Great Books: Cuisine and Empire, by Rachel Laudan

Friends and many readers know that I am a long-time fan of Rachel Laudan’s work. Laudan is a culinary historian and polymath extraordinaire currently based in Austin – though formerly of Mexico, Hawaii, and England – who has authored some truly incredible academic work on the formation of creole cuisines in Hawaii. More importantly for this blog, she is also the author of the incredible “A Plea for Culinary Modernism” and a blistering critique of the historical assumptions of the “Slow Food” movement. For your author, devoutly anti-authenticity and skeptical of any simplistic food history that has the nerve to claim that the notoriously inadequate diets of old were better whilst celebrating produce that was as much a product of the new, Laudan’s pieces were godsends. So it was only a matter of time before I tackled her masterwork – the mammoth, fascinating Cuisine and Empire.

This book is fabulous.

Cuisine and Empire book cover
(Image via Amazon)

What is it about? Roughly speaking, Cuisine and Empire discusses the evolution of the “culinary” family tree through the spread of foodways via trade, armies, politics, and religion.  The book thus charts the expansion of culinary trends, traditions, and habits from the beginning of city-states in Mesopotamia to the comparatively luxurious “middling cuisines” of the modern First World. The tale is one of the extraordinary past of the most everyday thing. Laudan divides the book into histories of ancient grain cuisines, sacrificial cuisines in the Axial Age, medieval Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian culinary paradigms, and then the evolution of Western and global cuisines after 1650. Ancient roots of modern food are demonstrated – for example, the continued focus on carbohydrates. At the same time, what is seen as high and luxurious cuisine has changed and stayed the same – but has always been in communication with the “ideas” and “tools” that spread throughout imperial worlds.

Reading Cuisine and Empire is a truly rewarding experience – and educational, for the golden calves of culinary history are swiftly destroyed in the book’s narrative. The romance of premodern, “peasant” cuisines is swiftly dispatched – Laudan directly notes the misery and often lacking nature of “common” food for most of human history. Most cuisine as we know it today is a “middling cuisine” – a hearty fare making use of many “exotic” and formerly high-cuisine ingredients, and a good amount of animal products, but cheaper than in the past due to changes in agriculture and food distribution. Italian farmworkers and poor Chinese laborers, however, certainly did not eat the “authentic” cuisines of their countries, but rather largely a poor and wholly insufficient diet. Food was also labor intensive – grinding grain took hours, preparation was a task wholly invasive of lives. There was no romance in the duty of cooking for most – and to say so is deeply naïve and misguided, not to mention romantic.

Slices of Mohnkuchen, showing the thick poppy seed layer.
Our ancestors certainly did not eat things as luxurious as Mohnkuchen very often.

Speaking of romanticized authenticity, Laudan also shows how our cuisines date to a time that predates the nation-state system. Foodways and ingredients, recipes and flavors, were spread through the various centers and routes of power – and most certainly do not stick with the history of an unbroken national tradition. Thus the critique in Cuisine and Empire of the doyennes of the ethnic food world – including my beloved Claudia Roden – as focusing on an ahistorical amalgam of élite recipes as “representative” is well and truly backed up by the history she demonstrates. Finally, Laudan shows that our food of today is in many ways quite disconnected from that of the past. Who knew that hemp seed was a major part of the ancient Chinese diet? (Yours truly, who has a severe allergy to hemp, is grateful that rice began to predominate in the first millennium CE.) Or the variety of foods available on the streets of ancient Rome? From the rituals of human sacrifice to the ways in which food was conceived of as digested, fermented, and “cooked or putrefied in the stomach,” Laudan shows that our modern understanding of food is quite modern indeed.

The book is, of course, imperfect. In terms of critique, I have two main comments. Firstly, this is no beach read – and though I myself enjoy dense, academic books, the tenor and tone could be quite intimidating for some lay readers. The tone can also be occasionally repetitive, but the writing is strong enough that those moments are still informative. The other one is that many of the trends Laudan mentions are not mapped out in the book to sub-Saharan Africa to the same degree of detail as other regions – even though food historical studies would support Laudan’s conclusions. This problem is important for two reasons: one, because the role African foods have played in our cuisines is still under-cited, and two, because quality food scholarship on Africa is still largely undeveloped in the West, and Laudan’s book could have made more of a contribution there. That said, Cuisine and Empire does cover sub-Saharan Africa to some extent, which is very welcome. Overall, however, this book is a masterpiece.

Herring fridge
My beloved pickled herring – itself spread through the Hanseatic League and Russian, Danish, and Dutch imperial rule. (Photo mine, May 2015)

Cuisine and Empire is a book well worth your time, and vastly informative. And to those of us interested in Jewish cuisines, Cuisine and Empire offers some important reminders – and insights. To begin, it is a reminder of a truth often repeated on this blog: Jewish cuisine is not unique in and of itself and has been influenced and usually based on wider culinary trends – here, “imperial cuisines.” What makes food Jewish is the significance attached to it and nothing more.

In addition, Cuisine and Empire offers us a vocabulary and history to challenge the too-romanticized history of Jewish food. It was most certainly not the case that all our ancestors ate brisket and p’tcha – it is more likely that only the wealthier ate well and the poorer among us subsisted on some bread and maybe something else for most of the week. (This reality is also well chronicled by Hasia Diner.)  Food is always political and tied to class, and the romanticized history is as much a “French terroir strategy” of our own in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Besides, much of our demarcation of Jewish cuisine – and this blog is not exempt from this critique! – is tied to the same nationalist storytelling Laudan critiques. Finally, it is so very important to remember how much food systems have changed in the past century – and doubtlessly much of it for the better. Thus our creations in a “middling cuisine” are not only new, but reliant on different ingredients than in the past and generally in a much better-supplied and –nourished atmosphere. The past was not pretty, but rather one of even more inequality than today. And that is one of Cuisine and Empire’s biggest lessons.

Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, by Rachel Laudan. University of California Press, 2015.

Simple Chickpeas for Purim

Purim is soon upon us; in true Leibowitzian fashion, Purim is quite possibly my least favorite holiday in the Jewish calendar. The noise! The gaudiness! The drunken shenanigans! I am perhaps too serious to truly appreciate Purim as anything other than a day for calmly reading the story of Esther and eating some delicious traditional foods. The famous food here in the United States is hamantaschen, for which I gave a recipe last year – delicious cookies that really should be consumed whenever it is not Passover or a fast day. (Including Hanukkah.)

A chickpea field in Israel with a hill in the background
A chickpea field in Israel – notice the luscious green of the leaves! (Photo Eitan F via Wikimedia commons)

But other food traditions exist too – among them, eating beans. It is said in Talmud and Midrash that Esther ate legumes whilst in the palace of King Ahasuerus so as not to ingest food that was not kosher. Hence many Jewish communities choose to eat beans and nuts on Purim in commemoration of the Purim heroine. Among those beans are chickpeas – a legume that has been part of the Jewish diet for thousands of years – as I wrote five months ago for another recipe. From the agriculture of the Second Temple Period to medieval Spain, from 19th-century Eastern Europe to today’s stylish Jewish restaurants in Buenos Aires, chickpeas have a long and storied history on the Jewish table. In the context of Purim, chickpeas have long been specifically associated with Esther herself as the food that she ate while in the palace – and have thus been considered traditional to Purim in Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities for centuries.

Chickpeas in a tomato sauce in a Pyrex bowl
The chickpeas – completed. I prefer to chop the onions very roughly; you can dice them if you would like. (Photo mine, March 2017)

Anyway, here is a simple and delicious recipes for chickpeas that you can make for Purim – or whenever. The hearty beans are paired with a piquant tomato sauce not unlike that served with chickpeas or other beans in parts of Turkey. It is very easy to make and is a good weekday dish that will also keep well for leftovers for lunches. On the other hand, it is also a very good and reliable dish for a dinner party that can please folks with many habits of diet – it is vegan and gluten-free. Even Esther, I hope, would approve in all her glory!

Spicy Garlicky Chickpeas

1 medium onion, roughly chopped

8 medium cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon table salt

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more, to taste – I like a bit more)

1 teaspoon white wine or apple cider vinegar

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup water

6 cups cooked chickpeas (1 pound dried*)

Olive oil

  1. Heat a saucepan and add the olive oil. Then, add the onion and garlic and sauté for two minutes, or until the onion begins to wilt.
  2. Add the salt and red pepper flakes and stir in thoroughly. Sauté for another 30 seconds, then add the vinegar. Sauté for another minute, or until the onions are softer.
  3. Add the tomato paste and mix in thoroughly, then add the cup of water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10-15 minutes or until the sauce has thickened.
  4. Remove from the heat and add the chickpeas. I recommend that the chickpeas be hot when you add them. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature. When hot, the chickpeas go well with rice or noodles; when at room temperature they are particularly good with a dense bread.

*If you are using dried beans, soak the chickpeas overnight or for eight hours in water with 2 inches/5 centimeters to cover. Then, drain the beans and boil in four quarts/four liters of salted water for one hour or until soft.

Women of Valor: Black Women, Domestic Labor, and the Jewish Kitchen

Metro North train
The Metro-North. (Photo public domain)

One of the most fascinating places in the New York area is the 5:04pm train from Hartsdale, in the posh suburbs of Westchester County, to Grand Central Terminal in New York City. On the train, you will see many black women boarding, most of whom are returning to the Bronx from their day’s labors as domestic workers in Scarsdale, Bronxville, Greenburgh, and Eastchester. The conversations meander from politics in the countries of the Caribbean – many of the women hail from Trinidad and Jamaica – to celebrities to the toils and tribulations of their job. Oftentimes, the topic is cooking: what they had to cook for the children, for the parents, for a party, or for a Shabbat dinner. You may even hear mentions of “matzah ball soup” or “kugel.” Many of these dishes are Ashkenazi Jewish – for many of the employers are Jewish.

Black women have worked as domestic labor in some Jewish kitchens for two centuries. In the post-war suburbs of America and South Africa, where many Jews who were white moved after World War II, wealthier families were able to hire workers, mainly black women, for domestic tasks. In the South, Ashkenazi Jews assimilated into Southern whiteness and also employed black servants – and before the Civil War, some owned slaves. A similar process occurred with Ashkenazi Jews in South Africa, and with white Sephardic Jews in the Dutch Caribbean. Black domestic workers and slaves before that – and other household staff who were people of color – were overwhelmingly not Jewish (with some rare exceptions). For the sake of this piece being focused, I will be focusing on the experiences of white Ashkenazi Jews and non-Jewish black workers – given that the experiences of white Sephardim and Ashkenazim of color have whole different dynamics. In any case, this history of interaction is strong and complex enough – from day domestic workers in Haredi Brooklyn to housekeepers in Los Angeles – that a thorough investigation could produce far more written work than this simple article.

Unfortunately this history has been used as fodder by anti-Semites. The cases of abuse – too common for domestic workers generally – in which Jews have done wrong are blown up, and false narratives about Jews have been cover for very anti-Semitic things. This, however, should not be used as an excuse to not examine how domestic workers live and act in Jewish spaces, nor how some Jews have sometimes had access to whiteness. And, in the latter case, we also must note how employing domestic labor was part of Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews accessing whiteness. We have to be able to confront anti-Semitism as a real thing, and acknowledge and work with the fact that some Jews have white privilege and class privilege while still being oppressed as Jews, and other groups (women, queer people, disabled people, and others), without losing our minds. This is not only to write Jewish history by the custom of our ancestors, but to also think of how power dynamics shape our everyday lives.

And so we turn to the kitchen. Food is fundamentally at the center of power, in the Jewish world and elsewhere. Likewise, domestic labor is closely connected to and often comprises food preparation. What happens when these intersect in the Jewish kitchen? The result is that domestic workers have had varying degrees of influence and interaction with Jewish cooking. When combined with racial dynamics between white Ashkenazi Jews and black employees, it then seems that in the course of Jewish access to whiteness, black domestic workers come to play a role in the Jewish kitchen.

Cornbread in a pan
Cornbread. (Photo public domain)

Anecdotally, at least, this role is well confirmed: it is by the hands of domestic workers, often women of color, that many Jewish foods are placed on the tables of the white and wealthier members of the community. I knew this growing up in a well-off suburb in the New York area: many of my classmates at school had families who employed housekeepers that often made traditional Ashkenazi dishes – particularly the labor-intensive ones – for Shabbat dinners and festivals. The families were almost always White or read as such, with a few East Asian spouses.  The housekeepers were almost always black, and generally from the various Anglophone islands of the Caribbean. Hence holishkes, stuffed cabbage, brisket, or matzoh balls in these wealthy suburbs, and in well-off Jewish households across the country, are made by the hands of black, non-Jewish women. And, of course, in South Africa I had met many black women who cooked Jewish food for their employers – especially as it is far more common for well-off families to have domestic workers there. The Jewish community in South Africa tends to be wealthy and is almost completely White – and part of their assimilation and access to white privilege was employing domestic workers. Both my parents, and many other South African Jews who grew up in the apartheid era, ate Ashkenazi foods cooked by black women, and even today this pattern is quite common.

When I thought of this piece, I asked around to friends from other parts of North America – and from South Africa – for their experience in this matter. The stories came in. One friend told me on Twitter that he grew up convinced that stuffed cabbage was a Southern tradition, because his grandmother’s black housekeeper made it when he was a child, and apparently well at that. Another reader, daughter of a working-class Haitian immigrant to Miami, told me about her mother’s love for chopped herring, found while working as a home aide for an elderly German Jewish man. The good folks of the Writing the Kitchen group on Facebook directed me to literary references and their own memories of black domestic workers cooking in Ashkenazi kitchen – including literary references. South African and American friends sent me documents from Orthodox rabbinical authorities explaining what employers must tell their domestic workers – assumed to be not Jewish! – about a kosher kitchen. (This American one from the Orthodox Union is especially cringe-worthy.) Friends and colleagues from Texas and Southern California, meanwhile, pointed out that many of the domestic workers laboring there were indigenous Mexicans from the state of Michoácan – and they carry their own experience and interactions. So clearly the idea that black women and other women of color are cooking Jewish food for white, wealthy employers is something that is known in the Jewish community.

imageedit_4_9818293116
A black domestic worker laboring in a white household in the 1950s. Photo via Shirley Thomas.

Yet this contribution – if limited to the upper echelons – is under-documented. Yet it does show up in histories of the Jewish South and the Jewish Caribbean. Some historians have recalled from their own childhoods the black cooks and nannies who often made Jewish foods that their white Jewish employers cherished but could not cook – for example, Robin Amer’s recollection of Dee Dee Katz in her family’s kitchen. Others noted that many black domestic workers took home Jewish dishes to their own families – or, more frequently, introduced white Jewish families to Southern dishes. Hence Michael Twitty has noted the presence of herring and grits or matzoh-meal-coated fried chicken in the Jewish canon of the South – in no small part from the domestic workers that many white Jewish families employed. In South Africa, employing black domestic workers was a sign of status in the white middle class, and many Jewish families did so. There too, many memoirs and historians note the culinary role of this labor. But when it comes to writing Jewish culinary history, or Jewish history at all, this aspect disappears alongside the less savory aspects of a communal rush to whiteness among Ashkenazim.

Cooking was not and is not glamorous work. It is all too easy as a food blogger – and I mark myself guilty as charged here as well – to forget that for most of history making food was a backbreaking, never-ending task. In many cases, it still is. To employ someone to do this task for you was not only a marker of being able to afford such a service, but a strong marker of power: that you were able to access enough privilege to have someone else do the labor of cooking for you. This is a very material consequence of Ashkenazi Jews becoming white: even if they were “liberal,” to have a black domestic worker making Jewish food was itself deeply embedded in the politics of power. (There is no easy way out of these dynamics, as the French theorist Michel Foucault noted, and certainly not in food, because food is a product of labor.) Even in the post-war era, with machines and shipping to reduce the labor of cooking – never forget that “Slow Food” is a deeply forgetful movement – the long hours and difficult work of cooking many traditional Jewish dishes has often in wealthier circles still fallen to black domestic workers. In the United States and South Africa alike, this fact is reflective of a power dynamic that wealthy Ashkenazi Jews have just enough whiteness to perform ethnic consumption while avoiding some of the labor behind it. (Of course this leaves out the less wealthy Jews, the majority, who did not employ domestic help.) Given that Jewish food is often used as a marker of authenticity, or as a point of continuity, it should thus be said that the labor of these black women – often unacknowledged – was responsible for forming the next generation of Jewish culture.

Domestic workers in South Africa at the launch of the African Domestic Worker's Network
Domestic workers in South Africa at the launch of the African Domestic Worker’s Network (Photo from International Domestic Workers’ Federation)

And here we have a lesson about the dignity of labor and the sometime whiteness of Jews. Even as Ashkenazi Jews in the United States and South Africa faced anti-Semitism, they were also able to – if they could afford it – benefit from whiteness and offload the actual labor to domestic workers who were often black. Then the benefits of authenticity in a remnant culture increasingly accepted as “European” were frequently accessible without the hard work – as well as the collective memory of dishes that were often only eaten on the most festive of occasions in Europe. Those less wealthy could also benefit from occasional whiteness, but often simply did not make labor-intensive foods often – it was not that they did not care for authenticity, but that the labor and ingredients to make foods like lebkuchen, ptcha, gedempte fleish, and kreplach simply cost too much to be anything more than an occasional treat. In many ways then the continuation of Jewish cuisine – always limited by class – was possible partly due to the whiteness of its progenitors, and the labor of the black women they employed.

Some black domestic workers probably took Jewish foods they cooked for their employers home to their families – given that this occurred more generally with other white employers, it is a safe assumption. (If anyone can find documentation of this, let me know!) And in turn, many Jewish employers in the United States were introduced to the food of the black South from their employees. Cornbread and collard greens became staples across the Ashkenazi South, and many Jewish families incorporated grits into their daily routine. In South Africa, mielie pap and stampmielies became the childhood favorites of many a South African Jew who grew up in the 1950s – despite strong societal condemnations by whites of eating the food of black South Africans. And then, today, there is another trend which I see: many young Jews who grew up in the New York or Boston areas were babysat by Haitian, Trinidadian, and Jamaican immigrants – and resultantly have a strong domestic memory of and preference for West Indian and Caribbean food. When Ross Urken wrote in Tablet magazine about his Jamaican nanny, it sparked a conversation across social media that lay evidence for how the babysitters and housekeepers of Westchester County had an influence strong, yet unacknowledged, marked by a love for rice and beans and fry plantains.

Three black women standing on a road in a suburban setting
Joel Sternfeld, Domestic Workers Waiting for the Bus, Atlanta, Georgia, 1983. Exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. Sternfeld is a Jewish artist.

Of course we should not idealize the domestic labor of black women in white Jewish kitchens, or for any white employer. It was exhausting, drudging, and usually under-appreciated work. Even today, domestic labor and the women of color behind it still are overworked and underpaidin Jewish homes as well. That said – and with these facts in mind – it is also impossible to deny the role black women and other women of color have played in the evolution of Jewish cuisine over the twentieth century. From the cornbread of Southern Jewish Shabbat dinners to the lavish meals of the Upper East Side Jewish world, the hands of these women of valor have played a key – if too often unwritten and unacknowledged role – in making the Jewish cuisine we know and eat today.

Jewish cuisine belongs to Jews, but Jewish cuisine is as much a product of the non-Jews that have worked with or for Jews over the centuries, that have lived with us and loved us (or hated us!), that have learned from us and from whom we have learned. This split belonging is an inconvenient truth in an age when myths of nationalism and popular propriety abound in cuisines Jewish and not, but it would be a dishonor to the hands of laboring domestic workers to disregard this difficult fact: that the traditions of the Ashkenazi Jewish kitchen been maintained, expanded, and transmitted by the hands of the hardworking Caribbean women on the 5:04 train to Grand Central, stopping at Fordham.


Firstly, I would like to challenge my readers – and myself – to spend the time before Passover, a holiday of liberation, thinking about the intersection of labor paid and unpaid and underpaid and the maintenance and creation of Jewish cuisine. Who benefits? Who determines the cuisine? And how do power relations map out in the kitchen? It is patently obvious that food is political, and that the kitchen is at the same time a gilded cage and an artistic studio equipped with chains. The labor is often unrelenting, but at the same time food and its preparation can be a linchpin of power – or a reminder of oppression and domination. How do we see this in the social contexts in which Jews live and work?

To that end, here is some suggested reading on domestic labor in the Jewish culinary context, and some background on the black hands that shaped American cooking:

-“Dee Dee’s Kitchen” discusses the contributions of one black servant in a Jewish home in Natchez, Mississippi, and her mastery of Jewish cooking for a family that could not exactly cook for itself.

-Marcie Cohen Ferris’ “Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South” is not only an invaluable resource on Southern Jewish Cooking, but one of the best chronicles to date of black domestic workers’ contributions to the Jewish table. It also is one of the most honest and least fantasy-ridden depictions of the ways in which white Jews adopted Southern racial codes I have found.

-Toni Tipton-Martin’s “The Jemima Code” is not only an incredible compendium of African-American cookbooks, but also a keen analysis on the role black cooks and especially black women have played on American cuisine.

-Francis Lam’s “Edna Lewis and the Black Roots of American Cooking” is an unforgettable masterpiece on Edna Lewis, chronicler of Black America’s building of the foundations of American cooking.

-Finally – and I am so excited for this – Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene, a historical cookbook of African-American cuisine. Twitty is one of the most prominent Jewish chefs out there today, and his blog Afroculinaria is a real treat.

Because domestic workers are often the most abused and under-defended workers in the United States and South Africa – and the base of a working class that is female and generally not white – I also urge you to donate to organizations fighting for their rights:

The National Domestic Workers’ Alliance

Domestic Workers’ Rights Group – New York Legal Assistance Group

Domestic Workers United

Bend the Arc’s campaign for domestic workers

Division Avenue, a film by Michal Birnbaum about Latina domestic workers in Hasidic homes in Brooklyn

-Learn about domestic workers’ rights in New York State

Great Books: Out of the East

We have a common image of Western European food as bland and boring. Not spiced or subtly spiced in the hopes of bringing out a “natural” flavor or one that does not cause “excitement,” Western food is seen as nearly flavorless except in the hands of the most seasoned cooks. Many abhor it, while white nationalists and racists claim it as a heritage rather than the supposedly malodorous cuisine of “Other” groups. Even in the Jewish realm, traditional Ashkenazi food is narrated as “bland” (a patent myth). And in all this, the food of the medieval ancestors – idealized by the right, misunderstood by the left – is assumed to be much the same, save for the potato and corn from the Americas. Bland, and certainly not spicy.

Manuscript illustration of Richard II dining with his dukes in a lavishly decorated dining room.
Richard II dining – and drinking – with his dukes in the Chronique d’Angleterre (Bruges, late 15th century). The boat probably contains salt. (British Library, public domain)

But what if I was to tell you that…this was not the case? That the high cuisine of Medieval Europe more closely resembled the fragrances of Middle Eastern and Indian traditions today? That ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and pepper permeated the tables of the wealthy? That the idealized bland cuisine of Europe would have been looked down upon by the who’s who of Medieval Europe?

For that is indeed the case.

Paul Freedman’s Out of the East: Spices in the Medieval Imagination is a revelation. The book is a holistic examination of the way that Medieval Europe was shaped and changed by the spice trade, which through circuitous means brought pepper, nutmeg, cloves, galangal and other spices from India, Indonesia, and West Africa to the (generally wealthier) tables of Europe. In Europe, a cuisine emerged of deeply spiced dishes – often referring similar ones in Muslim countries – that would resemble more closely the Indian or North African cuisine of today than any Western European forebears (save, perhaps, that of Spain). Spices touched on morality – for Protestant thinkers protested the “moral decay” spices induced – and on status – for one could show wealth with many judiciously used spices. And so too were the sweet and spicy aromas and tastes of seasonings associated with the divine – it was said that the corpses of saints smelled of cloves, as did the Garden of Eden. Indeed spices ruled the imagination – as they did politics.

Dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter - men and women dressed in gold eating confections and drinking, with a bearded servant and a young boy in a scarf attending
Dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter (England, 14th century). Many of the confections being consumed were probably heavily spiced in real life. (British Library, public domain)

Traced too are the culinary roots of modern political systems. Globalization in many ways is rooted in the spice trade that stretched to what was then the far corners of the earth, bringing cloves from Eastern Indonesia all the way to Portugal. Colonialism – and the European encounter with the New World – took off on a search for spices, and it was control over the spice trade that brought the Dutch to begin four centuries of varied power in Indonesia, culminating in colonial rule. Capitalism, in many ways, also began with the trade in spices. Though the book is about flavors of then, Freedman deftly hints at the continued consequences of the medieval hunt for certain tastes today.

Over the course of the book’s ten chapters, Freedman makes short shrift of many common myths about food and globalization. Many have always sought food from afar and to escape what Rachel Laudan poetically termed “the tyranny of the local.” To claim that today’s so-called “authentic” European cuisine has a form untouched by trade is to trade in mythmaking. Spices are proof that Europe’s food has referred to others and depended on others since ancient times, as Freedman clearly shows. In addition, European food has not always been “bland” or dependent on herbs for flavor. Once upon a time, the high cuisine of France and England was also spicy and pungent and peppery – and bland was certainly not a flavor pursued before the abnegations of the Protestant Reformation. And then there is this matter of medieval European cuisine: it was not always the same, and it was never solely rooted in Europe. What we consider modern French or European cuisine only arose in the seventeenth century, and the knights and dames of the High Middle Ages would probably feel more at home with Moroccan or Palestinian food than what white nationalists or anti-globalists seem to call their heritage today.

Arabic descriptions of cumin (right) and dill (left) in a 14th-century translation of Dioscorides Materia Medica, with ink illustrations of the flowers
Arabic descriptions of cumin (right) and dill (left) in a 14th-century translation of Dioscorides De Materia Medica. Cumin and dill seeds were popular spices in many medieval communities. (British Museum, public domain)

In a time when white supremacists seek an idealized and fake medieval “authenticity” to justify their disgusting aims, Out of the East is a reminder of a cosmopolitan medieval world. Not to say that racism didn’t exist – it certainly did, as did strange myths about the people of the lands from which spices came. Rather, it was that the knights and nobles of Europe in the Middle Ages looked far afield for inspiration, for thought, and to furnish their tables. It was not home cooking that was seen as worthy of celebration, but rather one that spoke of networks reaching across the Earth. Meanwhile, those of lower rank in the medieval hierarchy sought to imitate the elite with similar spicing – such that pepper, a plant grown in India, became common. Muslim Arabs may have been a theological opponent, but in every way the culture was dependent on them – much as we in the United States eat indigenous foods like corn and rely on immigrant labor today. Some things never change, and some things always go against nationalist histories.

Cooking and feasting from the 14th century Rylands Haggadah, from Catalonia in Spain.  The top right panel depicts painting the doorpost with lamb's blood during the Slaughter of the Firstborn in Genesis. (
Cooking and feasting from the 14th century Ryland Haggadah, from Catalonia in Spain. The top right panel depicts painting the doorpost with lamb’s blood during the Slaughter of the Firstborn in Genesis. Medieval Sephardic cuisine was, like its Spanish and Arab neighbors, highly spiced. (University of Manchester, public domain via Arizona Jewish Post).

What implications does this history have for discussing Jewish cuisine? Firstly, we may need to reconsider what medieval Ashkenazim considered “typical” of high Jewish cuisine. This step goes beyond remembering that potatoes only arrived in Eastern Europe in the late 18th century – rather, it indicates that what “good eating” looked like, even for the poor, was vastly different from today. The black pepper of Lithuanian Jewish cooking and the tang of many Hungarian dishes is a remnant of what once may have been a highly festive cuisine – and, if Gil Marks’ z”l research is any indication, certainly was. Secondly, we also can better understand now as well the ways in which Sephardic cuisine differs from that of Spain – in that many of the spices were kept in exile even as Spain moved on to different flavorings in the modern era. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it is a reminder that Jewish cuisine went under exactly the same influences as other cuisines – and is as much a product of trade and interchange as it is of preserved tradition.

Out of the East: Spices in the Medieval Imagination, by Paul Freedman. Yale, 2008

A shout-out of thanks to Estara Arrant, Hadas Binyamini, Avital Morris, and Douglas Graebner, without whose wisdom I would never have learned to navigate reams of images of medieval manuscripts.

Zucchini with Za’atar

A quick recipe this week for a delicious item I tried for the first time in a Palestinian restaurant many years ago – fried zucchini with the tart thyme-based, sesame-laced spice blend za’atar. The recipe is Palestinian in origin, but is similar to many zucchini-based dishes that come from Greek and Turkish Jewish communities. Like other Palestinian foods, fried vegetables with za’atar have been appropriated and reworked by Israeli culture in the past fifty years.

Zucchini with za'atar, black and white
Zucchini with za’atar (Photo mine, January 2017)

Two large zucchini, chopped into thin medallions of about ½cm/1/5” inch

Olive, coconut, or vegetable oil

1 tsp salt

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp za’atar

Heat a skillet and add about 3 tbsp of oil. Then, add the zucchini flat on top of the oil in the pan – you may need to fry multiple batches. Fry on each side for two minutes, or until browned, then remove from heat and lay out on a plate. Mix your spices together and sprinkle liberally over the zucchini pieces. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Thank you to Jay Stanton, Daniel Moscoe, and Alex Cooke for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Cilantro Heaven: Aliyah da Gomi

Chicken stew with tomato, cilantro, and onion, with cornmeal porridge and zucchini medallions
Aliyah da Gomi – chicken stew with tomatoes and cilantro (Aliyah), served with cornmeal porridge (Gomi), and some zucchini is in there too. (Photo mine, January 2017)

My love for cilantro is legendary among my friends. I eat it raw when I cook with it; I garnish many dishes with it; my colleague once brought me cilantro from her father’s garden. So when I happened on a Georgian recipe for chicken stew with tamarind, tomatoes, and much cilantro in Claudia Roden’s book, I pounced: here indeed was a recipe I absolutely had to make. But, on a whim, I also decided to add a very different ingredient – ginger. The result tasted somewhat different from the nutty, rich food I had eaten in Georgian restaurants in New York and Israel – it was almost Thai. Delicious, though, with the fine dance of cilantro. In many ways, I had made an authentic-inauthentic recipe.

Interior of The synagogue in Tbilisi, capital of Georgia.
The synagogue in Tbilisi, capital of Georgia. (Photo Uri Yachin via Flickr/Creative Commons)

The ingredients, though, are all indeed common in Georgia’s delicious and incredibly rich cuisine. The Caucasus country – which has been home to Jews for 2,500 years – has been well known for its rich spice combinations, succulent cheese, incredible love for all forms of tree nuts, and hearty food since ancient times; in the Soviet era, Georgian food swept across the socialist empire and outpaced that of the Russian overlords. The food recalls both the tart and sweet tastes of Eastern Europe and the sour, earthy tastes of nearby Iran and Anatolia. The wine, too, is spectacular – and, after all, Georgia is likely the first place where wine was produced. The Jewish cuisine of Georgia is no less rich, and merits much attention.

Fresh cilantro
Delicious, fresh cilantro. (Photo QFamily via Flickr/CC, July 2008)

This dish is based on a Georgian one called Aliyah, from the Hebrew word for migration to Israel – and “to rise up.” Indeed, the cilantro and sweet-sourness does make one feel that a culinary ascent is occurring. I served the recipe with gomi – a simple cornmeal porridge common in Georgia. Like in Italy, Romania, and Southern Africa, corn became a hit crop when it was introduced in the Caucasus from the New World in the 17th century via Spanish and Ottoman trading networks. Today, it is so common so as to be local – but belies the very global traditions of Georgian cuisine.

Laying out tomatoes, garlic, tamarind, spices, and onions for the stew
Laying out tomatoes, garlic, tamarind, spices, and onions for the stew (Photo mine, January 2017)

Georgian-Style Chicken with Cornmeal Porridge (Aliyah da Gomi)

Based on the recipe by Claudia Roden

Chicken

2 tbsp olive oil

1 lb/500 grams onions, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced (or ¼ tsp powdered ginger)

2 lbs/1 kg chicken meat, chopped or cubed into 1-inch pieces

1 lb/500 grams tomatoes, diced

1.5 tbsp salt

1.5 tsp black pepper

1 tbsp tamarind paste (substitute: 1 tbsp lime juice mixed with 1 tbsp brown sugar)

1 tsp apple cider vinegar

¼ cup water

¾ cup fresh cilantro, chopped, plus more for garnish

1 tbsp dried basil

Gomi (Corn Porridge)

8 cups water

2 cups cornmeal

¼ tsp salt

1 tbsp olive oil

  1. Heat the oil in a deep skillet or pan. Add the onions, garlic, and ginger and sauté for two minutes, or until the onions begin to wilt.
  2. Add the chicken, tomatoes, salt, pepper, tamarind, vinegar, and water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the chicken is tender and the sauce has reduced. Stir occasionally.
  3. In the meanwhile, bring the water for the gomi to a boil in a separate pot. When the water is boiling, add the cornmeal and salt and cook, stirring regularly, for ten minutes or until all the water is absorbed.
  4. Turn off the heat for the gomi and add the olive oil. Let sit, covered, until ready to serve.
  5. When the chicken is soft and tender, and the sauce has reduced to be somewhat thick but still soupy, turn off the heat. Add the cilantro and dried basil and mix in thoroughly with the stew.
  6. Serve the stew hot with the gomi, which should have thickened. Add some fresh cilantro for garnish.

Thank you to Jay Stanton, Daniel Moscoe, and Alex Cooke for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Mohnkuchen (German Poppy Seed Cake)

The cooling cake
The cake, cooling after being removed from the oven (Photo mine, January 2017)

Ah, German and Austrian pastry. I claim that the main reasons I am learning German are its usefulness in researching Jewish history (and delicious food), my own heritage, an interest in trains, and the stunning beauty of the language. But I cannot deny that the wonderful pastry traditions of the German-speaking world – anthologized beautifully in Luisa Weiss’ Classic German Baking is a very key draw for me to the stringent cases, bizarre genders, and complex plurals of die deutsche Sprache. The German-speaking world is particularly famous for its elegant cakes, buttery-creamy pastry, and the oh-so-wonderful delights of nutty and tart flavors combined with the sweet, heady rush of sugar. By this world of pastry and cake I am well and truly smitten – or, perhaps to be more appropriate for the topic of this post, ich bin sehr vernarrt! A man who can make me a perfect Pflaumenkuchen or Lüneberger Buchweizentorte will not only receive an instant marriage proposal from me, he will also have proven himself instantly adept at Jewish food. What more could I ask for?

The cake, on a plate, with other dishes in the background
A Mohnkuchen, waiting to be served at my friend’s birthday potluck. The dough is deceptive – it’s not as thick as it looks! (Photo mine, January 2017)

German pastry, despite its exterior appearance, is also a deeply Jewish tradition. Many of the earliest Jewish cookbooks from the late 19th century were published by and for German Jewish communities in der Heimat and abroad: Milwaukee to London to Cape Town. The recipes within them include the cakes and pastries that differed by region but not ethnicity or religion in their homelands. One could learn to make an apple cake, a buckwheat cake, a Streuselkuchen or  Dampfnudeln from these cookbooks. Some were Jewish specialties – such as the doughy potato-based Berches bread – and some were not. Many of these recipes were shared with other Ashkenazi communities – among them the Austrian and Bavarian strudel and recipes filled with poppy seed or almonds. In the United States and Canada, the popularity of German pastries became so ingrained in Ashkenazi Jewish communities that their origins as German and/or Austrian – and not necessarily specifically Jewish – were forgotten. (Many of my New Yorker friends are surprised to learn that non-Jews eat strudel!) In Israel, meanwhile, German bakers who arrived before the establishment of the State began a proud baking tradition that continues to this day. The recipes still do not differ that much from their butter-laden German counterparts, other than the occasional substitution of dairy ingredients.

Slices of Mohnkuchen, showing the thick poppy seed layer.
Slices of Mohnkuchen, showing the thick poppy seed layer. (Photo mine, January 2017)

The pastries are also delicious – like this poppy seed cake, filled with a variant of my beloved mohn. The nuttiness and timbre of the poppy seeds balances with a dense, doughy pastry and the sugar throughout to bring your taste buds on a very pleasant journey. Now, this poppy seed cake is not technically “Jewish,” but it is so very Jewish. Poppy seed pastries are deeply traditional – just think of hamantaschen! – in the Ashkenazi world, and I have seen similar recipes to this one in several Jewish cookbooks. In addition, poppy seed is a popular filling for the cake known as babka – which, though differently shaped and yeasted, is not dissimilar in final product to this cake. Not to mention that many babkas are also covered in streusel! In any case, this cake would be readily recognized as an Ashkenazi one at many a synagogue potluck.

Mohnkuchen mit Streuseln (Poppy Seed Cake with Crumble Topping)

Based on the recipe by Felice Forby

Streusel

½ cup white sifted flour

2½ tbsp. brown sugar

2/3 tsp ground cinnamon

2½  tbsp salted butter, chilled

Poppy Seed Filling (Mohn)

¾ cup milk

2½ tbsp. butter (salted or unsalted)

¼ tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 tbsp white sugar

3 tbsp semolina flour

¾ cup ground poppy seeds

1 egg

Cake

1¼ cups white sifted flour + more for rolling

1 tsp baking powder

4 tbsp sour cream

3 tbsp milk

3 tbsp salted butter, softened

3 tbsp white sugar

  1. Begin by making the streusel. Mix together the flour, sugar, and cinnamon, then blend in the butter with your hands or a fork. You should get small crumbles. Set aside in the refrigerator or a cool place.
  2. In a saucepan, melt the butter into the milk.
  3. Add the cinnamon, vanilla, sugar, and semolina and bring to a simmer. Turn off the heat and let sit for five minutes.
  4. Add the poppy seeds to the semolina mixture and stir to combine. Set aside to cool.
  5. Preheat your oven to 350F/180C.
  6. Mix together the flour and baking powder. In a separate bowl, mix together the sour cream, milk, butter, and sugar until smooth.
  7. Add the flour to the butter-cream mixture and blend together with a pastry knife or two forks until you get a smooth dough. If you want the dough to be more pliable, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for fifteen minutes.
  8. Line the bottom of a 9-inch pan (square or round) with parchment paper.
  9. Roll out the dough on a floured surface to be ½ inch/1.5cm thick, and lay on the floor of your pan. It is perfectly fine if a little rolls over the edges.
  10. Evenly spread the poppy seed mixture on top of the cake dough. You can fold over the far edges of the dough on top of your filling.
  11. Evenly distribute the streusel on top.
  12. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the crust of the cake is brown. When the streusel starts to brown, you can cover the top of the cake with tinfoil.
  13. Leave to cool for at least 45 minutes before serving.

Thank you to Yael Shafritz, Aaron Marans, Alex Roesch, and Yonit Friedman  for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.