This is a fall-themed cake using common pantry ingredients. The cake is in some ways my own creation, but was inspired by a significant amount of reading I did this summer. This perusal was of early- and mid-20th century cookbooks aimed to new Jewish housewives from the middle class, and Jewish housewives new to the middle class. Besides “educating” them in proper “housekeeping” – which, I suspect, would realistically rely on things learned from family, friends, and life experience – the books were chock-full of recipes, including recipes for cakes when company is coming over soon. Or recipes for cakes from everyday ingredients that one could serve for various occasions.
These cakes seemed, to me, the highlight. As ardent bloggers of mid-century cuisine have noted, these sort of cakes were far more common than the showier and more infamous confections of the era. And many, honestly, seemed delicious. I spotted some familiar bakes – smetanakuchen, banana bread, and apple cake among them. I also spotted the use of various other delicious things – like jam! So I toyed with an old vegan muffin recipe I had, added some eggs and dairy, and…voilà. I have been told that these sort of cakes – “company is coming” cake – are also part of the Soviet/Russian-language cookbook canon, but I do not have the Russian language skills to research this. Any readers care to help?
The cake is very autumnal. I use normal supermarket applesauce – which, on a normal day, makes for a fine replacement for eggs. The sour cream adds to moisture and rise, but you could probably mix in milk. Most of the time for this cake is really in the baking – the prep is very simple. I wrote the recipe in a different format this time – let me know what you think!
Applesauce Raisin Cake
Preheat the oven to 400F. Grease a deep loaf pan or a rectangular (9x13in/23x32cm) pan.
Pour hot water over 1 cup of raisins to cover. Set aside.
Melt 4oz/125g butter on a stove or in the microwave. Then, beat in 1 cup applesauce, 3 tablespoons sour cream, 1 ¼ cups white granulated sugar, and 1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice mix until combined. If you do not have pumpkin pie spice mix, use 1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon, and ½ teaspoon each of ground ginger, ground cloves, and ground nutmeg.
Beat in three large eggs, one at a time, until thoroughly combined.
Add two cups of white all-purpose flour, 2 tsp baking powder, and a dash of salt, and mix thoroughly until you have a thick batter. If your applesauce is runny, you will need to add more flour – for every additional ½ cup flour, add 2 tbsp of white sugar.
Drain the raisins, and fold them into the batter until evenly distributed.
Pour the batter into a pan. Bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick or knife come out clean and the top is golden brown. Cool for a while, then store sealed until serving to hold moistness.
Thank you to my classmates at the University of Maryland’s Master in Community Planning program for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe!
I am moving to Maryland and in the midst of packing, but I did not want to leave you, my loyal readers, hanging. So, here is a quick recipe for a dairy-free pie crust. I have seen many people complain about the lack of quality generally present in pareve desserts. Though I love butter and sour cream, I do not think that a lack of dairy means that your dessert needs to be bad. Here is my tested pie crust recipe, which works for most dairy-free and vegan pies.
Pareve Pie Crust
For one double-crust 9-inch/23cm pie or two singe-crust 9-inch 23cm pies.
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
½ cup oat milk
½ cup corn oil
Up to ½ cup cold water
Sift the flour and salt together in a large bowl with a fork or a whisk.
Add the oil and oat milk. Then, with a pastry knife or your hands, meld the flour and liquids together to form a dough. Add a teaspoon of water at a time until you have a pliable but not dry dough.
Refrigerate the dough until ready for use. You do not need to have the dough at room temperature to work it. Use like a dairy pie crust in your pie recipe.
Do note that when it is done, it will be slightly lighter than a dairy pie crust.
Credit, first and foremost, to my friend Rebecca for introducing me to this cake. Blueberry buckle is her favorite cake, and I and others have made it for her birthday. It is, in my opinion, one of the highlights of American baking. The recipe itself originated in Colonial New England as an adaptation of an English cake, and uses a native ingredient – blueberries. That said, this recipe is much like smetanakuchen, the coffee cake introduced by Ashkenazi Jews with great success to the Northern United States. And though I love Jewish coffee cake, the blueberry buckle has a moisture that the cake is sometimes missing. The name itself comes from the fact that the crumb topping causes the cake to “buckle” – as you can see in the picture.
I made the buckle a little softer than most buckles, because I find that the melty blueberry goes well with that texture. You can totally use frozen blueberries if that is easier or more affordable for you, or if you prefer the result. I added some yogurt to give the cake more weight.
4 tablespoons salted butter, melted
½ cup full-fat Greek yogurt, at room temperature
½ cup whole milk
¾ cup brown sugar
1½ cups flour
2/3 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries
4 tablespoons salted butter, softened
½ cup white sugar
1/3 cup flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Grease a cake pan – I used a 9”/23cm wide round pan, but you can use a similarly sized square pan.
Whisk together the butter, yogurt, milk, sugar, and eggs until thoroughly combined. Add the flour and baking soda and mix in thoroughly.
Fold in the blueberries until evenly distributed through the batter. Then, pour the batter into the greased pan.
With a pastry knife, fork, or food processor, blend the topping ingredients together. Then, sprinkle on top of the cake.
Bake for 35-45 minutes or until a toothpick in the cake comes out clean. Let cool before serving.
Thank you to Rebecca Galin for introducing me to this cake.
You, dear readers, seriously provided for my first post on Jewish Treyf. Not only did you provide insight and stories from the heart, but you also shared with me your funniest stories about the intersection of treyf and Judaism. I “ugly laughed” my way through all your input. And, as we would say, sharing is caring. So, from Passover-friendly shrimp to pareve butter, here are a few of your tales.
All these stories are anonymous. The writing was touched up for grammar and spelling.
“One time, I checked to make sure that some cocktail sauce did not contain any chametz [‘leavened’ goods forbidden on Passover]. Once I made sure that it did not, I then proceeded to put it on the shrimp that I was eating.”
“So, apparently, my grandmother’s specialty was Veal Parmesan with matzoh meal on Passover.”
God Created the Pig Too
“In my nuclear family, I am the one who keeps kosher the most, actually. My parents and sister think I am a bit of a stick in the mud for refusing to eat pork, or meat if there is cream sauce or cheese involved. My dad always says, “God created the pig too!” To which I reply, “God created it, but not for us to eat!” We laugh about it, and he orders something with bacon.”
“When I was 5, we had to do a presentation at school about ourselves and our family. In making my poster board, one of the categories we were supposed to have was ‘favorite food.’ So, my mom, who was helping me make it, asked ‘Okay, so what’s your favorite food?’ I hesitated and said…pork. Not bacon. Not ham. Pork. The most brutal way to put it. We had pork regularly at home, and even though I have not eaten it in over a decade now, I still think of that moment. My mom reflects on how weird it was to talk about this, and my proud Jewishness, in the same presentation to a classroom full of non-Jewish kids. But yay! They were introduced to complex forms of Jewish authenticity at an early age.”
“My rabbi does not eat kosher either – he’s Reform. We were out for dinner with him, our shul’s student cantor, and his husband. The student cantor and I were both wearing kippot. Rabbi and I decided to split the ‘bacon-topped poutine.’ The poor waiter was like, looking back and forth from kippot to me and the rabbi, just like ‘um, you want like, all those ingredients? We have substitutes!’ My rabbi just turns to me and goes, ‘quick! Take off your yarmulke! They can’t know!’ We all just lose it while I try to explain to the poor waiter – who was just trying to be helpful! – that it is okay, thanks for his concern, we are not kosher. Please excuse my rabbi, he’s a menace to society…”
Tradition and Not-Tradition
“My mom likes to make pork loins for family gatherings, which are often Jewish ones. Nothing especially interesting or traditional about this, but I always thought it was funny. I was a little offended when my cousin wanted to make corn fritters instead of latkes one Hanukkah, though. I mean, how many times do you get to make latkes?!”
Jonathan’s note: latkes are a year-round food.
“I grew up with two sets of dishes et cetera, but we ate shellfish. We would not cook it except on the beach in the summer, and there was a designated set of a treyf pot and dishes. We also had treyf silverware for Chinese food – we would order non-kosher meat out. The logic behind the shellfish allowance? My dad loves it, and declared the ban a ‘Biblical typo.’”
“I have a hobby of shape note singing. I was road tripping through the south with a Jewish friend. We found ourselves staying with a family in Hoboken, GA who are big names in the shape note world, and very devout Primitive Baptists. They invited us to lunch, and we found out when we arrived that everything, including the veggies, was cooked in ham hocks. The two of us looked at the meal, looked at each other, then without a word served ourselves and ate it. We both decided that though neither of us ate pork, it was more important to make a genuine connection with people who we, two Northeastern Jews, would never had [encountered] outside this singing tradition. I’d do it again…[it’s] about the human connections.”
“[In Maine], the older kids (Grade 7 and up) would have religious school on Sunday nights, and we would have a dinner break. Usually, it was a cheese pizza, but sometimes the shul sprung for Chinese takeout from a treyf place. (Are you going to find a Kosher Chinese restaurant in Maine? LOL.) Anyway, they only ordered things with kosher animals – chicken dishes or vegetarian. But once, the restaurant made a mistake, and sent something with shrimp. The school director FREAKED OUT. It was kind of amazing because virtually none of the kids kept kosher in their home lives, but the synagogue couldn’t be seen furnishing little Jewish kids with treyf. It would be unthinkable!”
It’s Secretly Kosher
“At my parents’ wedding, on a kibbutz in the early 1960’s, two buffet tables were laid out: treyf and kosher. As the guests arrived, my mother welcomed them and showed them to the buffet tables. One friend exclaimed, on being shown the treyf table, ‘But there is schinko there, and that is kosher!’ My mother looked at her, and explained that schinko is ham, which is pork. The friend was horrified! I do not know whether said friend did or did not continue enjoying her ‘kosher’ schinko. But yes – schinko was a very commonly consumed pork meat [product] among Polish Jews.”
Jonathan’s note here: pork was widely consumed on many staunchly secular kibbutzim in Israel until quite recently.
“My Yekkishe [German] grandmother considered raw ham (Schinken) kosher, although she would not touch bacon or pork. Seafood of course is another matter…”
“We do have these lovely friends, with whom we enjoy Shabbat together. They are probably our most religious friends. We made this funny discovery about them many years ago – when I complimented the wife on something she baked for dessert. I asked her for the recipe, and when I received it, I noticed there was a stick of butter in the recipe. So, I went back to her unwittingly, and asked her what she used to substitute the butter when she served a meat dish for Shabbat like, she had that night. I did not expect the answer: that there is no substitution. Butter is always ‘Kosher for Shabbat’ in their house, because it is delicious!”
Thank you, everyone, for sharing your stories of Jewish treyf.
Rabbi Jason Miller is the founder and director of Kosher Michigan, the world’s largest non-Orthodox kosher agency. He received his semichah (ordination) from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He and his colleagues supervise the kashrut of food, kitchen products, and ingredients that are produced not only in Michigan and elsewhere in the Midwest, but across North America and even now in India. A number of years ago, he authored a popular article about the Orthodox domination of the kosher system and the “keeping up with the [frum] Joneses” culture around kashrut that it encourages. “Ending Kosher Nostra” is one of the best Jewish food articles I have read, and I strongly urge you to read it.
One of Rabbi Miller’s former students, Dr. Samuel Zerin, put me in touch with Rabbi Miller when I was soliciting stories for my pieces on institutional cooking. Rabbi Miller was very gracious with his time and allowed me to interview him by phone one recent evening. The transcript of the interview, slightly redacted for readability, is here.
A note to readers: there is a lot more Hebrew and Yiddish in this than in past pieces. Though normally I translate words into English, I kept the words here in my notes to preserve the integrity of the interview. I have provided or linked to definitions for all terms.
Katz: Tell us a bit about your background, and how Kosher Michigan got started.
Miller: I was ordained as a Conservative rabbi in 2004 from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. While I was in rabbinical school, I served as a mashgiach in the cafeteria. In the course of rabbinical school, you have classes on hilchot kashrut [laws of keeping kosher], but you don’t learn how to be a mashgiach unless you’re a mashgiach in the cafeteria. At the time, Rabbi Joel Roth was in charge of the hashgacha [kosher certification], and he would lead seminars only for the mashgichim. So that’s where I learned to be a mashgiach.
In 2007, I was hired by one of the largest Jewish camps in the country, Tamarack Camps in Michigan. For many decades, it was under the [kosher] supervision of the Detroit Orthodox va’ad [rabbinical council], which was well known. Around that time, the camp made the decision to no longer be under the supervision of the va’ad, and that a Conservative rabbi would be hired year-round to be the mashgiach for the kitchen, which is the largest kosher kitchen in Michigan. So I was hired, and 50% of my job was to oversee the kitchen. I learned how to the handle the hashgacha for a year-round institution – there are camps, events, and programs all year, not just during the summer.
This made news in Michigan, that the va’ad was out and a Conservative rabbi was in. For many people it was the first time that they heard that a Conservative rabbi could be a mashgiach. The va’ad made a public statement that was in support of Tamarack’s decision, and that they felt I would uphold the standards of kashrut and support them. Besides, the va’ad did not want to continue sending Orthodox mashgichim to this liberal progressive camp.
Many local businesses read this news, and contacted me, saying “we are a bakery, or a bagel store, we want to be kosher, but we met with the va’ad and they said no, or it was too expensive. We read that you did this for Tamarack, can you do it for us?” Initially, I said no, because I didn’t want to get into supervision politics. But people in the community pressured me, because they felt it would be great for the community. So in Summer 2008, I agreed to give certification for a bagel store and a bakery. I kept the price low, and I did not want to do a shakedown. At the last minute, someone asked “what is your hechsher [kosher seal]?” So I got on the computer and made one with a K and an M. It felt too self-serving to make the M “Miller,” so I said it was “Michigan.” And that’s how Kosher Michigan was born.
Katz: Here in New York, the Orthodox va’adot [councils] are very particular about who they support regarding kashrut, and invariably it is other Orthodox rabbis. I find it really interesting, in a good way, that they support you.
Miller: Well the va’ad has not been 100% supportive, because in the past decade we’ve now become a major competitor. But at the time they were supportive because they didn’t want to deal with the camp. It was difficult to find Orthodox mashgichim to go to this progressive Jewish camp, with all this gender mixing, girls in swimwear at the beach – and Camp Tamarack is 45 minutes from Metro Detroit, which has the closest synagogues.
Katz: I have friends who grew up in Orthodox Jewish areas of Southfield, so I’m a bit familiar with the gender politics.
Miller: Yes. It was not a comfortable situation for them. So they were not interested in doing more. I would say they knew that a Conservative rabbi would uphold the standards they were used to. That was the promise I made to them and the community, and one I still keep now.
Katz: But that’s still really interesting that it was possible. As you know, in New York, we have a lot of people who have a “frummer (more religious) than thou” attitude to kashrut, where certain hechsherim (kosher seals) are and are not okay, and Conservative kashrut is not “good enough.” I’m personally of the opinion that it’s nonsense – kosher is kosher, despite the politics.
Miller: My own attitude has been similar to yours. I tell people that “I sleep very well at night” when I consider my approach to kashrut. When someone is “frummer than thou,” so frum that they won’t buy a Kosher Michigan-certified bagel, how does it affect me? Why does that person feel the need to say that? The person is most likely not doing that to other rabbis, just as I wouldn’t go to the owners of an Italian restaurant and tell them that I don’t buy Italian food. My response is dignified and respectful: “Thanks for letting me know.”
This, I think, gets to the heart of kishke Judaism. [Emotional Judaism] Why do you have that neurosis that you have to let me know that? I have written about this [in Kosher Nostra]. The same person will go into a non-kosher pizza shop and get a cheese pizza baked in the same oven as the pepperoni pizza, which is a lot more problematic for kashrut. It makes no sense.
Katz: There’s a performance to it.
Miller: People feel the need to say “I need you to know how frum I am.” A funny story from Tamarack: this Reform Jewish woman came up to me and said: “so now you’re in charge. Well congrats, but you should know my daughter is ba’alat teshuva [roughly, “born-again” Orthodox] so she won’t eat at the camp. She’s really frum, and she will only eat glatt pizza.” I responded, “well the cheese on our pizza is smooth!” After all, glatt refers the smoothness of the lungs on a cow – and thus only to the category of red meat.
But I don’t think it’s about people being ignorant, it’s something deeper – a spiritual, psychological meshugaas [nuttiness] that some people have.
Katz: It reminds me of the histrionics you see with adaptations in the liturgy and the crowing about matbe’ah shel tefillah[integrity of the prayer]- for example, people who get upset about adding the imahot/Matriarchs in the Shemoneh Esrei.
Miller: It’s this idea that “if it’s not the Judaism of my grandfathers, it doesn’t feel authentic.”
In ten years, I’ve seen and learned a lot because of my certification agency. And something that I’ve learned to do is to brush off the verbal attacks. The question “can a Conservative rabbi give a hechsher” is on the face of it a silly question. There’s no such thing as a Conservative hechsher, or an Orthodox one. There’s a trustworthy one.
It’s interesting. If someone is giving the certification, well, who is this person? Are they valid? Can they be trusted? Ask yourself these questions, but don’t ask where they went to school! It makes no sense when it comes to ne’emanut [trustworthiness].
Katz: I want to switch gears here to talk about being a mashgiach – what does your typical day look like?
Miller: So the agency has grown to the point now where I’m not actually the main mashgiach anymore – I have hired staff certifying all over the country, paid mashgichim. On a typical day, I’ll stop into several places, and I’ll be on the phone with the mashgichim elsewhere who supervise for my agency. It’s gone from mashgiach to a business of mashgichim.
I also answer a lot of phone calls and emails from business owners who want to become kosher. Sometimes it’s a long-standing business, like a jelly manufacturer seeking to expand outside of Michigan, and the food consultant tells them that becoming kosher will help them market the product better. And then there are the food product startups – the little old lady in Northern Michigan who make fudge and sells it out of her home, and people at church tell her to make it kosher, and she contacts me. And I tell her to go to a production facility – there are wholesale companies, co-packers, doing private label and producing and selling this kind of thing, and the shared facilities are much easier to make kosher.
Katz: I work for a New York City government agency writing information on basic safety and licensing regulations. (This is the non-accessibility part of my job.) A lot of the businesses we work with are food producers, and we’re trying to push them to shared kitchens. It’s very hard to have a home kitchen to the standard New York State requires for food manufacturers. Is it a big thing in Michigan? And how does that affect being a mashgiach?
Miller: Yeah, that’s interesting. In Michigan, back in 2008-2009 when the economy was in really bad shape, Governor Jennifer Granholm made a strong effort to spur more business. She made it much easier for folks to produce food out of home kitchens, but a home kitchen is impossible for me to certify as kosher, because then I would need access to their home. So I got them to go to shared kitchens and in relationships with co-packers. There are so many people here in Michigan though doing that sort of thing.
Katz: I imagine, given that you’re in Michigan, that there’s a lot of Michigan-specific things, like jam, candy, and fish.
Miller: Well in Michigan we have some specific challenges – grape jam has its issues, and strawberry jam of course brings up all sorts of questions with inspections. But we’re the cherry capital so a lot of our specific stuff is cherries. More of our business is outside of Michigan though! We have an office in Chicago, and a partner in London doing certifications in India –
Katz: India? How did that happen?
Miller: So we spread to India over the past three years, with food manufacturers and lots of different products like spice. It’s not sexy but it’s necessary.
It’s interesting. When Kosher Michigan began, we started off very basic with an Indian vegetarian restaurant, a kosher caterer, bakeries, et cetera. Then as the agency grew, we started certifying other things: meat dinners at Michigan State University at the residence halls, paper mills, chemical producers, so we’ve been moving more and more into that less sexy part of kashrut. There’s a whole industry of kosher certification for chemicals, vitamins, wax paper, and parchment paper – India is part of that.
Katz: It’s more of an exploration of food systems.
Miller: It’s the nitty-gritty of kashrut! No one at JTS taught me that or how to certify, say, a tractor-trailer. When we talk about kelim [food vessels], we don’t usually think of a tractor-trailer, but rather pots, pans, and so on. But if the beans are being hauled in a tractor-trailer that hasn’t been washed, that had pork in it, then that affects it.
Katz: A different sort of kelim.
Miller: Yes. The first time I got a call from a guy who wanted to certify a truck, I thought it was a prank call. But then I got on my computer and did some research. I didn’t realize that washing out a big tanker, so on, turns out to be a big part of the kosher industry. Same with two paper mills in Port Huron, Michigan, when dealing with paper and paraffin wax. So as a rabbi, I’m now wearing protective goggles, ear plugs, and a hairnet to check the kashrut of paper in industrial mills – I never thought rabbinical school would lead here.
Katz: this whole thing of food systems and industrial food is interesting to contrast with the standard conversation on ever-frummer kashrut – the strawberries, the lettuce, and so on.
Miller: Yes, it’s interesting. A comment I get often from people is that Conservative rabbis probably wouldn’t be punctilious enough to require lettuce to be washed three times. That’s their way of saying that they’re so frum they go to the extremes to ensure there’s no bugs in their lettuce. What they don’t consider is that no one wants to be eating little, disgusting bugs in their lettuce, broccoli, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, and so on. That’s not only not kosher, but it’s gross.
Many thanks to Rabbi Jason Miller for his generosity of time and story-telling. Tizku le-mitzvot!
I am not a vegan. The reasons why are probably the topic of a future, more controversial post that would discuss a lot of environmental and agricultural science. That said, I have a number of vegan friends who I enjoy feeding, and am always happy to cook for them. So it was a welcome challenge when a friend requested a vegan, Shavuot-appropriate cake. Shavuot is a dairy-heavy holiday, and if you do not eat dairy, a lot of festive foods for an agrarian, sugary festival are barred to you. I also happened to be very stressed, and baking is a good way for me to relieve anxiety. (Your mileage may vary.) So I decided to put the request to work and make a cake using some flavors I enjoy in my cakes: the dark fruitiness of cherries and the happy luxury of chocolate. The cake is simple, and turned out well. My colleagues enjoyed the cake immensely, and gave good feedback to make it better. I put a ganache on this cake because chocolate rarely hurts. However, the cake is perfectly delicious without it.
¾ cup melted vegetable shortening or vegetable oil + more for greasing pan
1 ¼ cups granulated brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cup / 300 mL soy milk
1 cup dried cherries, soaked in water for 20 minutes and drained
1 cup miniature chocolate chips
2 heaping teaspoons baking powder
2 ½-3 cups all-purpose flour (depending on which shortening you use, you may need more flour)
⅔ cup chocolate chips
½ cup / 120 mL soy milk
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Grease a medium-size (9 inches or 25 centimeters square) rectangular/square pan, cake pan, or Bundt pan, depending on what shape you want the cake to be.
In a large bowl, mix the shortening/oil, brown sugar, and vanilla together until the brown sugar is completely mixed into the oil. You can use a whisk or a large spoon.
Add the salt, soy milk, cherries, chocolate chips, and baking powder. Mix until the mixture is thoroughly even in distribution of chocolate chips. (The cherries need the ballast of the flour to become even.)
Mix in the flour, a half cup at a time, until you get a thick but still viscous batter. The cherries and chocolate chips should be evenly distributed.
Pour into your prepared pan. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until a toothpick or chopstick comes out clean. Remove from heat, and let cool before adding ganache and/or serving.
To prepare the optional ganache: put the chocolate chips in a bowl. Then, heat the soy milk to just below boiling temperature on the stove or in the microwave (no shame). Then, pour the soy milk over the chocolate chips and mix with a fork until well blended, about two minutes. Let cool until thicker. Once thicker and cooler, pour over the cake or use for other purposes.
Thank you to all of my colleagues for conducting User Acceptance Testing and Operational Readiness Testing on this recipe, and giving feedback for adjustments.
Many of those around me have noticed that I have a hard time throwing food away. It takes something being rotten or most definitively off for me to throw it out; even then, I feel a little twinge of guilt. This guilt is not from sermons about food waste – I am well-read enough to know that waste has actually gone down significantly with modern agriculture, and I am also generally able to plan shopping and food storage to minimize any unneeded waste. Rather, it is because I carry quite a bit of baggage and secondary trauma about the Holocaust. My maternal grandmother was a survivor of Bergen-Belsen who starved in the camps, and whose food practices were forever shaped by those years of deprivation. As a result, my mother and I have a lot of thoughts about the potential of food – and throwing away any of it sends shivers down our spines. It is also why we stockpile food – a subconscious “just in case.”
These sorts of historical and transmitted traumas have influenced Jewish foodways for a long time. How many cooks view food is directly related to their own experience of lack, or for those like me who have been more fortunate, lack experienced by our relatives. Sometimes this happens in terms of food storage: how much do we keep? How little do we throw out? Sometimes this happens when we cook: how many portions do we cook? And sometimes it happens to our guests – not letting them “go hungry,” getting them to eat something. Subconsciously, it is a response to trauma experienced or inherited. And around that trauma, a culture of relentless squirrelling away, huge outlays of food, and stuffing guests’ faces has been built.
Even now, many Jews do not have enough to eat. A night volunteering at a kosher soup kitchen or food pantry in New York or Chicago is evidence enough. (I highly recommend Masbia, which is the nexus of a huge community.) If anecdote is not enough, allow the statistics to speak: 10% of American Jews struggle with food security. A higher proportion of Jews in Israel and some other countries do. These struggles do not just end when people have enough to eat: food insecurities, as we see from history, inform how people will eat in the future.
And the proof of this is in the way we relate to food today in the Jewish community. One reason we seek to have groaning Shabbat tables is because we remember the times in which our ancestors simply could not have that. One reason there are so many cultural strictures against wasting food is because we are only seventy years out from a huge starvation event – the Holocaust. (Genocide was accompanied by hunger and forced starvation.) Many of the popular foods among American Ashkenazi Jews today – challah, babka, cold cuts, and more – were prized by immigrants in the early 20th century precisely because of their rarity at home.
This history is why I also have little patience for the nostalgic, sentimental narrative around Ashkenazi cooking as a product of “poverty.” For most Ashkenazi Jews, challah was an occasional treat, as were things like brisket, p’tcha, or pretty much anything with meat. Ditto for other Jewish communities and meat. The daily fare of poverty was a lot plainer and probably not something those in developed countries in our era would willingly eat. When we say bread “came from the earth” in the blessing hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz, we are partly commemorating the fact that wheat was once threshed on floors. This idea is explicitly stated in ancient and medieval commentaries such as Bereshit Rabbah. Bread had impurities that were dirt or stones. Bugs were commonplace in food before the modern era. Starvation was only unknown to the wealthiest in the community – most people experienced some hunger at least once in their lifetime. A lack of food security, not just persecution, drove millions of Ashkenazim to emigrate from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. The cuisine that became everyday was the cuisine of festivals, because that was the cuisine that meant plenty to our ancestors. And the fact that we eat so much – and so often, and that we store so much? That is the actual aftereffect of generations of poverty, or the memory of grandmothers in concentration camps, or remembrance of famines past.
For more on the history of hunger in the Jewish world, I highly recommend Hasia Diner’s Hungering for America and John Cooper’s Eat and Be Satisfied.