On Food Security and Jewish Customs

Many of those around me have noticed that I have a hard time throwing food away. It takes something being rotten or most definitively off for me to throw it out; even then, I feel a little twinge of guilt. This guilt is not from sermons about food waste – I am well-read enough to know that waste has actually gone down significantly with modern agriculture, and I am also generally able to plan shopping and food storage to minimize any unneeded waste. Rather, it is because I carry quite a bit of baggage and secondary trauma about the Holocaust. My maternal grandmother was a survivor of Bergen-Belsen who starved in the camps, and whose food practices were forever shaped by those years of deprivation. As a result, my mother and I have a lot of thoughts about the potential of food – and throwing away any of it sends shivers down our spines. It is also why we stockpile food – a subconscious “just in case.”

These sorts of historical and transmitted traumas have influenced Jewish foodways for a long time. How many cooks view food is directly related to their own experience of lack, or for those like me who have been more fortunate, lack experienced by our relatives. Sometimes this happens in terms of food storage: how much do we keep? How little do we throw out? Sometimes this happens when we cook: how many portions do we cook? And sometimes it happens to our guests – not letting them “go hungry,” getting them to eat something. Subconsciously, it is a response to trauma experienced or inherited. And around that trauma, a culture of relentless squirrelling away, huge outlays of food, and stuffing guests’ faces has been built.

A deli window with a sign that says "we accept food stamps EBT" with Doritos and Lays bags behind it, and toothpaste below.
Essential – even for a deli like this. (Photo Clementine Gallot via Creative Commons, March 2009)

Even now, many Jews do not have enough to eat. A night volunteering at a kosher soup kitchen or food pantry in New York or Chicago is evidence enough. (I highly recommend Masbia, which is the nexus of a huge community.) If anecdote is not enough, allow the statistics to speak: 10% of American Jews struggle with food security. A higher proportion of Jews in Israel and some other countries do. These struggles do not just end when people have enough to eat: food insecurities, as we see from history, inform how people will eat in the future.

And the proof of this is in the way we relate to food today in the Jewish community. One reason we seek to have groaning Shabbat tables is because we remember the times in which our ancestors simply could not have that. One reason there are so many cultural strictures against wasting food is because we are only seventy years out from a huge starvation event – the Holocaust. (Genocide was accompanied by hunger and forced starvation.) Many of the popular foods among American Ashkenazi Jews today – challah, babka, cold cuts, and more – were prized by immigrants in the early 20th century precisely because of their rarity at home.

This history is why I also have little patience for the nostalgic, sentimental narrative around Ashkenazi cooking as a product of “poverty.” For most Ashkenazi Jews, challah was an occasional treat, as were things like brisket, p’tcha, or pretty much anything with meat. Ditto for other Jewish communities and meat. The daily fare of poverty was a lot plainer and probably not something those in developed countries in our era would willingly eat. When we say bread “came from the earth” in the blessing hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz, we are partly commemorating the fact that wheat was once threshed on floors. This idea is explicitly stated in ancient and medieval commentaries such as Bereshit Rabbah. Bread had impurities that were dirt or stones. Bugs were commonplace in food before the modern era. Starvation was only unknown to the wealthiest in the community – most people experienced some hunger at least once in their lifetime. A lack of food security, not just persecution, drove millions of Ashkenazim to emigrate from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. The cuisine that became everyday was the cuisine of festivals, because that was the cuisine that meant plenty to our ancestors. And the fact that we eat so much – and so often, and that we store so much? That is the actual aftereffect of generations of poverty, or the memory of grandmothers in concentration camps, or remembrance of famines past.

For more on the history of hunger in the Jewish world, I highly recommend Hasia Diner’s Hungering for America and John Cooper’s Eat and Be Satisfied.

May It Be The Divine Will: Auspicious Foods for Rosh HaShanah

Anyada buena, dulse, i alegre! A gut gebentsht yahr! Rosh HaShanah is fast upon us, and despite the sugary delight of nostalgia, I am more than happy to see the ridiculous year of 5777 end. And, of course, I hope that 5778 is at least … less basic. As the year passes, I will also continue a long Jewish tradition of eating special foods in honor of Rosh HaShanah.

Quinces on a tree
Quinces on a tree. (Photo Hans Braxmeier via Pixabay/Creative Commons)

Some of these foods, all Ashkenazi, are ingrained into the common American Jewish narrative: apples and honey, sweet cakes, and tzimmes among them. These signify the desire for a sweet and happy year. But there are traditions beyond this particular interpretation of the Ashkenazi tradition. The Sephardic tradition of the yehi ratzones – blessings to which the response is ken yehi ratzon, or “may it be the Divine Will” – includes up to fourteen different foods. Many Ashkenazim follow a similar practice, as do the various Jewish communities of North Africa. It might seem strange to pair these very metaphysical prayers with the deeply physical world of eating: and yet, as we walk through each hope, the foods make sense.

Apples on a tree
Apples in Upstate New York – some of which were made into a cake for Rosh HaShanah 5777. (Photo mine, September 2016)

That the year is sweet: and so we eat apples and quinces. As I have noted in prior posts, the quince occupies an honored place in Jewish cuisine. Not only is it a frequent guest in many festival dishes across North Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East, but candied quinces have long been a traditional treat of welcome and festivity in Sephardic and Iranian tradition. The sweet smell of quinces also recalls the idea of G-d as lover found in the Song of Songs. Meanwhile, the apple became, in medieval Europe, a symbol of the fertile yet complex relationship between G-d and Israel. They were also the available sweet substance across much of Europe – and befitting the greeting that became common in the 7th century, “a good and sweet year.” Hence apples and quinces became symbolic of the sweet year we want, and the sweet side of G-d we want to see.

Cooking beets
Cooking beets. (Photo mine, November 2016)

That enmity to us and G-d should end: and so we eat spinach and beets. The word in Hebrew for beets – seleq – and the word in Aramaic for spinach – silka both sound like the word to “remove” in Hebrewlesaleq. One hopes that in the New Year, enmity and adversity towards us and G-d are removed from the earth, as called for by several of the Biblical prophets, who themselves are quoted in many of the Rosh HaShanah prayers. Some scholars hold that spinach was the original food for this tradition, and beets followed in Iran, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe as a more readily available vegetable in those colder climates. For similar reasons, some Jews often eat dates on Rosh HaShanah – the word for “date,” tamar, sounds like the word for “end,” tam.

Zucchini with za'atar, black and white
Zucchini with za’atar (Photo mine, January 2017)

That a decree of death is torn: and thus we eat pumpkins and zucchini. This is a pun, for the word for “to tear” (qar’a) in Hebrew sounds like the words for “squash” in Aramaic (qarah) and Ladino (kalavasa). Hence many Sephardic communities began to cook pumpkins and zucchini during the High Holidays after their introduction from the New World. Recipes include fried zucchini, pumpkin salad, and roasted pumpkin seeds.

Pomegranates on a tree in an orchard
Pomegranates on a tree. (Photo Bharji/Wikimedia Commons via CC)

That our offspring be plentiful and that our families be prosperous: and thus we eat pomegranates and black-eyed peas. Pomegranates are a symbol of fertility throughout the Tanakh – be it human virility as in the Song of Songs or agrarian fertility as in the description of the land in the Book of Numbers. Meanwhile, the Aramaic word for the black-eyed pea is “lubya” – which sounds like “rubya,” or plenty. African-Americans, Jews and non-Jews among them, meanwhile point out that the peas’ swelling when cooked should be mirrored by our own swelling of prosperity. The pomegranate, too, is also a symbol of prosperity for the numerous seeds it holds.

A school of herring.
A school of herring, as many as our merits. (Photo Arild Finne Nyboe via Creative Commons)

That we may be at the front of our destiny: and thus we eat fish heads. Rosh HaShanah literally means “head of the year” – and since ancient times, the consumption of a fish or lamb head has been traditional to the holiday. Nowadays, many Americans are a bit squeamish about the head, but other communities eat fish heads far more often than just Rosh HaShanah! My own South African grandmother baked them, Iraqi Jews grill them, and Dutch Jews stew them. They are a good sign of staying ahead of the game. And there is a second fish blessing: That we may be found meritorious: and so we eat the rest of the fish too. The idea is that just as schools of fish seem to multiply quickly and expand and become visible, so too may our good deeds and merits become visible before G-d as She completes the Book of Life. And so fish reminds us to be good.

And a final prayer: may it be the will of the Divine that all the readers of this blog have a year filled with blessing, nourishment, and sweetness. Ken yehi ratzon.

Shana tova!

“Can You Make Coffee Cake?” (Smetana Kuchen)

A note to begin, because I need to remark on politics: Someone please tell white nationalists that their coffee cake is Jewish, and then take their cake away, because Nazis do not deserve cake.

Smetanakuchen with a streusel of almonds and brown sugar

It is a crisp autumn morning in a certain year, and your author is a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, very gay, and very Jewish first-year at the University of Chicago. Now, he is from the Northeast, where the Jews are many, but some of his classmates are from small towns across the Midwest and adjacent areas, and a few have only interacted with a handful of Jews over their lives. Your author is worried about anti-Semitism – something he had experienced before. Instead, he finds himself bemused, because more than once he is enthusiastically asked variants of:

“Oh my gosh, you’re Jewish! Can you make that coffee cake?”

“That coffee cake” is Smetana Kuchen, a rich, sour cream-laden coffee cake originating with desserts in Germany and Poland. In the 18th and 19th century, as sugar became cheaper, new pastries developed, often to accompany another new import: coffee. Among Ashkenazi Jews, the common base of sour cream (Smetana in Yiddish) came to form the basis of this new cake. German Jews brought this cake with them to the United States in the 19th century – just as Hungarians also brought the similar aranygaluska and Swedes brought their own cakes to the Midwest. In Europe, these had been cakes of luxury for special occasions, but in the wealthy United States, filled with eggs, dairy, and white flour, these became slightly more common place. Many German Jews began to sell these cakes in coffee shops, newly frequented by a middle class seeking all forms of “refinement.” From there, and similar Hungarian and Swedish shops, the cakes spread. By the 1950’s, when many American women were entering baking contests and had ready access to ingredients once unheard of , the “Jewish” coffee cake was already popular across the Midwest.

 

Today, some people still know the cake as “Jewish,” and many Jews are convinced that the cake is not Jewish at all. On both sides, Smetana Kuchen is found at religious events, at church lunches and synagogue kiddushes, and at celebrations and birthday parties and committee meetings. It is still found in coffee shops and in diners, at office parties and at academic conferences. (Indeed, one of the most stellar coffee cakes I had was at an academic conference.) It is very good – and even as it has assimilated, it is still Jewish.

This is a pretty straightforward and simple Smetana Kuchen with a streusel topping and a modest, yet elegant cake. I offer the option of almonds, which is slightly unorthodox compared to the more common pecans or walnuts. “In the wild,” if I may describe the Midwest as such, you may also find variations with apples, raisins, or chocolate. You should consider trying them all, as they are all utterly delicious.

Smetana Kuchen (Sour Cream Cake)

Serves 9-12 (or fewer, if you are like me)

Streusel (also used in the Mohnkuchen):

½ cup white sifted flour

2½ tbsp. brown sugar

2/3 tsp ground cinnamon

2½ tbsp. salted butter, chilled

Cake:

¼ cup (1/2 stick) salted butter, softened

1 cup white granulated sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp baking powder

1 ¼ cups sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups white sifted flour

1/3 cup slivered almonds (optional)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease a 9”x9” square cake pan or a Bundt pan.
  2. Begin by making the streusel. Mix together the flour, sugar, and cinnamon, then blend in the butter with your hands or a fork. You should get small crumbles. Set aside in the refrigerator or a cool place.
  3. Cream together the butter and the sugar. I do not have a mixer, so I use a pastry knife to blend them together. You can also do it with a wooden spoon or fork! Alternatively, if you’re fortunate enough to have the mixer, you can do that.
  4. Add the eggs to the butter and sugar and beat until thoroughly combined.
  5. Add the baking powder, sour cream, and vanilla extract, and beat until thoroughly combined.
  6. Add the flour, and beat until thoroughly combined.
  7. If you’re using a square cake pan, pour the cake batter into the pan first, then sprinkle the streusel evenly on top. If you’re using a Bundt pan, sprinkle the streusel on the bottom first, and then pour the cake batter on top. If you’re using the almonds, sprinkle them with the streusel on the cake or the pan bottom as the case may be.
  8. Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let it cool before removing from the pan.

Three Easy 20th-Century Jewish Summer Salads

I get very lazy during the summer. Some of it is the heat, some of it is my rare-but-real Summer Seasonal Depression, and some of it is that things during the summer always feel a bit more hectic. So, as much as I love cooking, I do not necessarily have the energy for a long and involved preparation process. Hence, salads become central in my meals. Not a few leaves with a sad dressing, but weighty and substantial salads that are, in fact, very Jewish.

In the past seventy years or so, Jewish communities have been having a bit of a…salad frenzy. Some of this has to do with the central place salad takes in Zionist cooking, as a way of “becoming of the land.” Salad is also part of Jewish assimilation into surrounding countries. And though some Jewish communities have had “salads” for centuries, salad is far more popular and central now. The ingredients have, of course, changed with the times. The three salads here use three ingredient combinations popular in Israel and the United States at different points since World War II.

1950s: Potato Salad with Yogurt

In the 1950s, Israeli cuisine was in a strange moment. In a completely Eurocentric state, certain Middle Eastern and North African foods were still considered unhealthy or unsanitary, and new immigrants were encouraged to “switch” to European, Ashkenazi food. Yet at the same time, that food was being amended with ingredients and recipes taken from local Palestinian cuisine. Hence you ended up with beet salads with cilantro, hummus with European bread, and recipes in which original ingredients were swapped with Middle Eastern ones. This potato salad with yogurt and za’atar would not be out of place in this environment.

(For more history, I highly recommend Yael Raviv’s Falafel Nation.)

Potato salad with yogurt and za'atar

Potato Salad with Yogurt

Serves 4-8

2 lbs/1 kg new potatoes, chopped in halves

Juice of 2 lemons

1 cup thick plain yogurt or Greek yogurt

1 teaspoon table salt

1 teaspoon za’atar

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Water

  1. In a pot, boil the potatoes in the water until soft to the fork, but not mushy. Drain the potatoes, then let cool.
  2. In a cup, mix together the lemon juice, yogurt, salt, za’atar, and pepper until thoroughly combined.
  3. Put the potatoes in a large bowl, and pour the dressing over the potatoes. Mix to coat. Serve cold or at room temperature. The salad keeps for 4-5 days refrigerated.

1970s: Corn and Chickpea Salad with Carrots and Garlic

The midcentury was the time of canned corn – especially in the 1950s and 1970s. In the United States, it ended up in strange combinations; in Israel, it was campfire food (and my mother’s one true teenage love); in the Soviet Union there was an entire, extremely bizarre campaign featuring talking cans of corn. And so corn often found its way into salads, including a corn-chickpea salad one man at synagogue told me about. Without the recipe, I updated it with carrots and garlic for more contemporary tastes – and it is definitely delicious.

Corn and chickpea salad with carrots and garlic

Corn and Chickpea Salad with Carrots and Garlic

Serves 4-8

2 cups cooked corn kernels (you can use canned)

2 cups cooked chickpeas (you can use canned)

1 cup chopped carrots

4 cloves of garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar or white vinegar

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon molasses or honey

½ cup water+1 tablespoon water

1 teaspoon cornstarch

  1. Mix together the corn and chickpeas in a large bowl. Set aside.
  2. In a small saucepan, place the carrots, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, oil, vinegar, molasses, and ½ cup water. Bring to a boil, then let simmer on low heat for 5 minutes, or until the carrots are soft and the “sauce” has reduced.
  3. Mix the remaining water and cornstarch, and add to the carrots and mix in. You should notice the sauce thickening.
  4. Remove the carrot mixture from the heat, and pour over the corn and chickpeas. Mix thoroughly, and then let the dish cool to room temperature before serving. This salad keeps for up to a week in the refrigerator.

1990s: Cucumber Avocado Strawberry Salad

Avocados were not just hip now, but in the 1990s too. At that time, avocados were first beginning to make themselves common in the upper-middle-class neighborhoods of the United States and Canada – and they were already common in the Southwest, Israel, Australia, and South Africa. And just like the avocado toast craze today, in the 1990s, avocado seemed to pop up everywhere – and especially in salads. Avocados, of course, were largely seasonal then due to pre-NAFTA import restrictions, and limited to the summer – just like strawberries. When NAFTA allowed for avocados to be imported year-round from Mexico, consumption exploded. Israel, meanwhile, had been growing avocados since 1924. This salad combines avocado with another 1990s trend – fruit in salad.

Cucumber avocado strawberry salad

Cucumber Avocado Strawberry Salad

Serves 4-8 as a side dish or 1-2 as a main dish

1 large cucumber, diced

1 large avocado, peeled, pitted, and diced

2/3 cup chopped fresh strawberries

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon soy sauce

  1. Mix together the cucumber, avocado, and strawberries.
  2. Mix the lemon juice, olive oil, and soy sauce separately.
  3. Add the dressing to the cucumber mixture. Serve cold or at room temperature. This keeps refrigerated for a few days but is best served within 24 hours of preparation.

A bonus salad: last year, I published a recipe for a Chickpea Arugula Salad with the Jewish Daily Forward. It is very 2010s. Take a look!

Thank you to Dov Fields and Dana Kline for participating in User Acceptance Testing.

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

Arabic descriptions of cumin (right) and dill (left) in a 14th-century translation of Dioscorides Materia Medica, with ink illustrations of the flowers
Arabic descriptions of cumin (right) and dill (left) in a 14th-century translation of Dioscorides Materia Medica. (British Museum, public domain)

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

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

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

Dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter - men and women dressed in gold eating confections and drinking, with a bearded servant and a young boy in a scarf attending
Dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter (England, 14th century). Many of the confections being consumed were probably heavily spiced in real life. (British Library, public domain)
  1. Medieval Europeans did not eat things from outside their area – and hence their food was bland. Food trade is as old as civilization itself: imported spices were found in archaeological digs at Sumer. Medieval people were no different – and there was plenty of movement of people and goods in medieval times that also brought different foods and different methods of preparing food throughout medieval realms. Exotic spices and foods were much-prized, and many crops were introduced by new rulers, such as citrus in Spain by Arab rulers. This did not make a bland cuisine – and besides, people in all civilizations had been seasoning their food with local goods for millennia.
Pihtije, a Serbian aspic
P’tcha? Nope, pihtije – the Serbian p’tcha. (Photo VI via Wikimedia/CC)

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

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

Cooking and feasting from the 14th century Rylands Haggadah, from Catalonia in Spain. The top right panel depicts painting the doorpost with lamb's blood during the Slaughter of the Firstborn in Genesis. (
Cooking and feasting from the 14th century Rylands Haggadah, from Catalonia in Spain. The top right panel depicts painting the doorpost with lamb’s blood during the Slaughter of the Firstborn in Genesis. Medieval Sephardic cuisine was, like its Spanish and Arab neighbors, highly spiced. (University of Manchester, public domain via Arizona Jewish Post).
  1. Medieval people used spices to hide the taste of meat or fish that had gone off. This myth is based on the assumption that because medieval people did not have refrigeration, they were constantly dealing with food that was rotten, so pickling and spicing developed to hide the rotten taste. In fact, the opposite is true in some part: pickling and spicing preserved foods that were liable to go off quickly. Many spices were used with salt to preserve meat, and many foods were pickled and thus able to “keep” for longer. Such is the origins of today’s salted meats, sausages, herrings, lox, and other goodies. In any case, those who could afford spices generally could afford the freshest meat. Here, too, spices came to play other roles: they were seen as correcting “harmful” qualities of a fresh food, thus bringing their “humors” into balance. Spices were as essential to the medieval Galenic medical system as they were to cuisine – and humors were discussed as nutrients are today. Those most likely to deal with rotting food – the poor and peasants – generally did not have spices either.
Escabeche
Escabeche. (Photo Pisco Trail)

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

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

Manuscript illustration of Richard II dining with his dukes in a lavishly decorated dining room.
Richard II dining – and drinking – with his dukes in the Chronique d’Angleterre (Bruges, late 15th century). The boat probably contains salt. (British Library, public domain)
  1. Medieval peasants and medieval kings ate mostly the same food. I’ve heard this myth peddled by a few starry-eyed leftists who believe that everything “pre-capitalist” was good. (This is also a terrible reading of Marx.) But in medieval times, the starkest inequality was in food. Nobility, the wealthy, and those of other privileged classes generally enjoyed a much higher standard of nutrition – and a much more varied and secure diet – than their less fortunate counterparts. For the majority, poor and peasants, food was much more monotonous, much less secure, and of lower quality across the board. Even if famine was rare, diseases related to malnutrition such as pellagra were not. In fact, the lot of the rural poor would not significantly improve in many parts of Europe and the Middle East until the twentieth century – and despite problems, food is far more equally distributed now than in the Middle Ages. In the cultural realm, divisions of food by class were cemented by ideologies that someone naturally “born” into a station should not eat food of other stations. According to this narrative, nobility would be sick if they ate gruel, and a peasant would be sick if they ate white bread. Inequality in food was not only a fact of life, it was taken as the order of the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhubarb for Pesach

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

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

Rhubarb with Rosemary and Garlic (for Pesach)

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

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons sugar

 

1 tablespoon butter or olive oil

1 cup water

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

Great Books: Cuisine and Empire, by Rachel Laudan

Friends and many readers know that I am a long-time fan of Rachel Laudan’s work. Laudan is a culinary historian and polymath extraordinaire currently based in Austin – though formerly of Mexico, Hawaii, and England – who has authored some truly incredible academic work on the formation of creole cuisines in Hawaii. More importantly for this blog, she is also the author of the incredible “A Plea for Culinary Modernism” and a blistering critique of the historical assumptions of the “Slow Food” movement. For your author, devoutly anti-authenticity and skeptical of any simplistic food history that has the nerve to claim that the notoriously inadequate diets of old were better whilst celebrating produce that was as much a product of the new, Laudan’s pieces were godsends. So it was only a matter of time before I tackled her masterwork – the mammoth, fascinating Cuisine and Empire.

This book is fabulous.

Cuisine and Empire book cover
(Image via Amazon)

What is it about? Roughly speaking, Cuisine and Empire discusses the evolution of the “culinary” family tree through the spread of foodways via trade, armies, politics, and religion.  The book thus charts the expansion of culinary trends, traditions, and habits from the beginning of city-states in Mesopotamia to the comparatively luxurious “middling cuisines” of the modern First World. The tale is one of the extraordinary past of the most everyday thing. Laudan divides the book into histories of ancient grain cuisines, sacrificial cuisines in the Axial Age, medieval Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian culinary paradigms, and then the evolution of Western and global cuisines after 1650. Ancient roots of modern food are demonstrated – for example, the continued focus on carbohydrates. At the same time, what is seen as high and luxurious cuisine has changed and stayed the same – but has always been in communication with the “ideas” and “tools” that spread throughout imperial worlds.

Reading Cuisine and Empire is a truly rewarding experience – and educational, for the golden calves of culinary history are swiftly destroyed in the book’s narrative. The romance of premodern, “peasant” cuisines is swiftly dispatched – Laudan directly notes the misery and often lacking nature of “common” food for most of human history. Most cuisine as we know it today is a “middling cuisine” – a hearty fare making use of many “exotic” and formerly high-cuisine ingredients, and a good amount of animal products, but cheaper than in the past due to changes in agriculture and food distribution. Italian farmworkers and poor Chinese laborers, however, certainly did not eat the “authentic” cuisines of their countries, but rather largely a poor and wholly insufficient diet. Food was also labor intensive – grinding grain took hours, preparation was a task wholly invasive of lives. There was no romance in the duty of cooking for most – and to say so is deeply naïve and misguided, not to mention romantic.

Slices of Mohnkuchen, showing the thick poppy seed layer.
Our ancestors certainly did not eat things as luxurious as Mohnkuchen very often.

Speaking of romanticized authenticity, Laudan also shows how our cuisines date to a time that predates the nation-state system. Foodways and ingredients, recipes and flavors, were spread through the various centers and routes of power – and most certainly do not stick with the history of an unbroken national tradition. Thus the critique in Cuisine and Empire of the doyennes of the ethnic food world – including my beloved Claudia Roden – as focusing on an ahistorical amalgam of élite recipes as “representative” is well and truly backed up by the history she demonstrates. Finally, Laudan shows that our food of today is in many ways quite disconnected from that of the past. Who knew that hemp seed was a major part of the ancient Chinese diet? (Yours truly, who has a severe allergy to hemp, is grateful that rice began to predominate in the first millennium CE.) Or the variety of foods available on the streets of ancient Rome? From the rituals of human sacrifice to the ways in which food was conceived of as digested, fermented, and “cooked or putrefied in the stomach,” Laudan shows that our modern understanding of food is quite modern indeed.

The book is, of course, imperfect. In terms of critique, I have two main comments. Firstly, this is no beach read – and though I myself enjoy dense, academic books, the tenor and tone could be quite intimidating for some lay readers. The tone can also be occasionally repetitive, but the writing is strong enough that those moments are still informative. The other one is that many of the trends Laudan mentions are not mapped out in the book to sub-Saharan Africa to the same degree of detail as other regions – even though food historical studies would support Laudan’s conclusions. This problem is important for two reasons: one, because the role African foods have played in our cuisines is still under-cited, and two, because quality food scholarship on Africa is still largely undeveloped in the West, and Laudan’s book could have made more of a contribution there. That said, Cuisine and Empire does cover sub-Saharan Africa to some extent, which is very welcome. Overall, however, this book is a masterpiece.

Herring fridge
My beloved pickled herring – itself spread through the Hanseatic League and Russian, Danish, and Dutch imperial rule. (Photo mine, May 2015)

Cuisine and Empire is a book well worth your time, and vastly informative. And to those of us interested in Jewish cuisines, Cuisine and Empire offers some important reminders – and insights. To begin, it is a reminder of a truth often repeated on this blog: Jewish cuisine is not unique in and of itself and has been influenced and usually based on wider culinary trends – here, “imperial cuisines.” What makes food Jewish is the significance attached to it and nothing more.

In addition, Cuisine and Empire offers us a vocabulary and history to challenge the too-romanticized history of Jewish food. It was most certainly not the case that all our ancestors ate brisket and p’tcha – it is more likely that only the wealthier ate well and the poorer among us subsisted on some bread and maybe something else for most of the week. (This reality is also well chronicled by Hasia Diner.)  Food is always political and tied to class, and the romanticized history is as much a “French terroir strategy” of our own in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Besides, much of our demarcation of Jewish cuisine – and this blog is not exempt from this critique! – is tied to the same nationalist storytelling Laudan critiques. Finally, it is so very important to remember how much food systems have changed in the past century – and doubtlessly much of it for the better. Thus our creations in a “middling cuisine” are not only new, but reliant on different ingredients than in the past and generally in a much better-supplied and –nourished atmosphere. The past was not pretty, but rather one of even more inequality than today. And that is one of Cuisine and Empire’s biggest lessons.

Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, by Rachel Laudan. University of California Press, 2015.