claudia Roden is dealing with cuisines that have already crystallized and reached a point of classical expression, and are perhaps now fading from the scene. Joan Nathan is dealing with an American Jewish reality in the making, one in which the impulses of imitation, adaptation, traditionalism, and experiment have not yet undergone a culinary “shake-out.”
Nevertheless, and even if American Jewish cooking is what academics would call an unstable subject, it has a longer and more substantial history than we might imagine, and Joan Nathan has very insightful observations to make about it. Among other things, she proposes her own set of transformational rules, this time for the changes that immigrant food undergoes as it moves from the first to the second and then to later generations.
To begin with, everything gets bigger, richer, and sweeter: what was once subsistence cooking metamorphoses into, in effect, overstuffed deli sandwiches. Similarly, techniques develop for varying monotony: potatoes are made into kugels or latkes, leftover scraps of meat are wrapped inside dough in kreplach. A generation or so later, these same dishes, born of necessity, achieve a new incarnation as luxury items when cut up into small pieces and served as hors d’oeuvres at weddings and bar mitzvahs.
What we are describing, needless to say, is the food of the East European Jews who arrived during the mass immigrations at the turn of the 20th century, and whose culinary practices would form the basic Jewish component of the “fusion cookery” I mentioned at the outset. Before this influx, there were migrations of German Jews in the mid-19th century, and before that of Sephardi Jews during the Colonial period. The culinary layers set down by these communities are all well presented in Jewish Cooking in America, whose recipes number some 300.
But the glory of this book lies in its quality of sheer miscellaneousness. Along with describing dishes and supplying recipes, Joan Nathan tells us about the observance of Passover in the military camps of the Civil War; about the Café Royale on New York’s Lower East Side, a turn-of-the-century gathering place for Yiddish writers; about the German-Jewish origins of The Settlement Cookbook, in its time perhaps the most influential volume of home cookery; about how Paprikas Weiss and his spice shop in New York got their name; about the Down East mock-lobster salad served by the Jews of Rockland, Maine; about how the Lender family moved from Lublin, Poland, to New Haven and then sold their bagel business to Kraft for $84 million; about Jewish chicken farmers in Connecticut and New Jersey; about Jewish-Cuban cooking in Miami; about the kosher Texas barbecue brisket served to President Lyndon Johnson; about the culinary journey of Abe Kirschenbaum, proprietor of the upscale kosher restaurant Levana in New York.
Hundreds of these packets of information dot Joan Nathan’s book, and if they do not agglomerate into a continuous narrative of Jewish cooking in America, each contributes something valuable to a portrait-in-the-making. Indeed, in her very disinclination to put it all together, there is an implicit acknowledgment that, like the evolving communal and religious reality in which it takes place, Jewish cooking in America remains polymorphous and polyglot: the great American Jewish bake-off has not yet been scheduled.
In the end, the enterprise in which all the writers of the recovered-tradition school are engaged, especially the Americans among them, shows clear parallels to other phenomena in contemporary Jewish life. Even as large numbers of Jews follow a general trajectory outward, and are assimilating, or disappearing, at a headlong rate, a remarkable invigoration is occurring among those remaining within. From the growth of Jewish studies in universities to the much-written-about signs of religious revival to new trends in organizational leadership, members of the “third generation” of American Jewry have turned enthusiastically to the task of reenergizing their communal institutions and traditions.
As is the case in other such areas of endeavor, the “return” of food writers to the Jewish culinary past is fueled by something more than piety, provincialism, or ethnographic curiosity. Each of them has experienced the wide world of gastronomy, and each has participated in the enormous culinary revolution that has brought to all of us fresher and better food more artfully prepared. It is precisely with the aid of this wider lens, a lens provided by the best of what is available in the larger culture, that they have set out to study, to understand, and to explain the culinary practices of the Jews. From these models they also seek, quite frankly, to retrieve some much-needed resources for the future—which makes it all the greater a pleasure to report that they have found them.
1 Turner Books (Toronto), 239 pp., $19.95.
2 Dutton, 461 pp., $26.95.
3 Fawcett Columbine, 417 pp., $12.50.
4 HarperCollins, 350 pp., $30.00.
5 Simon & Schuster, 406 pp., $30.00.
6 Knopf, 668 pp., $35.00.
7 Knopf, 463 pp., $30.00.