Five Myths About Medieval Cuisines – and Jewish Foods and Books to Unlearn Them

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 Materia Medica. (British Museum, public domain)

Your humble author has been on a bit of a “spice binge” over the past month – in that he has been steadily gobbling up books about the history of spice and sugar cultivation. And so much of this literature is on the medieval spice trade – one that spawned colonialism, far-flung trade, and globalization as we know it. Medieval Europeans, Arabs, North Africans, and Middle Easterners loved their spices, and couldn’t get enough of valuable aromatics traded through complex networks from halfway across the world. And from the spices, I have been learning about the deeply different – and yet eerily familiar – cuisine of Europe in the High Middle Ages.

Many traditional Jewish dishes are holdovers from medieval recipes. Ashkenazi recipes such as kugel and forshmak grew out of late medieval German-Jewish cooking, and many Sephardi recipes grew from the pre-expulsion late medieval food of Spain. (Spanish travelers were shocked to find Sephardim eating quince jam in the 19th century, just like Spaniards in the motherland.) Some Iranian Jewish recipes date back over a millennium. When I have told friends, in conversation, about the age of many Jewish dishes, they seem surprised. “Wasn’t medieval food…bad?” Well, not always.

We believe a lot of myths about medieval European and Arab cooking. Some of these myths have a kernel of truth to them – and, of course, the food consumed in 1200 was very different to that consumed today. We know this from manuscripts, archaeology, and surrounding history. But many of these myths are the exact opposite of what actually happened – both in Jewish food and more generally in the food of the old world. Many Jewish recipes offer counterpoints to these myths, and serve as an example of what happened to food more generally in European and Middle Eastern history. So, here I will briefly discuss the five myths I’ve heard most frequently – with the Jewish foods and books that offer lessons in the other direction.

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)
  1. Medieval Europeans did not eat things from outside their area – and hence their food was bland. Food trade is as old as civilization itself: imported spices were found in archaeological digs at Sumer. Medieval people were no different – and there was plenty of movement of people and goods in medieval times that also brought different foods and different methods of preparing food throughout medieval realms. Exotic spices and foods were much-prized, and many crops were introduced by new rulers, such as citrus in Spain by Arab rulers. This did not make a bland cuisine – and besides, people in all civilizations had been seasoning their food with local goods for millennia.
Pihtije, a Serbian aspic
P’tcha? Nope, pihtije – the Serbian p’tcha. (Photo VI via Wikimedia/CC)

Jewish food: P’tcha. This calf’s foot aspic is famous for turning heads and stomachs, but many Ashkenazi Jews – including myself – find it quite delicious. In my experience, it is often trotted out by nationalists as an example of “declining” Jewish culture – because people “do not eat it anymore” – and by others as an example of “weird” or “lost” Jewish food. In the 18th and 19th century, p’tcha  was a delicacy that was saved for special occasions, for it took a long time to make. Now, it’s still common enough in Haredi communities and making a hipster comeback. This dish, however, is not really Jewish in origin – but Tatar. Turkic tribes, ancestors of today’s Tatars, introduced soups made of cow or sheep feet to Eastern Europe in the 13th century during Mongol rule. Hence the name p’tchaand the similar Serbian pihtije  – comes from the Turkic word for “leg” (paça in Modern Turkish). And while Sephardim eat calf’s foot soup hot, Ashkenazim and other Eastern European peoples developed an aspic out of it. Heads up: p’tcha is an upcoming blog recipe.

Book recommendation: A Taste for Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice, by Michael Krondl. This book is a wonderful biography of the spice trade in Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam, and how each of these cities was really made important initially by their trade in spices. He also takes copious notes in Venice of the city’s medieval cooking – and how much of Italian food today is from the late 19th century. He also does excellent due diligence in noting the Indonesian influences on Dutch culture that go back centuries.

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 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. Medieval Sephardic cuisine was, like its Spanish and Arab neighbors, highly spiced. (University of Manchester, public domain via Arizona Jewish Post).
  1. Medieval people used spices to hide the taste of meat or fish that had gone off. This myth is based on the assumption that because medieval people did not have refrigeration, they were constantly dealing with food that was rotten, so pickling and spicing developed to hide the rotten taste. In fact, the opposite is true in some part: pickling and spicing preserved foods that were liable to go off quickly. Many spices were used with salt to preserve meat, and many foods were pickled and thus able to “keep” for longer. Such is the origins of today’s salted meats, sausages, herrings, lox, and other goodies. In any case, those who could afford spices generally could afford the freshest meat. Here, too, spices came to play other roles: they were seen as correcting “harmful” qualities of a fresh food, thus bringing their “humors” into balance. Spices were as essential to the medieval Galenic medical system as they were to cuisine – and humors were discussed as nutrients are today. Those most likely to deal with rotting food – the poor and peasants – generally did not have spices either.
Escabeche
Escabeche. (Photo Pisco Trail)

Jewish food: Escabeche. This recipe originated as an Arab and Jewish preparation for cooked fish, which it remains today. In escabeche, cooked fish is preserved in a heavily spiced vinegar mixture, often alongside anchovies. Vinegar was not meant to hide the taste of overripe fish, but rather to keep the fish not rotten. Hence the sauce must be acidic enough to preserve the fish. Spaniards continued to prepare escabeche after the expulsion of Jews from Spain, and brought the recipe to Latin America and the Philippines. Jews, meanwhile, prepared the recipe in Turkey, France, and the Netherlands, and from the latter the dish ended up across the Dutch and French colonial empires too. Today, dozens of variations exist around the world – including the garlicky Catalan version, the eggplant-filled Uruguayan recipe (link in Spanish), and of course the simple and elegant Filipino recipe. Of course, escabeche is still found on Jewish tables too. Escabeche is also the origin of my favorite dish from my parents’ homeland of South Africa, Kaapse kerrievis. The Capetonian version has Malay and African influence! (I’m also planning to make this for you.)

Book recommendation: Out of the East, by Paul Freedman. In this book, Freedman explores many of the ways spices were used – as an approximation of Eden, an expression of class, and as a stimulant and flavoring. In addition, many scholars now note that some spices, including cloves and pepper, have antimicrobial properties that aid in keeping food fresh.

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)
  1. Medieval peasants and medieval kings ate mostly the same food. I’ve heard this myth peddled by a few starry-eyed leftists who believe that everything “pre-capitalist” was good. (This is also a terrible reading of Marx.) But in medieval times, the starkest inequality was in food. Nobility, the wealthy, and those of other privileged classes generally enjoyed a much higher standard of nutrition – and a much more varied and secure diet – than their less fortunate counterparts. For the majority, poor and peasants, food was much more monotonous, much less secure, and of lower quality across the board. Even if famine was rare, diseases related to malnutrition such as pellagra were not. In fact, the lot of the rural poor would not significantly improve in many parts of Europe and the Middle East until the twentieth century – and despite problems, food is far more equally distributed now than in the Middle Ages. In the cultural realm, divisions of food by class were cemented by ideologies that someone naturally “born” into a station should not eat food of other stations. According to this narrative, nobility would be sick if they ate gruel, and a peasant would be sick if they ate white bread. Inequality in food was not only a fact of life, it was taken as the order of the world.

Jewish food: Rye and wheat bread. Bread was the truly the medieval staff of life – and bread and gruels often accounted for 80-90% of a peasant’s calorie intake. Across much of Central and Eastern Europe, the “base grain” for such bread was rye. Though we often think of dark rye breads as a somewhat upscale “ethnic” food, rye was often specifically not a luxurious or even slightly special food for most medieval Europeans. Rather, it was a base grain for an often impure bread filled with other additives – seeds, nuts, and so on – that wrecked digestive systems. Poorer folks often relied on grain that had gone off, leading to ergot poisoning. The wealthy, however, tended to eat higher-quality bread – rye breads, mixed breads, and above all white breads – for whiter flour was far more expensive. The breads tended also to have fewer additions, and were generally better proportioned with the rest of the diet. No wonder then that in the 19th century, when mass-produced white bread first became available to the working class, it was incredibly popular – it was far less dangerous and seen as healthier.

Book recommendation: Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine and Empire is magnificent, and very informative to this particular discussion. Laudan is very firm about the fact that food for the hoi polloi until very recently, by and large, was monotonous and not always secure, whilst the food of nobility, kings, and the wealthy was far better.

Three baked challahs
Baked challahs. This is a royal bread. (Photo mine, October 2016)
  1. There were no noodles in Italy or the Mediterranean before Marco Polo brought them in the late 13th century. One of the most commonly attributed traits to Marco Polo is “the man who gave Italians pasta” – but by this time, Italians had been eating pasta for centuries. Noodles spread from China through the Silk Road to Persia during the fifth century, and are first mentioned outside China by the Jerusalem Talmud as itriyot, and later in the Babylonian Talmud as rihata – both words of Persian origin. Pastas such as rishta, lissan, and couscous were common in the medieval Arab world, from which they were introduced to Sicily, Spain, and Southern Italy by the tenth century. Pastas became popular in Sicilian and Sephardic Jewish cooking. Meanwhile, lokshen – the Ashkenazi noodle – reached Eastern Europe both from Central Asia and Provence via Germany by the fourteenth century. The Yiddish lokshen derives from the Persian word lakhsha, or “to slide.” In any case, by the time Marco Polo came back from China in the 1290s, Jews and non-Jews alike in Italy were chowing down on all sorts of pastas and noodles – though the explorer may have introduced new varieties of noodle to Venice, from which recipes spread throughout Europe. Arab Jews continued to eat their own ever-evolving noodles.

Jewish food: Jerusalem Kugel – a noodle kugel made with a tantalizing caramel with a heavy dose of ground black pepper. Though the recipe only dates to the early 19th century, Jerusalem kugel has a most medieval spice combination of black pepper and sugar – one that would not have been out of place for the many sweet-spicy pasta recipes of Medieval Italy. In some ways, the Chasidic families who invented it travelled back in time. I recommend this recipe by Giora Shimoni.

Book recommendation: Oddly enough, Claudia Roden’s A Book of Jewish Food has many recipes for noodles that are somewhat similar to the noodle dishes consumed by Arab Jews in the medieval world.

Rosemary
Rosemary – one of the few things that has constantly been used in Mediterranean cuisines. (Photo mine, December 2016)
  1. What constitutes national culinary traditions now is directly descended from what people ate in these places in the Middle Ages. One of the more outrageous claims of nationalism and the cult-like worship of “authenticity” is an idea that the “national” culinary traditions of today have a history that stretches back to the medieval. This is quite far from the truth. The ingredients, prevailing norms, and social context of food in the Middle Ages, across the Christian and Islamic worlds in which Jews lived, were very different from today. The boundaries of dishes and foods were different. Communities were identified differently. And how people related to the food on their plate was very different. National culinary traditions – including the “French” and “Italian” traditions we often think of as seminal and timeless – were largely invented in the 19th century, products of increased wealth, nationalism, and romantic and ahistorical ideas of country life. Widespread education spread these dishes, because they were “taught.” And though many of the recipes themselves reach back to the medieval era, it is likely that a Venetian or Parisian from the 15th century dropped into Venice or Paris today would not only not recognize the “national cuisine” of her home city, but would find that their tastes hewed much closer to North African or Turkish food today.

Jewish food: Spinach with raisins and pine nuts. This was a recipe that was indeed eaten in the Middle Ages, and all these ingredients were popular at the time as well. The preparation itself came with Jews from Catalonia to Italy through trade. However, the sweet-savory combination in Italy later lost favor, and the dish became a largely Jewish recipe that only gained widespread popularity after World War II. Italian cuisine, meanwhile, moved from a sweet-sour complex to an herbal one, and began to limit sweet foods to dessert in imitation of the French from the 18th century. So now, this spinach dish, Jewish in origin, is “Jewish” once again – though it was very popular in Northern Italy during the late Middle Ages.

Book recommendation: Sidney Mintz’s classic Sweetness and Power is important for two reasons: one, it clearly outlines how sugar played an integral part in colonialism and the slave trade; two, it shows how the European diet was fundamentally altered by a regular sugar supply for the poor and the introduction of tea and coffee, both of which often “needed” sugar. The entry of sugar, just like changing performances of class and adjustments in the commonality of spices, radically rejigged European cuisine, and as a result what was common in 1700 was very different from what was common in 1800. Jam, for one.

Qatayef with cheese and pistachios
Qatayef (Photo Abbad Diraneyya via Wikimedia Commons)

BONUS: In the Middle Ages many of the culinary cues were taken from the Arab world – and so it is well worth your while to read Clifford Wright’s blog post on the delicious realm of medieval Arab cooking. Don’t tell Trump, Farage, Le Pen, or anyone seeking to make Europe or America “great again” – but actually, totally do.

Rhubarb for Pesach

I was recently asked by a friend of a friend if there are any Jewish rhubarb recipes – he had found good rhubarb and wanted to make some for Pesach (Passover). Initially, I was stumped – rhubarb is not even mentioned in Gil Marks’ otherwise encyclopedic Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. So I went to the various corners of the academic food internet to do some research – expecting to find a Greek, Russian, or Iranian Jewish rhubarb sweet, given that those are rhubarb-laden areas that historically had many Jews. Instead, I found something savory: a series of rhubarb sauces used for fish and meat in Greek and Turkish Sephardic communities. Some sources noted that this dish is, in fact, traditional for Pesach. It sounded intriguing – and delicious.

In honor of this history and the season, I made a stewed rhubarb side dish that is kosher for Passover. It is based on the rhubarb sauces from the Mediterranean, but with the addition of rosemary, which complements the tart rhubarb nicely. Though you may still prefer sweet rhubarb in a very-much-khametz pie, I hope you enjoy this method of preparation as well.

Rhubarb with Rosemary and Garlic (for Pesach)

1 pound/500 grams fresh rhubarb stalks (about 5)

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons sugar

 

1 tablespoon butter or olive oil

1 cup water

  1. Wash the rhubarb, and discard the ends. Then chop into 1 cm/1/2 inch chunks.
  2. In a shallow pan, melt the butter (or heat the pan and add the oil). Add the rosemary and garlic and sauté for thirty seconds.
  3. Add the rhubarb and mix thoroughly with the garlic and rosemary. Distribute evenly flat across the pan.
  4. Add the salt, sugar, and water, and bring the mixture to a boil.
  5. Simmer for ten minutes, or until the water has cooked down and the rhubarb has just started to disintegrate. Serve hot or cold.

Coconut Macaroons (Pesach is Coming)

Pesach (Passover), like winter, is coming. So it is time to prepare: we clean our homes to the cracks in the floorboards, stock up on enough wine for our sedarim, and prepare our digestive systems for an onslaught of tough matzah.

A macaroon sitting under the title on the cover of a haggadah for Passover
It’s time – haggadot and macaroons. (Photo mine, March 2017)

Despite these struggles, Pesach is a delicious holiday. And for many Jews, no food is so associated with the holiday as much as the macaroon – the delicious, nowadays usually almond- or coconut-based, mysteriously flour-free cookie. Some people, including myself, are fans of macaroons, especially when they are freshly baked. A few Jews have been known to eat ten in one sitting – a category that, of course, does not include the author. Others will gladly eat fluffy French macarons but avoid the heavier Jewish macaroons. And many, having only had the underrated-but-still-somewhat-dry packaged macaroons, consider the cookie a bit dull or not tasty at all. Though one can find them all year round on many tables, macaroons are now only encountered by most Jews around Pesach in their packaged form. As a result, many think this treat with a long history is a modern invention.

Fresh macaroons on parchment paper
Macaroons, freshly baked, cooling. (Photo mine, March 2017)

 

Some historians argue that macaroons can be traced to monasteries and palaces in medieval Italy, where it was introduced to Italian Jews. However, given that cooks in the Arab world were already using whipped eggs and sugar to make treats, and that medieval (and modern!) Italian cooking is heavily indebted to influence from the Islamic world, it is more likely that Italian Jews first encountered macaroons in an Arab context. In any case, macaroons became a popular Pesach delicacy among wealthier Jews – since they already contain no chametz, or leavened food. The macaroon then spread through trade networks to the rest of Europe. The name in English itself comes from the Italian maccarone, or paste, which refers to the almond paste that was originally used to make the macaroon. The French macaron, of recent chic status in world financial capitals, is also based on this word and a cookie that first reached France through the same trade networks (link in French). Though now the cookie is seen as especially Jewish, macaroons were the typical small pastry found at wealthy tables throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Turkish almond macaroons
Turkish almond macaroons. (Photo MCozturk via Wikimedia Commons/CC)

Sephardim, and then Ashkenazim, adopted the macaroon from Italian Jews and Spanish Jews fleeing the inquisition, who had made the similar amarguillos from bitter almonds (link in Spanish). Macaroons appeared in the earliest Jewish cookbooks in the United States, and have remained popular since. Today, coconut macaroons predominate – especially given both the ready availability of coconut and the industrialization of coconut grating since the 19th century. One can, of course, still find delicious almond macaroons. The coconut version, however, connects Jewish macaroons to another family of macaroons spread through colonial empires. Coconut macaroons based on the European-Arab original are now popular in the Dominican Republic, Southern India, the Philippines, and Mauritius. (This Mauritian recipe by Shelina Permaloo is particularly lovely.)

These coconut macaroons are simple, tasty, and a good dessert for any time of the year. (And they are gluten free!) I have the recipe here with raisins, but you can also make them with chocolate chips.

A macaroon on a plate with flowers painted on the plate
A macaroon, waiting to be eaten by me. (Photo mine, March 2017)

Coconut Macaroons with Raisins

Makes 20-24 macaroons

2 eggs

½ cup white sugar

½ cup vegetable oil or 4 tbsp melted butter

3 ½ cups sweetened shredded coconut

½ tsp vanilla extract

1/8 tsp salt

½ cup raisins, soaked for ten minutes in hot water

  1. Preheat your oven to 325F/160C. Line a flat sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Mix the eggs, sugar, and oil/butter together until well combined.
  3. Add the coconut, vanilla, salt, and raisins. Mix again until the egg mixture, coconut, and raisins are thoroughly mixed together.
  4. Drop tablespoons of the mixture onto the baking sheet, leaving about 1 ½ inches/3 centimeters between the macaroons.
  5. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until lightly brown on top and browned on the bottom. Let the cookies cool before removing them from the parchment paper.

Thank you to those of you who had these for participating in User Acceptance Testing. Thank you to Christine Schupbach from Writing the Kitchen for helping with research for this piece.

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.