On Herring Literature: The Barrel Always Smells of Herring III

Herring on an English muffin
Herring on an English muffin. (Photo mine, June 2016)

Read about the history and memory of herring here and here. Get a recipe for chopped herring here and for herring marinated in beer here.

In my brief and wonderful adventures researching the history of Jewish and global herring, I’ve had the bizarre experience of reading through a tiny library of books and articles about herring, the people who make it, those who sell it, and those who eat it. Given that herring created and sewed together a world in early-modern Northern Europe and the early 20th century, it is perhaps not surprising that a “herring literature“ – only a tiny fraction of which I have cited on this blog – has grown up to document this fish. But why, one may ask, would one write a book about herring?

Of course I cannot make predictions as to this drive to write a book about herring – better, then, to point at three common trends. One is nostalgia: books like Herring: A Love Story, Russ and Daughters, and Rhapsody in Schmaltz, all of which touch on herring if not obsess over it, take us down a route of exploring the various roles herring played in those days of yore. Yore might be the Lower East Side in 1928, yore might be Germany in 1548. None of these books, however, are uncritical. A second is scientific: herring is a big part of the history of Norway and Iceland, and one can’t really understand Iceland’s industrialization without knowing its herring industry – one that fed many a Jewish stomach. Articles like LC Hamilton’s discussion of the herring economy of Siglufjörður provides an essential snapshot into what was, at one point, a backbone of several countries’ economies. And some books seem to just be a product of lifelong obsession – like that by Donald Murray, Herring Tales. As a fellow herring fanatic, I understand the urge to write about one’s love. All of these slices of herring literature provide us yet another insight into the wonders of this fish and the people who eat it.

More broadly, these herring books allow those of us interested in Jewish food history to examine how Jewish dietary practice intersected with non-Jewish lives and economies well beyond the intensely researched, discussed, and romanticized rhetoric of separation and difference – which were important, very much so, but not the complete story. Yes, we kept kosher. Yes, we died for our right to do so. But we also did so as we bought fish from Norway in barrels sold by Dutchmen shared by our Gentile neighbors. That’s actually incredible – and these books and articles, from Donald Murray’s to Cathie Fidler’s – illustrate that reality. And through that demonstration, herring literature gives us the proof of a simple fact: herring is our cosmopolitanism and our influences, wrapped up into one delicious and delightful little fish.


And now, a few recommended herring reads and articles, to finish off our series. I’ve literally read, skimmed, or browsed all or part of dozens of articles and books on herring, and this is a selection of some of the best.

Coffee table book: Herring, A Love Story, by Daniel Rozensztroch and Cathie Fidler, profiled on this blog in April – it’s quite Jewish-centric but embraces all of Northern Europe.

History: Herring Tales: How the Silver Darlings Shaped Human Taste and History, by Donald Murray – a Scotland-centric history of the social structures surrounding herring. It’s a bit meandering but a great book!

Memoir: Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House That Herring Built, by Mark Russ Federman – a wonderful and funny book by the now-retired third generation of Ashkenazi Jewish New York’s herring castle, Russ and Daughters

Dining: This 2002 article by the late, great RW Apple in the New York Times is a wonderful plunge into the tasty and laborious world of Swedish herring: “Herring, the Fish That Roared.”

 

 

Turnips with Date Molasses (Shalgham Helu)

Cooked turnips with date molasses
Shalgham helu or shalgham bi-dibs – turnips with date molasses. (Photo mine, June 2016)

I was browsing through Claudia Roden’s encyclopedic The Book of Jewish Food the other day and happened upon this delightfully simple and incredibly tasty Iraqi recipe. Shalgham helu – or, as it also seems to be known, maye al-shalgham or shalgham bi-dibs – is simply turnips cooked with silan, also known as dibis, rub, or date molasses. The latter is a syrup, made from dates, that acts as a sweetener in Iraqi cooking. Iraqi Jews frequently use silan in pastries, stews, and with bread – and also in their charoset for Passover. Turnips cooked with date molasses is a common Iraqi dish – and one recipe I found (Hebrew) says that some Iraqi Jews serve this as a dessert.

This dish is two things: incredibly delicious and ridiculously easy. I made this while making something far more complicated and talking to my future roommate on the telephone. The result is spectacular and I may have had some turnip pieces as my midnight snack that night. Even someone just getting started in the kitchen should not have too much trouble with this recipe.

You can buy date molasses at most Middle Eastern or Jewish shops. Many health food stores also carry date syrup.

Shalgham Helu (Turnips with Date Molasses)

Based on the recipe by Claudia Roden

1 ½ pounds small white turnips, peeled

3 tablespoons date molasses (silan)

½ tsp salt

Water

  1. Chop the turnips to the size you want – smaller pieces cook faster, larger pieces are prettier.
  2. Place the turnips in the bottom of a medium-sized sauce pan, and drizzle the date molasses over them. Then add the salt.
  3. Cover the turnips with water to 2 cm/2/3 inch, and set the pot on a high flame.
  4. Bring to a boil, then cook uncovered for about 20 to 30 minutes, or until the turnips are tender and the liquid has reduced. Serve warm or cold with the “sauce.” (Note: The longer the turnip pieces sit in the sauce, even in a container in the refrigerator, the darker their color becomes.)

Thank you to Lexi Freiman, who participated in User Acceptance Testing of this recipe.

Great Books: The Book of Jewish Food, by Claudia Roden

Fenugreek seeds
Fenugreek seeds, which are common in Yemeni, Ethiopian, and Indian Jewish cooking, and Palestinian cuisine as well. Roden gives several recipes involving fenugreek. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons via CC Open Domain, undated)

This book is the grand monarch of all Jewish cookbooks, for The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, by the Egyptian-British Claudia Roden, is enormous. And amazing. The book contains 800 recipes from across the Jewish world – and neatly flips the demographics of the Jewish world too. Though the majority of Jews are Ashkenazi – and what we in the United States think of as “Jewish food” is often Ashkenazi – the book is only one-third Ashkenazi recipes, and two-thirds from the Sephardi and Mizrahi worlds. One Israeli reviewer called the Book “the Sephardim’s revenge.”

The book itself is well-written, if a bit romantic at times. But the real reason to acquire this book is that it is almost encyclopedic – it has everything from the Ashkenazi p’tcha (underrated!) to the curious Almond and Spinach Dessert of Florence. The only Jewish cuisine not covered is Ethiopian. But beyond that one short-coming there are recipes from most of the Jewish world for every major food ingredient in Jewish cuisines. I’m currently hankering after a turnips in date syrup recipe from Iraq after reading this book.

Claudia Roden herself is one of the greatest living food writers today. Born to an Egyptian family in Cairo, she has dedicated her life to researching the food cultures of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Jewish world. Her books on Middle Eastern and Jewish food are now considered standard in English-speaking kitchens, and it is well worth your time and money to invest in several of her volumes.

The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, by Claudia Roden. New York, Knopf: 1998.

Author’s note: this book goes very well alongside Joan Nathan’s Jewish Food in America, which I wrote about back in February. Roden’s book is far more Sephardi- and Mizrahi-centric, whereas Joan Nathan is more interested in Ashkenazi cuisine in the United States.

Great Books: Herring, A Love Story

Cover of book in French
The cover of the book in French, with some of the herring plates portrayed. The image is from Merci.

Firstly, mo’adim le-simkha – a Happy Passover – to all of the readers. I hope you are having a pleasant and joyous Passover!

Anyone who knows me well knows my lifelong obsession with herring – one that I’ve documented for several publications, New Voices Magazine and Roads and Kingdoms among them. I eat some form of preserved herring – pickled, smoked, canned, or dried – at least a few times a week, and for long stretches the fish is part of my daily diet. I grew up with herring, and still love it. You should all look forward to a herring series in June.

Now, herring was long part of the Ashkenazi Jewish diet, since at least the Middle Ages. The fish – whose industry, pickling, and trade has encompassed most of Northern and Central Europe for a millennium – was incredibly cheap in its preserved forms across the regions where Yiddish-speaking Jews were settled. Herring was so common that the British-Jewish columnist Chaim Bermant claimed, “On Sunday, one had a pickled herring, on Monday soused herring, on Wednesday baked herring, on Thursday herring fried in oatmeal and on Friday herring with sour cream.” This herring also produced, in the 19th and 20th century, a whole corpus of artistic media evolved around the fish.

It is this media that Daniel Rozensztroch and Cathie Fidler profile in their new book, Herring: A Love Story. The book was originally published under the title Hareng, une histoire d’amour  in France – another country which also loves its herring. In the coffee-table book, Rozensztroch and Fidler exhibit the former’s enormous collection of “herring art.” The bulk of this collection are the beautiful, 19th– and 20th-century ceramic serving dishes that factories across Central Europe produced for a rising consumer class that wanted their daily herring plated nicely. Alongside these, you have postcards, posters, stamps, and paintings that depict the fish, its fishing, and its consumption in all its glory. From the herring industry of Iceland to the newfound popularity of herring among many American Jews, the artistic heritage surrounding this fish is celebrated.

I have the English translation from the original French, and the writing between the postcards is, to me and others fluent in both languages, very obviously translated from the French. That aside, the information in the book is fascinating, and the art is beautiful and magnificent. Some of it is also quite funny! I strongly urge you to buy this book, and explore with me the history of the glorious herring.

 

Herring: A Love Story, by Daniel Rozensztroch and Cathie Fidler. New York, Pointed Leaf Press: 2015.

Disponible en français en Europe.

 

Great Books: First Bite: How We Learn To Eat, by Bee Wilson

Bread pudding
Bread pudding – a childhood favorite, but also reflective of foods commonly given young children. (Photo mine, February 2016)

“To anticipate pleasure in the next meal – something that can take up the greater part of the day, in my experience – is always a form of memory. And each mouthful recalls other mouthfuls you’ve eaten in the past. It stands to reason, therefore, that the flavor patterns in our brains are highly dependent on all the things we’ve tasted in the past, especially during childhood.” (Wilson 2015, 51)

The acclaimed British food writer Bee Wilson came out with a fascinating new book this past December: First Bite: How We Learn To Eat. In it, Wilson examines how memory, childhood eating habits, food practices we learn from our parents, culture, and taste all combine to create our dietary habits and preferences. Why is someone who is picky at five picky at fifty? How is it that children can be taught to like new foods? How do our dietary habits and culturally determined desires affect the healthiness of our food choices? And if – as Wilson amply proves – likes and dislikes in food are not nature, but nurture, what can we do? Wilson explores various ways that not only show how food choices can – slowly and steadily – be changed, but also how these ideas about food even evolve in the first place.

The book is structured in eight chapters, roughly topical: “Likes and Dislikes,” “Memory,” “Children’s Food,” “Feeding,” “Brothers and Sisters,” “Hunger,” “Disorder,” and “Change.” In each, Wilson shows how food culture and habits and the way children are raised with food affect everything from eating disorders – the idea that only boys should like certain foods, for example – to how the mass marketing of children’s food has led to a global convergence around a taste combination of salt, sugar, and fat. Wilson provides a rather stunning overview.

The book is also delightfully written and flows like a conversation – or, more aptly, like a sauce! I read almost the entire volume on a five-hour train journey, and could not put it down.

My favorite sections were the first two – on what we like and how we remember it. As a diaspora nerd, I always find the question of memory particularly vexing and beautiful at the same time: is our nostalgia a “colonization of the present” by what we want, or is it a reaching into the past to make sense of the present and tie it to place and culture? In the Jewish context, how does remembered childhood memories of food – kneidlach, corn pashtida, or quince jam – determine what other foods we like, or how we envision home? (Beyond the obvious “that is where kneidlach are eaten.”) And how does our approach to Jewish food relate to what we ate in early childhood? Wilson notes that many of our tastes are determined between the ages of four and eight months, and some tastes through the third year of life. So, for example, the fact that I liked to bite into lemons as a little child (true story) might be why I’m rather fond of both dishes with citrus (in many forms) and sour food more generally. This is maybe why American babka is that sweet, or why the sour taste of schav might fail to capture the mind of someone whose earliest nourishment outside breast milk was sweetened infant formula. Wilson’s work provides a path to explore all these points.

The book isn’t perfect – I think Wilson could have done a better job of addressing class and income, and how both significantly affect the ability one has to change what one eats. In addition, the way gender is addressed is a bit underwhelming – especially given how us queer folks have very complicated relationships with food and gender. But First Bite is definitely worth a read, it’s incredibly informative, and I think many of the points can spur interesting discussions. To add a Jewish angle to this whole thing – after all, this is a Jewish food blog – I thought of two questions that I’d like to mull over, inspired by this book’s chapter on Memory:

  1. For those of us who started keeping kosher later in life, how does memory play a role in addressing the various challenges that are presented by, say, avoiding a food one used to like? Does the advent of “kosher bacon” and imitation shrimp stem from curiosity, or a desire to restore – within the framework of halakhafoods once beloved?
  2. If so many food tastes are learned in early childhood, what happens to reviving certain Jewish food traditions? It is interesting to think about how an adult’s revulsion to or love for p’tcha or schav upon first taste is in part determined by what he might have consumed at the age of two or three. What are the bounds of revival? How do these early tastes change how we cook Jewish food as adults? Is my taste for sour food in part due to my toddler-hood love for biting into lemons?

Wilson, Bee. First Bite: How We Learn To Eat. New York, Basic: 2015.

Great Books: Jewish Food in America, by Joan Nathan

Dried salmon hanging on hooks
Dried salmon on display at London’s Jewish food festival, Gefiltefest. Photo mine, June 2015.

Sometimes, those TV books are really awesome. This is one of them.

Joan Nathan – balabusta extraordinaire and America’s top Jewish food public figure– wrote Jewish Cooking in America back in the early 1990’s. The thick book – filled with history and food – won so much attention that it then got turned into a wildly successful PBS series. (I strongly urge that you find a way to watch the series, because it is awesome.) Then the book got updated to serve as a companion to the show with somehow more recipes. 

Yes, it is a “TV book.” It is also packed to the brim with recipes, popular and unpopular. You have the “classics” of various culinary traditions – kneidlach from Eastern Europe, bourekas from the Sephardi world, Yemenite soups, and challah from many traditions. You also have the less popular things – the p’tcha, calf’s foot aspic, and hilbeh – that’s Yemenite fenugreek spread – and rhubarb soups. (I have had all three and they are all delicious.) And then there are the more labor intensive ones – directions to pickle your own herring (yes, yes, yes, yes, yes), and make fish gelatin molds (please no), and to make your own gefilte fish (yes). In short, it’s…a great compendium.

Admittedly this book sometimes falls a bit too far down the authenticity rabbit hole for my tastes – there is much stock placed in the “real recipe” and Jewish “traditions” here. That said, the book is very much a product of the 1990’s, which was perhaps the era of peak “authentic.” Yet Nathan also questions authenticity throughout the book – she notes where Jews have made substitutions for spices or flavors, or added their own twists, or adopted local cuisines. Georgian-Jewish Southern Fried Chicken might be the best recipe title I’ve ever read. And the book is filled with stories of real people from throughout American history – ordinary and extraordinary Jews who cooked, ate, and rejoiced.

A link to the book on Amazon is at the bottom of this post, and I strongly urge you to look at Nathan’s writing at Tablet (the only thing from Tablet I make sure to read) and The New York  TimesBut first, let me leave you with two choice quotes from material in the book. The first is her own writing; the second is the best historical food quote I’ve seen on Judaism.

“For second- and third-generation American Jews, what was once daily subsistence became a special occasion food. In Europe, knishes, like kugels and latkes, were a way of varying the daily monotony of potatoes for the poor. Here during the sweatshop era, knishes, a portable food like pasties … were eaten for lunch every day. Thereafter these foods disappeared as daily fare. Now they are in vogue again, having reappeared in miniature form as hors d’oeuvres at weddings and other ceremonial events, and as fast-food snacks.” (Nathan 2011:4)

The shade!

“‘You wrote to me some time agoe (sic) you was asked at my brother Asher’s to a fish dinner but you did not go. I desire you will never eat anything with him unless it be bread and butter nor noe where else where there is the last doubt of things not done after our strict Judiacall method.’ – A letter from Abigail Franks of Philadelphia to her son Naphtali in London, 1733.” (Franks 1733 in Nathan 2011:131)

Nathan, Joan. Jewish Cooking in America. New York, Knopf: 1994, 1998, 2011.

Great Books: We Are What We Eat, by Donna R. Gabaccia

“The history of the bagel suggests that Americans’ shifting, blended, multi-ethnic eating habits are signs neither of postmodern decadence, ethnic fragmentation, nor corporate hegemony. If we do not understand how a bagel could sometimes be Jewish, sometimes be “New York,” and sometimes be American, or why it is that Pakistanis now sell bagels to both Anglos and Tejanos in Houston, it is in part because we have too hastily assumed that our tendency to cross cultural boundaries in order to eat ethnic foods is a recent development – and a culinary symptom of all that has gone wrong with contemporary culture.” (Gabaccia 1998: 5)

Everything bagel with chopped herring
Eating an everything bagel with chopped herring – so good. Photo mine, October 2015.

I love, love, love this book. Donna Gabaccia – a badass professor at the University of Toronto (formerly of UNC-Charlotte) – wrote a food history in the 1990’s that deconstructed both the idea of “ethnic food” and how mixing and matching food traditions both created American cuisine(s) and also ideas of what culinary boundaries are. Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine plays a big role in this story, and Gabaccia opens up with a tale about a Pakistani immigrant who opens up a “New York bagel” shop in Texas. In many ways, this exploration is both a celebration of how significantly various cuisines from differently-marginalized groups (Jews included) changed American cuisine, and how ultimately useless “authenticity” is as a culinary term. Is authenticity really just a performance of eating whatever everyone else thinks we eat?

On another level, this book is a must-have for another reason: if you ever needed more proof of how thoroughly important indigenous American foods are, the first chapter of this book offers a lot. Corn, beans, squash, pumpkin, turkeys, tomatoes, chili peppers, baking powder…potatoes. Potatoes. Where would “authentic Jewish” cuisine be without these New World foods?

Gabaccia, Donna R. We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. Cambridge, Harvard: 1998. Available on Amazon.com.