Modernist Jewish Cooking

I am starting this piece in Israel, where I am visiting my grandmother at the moment. Israel, as I have written before, is a really weird place in terms of food. There is plenty already written about the influence of Palestinian cuisine on Jewish cooking, continued diaspora traditions, and the “kashrut wars” in Israel. I have even watched a fantastic documentary about the pork industry in Israel. What I find most interesting, though, is that it is ground zero for industrial Jewish foods. Most of the canned gefilte fish, powder-mix matzah ball soup and latkes, and instant farfel have some link to industrial food companies here. If they were not invented here, they are certainly made here.

Canned vegetables on a shelf.
Canned vegetables: a life saver for some. (Photo Parenting Patch via Creative Commons)

My grandmother is a fan. At the age of 91, she still enjoys her jarred gefilte fish on Passover, Mandelbrod from big boxes, and the smell of soup made from powdered mix. (She also eats some food that is unlikely to ever have an industrial market, like baked fish heads.) I used to dismiss these products as industrial dreck. But now I find them fascinating, because they still influence our homemade cooking. And just as Israel’s government uses nostalgia to drum up support for Zionism, so too do these food products use nostalgia to not just sell their wares, but redefine Jewish cuisine.

We who write about food are too quick to dismiss these products as unimportant to the grand story, or only negative. Except we often end up imitating them. For people whose first experience of Jewish food was these foods – and we have sixty years of this – that is the “benchmark” for whatever we make. It also becomes the norm. And we end up adding more of the things that people want … which often circle back to these products. Never mind that some people do not have the time, energy, ability, or resources to make everything “from scratch.” Making stock, making kneidlach, and making farfel takes time. The industrial manufacturers hit on a market – and the result is fascinating. Why? Because of how it plays with our psychology.

Makers take memories, smash them together, and create food products out of them. I find that fascinating. The company of course uses that “authentic” taste to sell the food. And eventually those tastes – which are often similar – become fixed. So then we have to adjust our handmade recipes to reflect those. We cannot remember the pre-industrial food that we never tasted! What we mistakenly call authentic is as much a product of marketing as anything else, even foods like p’tcha that do not have a version from the box. Some mourn this reality. I do not.

Five brown bouillon cubes in open wrappers.
Bouillon cubes – just as Jewish as homemade stock. (Photo Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

We have to remember that industrial food came about and stayed for a reason. Well, actually, it came about for many reasons, right alongside the development of capitalism, redistribution of wealth, and redistribution of cuisines. Food has also, in all civilizations, been industrial to a certain extent, with products being made, processed, and consumed in separate places. To return to the point though: industrial food made it far more efficient, practical, and possible to make food, make different types of food, and make a variety of food available. Canning made vegetables more regularly available during the winter. Dried pasta made noodles affordable. The packaging of rice made it shippable. Industrial bread made affordable bread without dangerous or unsavory additives that often caused illness or debilitating pain from indigestion. (The latter was common in Europe before the 19th century.) The natural next step in some ways was to industrialize other foods. That went well with the faith in scientific everything of the early and mid-20th century. True, these foods were seen as suspicious, and the women who were first to embrace them were often criticized for not doing things “the real way.” But the ease and simplicity of cooking them made industrial foods much more popular. Women, who still do most of the housework in homes today, had more time. (The use of industrial food maps closely to the ability of women to enter the workforce.) Fewer people were malnourished than before – a fact that goes contrary to many screeds about the obesity epidemic. Things that were once rare for most common people, such as chicken in the United States and pasta in Italy, became common. For Jews, festival foods also became more common – though the gefilte fish from the jar was certainly quite different. In Israel, industrialized food got a population of refugees dumped by the Israeli state into transit camps through a long period of austerity. Industrial food also ameliorated the malnutrition common in Palestinian refugee camps – as it still does today. The high-end “organic, handmade” cuisine that later developed in Italy, France, and the Bay Area is not natural or historic. It is an elitist reaction to a new common availability of food, which happens to be industrial. And though industrial food can improve, we should not simply dismiss it.

What would Jewish cooking look like today without industrial food? The honest truth is, I do not know, and nor do you. Industrial food has changed our tastes: it is so common that it is part of all of our memories of taste. It has been around and popular for generations. I would hazard that what we considered the central parts of Jewish food would have a lot less meat, a lot less complexity, and many more foods reserved only for the most important holidays. Perhaps there would also be less salt. I do not think it is useful, though, to recreate pre-industrial Jewish cooking. We are at five generations of cooks who have grown up with stock cubes and bouillon powder, canned tomatoes and packaged noodles, jams from the store and premade matzah meal. Those tastes are in all of our palates – even the ones with organic, fair-trade labeling. We cannot reconstruct that taste. We simply have to move on and acknowledge that these jarred and canned foods, whether or not we like them, a part of our cuisine. We should partake, and participate in how they are developed.

20180316-142253-supermarket-israel-2018
The lines of Israeli industrial dairy. The fruit yogurts at bottom left are a personal favorite. (Photo Rakoon via CC/Wikimedia, 2018)

In short, we should embrace what I call modernist Jewish cooking. (The term is an adaptation of Rachel Laudan’s term “culinary modernism”). It is pointless and unhygienic to masturbate to fantasies of the authentic Jewish kitchen. Why complain about frozen gefilte fish, when we can make it different or better for us? Why judge the person who makes matzah ball soup from the box? (Would you rather they not eat?) Why should we be so scared of the shortcuts our grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew better to malign? Why should we romanticize the misogynist misery of cooking “in the old days,” a misery that hundreds of millions of women still live? Why should we embrace the myths of the “natural” kitchen, when nothing about human cooking is ever fully “natural”? And can we even run away from these tastes, that shape us as much as anything that is celebrated?

For more reading on industrial food, I highly recommend the work of Rachel Laudan and Josh Ozersky. “A Plea for Modernist Cuisine” (Laudan) and “In Defense of Industrial Food” (Ozersky) are two of my favorite articles ever written about food. For more on how industrial food products emerged, read Laura Shapiro’s Something From the Oven. For more on industrial food in Israel, Yael Raviv’s Falafel Nation is spectacular. For a lovely, if incomplete, takedown of “locavore” thought, The Locavore’s Dilemma by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroki Shimizu is quite good.

 

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