Chocolate Cake Means You Made It (and a Recipe)

Chocolate cake with ice cream on a plate on a green table
Chocolate cake with ice cream on a plate on a green table
Chocolate red wine cake with homemade ice cream. (Photo mine, April 2020)

It’s hard to feel like you have “made it” during a global pandemic and a world-historical crisis. The crushing disappointment of not being able to see one’s loved ones, of goals gone and dreams deferred, and of plans spilled out like milk is truly taxing. And even for me – I have things pretty good, compared to most – it can be rough, with all the uncertainty and being far from my partner and my mother. So I have turned to the familiar comfort of cooking, and to a dessert that is at once very assimilated and very Jewish: chocolate cake. When I eat my cake, I – like many other Jews since the 1880’s – can feel like, for a moment, that I have “made it.”

Text reading "Rebecca Gomez has for sale at the chocolate manufactory no. 14, upper-end Nassau Street between Commissary Butler's and the Brick Meeting, Superfine warranted chocolate, wholesale and retail, white wine Vinegar by the cask or single gallon at 4 s., Spermaceti oil and common Lamp citto, Fig Blue, soap starch etc. etc. Also a few gross Mogul and Andrew playing Cards, at a low rate and by the dozen"
A Jewish merchant woman’s advertisement for chocolate and other goods in 18th-century Rhode Island. (Document found in Library of Congress archive)

Chocolate has a long history in Jewish cooking. Of course, cacao and the chocolate it comes from originated in what is now Mexico, and only reached Europe after the Spanish conquest. Despite the Inquisition, Sephardi Jews were involved in the chocolate trade from almost its beginning in Europe, and well-off Jews in the Netherlands were already making and consuming chocolate in the 17th century, and in Italy and the Americas in the 18th. New developments in cocoa processing and production gave us eating chocolate and cocoa powder for baking in the 19th century; Jewish people in Europe and the Americas were involved in early manufacture of both. By the late 19th century, chocolate was still a luxury good, but widespread across Europe, especially in cities; Jewish merchant families and better-off Jewish communities began to incorporate chocolate into baked goods. As a result, the consumption of chocolate quickly became a status symbol. Incorporating a bit of chocolate, even as a paltry glaze or with store-bought candy was a sign of the times and living large. Contemporary recipe books from the United States, Germany, and Lithuania all contain recipes with chocolate in holiday food sections.

Yiddish-book with food images on cover, reading "Krisko resepies far der idisher baleboste/Crisco recipes for the Jewish housewife"
This Yiddish-language cookbook was distributed by Crisco to sell their products to Jewish communities – and like many others of its time, it included chocolate cake. (Image from Yiddish Book Center/CC)

One way that chocolate became a status symbol was through cake. Home baking became far more common in the 19th century, with new types of ovens coming into homes and a more ready availability of sugar, dairy, and sources of fat. Middle-class families often served – withthe assistance of domestic labor – cake as a way of being “civilized” or showing off their success. Jews were no exception – this was also a time of fervent assimilation into certain norms of decorum and class across Europe and North America. (Reminder: assimilation is not necessarily a bad thing.) The earliest Jewish-authored cookbooks I found in online archives to contain chocolate cake recipes are German-language examples from the 1880’s; English-language examples follow a decade later. By the early 20th century, respectable Jewish housewives on both sides of the Atlantic, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike, were expected to make – or direct a domestic worker to make – chocolate cakes. In a short time, such cakes became a keyword for luxury and comfort, and began to be served on Sabbath tables and at major events. Since then, different communities have developed different chocolate cakes. Yiddish-speaking bakers in interwar New York often baked certain loaves from Yiddish-language cookbooks, just as well-off Salonican and Cairene Jews educated in French-language schools made decadent cakes in their homes. Italian Jews had chocolate cake recipes, too, for special occasions. By the 1950’s, most Jewish cookbooks contained at least one chocolate cake recipe – and chocolate had found its way into traditional cakes that originally did not have chocolate, like marble cake and sour cream cake. A chocolate cake was not only a food of deliciousness, but a potent symbol of success and plenty for many. I think we all know people for whom that still rings true today.

Chocolate cake on a plate
Chocolate red wine cake cooling (photo mine, April 2020)

This assimilation of delicious cake shows how a food can become Jewish. A food is introduced, then tried because it means something in wider society, and because it looks delicious. (In this case, is delicious.) Other Jewish folks start making it, and soon, the food has a meaning in Jewish communities – even if it is not “authenticper se, or shows off how well assimilated someone is. A few years later – well within the lifetime of an adopter – the food then becomes common across some spectrum of the Jewish world. Chocolate cake shows how creative people can be – and how even ordinary, Gentile foods can be infused with meaning in Jewish communities. You can see a similar process with coffee cakes, lamb stews with chestnuts, and potato salads. Even p’tcha probably started as an imitation of a nobleman’s dish introduced by the Tatars to Central Europe.

Babkas on sale with a Hebrew sticker that says "Chocolate babka, 36 shekels"
Chocolate babkas – another new application of chocolate in the 19th century (Photo Christine Garofalo/CC)

Chocolate cake is a mechayeh – something that gives life – in this time. It is sweet, and tasty, and those are sources of solace enough. But I also think that we can eat it as a sense of worth and achievement: that whatever we are, we are enough, and that we have done a lot – each in our own way. It is also a reminder of the creativity and good taste of our grandparents and great-grandparents in the Jewish world – and that having a community that can find joy in such simple pleasures is having “made it” indeed. You have decades of chocolate cake being used for solace and celebration in the Jewish world to back you up. Stay safe, and eat some cake.


And now, a cake.

I based this recipe on one by Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen, but simplified it to not require a mixer – and to add chocolate from chips as well as cocoa powder. I also added some things from a fluffier recipe at TasteMade. The red wine adds a lovely warmth. Going for simplicity, I left it unadorned and cut the sugar slightly. I like these straightforward, comforting cakes as the sign that I made it. Serve it with whatever you want though – I’ve had mine with homemade ice cream, and a simple sour cream glaze would work well too, as would whipped cream or a lovely dusting of powdered sugar. However you eat it, I hope you feel like you have “made it.”

Chocolate Red Wine Cake

Adjusted from recipes by Deb Perelman and Tastemade

Serves 8-10

6 ounces/170g salted butter (about ¾ of a stick)

⅓ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

⅔ cup white sugar

¾ cup red wine

2 large eggs, room temperature

1 ⅛ cups all-purpose flour

⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 tsp baking powder

¼ tsp ground cinnamon

Oil or butter to grease the pan

  1. Preheat your oven to 325F/165C. Line the bottom of a round 8” or 9”/20-23cm cake pan with parchment paper, then grease with butter or a non-stick spray.
  2. In the microwave or a bain-marie, melt the butter and chocolate chips together. (I use the microwave – cut the butter up, mix with the chocolate chips, and microwave for one minute on high in a microwave-safe bowl, then stir together.)
  3. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the butter and chocolate mixture with the sugar until thoroughly combined.
  4. Add the red wine. Mix in thoroughly, with the whisk.
  5. Add the eggs. Mix in thoroughly, with the whisk.
  6. Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and cinnamon together. (You do not have to do this but it distributes the cocoa powder more evenly.)
  7. Fold the flour mixture into the mixing bowl with the wet ingredients with a wooden spoon or a mixer. You can also whisk them together, but make sure that everything gets incorporated properly.
  8. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and spread evenly.
  9. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from the oven, and then flip onto a cake rack after cooling in the pan for 20 minutes. Let cool for about 30 minutes, at least, before serving. Serve with whipped cream, ice cream, powdered sugar, or on its own.

Thank you to my housemate AJ Faust for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.

 

Disability and Cooking in the Time of Coronavirus

Stars are footnotes and appear at the end of the post.

A white hand moving over a braille cookbook in a green binder. A bowl with a brown batter and a whisk is in the foreground.
A braille cookbook. (Photo Society for the Blind, January 2017)

Greetings from Maryland, where I am safely ensconced and riding out our strange new reality. I miss my partner, in New York, and my family, but I am okay. I hope you are managing and keeping safe.

With the ongoing crisis, I have been thinking a lot about differential access to food, and how it plays out in a pandemic situation for folks with different experiences, often marginalized ones. There are authors who have already written very eloquently about these effects from the point of view of class, race, and gender – and I strongly suggest you read these pieces too! I want to talk, today, about how these access points can play out for people with disabilities.* Specifically, I will talk about the acts of getting, storing, and making food to eat in this context. 

Canned vegetables on a shelf.
Canned vegetables that so many of us are using and storing in this time. (Photo Parenting Patch via Creative Commons)

When I wrote my piece about disability in the kitchen, the blog’s most-read article to date, I did not foresee that we would be dealing, two years later, with a global pandemic. At the time, I was working on accessible communications for a government agency; now, I am doing graduate work in urban planning, focusing on aging and disability in the built environment. Even the way I talk about my own autism has changed. And, as I research topics from public restrooms to sidewalks, I keep returning to that piece I wrote about disability in the kitchen. Now, when I watch all of our food habits change in line with the virus, enabled by technical innovations, I note that people with disabilities still face barriers to coronavirus cooking. These barriers come right alongside the threats to disabled people’s lives from rationed care, the lack of access to many remote services on which disabled people rely, and the housing problems many disabled people face. 

A shelf of canned fish
Canned goods that are often essential for many disabled people – and non-disabled people. Leave some mackerel for me! (Photo public domain)

We should remember that disability intersects with other marginalized identities. Disabled people of color face particular and often more intense barriers to access, and often lack access to services more than their white counterparts. This lack extends to access to food – be it living in food deserts or not having an accessible grocery store nearby. Gender, too, plays a role: women, non-binary people, and transgender people often also have difficulty accessing services. And class plays an overarching role. People with disabilities are far more likely to be poor and to rely on inadequate “safety nets”; many people cannot afford food during a normal time. So now, many of the interventions well-off abled people take for granted – grocery delivery, food delivery, or being able to purchase two weeks’ of food at once – are more difficult or impossible for many disabled people. Not to mention that inadequate housing and kitchens particularly affect poor disabled people – especially people of color with disabilities.** People incarcerated in “group homes”often have no autonomy over their food at all (or anything else). The inability during a “normal” time to afford a house with accessible food storage or appliances is doubly problematic when there is no accessible way to store, cook, or save large quantities of food.

But these problems start even before we get to putting food away. Let’s walk through the process of going to a grocery store, buying food, bringing it home, storing it, and cooking it in this time. 

A narrow brick sidewalk by colorful brick rowhouses with poles and stairs in the way
Narrow sidewalks with steps and blocks (like this example in Frederick, Maryland) can make getting to the grocery store a gargantuan task for disabled people. (Photo mine, February 2020)

Barriers start with the simple act of getting to the grocery store, or getting groceries delivered. Of course, some people with disabilities cannot safely leave their homes during the pandemic, and that situation itself is an enormous barrier. Many people with disabilities, including those who can leave, rely on public transit or paratransit to go to “essential services” like supermarkets, and routes and service have been gutted in many areas. As a result, what was a one-hour trip might now take three. Sidewalks, already badly maintained and narrow, are difficult to practice social distancing on – especially if you cannot wheel on dirt or safely on a busy street! Many grocery stores that are open have visitors line up on inaccessible barriers for entry, or are located in difficult-to-navigate and often dangerous areas. These challenges are added to on the return trip with the difficulty of carting food while achieving any of these tasks. Food delivery can cost more money that many disabled people do not have, and not to mention, anecdotes indicate that some things do not seem to make it into delivery baskets right now. Furthermore, many delivery services’ communications are inaccessible, be it badly-designed websites or demanding telephone calls some people cannot make. So, many people with disabilities rely on friends or family to assist with groceries – but this relies coordination, and often gives other people undue power over what that disabled person is eating. The “well-meaning” (but actually inappropriately controlling) family member might not, for example, get those sour cream ranch chips that make lockdown that much more bearable for their relative. 

A sign with an Asian elder woman with thumbs up on a street pole, saying "Extra seconds to cross? We made it better together.
Some people need some more time to get to the grocery store. During coronavirus, that can be harder to achieve while social distancing. Ironically, this sign is not accessible – yellow text on white background is actually illegal for government signage. (Photo mine, in Alexandria, VA, March 2020)

Other barriers exist once you enter a grocery store or supermarket. Of course, many grocery stores are inaccessible, with narrow aisles and steps, loud equipment that triggers sensory reactions, and broadly impossible to navigate for blind people. Coronavirus adds another layer: the need to socially distance means that you move a lot, but some people move more slowly than others. Standing in line for an hour, as occurs in many places, is not possible for some people. Social distancing is more difficult or impossible for people with cognitive disabilities, especially given the type of mental processing such distancing requires. On top of food shopping, that can become very difficult without cues in the store. The worry about viral spread, often dismissed for grocery stores, is quite real for immunocompromised people. Masks make it harder for Deaf and hard of hearing people to communicate with store staff and other shoppers, because facial expressions and lip-reading become impossilbe. And, of course, shortages play a role too. If you, like many disabled people, have food sensitivities or allergens, and your mainstay foods are out of stock, you may find shopping more difficult. Not to mention that markups on common food items may make them unaffordable to many people with disabilities.

Bestworld supermarket with a yellow sign with a sidewalk and crosswalk in front.
An inaccessible (but well-stocked) supermarket in Washington, DC. (Photo mine, September 2019)

Once someone returns, or has food delivered, how do they store it? Refrigerators and freezers are often inaccessible for people with disabilities – especially wheelchair users and people of short stature. Food packaging is usually inaccessible to blind and low-vision people, who often have to relabel all of their food once it comes back into the house. With the larger grocery hauls that result from less frequent trips away from home, this task becomes longer, and more tiring. In addition, cabinets, especially those meant for food storage, are also often not accessible for wheelchair users. When one is limited to a certain amount of space, storing two weeks’ worth of food can be an insurmountable challenge, as a result of poor, inaccessible design. (Even a design that is pretty: if it is not accessible, the design probably is not good.) Many disabled people live in housing that already was inadequate for food preparation and storage. Furthermore, for many people with cognitive disabilities, the challenge of sorting and storing food,*** already present before the pandemic, becomes even more taxing with the new amounts of food and the different rations required during the pandemic.  And, of course, let us not forget that people with suppressed immune systems are at higher risk of contracting coronavirus from packaging, if it is transmitted this way, with far worse results.

A man using a wheelchair opening a drawer under a microwave in front of a fridge.
Some kitchens are accessible. Most, sadly, are not. (Photo Amanda Mills, in public domain, August 2016).

Then, of course, there are challenges familiar and new about planning and cooking meals. All of the usual barriers impeding disabled people’s freedom in the kitchen are still there: unusable counters, dangerous stoves, inaccessible sinks, and so on. But the necessitated reliance on cooking makes it that much harder if things get messed up – something that also matters for recipients of food assistance. In addition, planning meals can be a difficult task – and planning them for as much as two weeks is often extremely difficult for people with cognitive disabilities. Furthermore, many of the pre-prepared ingredients that make cooking more manageable for people with disabilities – pre-cut vegetables, canned fruit, and little herb sachets among them – are in short supply at many groceries. Some disabled people may not be able to, say, safely chop an onion in their kitchen.

For many disabled people, this paradigm is particularly exhausting. Some disabled people already work with lower levels of energy or higher fatigue than other people. Most disabled people have to do the honestly tiring work of figuring out how to move around barriers, to navigate inaccessible spaces, and still get what they need. In the age of coronavirus, that can be especially tiring. And so the added fatigue, the accumulated tiredness, the “lack of spoons,” becomes yet another barrier for food access. Even – especially for people who cannot leave their homes right now. The worry and the coordination of food access alone can be exhausting – on top of which, all these other issues may apply. 

Colored scoops of different shapes and colors on a wooden board with three bowls behind it, each bowl has a number of circles.
A prototype for an accessible cooking system with color-coded utensils, designed for people with cognitive disabilities. Created by Amanda Savitzky and on display at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. (Photo mine, February 2018)

You may notice, when reading, that many of these issues are not specifically about coronavirus itself. Of course not – the built environment that harms disabled people was already there before the pandemic: access to food sources was still blocked, transport was still an issue, kitchens were inadequate, cooking was difficult, fatigue still occurred. The point is not that these barriers to food and cooking are new for people with disabilities. The point is that the coronavirus crisis amplifies them, to a point of being even more impactful and dangerous. 

I wonder, from a personal and professional perspective, how we can address these issues in a post-pandemic world. What sort of transport structures and changes will we need to put in place to consider food access and service access for people with disabilities? What changes need to be given additional oomph? What new requirements will supermarkets, grocery stores, housing, and other services need to meet during construction? Some of these standards already exist, but some will be changed. After all, disabled people, too, will be making changes to their lifestyles after the pandemic – and that choice will necessitate some new design standards, be they wider supermarket aisles or more food storage space than before in an accessible kitchen. These are all to be determined, and hopefully, will improve upon the current paradigm, which is unacceptably inaccessible.

Handwashing with soap under running faucet
Don’t forget to wash your hands! (Photo via Pexels/WP)

*A note to readers: I tend to be ecumenical about using “person-first language” – people with disabilities – and identity first language – “disabled people,” though I tend to prefer the latter since it points out that people are disabled by the societies around them. This idea is called the social model of disability. As an autistic person, I find myself switching when I even describe myself. That said, I know many people with disabilities prefer person-first language, and as a compromise, I switch between the two now. For certain disability communities, there are proper protocols: The descriptor Deaf people is always identity-first in English, the descriptor people with cognitive disabilities is always person-first in English. These rules are based on community decisions. Please do not use “differently-abled,” as it implies that there is something wrong with being disabled!

**The first folks to be listened to on issues affecting disabled people of color are disabled people of color themselves. For a clear explanation as to why, and the intersection of race and disability, see this fantastic piece by Imani Barbarin. Ditto for issues affecting women with disabilities, disabled transgender people, and working-class disabled people. I should not be your primary source here!

***Resources by and for people with cognitive disabilities often expressly discuss pantry storage and food purchasing. However, many assume regular grocery access – which may not be possible during the pandemic. 

 

Trip-Chaining and Groceries (With A Recipe)

When I am not writing this blog, I am in graduate school for urban planning at the University of Maryland. I primarily focus on disability access and aging, and how we can do better planning for cities that are livable for everyone (Sometimes this means that I write about toilets.) A lot of what we look at revolves not just around how people should move about the city, but about how people actually do so. And some of that includes the fact that some travel is simply not facilitated.

Double decker bus with the text "53 Plumstead Station"
Photo by David Geib on Pexels.com

One thing we planners often discuss is “trip-chaining.” In our jargon, this means “a trip with one or more stops on the way.” So, instead of say a single-purpose trip – a trip to work or from work – it is more of a trip that might include dropping your child off, picking up some medicines, working for a few hours, and then swinging by the supermarket on the way back. Everyone trip-chains at some point. However, women, children, and people with disabilities are far more likely to trip-chain on a daily basis than men. The problem is that much of our extant transport infrastructure is planned around the assumption of a commute to work in the morning and a commute back from work in the evening. This case is especially apparent for public transit schedules. But for women still largely charged with childcare and household responsibilities, and others who are less likely to work in big job centers on those schedules, navigating the transport system becomes more difficult. Trip-chaining is easier for many – and besides, logically makes more sense – than doing one trip to get the groceries, another to drop off a child, and so on. Planning is finally cottoning on to this reality.

A shelf of canned fish
Canned fish – easier to carry than the fresh version. (Photo public domain)

Trip-chaining affects how we buy groceries and what groceries we buy. Firstly, when we go to buy groceries, our cognitive bandwidth is not always focused on the groceries. Anyone who has cared for a child while shopping or had to do it in a rush to catch a bus can tell you this. Secondly, it means that groceries will be carried sometimes a fairly long distance – especially if it’s not the last stop on a trip. If, like in some countries, distances are not that far, it means that it is not too terrible to carry around fresh vegetables, dairy, or other perishables. But in places with long travel times, or where transit is unreliable, perishable food becomes risky. Hence it is easier – and less wasteful – to buy things that do not need a refrigerator or can be outside of a fridge for longer. Think canned beans, fruit and vegetables that travel well, and not as many fragile leaves or berries. (Which, besides, are prohibitively expensive for some.) Difficulty in travel also makes big trips to the supermarket with a car far more likely – people in places that are heavily car-dependent go to the grocery store less often than people elsewhere, and the bulk and length of those visits are hard to chain.

A refrigerator with four shelves stacked with packaged dairy products
The lines of Israeli industrial dairy. The fruit yogurts at bottom left are a personal favorite. (Photo Rakoon via CC/Wikimedia, 2018)

I think processed foods have other benefits, especially for certain folks and people in certain places. But one advantage that is not always acknowledged is that they are something someone can actually buy and cart around effectively. If you have to grocery shop while doing three other tasks, it is harder to select and lug around fresh foods – especially if you don’t have a car to stow them in or if you have a long way to travel. Sometimes, it is easier to just buy a can or a box. Not to mention that it is already hard, with overwhelming choice, for many people to grocery shop anyway. Add the labor on top of that of child care or coordinating three schedules or three tasks, and then the cognitive load for many is overwhelming. The fact that I can eat and cook with so many vegetables has much more to do with the fact that I have lived walking distance from a good grocery store my entire adult life, and not nearly as much to do with my (lacking) virtue.

What does this mean in the Jewish context? Well, I think it illustrates the fact that things like pre-made latke mixes, canned soups, and “hacks” to make traditional dishes actually have a place in our kitchens. They make Jewish food much more manageable and feasible for some people, and there should not be shame in doing what is possible in the system you cannot change as an individual alone. And certainly not with consumption wrapped in deeply privileged ideas of propriety.

canned tomatoes, canned veggies, canned beans, spices, chopped onions and garlic, and elbow macaroni laid out
Ingredients that one can buy and schlep! (Photo mine, December 2019)

I have attached a simple recipe for a soup made entirely from ingredients you can buy while trip-chaining. It is an adaptation of pasta e fagioli for the vast majority of us who do not have the time to lovingly caress beautiful ingredients every day. The soup takes under half an hour to make.  You could probably swap frozen vegetables for the canned option, but it is harder to travel with those! (I use frozen, but I live five minutes’ walk from a grocery store.) These are also items that could easily be stored for a while in a pantry. I use soup powder, but you can use stock as well. The recipe multiplies well. My boyfriend enjoyed this soup, and I hope you do too!

Bowl of soup and mug of water on wood table)
(Photo mine, December 2019)

Bean Soup with Pasta (Trip-Chainers’ Pasta e Fagioli)

Serves 2-3 (or 1 person for two-three meals)

1 small onion

2 cloves garlic

2 teaspoons soup powder/avkat marak (if using water)

1 teaspoon table salt (add 1 ½ tsp more if using stock)

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1 15oz/425g can cannellini beans

1 15oz/425g can diced tomatoes

1 8oz/212g can mixed vegetables

1 cup elbow macaroni

Olive oil or vegetable oil

Apple cider vinegar

Water for pasta (and soup)

Ready-made vegetable stock for the soup (optional)

  1. Put some water on to boil in a small saucepan for the pasta. Dice the onion and garlic however small you like them.
  2. Put a bigger saucepan on the heat for the soup. Add the oil – maybe two tablespoons – then the onions and garlic. Sauté, stirring, for two minutes, or until soft.
  3. Add the soup powder (if using), salt, pepper, and oregano, then mix in. Add a splash of vinegar. Sauté for 30 more seconds.
  4. Add the canned tomatoes and mix in. When they are boiling, add the beans, then 2 cups of water or ready-made vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the pasta is ready. If you like your soup very liquid, cover the pot so the steam gets trapped.
  5. When the pasta water is ready, add the elbows. Bring to a boil, then cook for five-six minutes or until al dente. Drain, and set aside.
  6. Add the canned vegetables to the soup when the pasta is done. Bring to a boil again, then simmer for two minutes. Turn off the heat.
  7. To serve, ladle pasta into the bowl, then soup, to the serving size of your choice.

Snapshots of Jewish Cuisine in the Indian Ocean

I originally wanted to write a comprehensive post about the history of Jewish cuisine in the Indian Ocean. I realized that would need to be the length of a book. So I tried to do a shorter version. I ran into a similar problem. Instead, I have decided to do something a tad simpler. Rather than go into a drone, I will look at a few foods or things that show the influence of Indian Ocean trade routes on Jewish cooking. Though we do not think about the Indian Ocean much in Jewish history or Western history, it is important that we do so.

A sailing dhow on blue waters
A dhow – one of the many traditional ships used for trade and transit across the region. (Photo CC/Steve Monty)

As many scholars have pointed out before, the Indian Ocean was the center of world trade for a thousand years, and much of that had to do with food. The flow of spices from Indonesia to India to Arabia and Africa to Europe – and within and between those places – set the stage for much of early global trade. Cloves and pepper were already traded across vast distances in Biblical times – and sugar would follow by the Roman period. After Islam came about and spread with seafarers, the region gained a common language – Arabic – and an even bigger network of traders, based in what is now Oman and Yemen. Meanwhile, Tamil emperors ruled for lengthy periods over South India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia. Later, the region would be a patchwork of kingdoms and empires which built their own powers on trade and maritime prowess. From there, spices, minerals, and people moved from Ethiopia to India to Malaysia to Arabia to Iran to China. Europe dealt with this world through intermediaries – and it was Portuguese and Spanish ambitions to enter this trade that influenced Columbus’ voyage to the Americas and the start of European imperialism. Nowhere was this more apparent than food. Spices were an attainable goal, and often these were spices native to faraway lands along the ocean’s shores. Cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, and cloves were items that tinged local cuisines across the basin and beyond. Dishes from traders were common from Zanzibar to Timor. Merchants from Portugal to Japan craved the same tinge of pepper.

Jewish cuisine the world over was influenced by this trade. In some cases, Jews were living on the trade routes themselves: in Egypt, Ethiopia, Yemen, India, Iran, Iraq, and Burma. In other cases, as was true of Ottoman, Venetian, and Ukrainian Jews, trade with other communities connected them to the ocean. For all these communities, the spices and foods, recipes and ideas, methods and knowledge that travelled on the seas transformed their kitchens. For examples, I will look at a snack, a spice, and a method.

Samosas 

Samosas around a green dip
(Photo Sean Choe via Flickr/CC)

A few years ago, I wrote about sambusak, a savory, filled Iraqi pastry, and its ties to triangular pastries elsewhere. The snack started its journey as a triangular pastry in Central Asia, and first became popular in the Persian-speaking world. From there, it travelled with soldiers, merchants, and migrants to India, the Middle East, and North Africa, where it sometimes went by different names. Eventually, it reached Greece and the Balkans as the boreka – named after a different Turkish pastry, the börek, which is made with boiled dough. It also reached Spain, and later the Americas, as the empanada. Jewish communities not only partook in sambusak and empanadas, but adapted them to Jewish holidays. In many communities, pastries like these are common on Shavuot.

The samosa was a seafarer, too, and became popular in the Indian Ocean region. From India, the recipe travelled eastwards to Southeast Asia, where it is still extremely popular in Indonesia. In Burma, too, it became popular – and the Baghdadi Jewish community would often serve their recipe on Shabbat. That version mixed flavors of three samosas: the local Burmese one, a Bengali one, and the sambusak recipe from Iraq. (If anyone has the recipe, please let me know!) Westward, the samosa made its way across the sea to Yemen, which already had a different version that probably came from the Gulf. There, Jewish writings mention triangle pastries as a delicacy enjoyed in urban areas like Sana’a. From Yemen, or via what is now Somalia, it hopped over to today’s Ethiopia and Eritrea, where Jewish communities also adapted the dish to local ingredients. Today’s Ethiopian Jews have brought their version of the recipe – filled with delicious lentils – to Israel and Chicago. It is also a plot device in a wonderful film about a Jewish boy named Solomon in the Ethiopian highlands, called Lamb. Later Jewish communities would also bring their own triangle pastries to the Indian Ocean shores. Portuguese Jews in Cochin mixed local samosas with empanadas, and Jews from Rhodes made borekas in the colonial cities on the African coast they went to in the early 20th century.

Why was the samosa popular? After all, cooking oil was expensive until the modern era, and samosas are often fried. (Though some are baked, steamed, or cooked in a Dutch oven-type way.) They are also surprisingly annoying to make, with thin dough and a habit of breaking at the worst possible moments. On the other hand, they are delicious. The carb-forward softness of the dough – substantial and yielding – gives way to a filling that can be spiced to almost any specification. They are most easily made in bulk, which makes them ideal for celebrations or anything in which people may be social. The effort required – even with our modern pre-made wrappers and equipment – makes the pastries special for occasions, and easily incorporated into the many Jewish traditions of elaborate foods for Sabbaths and holidays. More broadly, they are also the perfect street food.

Given that they are best made in bulk, and that frying was quite dangerous in homes until recently, samosas were, like other fried foods, a thing eaten outside the house in urban areas. Sellers, enterprising vendors, or housewives needing another line of income set up samosa stands in markets as early as the 12th and 13th centuries in Persia, and later elsewhere. The samosa joined a long line of other fried foods – doughnuts, fritters, dumplings, and so on – that extended back to the early days of Islam. Though many Jewish communities eschewed eating outside the community – and though many other communities had similar rules – Jews were likely in the markets, eating samosas, and picking up those ideas. Perhaps, they were selling them too – and giving other communities a taste for new things that Jews brought with them, from wherever they came. Like cinnamon.

Cinnamon

Cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon
Photo CC/Public domain

Cinnamon is the unlikely star of Ashkenazi holiday food. It is strange, when you think about it, that the bark of a tree native to Sri Lanka and Indonesia would be so frequent in the festive cooking of an Eastern European minority thousands of miles away. And yet – Tzimmes mit Flanken is not quite the same for some without the cinnamon to accompany the carrots; Mandelbroyt gain a zing with it; red cabbage with apples is spruced up with a touch of cinnamon; some enterprising cooks even add them to their matzoh balls. In Lithuania, a tradition arose of stuffing matzoh balls and Kreplach with onions fried with … cinnamon. How did this community, so far from where cinnamon is grown, come to add it to their food?

Lithuania, Poland, and the Ukraine were tied through long spurs to the Indian Ocean trade networks thousands of miles away. The trade routes shifted over time, but in the 17th century, they looked something like this: Spices from Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent were bought and sold in Cochin and other ports in Kerala, from where they were shipped to what is now Oman, Iraq, and Yemen. From there, they went over land, river, and sea to Istanbul and other Ottoman centers in Anatolia and the Balkans. From there, another round of buying and selling would happen, and traders – often Jewish – would bring the spices from there, by land or sea, to what is now the Ukraine. Then, well-worn paths would carry the spices to the centers of Poland and Lithuania. Many of the communities on these paths were Jewish, and were already trading other things as well – etrogim for Sukkot, books and halachic literature, cloth, and goods. Spices were always a mainstay. Ideas spread too – not just recipes, which flowed back and forth, but also religious ones. The heresy of the false Messiah Shabtai Zvi spread from the Ottoman Empire elsewhere on these very circuits. Contrary to the Ashkenormative and, honestly, rather twee history spun of homely Ashkenazi communities hewing to some sort of tradition that they themselves would have found laughable. Our ancestors were aware of an extraordinary world – even if they were usually too poor to access its fruits. They took what they could, and made it their own. Cinnamon was one of them.

It started, like black pepper and ginger, as a luxury good in the Middle Ages. But increased trade – especially after the Dutch and Portuguese used colonization, genocide, and slavery to monopolize the market – made the spices cheaper in Europe. Now, the trade networks flowed from Amsterdam and Lisbon through Germany to Eastern Europe, and in much greater supply. By the 16th century, Martin Luther mixed his anti-Semitism with complaints about peasants becoming addled and lascivious on black pepper. Thus cinnamon went from a luxury good for a few Jews to a luxury good for many Jews. Soon, it began popping up in many goods. Later, when sugar became more common after the introduction of the sugar beet in Eastern Europe, cinnamon became a mainstay of Ashkenazi sweet foods, and substantial foods that were sweet but often served as a meal or holiday dish, like noodle kugel. The availability of cinnamon for a comparatively cheap price from the 19th century on also made cinnamon far more common in day-to-day cooking, just like other former luxuries like sugar, meat, and white bread. Even today, much of the cinnamon we consume comes from Indian Ocean countries like Sri Lanka. One reason cinnamon became cheaper, in fact, was the reduced shipping cost of spices to Europe after the opening of the Suez Canal.

Of course, cinnamon is frequent in the Jewish cuisines of the Indian Ocean itself. The spice makes frequent appearances in Indian Jewish curries and soups, and it is sometimes included in Ethiopian spice mixtures. It is also used with some frequency by Jewish communities in Iran, especially with fruit-heavy dishes.

Stuffed Chickens

A series of serving plates with vegetables
All separate, all able to go into a chicken. (Photo CC)

When Jews migrated across the ocean basin, they brought their cuisines with them. Sometimes it was a taste for a spice or a way of serving bread. And sometimes it was the habit of stuffing a chicken to near-capacity with delicious things.

This recipe started in Iraq. Medieval Arabic cookbooks from Baghdad record poultry stuffed with bread or rice as a festival dish, or a frequent dish on the tables of nobility and the wealthy. (Among other delicacies that, sadly, did not stay popular.) Jews probably picked up this dish there, and adapted it for cooking on the Sabbath and the restriction rabbinic Jews follow on not mixing dairy and poultry. (Most Islamic schools of thought allow that combination.) The dish stayed a local delicacy for a few centuries.

Then, starting as early as the 17th century, but especially in the 18th and 19th century, Iraqi Jews migrated in large numbers to India, Burma, and Malaya – which were then under British rule. The cuisine came with them, and as these communities became established as traders, merchants, and doctors, so too the cuisines began to change. The stuffed chicken gained new versions as spices were changed, fillings were changed, or even the method was changed. (Instead of roasting, say, baking in a covered pot.) As a result, many varied versions of the recipe now exist that we have a record of.

As Jews migrated in the past across the Indian Ocean basin, other recipes probably went through similar shifts. We are lucky to have a sense of it with stuffed chicken – and the copious writing of Baghdadi Jews across the region to tell us about it. Here, we can see an example of how a recipe might have travelled. Now, too, though those Jewish communities are mostly elsewhere, other recipes travel among those countries’ majorities too. Whereas in the 19th century, it was a stuffed chicken, now, it is noodle dishes with vegetables – brought from Southeast Asia through South Asia to become popular in the Middle East. Perhaps the noodles could be a chicken filling?

If you want to read more about the Indian Ocean trading economy, Dan Brockett’s Twitter thread is an incredible place to start. I also talked about this last year in a post about Southeast Asian ingredients in Jewish cooking.

For samosas: on Netflix, there is a cute Indian series called Itihaas ki Thali se, with short animated films on the history of various South Asian delicacies. It is in Hindi with English subtitles. There is a really fun samosa episode, that makes for a perfect break between episodes on a Netflix binge, before you realize that you should make some food – or get some prepared food.

For cinnamon, see my book recommendations for unlearning myths about Medieval Jewish cuisine.

For stuffed chickens, Claudia Roden’s encyclopedic The Book of Jewish Food has a recipe. I have not had the time or energy to try it yet – to say the least, it is not a recipe one simply walks into the kitchen to make. So, here, I leave you to the trusted care of Queen Claudia, who I trust with all my heart to guide you like the captain of a ship on calm waters.

Some Thoughts About Stocking Your Pantry

A shelf of canned fish
Canned fish – essential for many. (Photo public domain)

A preface: I do not tend to be fond of “must-have” articles. What each person needs to do or keep for food differs: what do they eat? How much can they spend? Where do they live? What do they do? Must-have articles always seem to make far too many assumptions, and then ask folks to keep things that they never actually use, or do things that are totally unreasonable. (Three types of salt? To quote the kids, “whomst.”) That said, I do seem to write a lot of advice articles. People seem to like having ideas or general advice, and I strive to be suggestive rather than prescriptive. So for this article, please correct me if I mess up.

A few people wanted me to write an article about “how to stock a pantry.” Despite what so many food bloggers tell you, this is actually a hard thing to write. What to stock and how to stock depend on where you live, what you eat, what you can afford, your cooking habits, and all the social things that also intersect with food. So instead, here are some thoughts about stocking your pantry, which come from two places. One is my own experience and research. The other is you. I surveyed friends and readers about what they kept in their pantry. Then, I cobbled together data from dozens of responses to get an idea of what other pantries look like, in all sorts of situations.

So, here is some advice. Keep in mind that what you can afford, where you live, what you can and cannot do, and what you eat all play a role in stocking your pantry. You may not be able to have very much in a dorm room or a temporary place. You may not have a good refrigerator. You may have tons of space and money and be able to go all out – but not really have a diet that necessitates all those ingredients. Some things someone can tell you, but this is one thing you will need to partly figure out yourself.

Which is to say: this advice is not prescriptive. I give only suggestions! Mix and match as you need.

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

An important note on cuisines: your pantry should change based on what you eat. This pantry list is largely for Ashkenazi and Western Sephardic cooking, with some other addendums. If your primary diet is a different cuisine, be it Japanese, Korean, Senegalese, Ethiopian, Lao, Mexican, O’odham, or Cree, you will need to stock accordingly for the base ingredients in your main cuisine. So, you will probably want to first look at advice from other folks that eat those cuisines primarily. Many “pantry” stocking articles assume a generic Western standard that applies for everyone. Let us not do that here.

With that said, let us dive in!

Pantry Stocking Advice

I have sorted the following out into three sections, and the second section has three parts of three parts each. The first is a general rule on what to make sure you have. The second part sorts some things out by how to store them, then split up into how much preparation they require. I give suggestions across a range of flavors and budget levels. The third selection is on building up a spice and seasoning stockpile.

Bags of frozen vegetables
Frozen vegetables are handy for many. (Photo public domain)

Things You Should Try to Have

You should try to have the following two things: some food that they can eat with no or very little preparations, and ingredients for a simple meal.

I am about to say something heretical for a food blogger to say. You need to have a ready-made meal, or something that can be treated as such, on hand. Ideally, a few. There are going to be days when you cannot cook, days when your stove is out of commission, or days when you’re suddenly stuck at home because your road is blocked off, and you have few groceries. This is where industrial food comes in. Platitudes about real food are all nice and good until you have a real need for food that cannot wait. So, keep some things on hand. Some things I recommend are: instant noodles, microwave meals if you have a working freezer, canned soups, protein bars, breakfast cereals, and microwave-pack shelf-stable meals. I personally stock some protein bars, breakfast cereals, frozen mac and cheese, and shelf-stable microwaveable pasta and vegetables for emergencies. I do not recommend making these a mainstay of your diet if you can avoid it, but they are a good idea. We live in a time where industrial food has enabled us to stockpile safe, somewhat tasty food if we can. It would be a shame not to take advantage.

Kasha varnishkes in a metal bowl
Kasha varnishkes can be made with shelf-stable ingredients. (photo mine, May 2017)

The other thing I recommend is keeping shelf- or freezer-stable ingredients for a simple, easily cooked meal. This could be as simple as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You should have a carbohydrate and a protein, and sources of salt, fat, and acid. Vegetable matter is always nice, too. I usually keep the ingredients for pasta with tuna or beans at all times:

Ingredients for Tuna/Bean Pasta

  • Pasta
  • Canned or frozen vegetables
  • Canned tomato sauce
  • Canned tuna or beans
  • Salt and some spices
  • Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
  • Cooking oil
  • Vinegar

In this list, the pasta, beans or tuna, salt, oil, and vinegar are the most essential, with the seasoning and vegetables adding flavor and nutrition. You can mix and match as necessary.

Here are ingredient lists for four more shelf-stable based cooked meals that you can plan for:

Rice and beans

  • Rice
  • Canned black beans
  • Salt and some spices
  • Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
  • Cooking oil
  • Vinegar

Couscous and beans

  • Couscous (the add-hot-water kind)
  • Raisins
  • Canned lentils
  • Salt and some spices
  • Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
  • Cooking oil
  • Vinegar

Kasha with Mushrooms and Beans

  • Kasha
  • Canned mushrooms
  • Canned white beans
  • Salt and some spices
  • Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
  • Cooking oil
  • Vinegar

Pasta with Green Beans and Canned Fish

  • Pasta
  • Canned green beans
  • Canned salmon
  • Salt and some spices
  • Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
  • Cooking oil
  • Vinegar

Again, if you can, I encourage expanding from these bases. But keep basic ingredients for a basic meal on hand. Again, this does not even necessarily have to involve cooking.

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

Beyond the Basics

Once you have the very basics, here are some things that you could consider placing in your pantry, based on your diet, your space, what you can do, what you cannot do, what you can afford, and what you can realistically keep.

I don’t even have all of these things in my pantry. You do not need all of these things at once! This list is suggestive, not prescriptive.

Note: some things are listed twice, because you can store them in either place.

Things That You Store in Cupboards

    No or little preparation required:

  • Bread (I tend to freeze bread.)
  • Add hot-water or microwaveable rice
  • Add hot-water or microwaveable pasta
  • Add hot-water or microwaveable mashed potatoes
  • Add hot-water oatmeal or Cream of wheat
  • Canned baked beans
  • Canned sardines
  • Canned peas
  • Canned corn
  • Canned vegetables
  • Canned mushrooms
  • Canned carrots
  • Canned fruit
  • Nutritional shakes or protein bars
  • Canned soup
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Add hot water soups
  • Corn tortillas
  • Instant noodles
  • Snacking nuts
  • Potato chips
  • Apple sauce (can also go in fridge)
  • Rice cakes
  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Long-life milk or plant milk

    Some preparation required:

  • Pasta
  • Noodles
  • Rice
  • Potatoes (can also go in fridge)
  • Onions (can also go in fridge)
  • Garlic (can also go in fridge)
  • Rolled oats
  • Buckwheat groats
  • Canned beans
  • Dried beans (Though I strongly prefer canned.)

    Things you add to other food:

  • Salt – people will tell you to have multiple types of salt, but having basic salt that you can shake or grind is honestly manageable enough.
  • Vinegars – I recommend rice wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar to start for food, and white vinegar for cleaning. Red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and malt vinegars are nice to have if you can.
  • Oils – I recommend canola or vegetable oil to start. Sesame oil, olive oil, and sunflower oil are nice to have.
  • Spices – see the section below.
  • Sugar – I recommend white sugar to start, brown sugar or confectioners’ sugar as needed. I personally store sugar in the fridge, since I find it keeps bugs away.
  • Flour – I usually recommend all-purpose flour to start, unless you cannot have gluten, in which case, an all-purpose gluten-free blend. Keep it sealed!
  • Cornstarch – for thickening foods.
  • Onion powder and garlic powder (even if you have onions and garlic)
  • Stock cubes or soup powder.
  • Syrup or honey, if you prefer that to sugar.
  • Yeast, if you bake breads.
  • Baking soda or baking powder for baking – I find baking soda and vinegar is great for cleaning too!
  • Soy sauce.
  • Peanut butter.
  • Ketchup – this can also go in the fridge, but it is fine if not.
  • Worcestershire sauce – do keep in mind that some folks have kashrut issues around this.
  • Hot sauce – check which kind, since some types do need to be refrigerated.

Things That You Store in the Fridge

    No preparation required:

  • Pickles
  • Yoghurt
  • Applesauce
  • Cheese

(Most ready-made stuff that is kept in the fridge does not keep for very long – so I would not rely on always having that specific type of thing on hand.)

    Things you add to other food:

  • Butter
  • Vegan butter substitutes
  • Milk
  • Plant milk
  • Lemon juice
  • Eggs – admittedly all three, but so versatile!
  • Applesauce – admittedly, the same as eggs.
  • Onions – can be stored outside, but keep longer in the fridge. If space allows,keep at some distance from potatoes.
  • Garlic – can be stored outside, but keep longer in fridge.
  • Pasta sauces (as needed)
  • Ketchup – this does not need to be in the fridge, but I do find that it is less messy

when it is refrigerated.

  • Miso paste – if you cook things that require it. If you seal it well, it actually keeps equally well in the freezer.
  • Mustard
  • Jams – they can be kept, if not yet opened, on a shelf.
  • Chutneys – same rules as jams.

Things That You Store in the Freezer

    Little preparation required:

  • Microwave meals/frozen meals, for backup situations
  • Frozen snacks
  • Frozen breakfast foods (frozen waffles, frozen patties)
  • Frozen prepared foods (I am a fan of frozen kugels and frozen dumplings)

    Some preparation required:

  • Frozen meat (I’m a fan especially of freezing mincemeats)
  • Frozen meat substitutes (Frozen tofu has a tradition of several hundred years)
  • Frozen beans
  • Frozen fish
  • Frozen bread
  • Frozen vegetables – including: frozen peas, frozen corn, frozen spinach, frozen okra, frozen broccoli. Note: some frozen vegetables have more nutrients than their average fresh equivalents.
  • Frozen fruit, including: frozen berries, frozen mango

    Things you add to other food:

  • Frozen stock – which is especially useful for soups and rice.
  • Frozen garlic or frozen crushed garlic – a lifesaver.
  • Frozen animal fats, if you use them – I particularly like frozen schmaltz.
  • Frozen sauces, if you use them.

cabinet of spices
A cabinet of spices. (Photo public domain)

Spices

Let me be clear about one thing first: getting a spice or ingredient stockpile together is not easy. Spices are expensive, need to be stored properly, and can easily be “lost” in a pile of bottles. Organization helps, but so does a bit of advanced knowledge.

Some people go off generic lists or kits, but I do not advise that. Instead, I suggest that before going out and buying spices you never use, get a sense of what you like to eat. Do you like spicy foods, bland foods, sweet foods, or savory foods? Look up a few recipes for things you like to eat often and note down the spices that you see. Buy those spices first, and make sure you know which ones you have. Then, only buy other spices as you need them. Over time, you will build a stockpile. Properly stored ground, dried spices can be stored for years.

I put together a joint list for spices based on the frequency I use them in Ashkenazi and Middle Eastern cuisines. I’m Lithuanian and German by heritage, so I tend to skew more seasoned than Polish or Russian Jews. I cook quite a bit of Middle Eastern food at home, and Mexican food.

Spices to start:

  • Black pepper
  • Cinnamon
  • Cumin
  • Dill
  • Garlic powder (alongside fresh garlic)
  • Ginger
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Red pepper (flakes or powder)
  • Salt (iodized or sea)
  • Thyme

More spices:

  • Allspice
  • Basil
  • Bay leaves
  • Cardamom
  • Caraway seed
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Chili powder
  • Cilantro
  • Cloves
  • Coriander seed
  • Mustard seed
  • Nutmeg
  • Paprika
  • Poppy seed (for baking)
  • Rosemary
  • Turmeric
  • Vanilla extract (for baking)

Even more spices:

  • Asafoedita
  • Celery seed
  • Fennel seed (Anise)
  • Fenugreek (extremely needed for some cuisines)
  • Juniper berries (I personally am not a fan)
  • Mace
  • Marjoram
  • Nigella seeds
  • Saffron (very expensive, only buy if absolutely needed)
  • Savory
  • Sesame seeds
  • Star Anise
  • Sumac (but if you frequently cook Levantine food, get this)
  • Tarragon

If you want to experiment with several spices at a time, I highly recommend buying spice mixes. Some of these are quite beloved by their users, and are “standard” for many cuisines. I keep a very large amount of South African spice blends for cooking meat and pickling things on hand at all time. You can get some of these mixes very cheaply at the supermarket – for example, Pumpkin Pie Spice. There is no shame in using these!

Special thanks to the dozens of readers who told me what they keep in their pantries.

When Bacon, Shrimp, and Whale Are Perfectly Jewish Eating

Bowl of meaty Cincinnati chili with cheddar cheese on top.
Cincinnati chili. (Photo CC/Wikimedia Commons)

This piece starts with the young man I have been dating for a few months, David. He is very Jewish. David is also from Cincinnati, and one of his favorite foods is Cincinnati-style chili. For those of you who are not familiar, Cincinnati chili is more of a meat sauce than a chili. The delicacy is Mediterranean-spiced ground beef served on spaghetti, with any or all of beans, onions, and mild cheddar cheese on top. The combinations are culturally set in stone. Though Cincinnati chili has its detractors, it is widely loved. The local Skyline chain has a following so big that it has expanded to nearby cities, and the Cincinnati diaspora in Florida. The chili is also not kosher, given that it mixes meat and milk. Even so, David and his family love it, and it is in his family tradition.

Learning about Cincinnati chili from David – who makes and eats it at least once a week – got me thinking about Jewish treyf. Not in the Orientalist and perhaps overanalyzed ‘safe treyf’ of white Jews eating Chinese food in New York. Nor was I thinking about the real and life-saving practice Conversos in Spain adopted: Jews in hiding added lard to traditional dishes to avert the deadly eyes of the Inquisition. I did think of the famous Treyf Banquet that heralded the split between Reform and Conservative Judaism in the late 19th century. I also thought of the newer version held in San Francisco quite recently, with wondrous bacon treats. Rather, I was curious about treyf as an everyday practice. How did it get inserted into family and community traditions? How did folks relate to treyf with their Jewish identity, and vice versa? Could I discuss this without the tired discourse of “reconciling”? On a more basic level, were there Jewish treyf recipes that I could discover? Also, which treyf?

Brown closed clams
Clams – forbidden to some, delicious to others. (Photo Michael Dorausch via Flickr/CC)

I was also exhausted over the level of judgment that went into Jewish treyf. Recently, I fell off the “traditional egalitarian” bandwagon, much of which seemed to involve ever-more-performative kashrut. The consistent dismissal of Reform and Reconstructionist practice appalled me. So did the judgment against our parents’ and grandparents’ not-echt-halachic practices. Handwringing about authenticity bothers me more and more nowadays. The endless jabs about Jews who had “forgotten their heritage” strike me as cruel. Nothing in our communities, not even the halachically-shaky ban on microphones on the Sabbath, would be totally recognizable to a religious person from two centuries ago. So I figure it would be more interesting to answer the questions I raised above. For certain, it would be more useful to do so. The Jewish community may not always have a given interpretation of kashrut. But we will always have treyf-eaters.

Canned vegetables on a shelf.
These might be treyf. Who cares? (Photo Parenting Patch via Creative Commons)

I set out to find some answers, beginning with a post on Facebook. I asked my Facebook following to answer a few questions. If they were a Jew who ate treyf: why? What did they eat? What did they do before or after, if anything different? Do they have any neat traditions or recipes involving treyf? What about some funny stories? At the end, I threw on an addendum reminding folks not to judge fellow Jews for not keeping kosher. I expected a few responses.

A few shares and many comments later, several dozen people responded. Most of these responses were by private message. (I have made all respondents anonymous.) In fact, as I begin writing this piece, I still have a few responses to read! I was really touched to see how many people responded to my hasty request. What was better though was to see the variety of stories, perspectives, and ideas that people from all walks of Jewish life shared with me. I am going to be thinking about all the wonderful things I learned and was struck by for a long time.

Fried bacon on a white plate
Bacon: a perennial favorite of treyf eaters. (Photo Kim Ahlstroem via Flickr/CC)

Here are a few patterns that emerged.

Firstly, guilt was a less common emotion than defiance or pride. Many past works talk about guilt as a driving emotion around Jewish treyf consumption. But my (admittedly unscientific) sample seemed to be less guilt-ridden about the whole thing. Though one person did note, “we Mexijews [Mexican Jews] talk about it all the time.” Rather, many people were proud of the fact that they did not keep kosher and were still totally Jewish. “I’m as Jewish as a rabbi,” one person said, while another said that “Judaism isn’t about diet for me.” Both then happily listed their preferred treyf. Others felt defiant, especially if they had left religious communities, where kashrut wars are often the sour undercurrent of daily life. “Halachic chops – not as tasty as pork chops!” one person commented. For many people, treyf is a symbolic way of defying the things that defined their past. So an ex-Orthodox Jew might eat pork ribs on Yom Kippur, or someone leaving an abusive household may eat treyf as a symbol of their liberation.

White salo with pepper
Salo, preserved pork fat from Eastern Europe, with pepper. (Photo Roland Geider/Wikimedia CC)

Defiance and pride are hints to a larger thing. Treyf is always interpreted through a Jewish prism. People took into account all the communities they lived in, and all their lived experience, and filtered their Judaism through it. This went to treyf. Even people who always ate treyf interpreted their treyf in line with their Jewishness, not as a resistance to it. For Russian Jews, it was a part of their heritage of Soviet eating and nostalgic cooking. “I love salo,” my colleague said, “whatever the rabbis say.” For Israelis, it was a treasured memory of being secular and Jewish in the ‘60s. My mother, who lived in Israel then, recounted with glee the delight of eating grilled pork chops on kibbutzim. (I highly recommend the Israeli documentary Praise the Lard about pork in Israel.) For diasporist Jews, treyf is often a central part of being diasporist. One person noted that the Reuben – famously treyf – made them feel Jewish.

Judgment from others was mentioned, sure, but largely negatively. “Judaism isn’t a diet,” and “I’m just as Jewish as a 613 mitzvot keeping Jew” were two of many statements. And in return for people judging their Judaism, treyf-eaters shared some wonderful humor about their position. A few people reminded me of various kashrut scandals, like the chronic worker and animal abuse in Postville, Iowa. On a more humorous note, one respondent from Maine mentioned the blessing her father recites for shellfish. (How regionally appropriate.) And of course, one of my closest friends cherishes his San Francisco family’s tradition of Dungeness crab. I would too.

A shrimp cocktail with a lemon over lettuce
The shrimp cocktail, with a treyf fan favorite. (Photo Jon Sullivan, released to public domain)

On a day-to-day level, certain treyf is more common than others. Some of this is seasonally and financially based – Dungeness crab, for example, is expensive and seasonal. Otherwise it is a taste thing. Most treyf-eaters seem to love bacon and shrimp. Some common treyf however – like canned clams – was rarely mentioned. The most beloved treyf for many is bacon. It is a love that I do not quite share, since pre-kashrut me never got the hype around it. Bacon ends up in soups, in breakfasts, on sandwiches, and in lentil soup and matzah balls. One very nice bacon-maker even told me about his business making bacon, and experiments with flavor! Jewish recipes were often improved with bacon or shellfish. I received recipes for lentil soup, cholent, matzah balls, brisket, shakshouka, latkes, and even hamantaschen with bacon. Similarly, an appetizing spread, hraime, or again, shakshouka benefited from shrimp. I guess then that bacon-wrapped shrimp is the ultimate treyf. Not because of the combination, but because of the crowd of treyf enthusiasts pleased.

For many people, eating and making treyf is also a part of livelihood. Many people worked or work in food service. Treyf is on the menu, treyf gets eaten. Others work in jobs where they often have to eat with clients, coworkers, or consultants – and it would be rude not to share in the shellfish soup. As I noted, one respondent had a bacon-making business. Another had spent time cooking shellfish in his first job as a restaurant chef. These respondents often had the greatest insight into how expensive it was to keep kosher.

Clam chowder with oyster crackers in a smiley face
The clam chowder is smiling! Treyf has never been this happy! (The photo is CC/Flicker from The Cooking of Joy. Joy, the author, has posted her clam chowder recipe here.)

And how often times, it is a privilege. If your job depends on it, you will eat treyf. It is rather baroque and classist to critique someone’s Jewishness based on that. Some did not keep kosher because of a history of eating disorders. In that case, imposing new dietary restrictions can be quite dangerous. If anything, because it is to save one’s life, Jewish tradition would also prefer that one not keep kosher if it is unsafe. Also, many treyf eaters stopped keeping kosher because of the labor and expense involved. The bacon and shrimp were less interesting to them. To them, there was no controversy at all in eating cheaply, well, and Jewishly, with the added benefit of canned clams or bacon. Judging someone based on that would be markedly cruel. Keeping kosher does not make you a better person. Being mean does make you a worse one. Especially being mean over someone enjoying or even celebrating treyf that is affordable, accessible, and tasty food.

Not all cheap treyf is celebrated though. Some treyf is more controversial. Several different respondents did not “get” ham. They found it it was “the weirdest meat” or bizarrely sweet. Others loved ham, and fondly recalled eating it at weddings and b’nai mitzvah. I was surprised to see how many respondents were uncomfortable with ham, although pre-kashrut me also found ham a tad “wiggy” in big quantities. One person said that the gelatinous-meat-sweetness of ham was an aversion for them. That aversion carries over into kosher foods like ptcha and gefilte fish.

Pihtije, a Serbian aspic
If you do not like ham, you might not like p’tcha – or pihtije, p’tcha‘s Serbian cousin. (Photo VI via Wikimedia/CC)

Milk-meat combinations seem to go unnoticed. Sure, a few people did comment on cheeseburgers. I, for one, will always remember my college classmate’s Brie and ham on matzah. Here is the thing: it is far lower on the “forbidden” list than whole categories of animals. A milk and meat combination can also be harder to spot. Someone who does not keep kosher might not guess that the pumpkin cheese soup had chicken stock. The bacon bits, though, will be noticed. So will any other treyf, as was discovered at a synagogue a respondent attended as a child, where an order mix-up led to quite a bit of shrimp lo mein at the synagogue’s door. Compared to incidents like these, a cheeseburger is minor.

A cheeseburger
This cheeseburger is comparatively no big deal. (Photo in public domain)

I will have a separate post for funny stories, and a third one for stopping kashrut. Too many anecdotes were received to do justice to them in this post. Besides, many people provided insight into why they do not keep kosher now. But already, we can see some patterns, and some avenues for inquiry. We also are reminded of one thing: you can eat as much treyf as you want, and still be as Jewish as anyone else.

The outcome of this research has made me question my own kashrut practice, and why I keep kosher at all. I do not eat treyf animals, I keep a kosher kitchen, and in New York I eat kosher or halal meat, which I consider equal. The kitchen is for my more traditional friends. That said, I do not have a reason why I personally do not eat treyf. It used to be emotional, but that has gone with my own realignment of Jewish values. The judgmental environment I left, or to quote the youth, “yote out” from has dissolved any feeling of “upholding tradition” through my diet. For me, Judaism is a lived and evolving tradition, not a diet, weekly lifestyle practice, and set of givens. Pork is off the table forever, because of a traumatic and rather gross incident in my teenage years. But I do not have any negative feelings about shellfish, catfish, beef stroganoff, or kangaroo. At this point, kashrut is habit. I do not know how long it will stick outside of my home kitchen.

Black and white photo of a man in a fur parka standing under a wooden structure with drying meat hanging from the wood. The structure and man are on a grassy-muddy field.
A Yup’ik man in Western Alaska drying whale meat sometime in the early 20th century. Whale was caught, slaughtered, and dried for sustenance. The tradition is under threat but continues today. (Photo Public Domain/Library of Congress)

If I change, I do have something to keep. I promised my indigenous friends that, should I stop keeping kosher, whale and seal would be my first real treyf. In a world where colonialism is still very real, it is so important to keep native traditions alive, and I think that would be an important step of solidarity against continued colonial abuse. As a settler, I feel obligated to support the minhagei hamakom of the peoples from whose loss of land I still benefit. A mitzvah, in treyf. Afterwards, I will head on to my nearest Skyline, order a 5-Way – spaghetti, meaty chili, onions, beans, and cheddar cheese – and take a bite, and I will recite the prayer meant for everything:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam, shehakol nihiyeh bidvaro.

Blessed are you, Lord Our God, King of the Universe, who created all per his will.

A heartfelt thank you to all of you who responded. As my gift to you, please enjoy my favorite song about treyf. It is by the Jerry Cans, a band from Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, and is in the indigenous Inuktitut language. It is called Mamaqtuq, and it is about hunting for seal to eat. Watch it here.

Gingerbread Cake

Black and white of sliced gingerbread cake covered in powdered sugar

One of the things I do not get about Christmas, or Christian winter in general, is why gingerbread is not a year-round food. It is so very delicious. The depths of the molasses cheer me. The perk of the spices gladdens me. The scent sends me into a madeleine-like reverie. In cake or in cookie form, gingerbread is wonderful. Why should we limit it to one time a year, particularly for a holiday filled with rather irksome things? Even then, I do enjoy the sheer breadth of gingerbread products in winter. As I told one friend, gingerbread is one thing I wish we just had more of in Jewish tradition. “Picture it: American Jews, 5779. Gingerbread for Sukkot, gingerbread for Purim, gingerbread for Shavuot, ginger matzoh for Passover,” I said. I think my friend thinks I have a proverbial “spider on my ceiling” now.

So imagine my surprise when I found out that gingerbread cakes have been eaten for many holidays by Jews for a thousand years. Not to mention non-Jews, too. Spiced cakes have been eaten in Europe since at least the Classical period in Greece, and became newly popular alongside other heavily spiced foods in the 12th century. Ginger itself was traded from Asia since Roman times. Some historians claim that Crusaders brought back the treat from the Middle East, but it seems more likely that Armenian monks brought the recipe to monasteries earlier in the medieval era. (Attributing everything to the Crusaders obscures how much contact there was, and how extensive contact was, between Western Europe and the Islamic World before that.) Gingerbread became a traditional gift between lovers, and popular at taverns and at fairs and festivals. Indeed, Shakespeare alludes to it in a play. Gingerbread was also medicine: many monks and nuns baked it as a tonic for indigestion. We may scoff now, but it was probably safer than many contemporary “medicines.” And, medicinal or not, gingerbread has remained popular for longer than all but a few foods.

A medieval oven with two wooden sticks going into holes in a brick edifice, with a fire within
A medieval oven that old gingerbreads may have been baked in. (Photo Richard Croft via CC)

Among Ashkenazi Jews, ginger-based pastries and gingerbread have traditionally been popular for Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, as well as for celebrations and life cycle events. Another common Ashkenazi dish, lekach or honey cake, shares an ancestor with today’s gingerbread. In fact, they were probably the same until a few hundred years ago. Jewish gingerbread and lekach derive from an Italian Jewish cake called panforte, a heavily spiced gingerbread that was introduced by Italian Jewish traders to Jews in France and Germany by the 11th century. These cakes were sold by Jews in what is now Southern Germany to a wide audience – and were widely consumed – by the start of the 13th century. However, Jews were then banned from the guilds that made gingerbread. As a result, Jewish gingerbread and honey cakes were largely only for internal consumption. These cakes were given to young boys on their first day of school, and served at weddings and circumcisions. Later agricultural advancements, such as the mass conversion from barley and rye to wheat in Europe, introduction of alkaline leavening, and the spread of sugar, changed these cakes. They became lighter, sweeter, and bigger. Ginger-based and honey-based cakes also largely separated around this time.

I find gingerbread interesting because it is a “throwback” to medieval styles of eating. Heavily spiced, darkly spiced cakes were a fixture of European elite and festive cuisine in the Middle Ages. Spices were said to carry holy odors and symbolized riches, good grace, and good living. Those who could afford it imported huge quantities of spices, and Jews were no exception. However, when imperialism made spices cheap enough for many peasants – such that Martin Luther blamed commoners’ degeneracy on pepper – the elite switched, to a much blander and less spiced diet. Gingerbread, along with mulled wine and a few bizarre Dutch cheeses, stuck it out. I am so ever grateful.

This gingerbread recipe is vegan. I made it for my colleagues, a few of whom are vegans, so I swapped out the egg and butter for applesauce and oil-based substitutes. The result is a very moist, spicy cake. You can serve it warm or at room temperature, and if you want, with a nice cream-cheese frosting or vanilla ice cream. Best of all, it is pareve, so if you keep kosher, it can end a solid meat meal. Enjoy!



Gingerbread Cake with Raisins

Serves 12-16

⅔ cup raisins

1 cup cold water

1 teaspoon rum extract

½ cup granulated white sugar

½ cup melted butter substitute or canola oil (I use Earth Balance)

1 cup applesauce

½ teaspoon baking powder

1 cup unsulphured molasses (not blackstrap)

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 ½ teaspoons baking soda

1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground allspice

½ teaspoon table salt

⅔ cup hot water

Oil, to grease pan

Powdered sugar, for garnish

  1. Soak the raisins in a bowl with the cold water and rum extract for 20 minutes, or until they are puffy. Drain the raisins and set aside.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Grease a 9 inch/23-25cm round cake pan, or a 9inch/23-25cm square cake pan.
  3. In a big bowl, mix together the white sugar, oil or butter substitute, apple sauce, and baking powder until thoroughly combined. Then, fold in the molasses slowly, until thoroughly combined. It will turn a gothic dark color, and the batter will be thicker.
  4. Meanwhile, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. Sifting will ensure an even distribution throughout the mixture. If you do not know how to sift, here is a useful video. I use a wire sieve.
  5. Fold the flour mixture into the molasses mixture until thoroughly combined. You will have a thick batter.
  6. Fold in the raisins into the batter, then the hot water. Mix until the distribution is thorough. The batter will be thick, but not as thick.
  7. Pour into the prepared pan and place into the center of the oven. Bake for one hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
  8. Remove from the oven. Allow to cool in the pan before removing the cake. Garnish with powdered sugar and serve.

Thank you to my colleagues for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.

 

Great Books: Eat Up, by Ruby Tandoh

Ruby Tandoh is great. Ever since she was catapulted to food fame by her appearance on The Great British Bake-Off, I have been gleefully following her. Her recipes are straightforward and delicious, she is unapologetically queer and nerdy, and she celebrates food for what it is! Reading her writing or hearing her talk feels like one of my friends sitting on my famous metal mesh chair, holding a glass of wine and telling you that yes, fancy hazelnut porridge and Cream of Wheat with Raisinets are both great. (Confession: the second one is something I have eaten more than once.) So I was thrilled to finally read her new book, Eat Up.

cover of Ruby Tandoh's "Eat Up"

It was so good.

Eat Up is a manifesto, but it does not tell you what or how to eat. Instead, it tells you how to live ethically with food. Tandoh walks you through all the ways you relate to food: as sustenance, as a vehicle for emotions, as a vehicle for politics, and as something that engages all the senses. Sometimes, the book is political, arguing against fatphobia, ableism, classism, or racism as made manifest through food. Sometimes, the book is meditative, asking you to savor whatever it is that you are eating. And sometimes, it is a food memoir, and that is where the writing is best. I laughed as I read of Tandoh seeking her Ghanaian great-aunt’s groundnut soup recipe, and grimaced right alongside her as she ate eels by the seashore. Most of all, though, this book is a response to the same authenticity-obsessed, elitist, snotty food world that irritates me.

Tandoh makes short shrift of the cute world of the food movement, the tyrannical one of the diet industry, and all the ways status is disguised by concern. There are many books that talk about the sugar lobby and the corn lobby. One of Tandoh’s strongest points is when she points out how, contrary to a lot of scientific evidence, a diet lobby also exists. The world of health foods and weight loss plans is not just about fake concern, but a multibillion dollar industry. It just happens to be an industry supported by the elite. Tandoh’s point regarding this is pretty unusual in the food world, and it is welcome. She also skewers the food movement, pointing out how unrealistic the locavore, artisan world it promotes is for so many. Some of this is direct – but some of it is simply honoring the food that the food movement often ignores. Tandoh might sing the praises of home-baked cake, but you will find love for cheap tea, Wotsits, and Burger King here too. Above all, Tandoh has little patience for the fake concern of much of the food world. People in the food world, she rightly points out, are not actually concerned about your weight or your tastes or your exposure to something. They often just enjoy the power and making fun of you. And Tandoh proposes resisting that temptation – and eating while we do it. After all, we need to eat to be strong.

Like me, Tandoh traces an emotional world through food. Recipes interspersed throughout the book seek to summon up a feeling – of joy, of ease, or of comfort. More than that, she talks about the meanings of food, and how different foods are needed at different times. She also discusses, effortlessly, the distance between what is socially “acceptable” to eat and what we actually crave – and how the latter is sometimes more helpful than the former. Many food books tell you not to eat Kit-Kats. Tandoh reminds you that, of course, it is okay to have one – and that your attachment to them is not a bad thing. This is the book’s strongest point: that food and emotion does not always go in a specific marketable, status-oriented direction.

The book can get repetitive at points, and sometimes a bit wordy. Tandoh herself jokes about this as a former philosophy student. I also think the recipes may be a bit hard for some people to follow, since they are written in a highly narrative style. That said, the book is still incredible as a resource and as a way to think about food. Tandoh is young, and Tandoh is bursting with ideas, and I think this is going to be the first of many incredible books about food. You should absolutely read Eat Up, so that you can join me in eagerly waiting for more.

Eat Up, by Ruby Tandoh

A note: I may also going to write a Jewish commentary on Eat Up after this.

10 Reasons Why I Can’t Be Negative About Modernist Jewish Cooking

So my piece on Modernist Jewish Cooking got a lot of responses. And a lot of readers. It is now the second-most popular piece on the site, after my bread pudding recipe. You, the readers, seem to like it when I talk about industrial food. Good news – I have more to say!

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

Recently, I have heard a lot of “scare language” around processed food. Some of this was in response to my piece – people were irritated or confused that “homemade” and “industrial” might, yes, be on the same plane for some people. (Chances are that your homemade food is partly industrial.) Others were friends who were shocked at some sort of thing or other, and labeled it as “processed food” – assuming I also saw that phrase as negative. Yet as I have pointed out, most food is processed at some point before getting to the consumer. And even if we say we do not like processed food now, it is so present and everywhere that it has shaped our taste buds. This process is almost inescapable. Even “organic,” “natural” cooks hearken back to industrial food now. Processed food, like taxes and death, is inevitable in the modern world. And marking some food as scary Processed Food, and other equally unnatural foods as Good and Proper does nothing more than hide a lot of facts. Besides, processed food is far more accessible for poor people, for people with disabilities, and for most everyone.

Perhaps we should advocate for industrial food that is made by properly paid and treated workers, that is high-quality, and that is something we all have a share in.

Peanut butter cup oreo packs on a shelf
I’d rather this than a sappy story. (Photo Mike Mozart/Flickr CC)

Also, this sort of organic-romance thing becomes a performance so sappy that I suddenly find myself urgently craving an Oreo. Oreos are not even my preferred industrial cookie.  Just admit you kind of like the Manishevitz box mix, as some of us can infer in your performance of disdain.

In short, you love processed food, even if you say you do not. Guess what? So do I. Since I have no shame about this, I thought it would be fun to share some of my favorite industrial food products. We can get a bit of history, a bit about me, and a bit about how I use them. They are not all Jewish, but they are all Jewish. I would love to hear what your favorite ones are too.

bowl of noodles with sunny side up egg
This stock photo describes my favorite thing. (Photo by Buenosia Carol on Pexels.com)
  1. Noodles and pasta – I eat probably too much pasta, but I do not particularly mind: noodles and I get along well. I eat a noodle product more than once a week at minimum, except during Passover. This fact of my existence is in no part due to the industrialization of noodle production and the popularity of dried noodles. Before World War II, when noodle production was far less industrialized than today, many families in Italy could only afford pasta on special occasions. Ditto for noodles in many other countries, like Japan. Industrialization made noodles cheaper and more affordable for everyone. And box pasta is still pretty damn good.
  2. Canned beans – “Beans, beans, lots of beans, lots of beans” is not just an early 2000’s meme, but also an accurate description of most people’s diets in many times in many places, Jews included. Beans are efficient little vehicles of protein and nutrients and tastiness. They are also, in raw form, a lot of work. So canned beans are a huge improvement: no soaking or precooking, just beans that are ready to go into your meal. They are also often very high-quality. I find myself cooking with canned beans at least once or twice a week, and I am still surprised at precisely how versatile they are. Almost any bean recipe not made with lentils on this blog was made with canned beans, and the lentil recipes are doable with canned lentils as well.
  3. Stock cubes and soup powder – I told you once how to make your own stock, but the truth is that I rarely do. I mostly use bouillon cubes and soup powder, because – let me be frank here – I do not have the time or energy to do homemade stock every time. Most people do not. And hence industrial bouillon was one of the first modern food products to emerge, in the 19th century, and has remained popular ever since. It varies incredibly from country to country – as some scholars have pointed out, you can learn a lot from going to the Knorr’s selection in a local market. It also adds a very reasonable amount of salt to whatever you are cooking. In Israel and a few other places, soup powder is now a seasoning, which I find somewhat salty for my taste, but I do not judge. For me, soup powder lets me add a bit more weight to stews and sauces, when I can add stock simply by making it from the kettle. Also, the stock cubes smell really, really good.

    Five brown bouillon cubes in open wrappers.
    Bouillon cubes – just as Jewish as homemade stock. (Photo Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
  4. Crushed tomatoes – My mother’s repertoire of recipes is very heavy on the use of canned tomatoes, which is fitting, given that my mother is an Italophile who grew up in South Africa and Israel. (All three countries’ populations use canned tomatoes extensively.) Like most people, I cook a lot of what my parents taught me growing up, and so I find myself adding crushed tomatoes quite a bit. They are very handy for many Jewish dishes – shakshouka and tamatiebredie among them – but also for the lazy, haphazard stews which, with rice, make up most of my meals. On a broader level, the popularity of tomatoes in cuisines outside the Americas is partly based on the fact that tomatoes are so easily canned. Otherwise, tomatoes were, until recently, highly seasonal plants that were considered suspicious by many.
  5. Canned corn – Picture this: it’s a blackout sometime in the early 2000s. A frizzy-haired Jewish woman and her tween son are grinning as they spoon corn from a can into their mouths. That was dinner. In any case, I live now with fewer summer blackouts, but still the same number of corn kernels coming from the can. Canned corn is really delicious. And, if you are not eating corn from the cob in season, it’s usually not that distinguishable from the fresh counterpart. (Even when fresh is available, I sometimes suggest canned, especially because a lot of fresh corn is not actually very good.) Fun fact: I once made a dish, and said person mentioned that he was pleased I had obviously used fresh corn. Indeed, the corn was fresh from a can that morning. On a more practical note, canned corn is a very good substitute when fresh corn is not practical, and actually keeps many of the nutrients for longer than refrigerated corn. It is also incredibly versatile – you can make so many things, including a lovely pashtida I made for the early days of this blog.

    A baked corn pashtida, very puffy
    Corn pashtida, made from canned corn. Photo mine, December 2015
  6. Jam – Ah, yes, jam. I have given several recipes on the blog, and discussed how jam became popular in the 19th century when sugar became cheaper. It is also now well-known that jam played a major role in improving calorie intake in some places in Europe in the 19th Jam was one of the first things to really be industrialized. And as much as it can be too sweet and sticky … mass-produced jam can also be delicious. Why else would I slather it on toast every morning? Jam also is a nice filling for hamantashen, and there is at least one jam that goes well with most every Jewish bread.
  7. Mass-market pickled herring I have written about my love for herring and its history in Jewish kitchens before, but I can never stop talking about it. And for every fancy herring at Russ and Daughters, there are at least thirty or forty much cheaper herrings from the big companies that jar massive quantities of the stuff. They are part of a long Jewish tradition of processing herring on an industrial scale.
  8. Canned fish – While we are at it, can we discuss the miracle of the cheap and versatile protein that is canned tuna? Or the salty goodness of canned mackerel? When I was a child, my late father and I would eat mackerel on toast together; now, I bring back the 1950s with tuna croquettes. Jewish cooks leaned in heavily into the canned fish train in the mid-20th century, and I do not blame them. When it is good, it is really good.

    Cans of pilchards, sardines, tuna, and salmon
    Yes. (Photo September 2005/Wikimedia Commons)
  9. Mass-market lemonade – I do not even have a romantic reason for adding this one; I just like lemonade. But lemon-based drinks have been popular for centuries across the Jewish world, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Jewish communities have all sorts of lemony sweet drinks on Shabbat tables around the world. The drinks vary from place to place (I am a huge fan of French lemonades) – but the lemon does not. As it happens, this is a very modern phenomenon: industrialization made sweet drinks and juices no longer a luxury, but something affordable for many people. The idea of a sweet, lemony drink in a bottle in the middle of winter appeared to our great-grandparents as a luxury from afar. Thinking about that makes me feel quite elegant as I guzzle lemonade down.
  10. Ugiot mizrahiot This one is a bit eccentric. The Iraqi cookie kaak – a round hard thing covered in sesame seeds – became popular in Israel as ugiot mizrahiot. Once the afterthought of bakers, this treat is now made en masse and packed in plastic by Israel’s biggest food companies. Sure, the kaak might be better fresh from the baker, but my Israeli relatives have developed a very, very strong affinity for these. So did my late father, who could eat an entire bag in one sitting. I am not ashamed to say that I have recreated the feat.

Thank you for reading! As a final bonus, here is one more fan of industrial food: my sister’s cat Mochi, whose diet largely consists of her preferred chicken kibble. (She is also an enthusiastic fan of canned black olives.) Mochi has been staying with me for a few months, and has graciously heard many ideas for the blog as I voiced them out. Thank you, Mochi.

Mochi the cat on a bed with an air conditioner behind.
Mochi

For an excellent critique of food snobbery in the form of a novel, I urge you to read Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody. It was originally published in French as Une Gourmandise. I have read it in both languages and thoroughly enjoyed it both times. Industrial food plays a major role in the book, but as is said in the old country, “no spoilers.”

Another blog that I just found is In Defense of Processed Food, by Dr. Robert Shewfelt. It is a welcome antidote to the mythical excesses of the food movement. I intend on reading regularly, and will buy his book soon.

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.

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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.