Women of Valor: Black Women, Domestic Labor, and the Jewish Kitchen

Metro North train
The Metro-North. (Photo public domain)

One of the most fascinating places in the New York area is the 5:04pm train from Hartsdale, in the posh suburbs of Westchester County, to Grand Central Terminal in New York City. On the train, you will see many black women boarding, most of whom are returning to the Bronx from their day’s labors as domestic workers in Scarsdale, Bronxville, Greenburgh, and Eastchester. The conversations meander from politics in the countries of the Caribbean – many of the women hail from Trinidad and Jamaica – to celebrities to the toils and tribulations of their job. Oftentimes, the topic is cooking: what they had to cook for the children, for the parents, for a party, or for a Shabbat dinner. You may even hear mentions of “matzah ball soup” or “kugel.” Many of these dishes are Ashkenazi Jewish – for many of the employers are Jewish.

Black women have worked as domestic labor in some Jewish kitchens for two centuries. In the post-war suburbs of America and South Africa, where many Jews who were white moved after World War II, wealthier families were able to hire workers, mainly black women, for domestic tasks. In the South, Ashkenazi Jews assimilated into Southern whiteness and also employed black servants – and before the Civil War, some owned slaves. A similar process occurred with Ashkenazi Jews in South Africa, and with white Sephardic Jews in the Dutch Caribbean. Black domestic workers and slaves before that – and other household staff who were people of color – were overwhelmingly not Jewish (with some rare exceptions). For the sake of this piece being focused, I will be focusing on the experiences of white Ashkenazi Jews and non-Jewish black workers – given that the experiences of white Sephardim and Ashkenazim of color have whole different dynamics. In any case, this history of interaction is strong and complex enough – from day domestic workers in Haredi Brooklyn to housekeepers in Los Angeles – that a thorough investigation could produce far more written work than this simple article.

Unfortunately this history has been used as fodder by anti-Semites. The cases of abuse – too common for domestic workers generally – in which Jews have done wrong are blown up, and false narratives about Jews have been cover for very anti-Semitic things. This, however, should not be used as an excuse to not examine how domestic workers live and act in Jewish spaces, nor how some Jews have sometimes had access to whiteness. And, in the latter case, we also must note how employing domestic labor was part of Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews accessing whiteness. We have to be able to confront anti-Semitism as a real thing, and acknowledge and work with the fact that some Jews have white privilege and class privilege while still being oppressed as Jews, and other groups (women, queer people, disabled people, and others), without losing our minds. This is not only to write Jewish history by the custom of our ancestors, but to also think of how power dynamics shape our everyday lives.

And so we turn to the kitchen. Food is fundamentally at the center of power, in the Jewish world and elsewhere. Likewise, domestic labor is closely connected to and often comprises food preparation. What happens when these intersect in the Jewish kitchen? The result is that domestic workers have had varying degrees of influence and interaction with Jewish cooking. When combined with racial dynamics between white Ashkenazi Jews and black employees, it then seems that in the course of Jewish access to whiteness, black domestic workers come to play a role in the Jewish kitchen.

Cornbread in a pan
Cornbread. (Photo public domain)

Anecdotally, at least, this role is well confirmed: it is by the hands of domestic workers, often women of color, that many Jewish foods are placed on the tables of the white and wealthier members of the community. I knew this growing up in a well-off suburb in the New York area: many of my classmates at school had families who employed housekeepers that often made traditional Ashkenazi dishes – particularly the labor-intensive ones – for Shabbat dinners and festivals. The families were almost always White or read as such, with a few East Asian spouses.  The housekeepers were almost always black, and generally from the various Anglophone islands of the Caribbean. Hence holishkes, stuffed cabbage, brisket, or matzoh balls in these wealthy suburbs, and in well-off Jewish households across the country, are made by the hands of black, non-Jewish women. And, of course, in South Africa I had met many black women who cooked Jewish food for their employers – especially as it is far more common for well-off families to have domestic workers there. The Jewish community in South Africa tends to be wealthy and is almost completely White – and part of their assimilation and access to white privilege was employing domestic workers. Both my parents, and many other South African Jews who grew up in the apartheid era, ate Ashkenazi foods cooked by black women, and even today this pattern is quite common.

When I thought of this piece, I asked around to friends from other parts of North America – and from South Africa – for their experience in this matter. The stories came in. One friend told me on Twitter that he grew up convinced that stuffed cabbage was a Southern tradition, because his grandmother’s black housekeeper made it when he was a child, and apparently well at that. Another reader, daughter of a working-class Haitian immigrant to Miami, told me about her mother’s love for chopped herring, found while working as a home aide for an elderly German Jewish man. The good folks of the Writing the Kitchen group on Facebook directed me to literary references and their own memories of black domestic workers cooking in Ashkenazi kitchen – including literary references. South African and American friends sent me documents from Orthodox rabbinical authorities explaining what employers must tell their domestic workers – assumed to be not Jewish! – about a kosher kitchen. (This American one from the Orthodox Union is especially cringe-worthy.) Friends and colleagues from Texas and Southern California, meanwhile, pointed out that many of the domestic workers laboring there were indigenous Mexicans from the state of Michoácan – and they carry their own experience and interactions. So clearly the idea that black women and other women of color are cooking Jewish food for white, wealthy employers is something that is known in the Jewish community.

imageedit_4_9818293116
A black domestic worker laboring in a white household in the 1950s. Photo via Shirley Thomas.

Yet this contribution – if limited to the upper echelons – is under-documented. Yet it does show up in histories of the Jewish South and the Jewish Caribbean. Some historians have recalled from their own childhoods the black cooks and nannies who often made Jewish foods that their white Jewish employers cherished but could not cook – for example, Robin Amer’s recollection of Dee Dee Katz in her family’s kitchen. Others noted that many black domestic workers took home Jewish dishes to their own families – or, more frequently, introduced white Jewish families to Southern dishes. Hence Michael Twitty has noted the presence of herring and grits or matzoh-meal-coated fried chicken in the Jewish canon of the South – in no small part from the domestic workers that many white Jewish families employed. In South Africa, employing black domestic workers was a sign of status in the white middle class, and many Jewish families did so. There too, many memoirs and historians note the culinary role of this labor. But when it comes to writing Jewish culinary history, or Jewish history at all, this aspect disappears alongside the less savory aspects of a communal rush to whiteness among Ashkenazim.

Cooking was not and is not glamorous work. It is all too easy as a food blogger – and I mark myself guilty as charged here as well – to forget that for most of history making food was a backbreaking, never-ending task. In many cases, it still is. To employ someone to do this task for you was not only a marker of being able to afford such a service, but a strong marker of power: that you were able to access enough privilege to have someone else do the labor of cooking for you. This is a very material consequence of Ashkenazi Jews becoming white: even if they were “liberal,” to have a black domestic worker making Jewish food was itself deeply embedded in the politics of power. (There is no easy way out of these dynamics, as the French theorist Michel Foucault noted, and certainly not in food, because food is a product of labor.) Even in the post-war era, with machines and shipping to reduce the labor of cooking – never forget that “Slow Food” is a deeply forgetful movement – the long hours and difficult work of cooking many traditional Jewish dishes has often in wealthier circles still fallen to black domestic workers. In the United States and South Africa alike, this fact is reflective of a power dynamic that wealthy Ashkenazi Jews have just enough whiteness to perform ethnic consumption while avoiding some of the labor behind it. (Of course this leaves out the less wealthy Jews, the majority, who did not employ domestic help.) Given that Jewish food is often used as a marker of authenticity, or as a point of continuity, it should thus be said that the labor of these black women – often unacknowledged – was responsible for forming the next generation of Jewish culture.

Domestic workers in South Africa at the launch of the African Domestic Worker's Network
Domestic workers in South Africa at the launch of the African Domestic Worker’s Network (Photo from International Domestic Workers’ Federation)

And here we have a lesson about the dignity of labor and the sometime whiteness of Jews. Even as Ashkenazi Jews in the United States and South Africa faced anti-Semitism, they were also able to – if they could afford it – benefit from whiteness and offload the actual labor to domestic workers who were often black. Then the benefits of authenticity in a remnant culture increasingly accepted as “European” were frequently accessible without the hard work – as well as the collective memory of dishes that were often only eaten on the most festive of occasions in Europe. Those less wealthy could also benefit from occasional whiteness, but often simply did not make labor-intensive foods often – it was not that they did not care for authenticity, but that the labor and ingredients to make foods like lebkuchen, ptcha, gedempte fleish, and kreplach simply cost too much to be anything more than an occasional treat. In many ways then the continuation of Jewish cuisine – always limited by class – was possible partly due to the whiteness of its progenitors, and the labor of the black women they employed.

Some black domestic workers probably took Jewish foods they cooked for their employers home to their families – given that this occurred more generally with other white employers, it is a safe assumption. (If anyone can find documentation of this, let me know!) And in turn, many Jewish employers in the United States were introduced to the food of the black South from their employees. Cornbread and collard greens became staples across the Ashkenazi South, and many Jewish families incorporated grits into their daily routine. In South Africa, mielie pap and stampmielies became the childhood favorites of many a South African Jew who grew up in the 1950s – despite strong societal condemnations by whites of eating the food of black South Africans. And then, today, there is another trend which I see: many young Jews who grew up in the New York or Boston areas were babysat by Haitian, Trinidadian, and Jamaican immigrants – and resultantly have a strong domestic memory of and preference for West Indian and Caribbean food. When Ross Urken wrote in Tablet magazine about his Jamaican nanny, it sparked a conversation across social media that lay evidence for how the babysitters and housekeepers of Westchester County had an influence strong, yet unacknowledged, marked by a love for rice and beans and fry plantains.

Three black women standing on a road in a suburban setting
Joel Sternfeld, Domestic Workers Waiting for the Bus, Atlanta, Georgia, 1983. Exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. Sternfeld is a Jewish artist.

Of course we should not idealize the domestic labor of black women in white Jewish kitchens, or for any white employer. It was exhausting, drudging, and usually under-appreciated work. Even today, domestic labor and the women of color behind it still are overworked and underpaidin Jewish homes as well. That said – and with these facts in mind – it is also impossible to deny the role black women and other women of color have played in the evolution of Jewish cuisine over the twentieth century. From the cornbread of Southern Jewish Shabbat dinners to the lavish meals of the Upper East Side Jewish world, the hands of these women of valor have played a key – if too often unwritten and unacknowledged role – in making the Jewish cuisine we know and eat today.

Jewish cuisine belongs to Jews, but Jewish cuisine is as much a product of the non-Jews that have worked with or for Jews over the centuries, that have lived with us and loved us (or hated us!), that have learned from us and from whom we have learned. This split belonging is an inconvenient truth in an age when myths of nationalism and popular propriety abound in cuisines Jewish and not, but it would be a dishonor to the hands of laboring domestic workers to disregard this difficult fact: that the traditions of the Ashkenazi Jewish kitchen been maintained, expanded, and transmitted by the hands of the hardworking Caribbean women on the 5:04 train to Grand Central, stopping at Fordham.


Firstly, I would like to challenge my readers – and myself – to spend the time before Passover, a holiday of liberation, thinking about the intersection of labor paid and unpaid and underpaid and the maintenance and creation of Jewish cuisine. Who benefits? Who determines the cuisine? And how do power relations map out in the kitchen? It is patently obvious that food is political, and that the kitchen is at the same time a gilded cage and an artistic studio equipped with chains. The labor is often unrelenting, but at the same time food and its preparation can be a linchpin of power – or a reminder of oppression and domination. How do we see this in the social contexts in which Jews live and work?

To that end, here is some suggested reading on domestic labor in the Jewish culinary context, and some background on the black hands that shaped American cooking:

-“Dee Dee’s Kitchen” discusses the contributions of one black servant in a Jewish home in Natchez, Mississippi, and her mastery of Jewish cooking for a family that could not exactly cook for itself.

-Marcie Cohen Ferris’ “Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South” is not only an invaluable resource on Southern Jewish Cooking, but one of the best chronicles to date of black domestic workers’ contributions to the Jewish table. It also is one of the most honest and least fantasy-ridden depictions of the ways in which white Jews adopted Southern racial codes I have found.

-Toni Tipton-Martin’s “The Jemima Code” is not only an incredible compendium of African-American cookbooks, but also a keen analysis on the role black cooks and especially black women have played on American cuisine.

-Francis Lam’s “Edna Lewis and the Black Roots of American Cooking” is an unforgettable masterpiece on Edna Lewis, chronicler of Black America’s building of the foundations of American cooking.

-Finally – and I am so excited for this – Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene, a historical cookbook of African-American cuisine. Twitty is one of the most prominent Jewish chefs out there today, and his blog Afroculinaria is a real treat.

Because domestic workers are often the most abused and under-defended workers in the United States and South Africa – and the base of a working class that is female and generally not white – I also urge you to donate to organizations fighting for their rights:

The National Domestic Workers’ Alliance

Domestic Workers’ Rights Group – New York Legal Assistance Group

Domestic Workers United

Bend the Arc’s campaign for domestic workers

Division Avenue, a film by Michal Birnbaum about Latina domestic workers in Hasidic homes in Brooklyn

-Learn about domestic workers’ rights in New York State

Great Books: Out of the East

We have a common image of Western European food as bland and boring. Not spiced or subtly spiced in the hopes of bringing out a “natural” flavor or one that does not cause “excitement,” Western food is seen as nearly flavorless except in the hands of the most seasoned cooks. Many abhor it, while white nationalists and racists claim it as a heritage rather than the supposedly malodorous cuisine of “Other” groups. Even in the Jewish realm, traditional Ashkenazi food is narrated as “bland” (a patent myth). And in all this, the food of the medieval ancestors – idealized by the right, misunderstood by the left – is assumed to be much the same, save for the potato and corn from the Americas. Bland, and certainly not spicy.

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)

But what if I was to tell you that…this was not the case? That the high cuisine of Medieval Europe more closely resembled the fragrances of Middle Eastern and Indian traditions today? That ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and pepper permeated the tables of the wealthy? That the idealized bland cuisine of Europe would have been looked down upon by the who’s who of Medieval Europe?

For that is indeed the case.

Paul Freedman’s Out of the East: Spices in the Medieval Imagination is a revelation. The book is a holistic examination of the way that Medieval Europe was shaped and changed by the spice trade, which through circuitous means brought pepper, nutmeg, cloves, galangal and other spices from India, Indonesia, and West Africa to the (generally wealthier) tables of Europe. In Europe, a cuisine emerged of deeply spiced dishes – often referring similar ones in Muslim countries – that would resemble more closely the Indian or North African cuisine of today than any Western European forebears (save, perhaps, that of Spain). Spices touched on morality – for Protestant thinkers protested the “moral decay” spices induced – and on status – for one could show wealth with many judiciously used spices. And so too were the sweet and spicy aromas and tastes of seasonings associated with the divine – it was said that the corpses of saints smelled of cloves, as did the Garden of Eden. Indeed spices ruled the imagination – as they did politics.

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)

Traced too are the culinary roots of modern political systems. Globalization in many ways is rooted in the spice trade that stretched to what was then the far corners of the earth, bringing cloves from Eastern Indonesia all the way to Portugal. Colonialism – and the European encounter with the New World – took off on a search for spices, and it was control over the spice trade that brought the Dutch to begin four centuries of varied power in Indonesia, culminating in colonial rule. Capitalism, in many ways, also began with the trade in spices. Though the book is about flavors of then, Freedman deftly hints at the continued consequences of the medieval hunt for certain tastes today.

Over the course of the book’s ten chapters, Freedman makes short shrift of many common myths about food and globalization. Many have always sought food from afar and to escape what Rachel Laudan poetically termed “the tyranny of the local.” To claim that today’s so-called “authentic” European cuisine has a form untouched by trade is to trade in mythmaking. Spices are proof that Europe’s food has referred to others and depended on others since ancient times, as Freedman clearly shows. In addition, European food has not always been “bland” or dependent on herbs for flavor. Once upon a time, the high cuisine of France and England was also spicy and pungent and peppery – and bland was certainly not a flavor pursued before the abnegations of the Protestant Reformation. And then there is this matter of medieval European cuisine: it was not always the same, and it was never solely rooted in Europe. What we consider modern French or European cuisine only arose in the seventeenth century, and the knights and dames of the High Middle Ages would probably feel more at home with Moroccan or Palestinian food than what white nationalists or anti-globalists seem to call their heritage today.

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 De Materia Medica. Cumin and dill seeds were popular spices in many medieval communities. (British Museum, public domain)

In a time when white supremacists seek an idealized and fake medieval “authenticity” to justify their disgusting aims, Out of the East is a reminder of a cosmopolitan medieval world. Not to say that racism didn’t exist – it certainly did, as did strange myths about the people of the lands from which spices came. Rather, it was that the knights and nobles of Europe in the Middle Ages looked far afield for inspiration, for thought, and to furnish their tables. It was not home cooking that was seen as worthy of celebration, but rather one that spoke of networks reaching across the Earth. Meanwhile, those of lower rank in the medieval hierarchy sought to imitate the elite with similar spicing – such that pepper, a plant grown in India, became common. Muslim Arabs may have been a theological opponent, but in every way the culture was dependent on them – much as we in the United States eat indigenous foods like corn and rely on immigrant labor today. Some things never change, and some things always go against nationalist histories.

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 Ryland 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).

What implications does this history have for discussing Jewish cuisine? Firstly, we may need to reconsider what medieval Ashkenazim considered “typical” of high Jewish cuisine. This step goes beyond remembering that potatoes only arrived in Eastern Europe in the late 18th century – rather, it indicates that what “good eating” looked like, even for the poor, was vastly different from today. The black pepper of Lithuanian Jewish cooking and the tang of many Hungarian dishes is a remnant of what once may have been a highly festive cuisine – and, if Gil Marks’ z”l research is any indication, certainly was. Secondly, we also can better understand now as well the ways in which Sephardic cuisine differs from that of Spain – in that many of the spices were kept in exile even as Spain moved on to different flavorings in the modern era. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it is a reminder that Jewish cuisine went under exactly the same influences as other cuisines – and is as much a product of trade and interchange as it is of preserved tradition.

Out of the East: Spices in the Medieval Imagination, by Paul Freedman. Yale, 2008

A shout-out of thanks to Estara Arrant, Hadas Binyamini, Avital Morris, and Douglas Graebner, without whose wisdom I would never have learned to navigate reams of images of medieval manuscripts.

Please Shut Up About Authenticity

I hate authenticity, and I especially hate it when people ask me about it. Sometimes it is in the form of a compliment – my blog is “so authentic” or has so many “authentic” recipes! Others critique me for things like having a recipe for quince jam but not one for brisket. The blog is not “authentic” enough – a coded way too often of saying “Ashkenazi” enough. And some just ask for my most “authentic” recipe. This all irritates me, because authenticity is just such a boring performance, and a race for the lowest common denominator. It is also deeply problematic and tied with the same dangerous nostalgia, even if more distantly, that got Trump elected. (Indeed, this post’s timing is not accidental.) I write this blog for good food and good history, not to make my Jewishness a product that can be certified as the most Jewish. And besides, one simple fact is at the heart of why authenticity sets my teeth on edge:

Authenticity does not make food Jewish. Please shut up about authenticity.

Challah with black sesame seeds, between my etrog and a pumpkin
Challah: deeply Jewish, but another Eastern European egg bread. (Photo mine, October 2016.)

You speak of “authentic” Jewish food. But what makes a food Jewish? A Jewish food is nothing more than a dish or an item or an ingredient that finds itself part of the common memory of a Jewish community, tied to other parts of Jewish culture, and/or referent to the Jewish faith. It is not essentially Jewish, and it is not Jewish to the core. This could be a celebratory dish, or an ordinary dish, kosher or trefah, but it is Jewish. This definition is admittedly an uncomfortable one – I myself cannot wrap my head around any Jewish dish with bacon – but it is the closest thing to Jewish food we’ll get. Foods become Jewish – just think of Wiener Schnitzel, the German middle-class cutlet turned into Israeli street food. Foods are shared – and hence I tire of the hummus wars that are really the province of competing nationalisms skirting around the unmistakable bogeymen of foreign influence and the truly unknown. And Jewish foods become universal – which anyone who has found frozen bagels in a rural Midwestern grocery store can attest to. Authenticity is not a defining factor of the Jewishness of food, it is simply something attached to it. Maybe authenticity makes the food sell, maybe authenticity allows you to make fun of your neighbors, when it probably makes you feel better about yourself.

Pihtije
P’tcha? Nope, pihtije – the Serbian p’tcha. (Photo VI via Wikimedia/CC)

But here’s the thing: the only thing eating p’tcha – the Ashkenazi calf’s foot aspic – definitely does to you is it makes you someone who eats p’tcha. The dish is definitely Jewish – and if I may say, delicious – and is tied to memories of communities and is deeply tied to Jewish history. But you’re not more Jewish for eating it, and p’tcha is only authentic insofar as you ignore the Turkic origins of the aspic, or the fact that every Central European, Eastern European, and Balkan culture has some variant of chilled foot jelly: Serbian pihtije, Hungarian kocsonya, Ukrainian kholodets, Turkish soğuk paça. The authenticity is about you and what you want alone.

And, of course, authenticity is about power. Too often a complaint about authenticity is a complaint that we are not adhering to the relentless centering of Jewish narratives around a white, whitewashed Ashkenazi experience. Even in rebellion – be it in Yiddishism or Zionism – the focus on the “authentic” is still, despite other value, a focus on that which can be performed as European. And, despite the ravages of the Israeli state on Yiddish culture or the very real anti-Semitism here, Ashkenazi culture still benefits from power within the Jewish world. So authenticity becomes a gatekeeper – such that an African-American Jew’s perfectly delicious and perfectly Jewish, not to mention perfectly heimish, collard greens for Shabbat are simply “not authentic.” Is it really that something prepared for the honor of Shabbat is not authentic? Or is it not the Jewishness we think should be performed?

Quinces being candied
Quinces being candied for future use in pastries. Someone told me that this was not authentic enough. I guess more quinces for me. (Photo mine, November 2015)

Besides, authenticity makes for terrible Jewish cooking and terrible Jewish history. I have already outlined why this is terrible Jewish history, but I would also wager that our ancestors in Vilnius, Cordoba, and Baghdad would laugh to the point of wheezing at their descendants’ obsession and puritanical concern for the authentic. Jewish cooking has always been enriched by their neighbors’, simply because you only got to eat a lot of that food a few times a year. Until recently, food was drab and grim for most people most of the time, even if wondrous preserved foods could sustain communities for months. Exotic ingredients from afar and new techniques closer to home not only promised honor to the festivals and occasions that meant eating well, but new ways to nourish appetites long since tired of “ordinary food.” Authenticity, to eat only what your group produced, to fit 19th-century boxes of Nation and Folk, was so anachronistic. Mixing and matching within the bounds of kashrut were the mark of eating Jewishly, and eating well.

An Icelandic postage stamp with herring.
An Icelandic postage stamp with herring. Iceland’s independence was partly funded by herring, much of it purchased by Jews. (Photo via Wikipedia)

Jews have always skirted the boxes of nation, ethnicity, and religion: we are an entity that defies easy categorization. Zionism sought to fit us into the box of nation, Bundism into ethnicity, the Ottoman millet system into religion. All have failed to capture, though, the fact that Jews and Jewish culture are defined in an ever-evolving dialogue, and that extends to food as well. To firmly establish Jewish cuisine as a set table is to declare that we are what precisely we are not. We also defy authenticity, and that is something to take pride in. This fact, perhaps, hearkens back to why precisely 19th-century European nationalists were so frightened by Jews: that we made short shrift of every romantic narrative attached to material culture. That includes food – our tables have always been shared.

Text: An Easy And Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Upon Strictly Orthodox Principles
The Book of Jewish Cookery, from 1874, contains many German and British recipes that readers today would find “inauthentic.” I say: fabulous.

A lot of the food I make on this blog, and will continue to make, happens to be “authentic.” But there is nothing authentic about this blog. I insist on a Jewish food history that recognizes where we have borrowed and learned from our neighbors, and recognizes where we have taught them. You cannot begin to narrate the history of Jewish food without the borrowing, and we also gave many things to our Gentile compatriots – recipes for duck in Poland, fennel and coffee in Italy, or slow-cooked stews in Spain. Our concern about authenticity is that we do not look like any of the other false nationalisms with the fake authentic cuisine. And that’s a beautiful thing. We have defied boxes ever since someone tried to make them. I will make hamantaschen and I will fill them with heretical sprinkles, and they will be just as Jewish. Authenticity is about insecurity, but not Jewishness. Authenticity is about whiteness and class, but not Jewishness. Authenticity is about fitting us into a box. I intend on cooking Jewishly, and whiteness and insecurity should not be celebrated parts of Jewish life. And I will not place Jewish food into a box.

We do not need to “make Jewish food great again.” We need to resist Trumpism and keep eating Jewishly, whatever that means to us. To make Jewish food about authenticity is to fall into the same trap that got us into Trump, that got us into a violent state in Israel, that got us into so much acrimony in the Jewish community: it’s about your whiteness or power or insecurity. And not about the fact that authenticity is really a bullshit concept that is too often used to excuse terrible cooking. Cook to eat and if you can, cook to eat well. Food should feed your body and soul, not build walls. And Jewish food can do so much better than build walls – it feeds a group that has defied all the walls yet built around it.

So, please, shut up about authenticity.

Qatayef in syrup
Delicious qatayef bathing in glorious attar. Enjoyed by Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike without authentic kitsch for centuries. (Photo Hasan Isawi via Wikimedia Commons and Hebrew Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

 

Lentil Soup with Leeks and Split Peas

Happy New Year! Let us hope that 2017 is less terrible than 2016.

Lentil soup with a challah roll.
Lentil soup with a challah roll. Ugly but delicious! (Photo mine, December 2016)

Lentil soup is one of the oldest Jewish dishes – it is probably the “pottage” mentioned during the story of Esau and Jacob in Genesis, and we have recipes from ancient Greece that may date back as far as the second millennium BCE. It has remained a “classic” – and one that I was recently asked to make.

Red lentils
Red lentils. (Photo Brian Snelson via Flicker/CC, February 2007)

The question became then, what style do I use? Until recently, lentils were viewed as a food of mourning and famine in the Ashkenazi world, and were thus disdained until the early 20th century – though by 1938, when Fania Lewando’s vegetarian cookbook in Yiddish was published, lentils were common enough in Lithuania to appear in several recipes. A soup recipe was among them. In the Sephardic and Mizrahi realms, however, lentils were an everyday, quotidian, and celebrated food. The lentils used in the Mediterranean – and in Claudia Roden’s Egyptian recipe – were red, but brown and green lentils are more common elsewhere. And, of course, seasoning differed across the Jewish world – as well as the carbohydrate or presence of meat or dairy in the soup. There are as many Jewish lentil soups as Jewish communities.

I recently made my own lentil soup – a throwback to my grandmother’s recipe, but with more vegetables and a slightly sharper flavor than her very meaty and saltier soup. This soup is probably closest to a French lentil soup, but with Palestinian seasoning. I used the green lentils common in France, along with the very Nordic split peas and leeks in the place of onions. Leeks go well with lentils: their sharpness and vegetal flavor balance out the lentil’s starchy meatiness. Meanwhile, the sumac and za’atar add a pleasant bitterness to the soup – and the fenugreek adds an irresistible aroma.

Enjoy!


Lentil Soup with Leeks and Split Peas

Serves 12-25

Vaguely based on the recipe of Esther Katz

2 medium-sized leeks, washed, diced, and washed again

2 tablespoons table salt

2 teaspoons black pepper

2 teaspoons white sugar

1 teaspoon ground smoked paprika

1 teaspoon ground thyme

1 teaspoon sumac

1 teaspoon za’atar

1 teaspoon fenugreek (dried seeds or ground)

½ teaspoon nutmeg

1 tablespoon vinegar (rice wine or apple cider should do)

13oz/370g canned diced tomatoes (about one medium-sized can)

1 large turnip, peeled and diced

6 cloves garlic, minced

3 cups vegetable stock (you can use water)

2 cups dried green or brown lentils

1/3 cup dried split peas

1 cup rice (sweet brown or another short-grain rice is best)

1 tbsp rosemary, chopped if fresh

 

2-3 tbsp olive or vegetable oil

8-10 cups water

Salt and pepper to taste

Grated cheese for garnish (optional)

 

  1. In a large, deep soup pot, sauté the leeks in olive oil until they begin to wilt and soften, about two minutes.
  2. Add the salt, pepper, sugar, paprika, thyme, sumac, za’atar, fenugreek, and nutmeg, and mix in thoroughly. Sauté for another minute or until the leeks are uniformly soft.
  3. Add the vinegar and stir in thoroughly. Then, add the tomatoes and stir in thoroughly. Cook for another minute, stirring throughout.
  4. Add the turnip and garlic and mix in thoroughly with the tomato mixture. Then, add the vegetable stock. Bring to a boil.
  5. Add the lentils, split peas, and 8-10 cups water. Mix in thoroughly, then bring to a boil.
  6. Simmer for 45 minutes, or until the lentils are thoroughly cooked and the water has reduced slightly. The turnips should also be soft to the fork or tooth.
  7. Stir in the rice and the rosemary and another cup of water. Simmer for another 45 minutes, or until the rice is soft. The soup should be quite thick.
  8. Turn off the flame and let it sit for fifteen minutes. Then, serve hot with salt and pepper to taste. You can add a bit of grated cheese. The soup tastes best on the second day.

 

Thank you to Jay Stanton and Julia Clemons for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Reader Contributions – My Hanukkah Presents!

And now, a few mini-posts based on reader contributions! Happy Hanukkah! Though your author does not follow the prevailing American custom of giving gifts on Hanukkah, he does appreciate them.

Next month, we’ll have a guest recipe from Dalya and Adele, friends of the blog in Oxford, for her grandmother’s traditional German-Jewish Potato Salad. As quotidian as it sounds, the salad is absolutely phenomenal: the balance of flavors between sour and earthy, hearty and delicate, and sweet and salty is phenomenal. Like their Gentile neighbors, Jews in Germany took quite a shine to the potato – Kartoffel – in the eighteenth century.

Peeled potatoes
Peeled potatoes about to meet their fate as latkes. Photo mine, November 2015.

The salad merits a full-length post, but to quell your hunger in the meantime, I found through the Jewish food internet the incredible work of Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman and her daughter Sonya Gropman, whose website German Jewish Cuisine is an incredible treasure trove of German Jewish culinary history and Weltanschauung – worldview. Their German Jewish Cookbook is coming out next year and I absolutely cannot wait to buy it. Check the website out here: https://germanjewishcuisine.com/.


A reader from Pittsburgh, Steffi, sent me a fascinating paper about tea and Mormon feminism that she completed in her master’s studies at Chatham University’s Food Studies program. This paper made me realize that many of you have been doing incredible work at school or in your jobs writing about food, thinking about food, and doing the work of studying food. So, if you want some eyes on something you are justly proud of, feel free to send them my way!


The cover of The Yemenite Kitchen: Hawaij, Love, and Folklore, by Professor Avshalom Mizrahi.
The cover of The Yemenite Kitchen: Hawaij, Love, and Folklore, by Professor Avshalom Mizrahi (Photo mine, December 2016, book is from 2002)

Our reader – and my dear friend – Hadassah in the United Kingdom has requested more Yemenite Jewish recipes. Though I have written about Yemenite Jewish foodways in the past – first on samneh and then on hilbeh – I have not made many Yemenite recipes for the blog. Nor do I have much experience with Yemenite Jewish cooking – as rich and multifaceted as it is. In honor of Hanukkah, I turned to the one book I do have on the subject – the Hebrew-language “The Yemenite Kitchen: Hawaij, Love, and Folklore” (Ha-Mitbakh ha-Teimani: Khawaij, Ahavah veFolklor) by Avshalom Mizrahi. The book itself is a fascinating interspersion of discussions of Yemenite Jewish food practice and recipes themselves. In the book I found, for Shavuot and Hanukkah, the appealing zalabye, a sort of Yemenite sfenj:

Zalabye – Fritters – “The Yemenite Sufganiyot”

Originally printed in “The Yemenite Kitchen: Hawaij, Love and Folklore” by Avshalom Mizrahi, translated from the Hebrew by me

Makes ten zalabye

½ kilo/1 lb flour

20 grams yeast

2 cups water

Salt

Mix all of the ingredients together: flour, yeast, salt and water until the rough parts in the dough are gone. Heat oil well in a deep frying pan. Roll out the dough into big balls and add into the hot oil. Fry on both sides until brown. The zalabye will not be uniform in shape.

Serve and eat hot. Those with a sweet tooth can add or dip the fritters in sugar or honey.

These fresh, hot fritters are a treat to eat on winter mornings and on the holiday of the giving of the Torah – Shavu’ot.

And, as a bonus, later in the book Professor Mizrahi discusses zalabye again: (also my translation)

Zalabye – Fritters for Hanukkah and Shavuot

The fritters zalabye, though eaten throughout the year (mainly in the time of winter), were one of two components of Jewish festivals. Yemenite Jews treated themselves to eat these “sufganiyot”[-like fritters] on Hanukkah and to be eaten especially for the morning meal on the holiday of the gift of the Torah, Shavuot.

Baked Fennel and Comfort

A recent memory, to begin:

It was a cold and depressing day in New York – and the venom of Trump’s recent election polluted the entire city in the many hushed voices whispering between the trees’ falling leaves. Dark, threatening, and draining.  I sat with my friend Karen – almost an aunt really – in her Bronx apartment, and we spoke of our fears as we ate pieces of raw fennel. The beautiful flavor of the raw fennel – earthy and vegetal, licorice and dilly, cooling and sweet in its anise strength – was cooling against our tongues. Healing, interesting, and fuel for our work. In the time when our Presidents eats food for its ease and not for what it is, who think the poor must work to even deserve food – the basic, simple tastes can give us the power to continue. Strength and power and comfort – from fennel.

Baked fennel with breadcrumbs and cheese.
Baked fennel with breadcrumbs and cheese. (Photo mine, December 2016)
This community dates to the earliest days of the exile after the destruction of the Second Temple – and perhaps before, since Jewish migrants, merchants, slaves, and soldiers were present in Rome from the 1st century BCE. Jews brought foods familiar to them to and encountered the same foods in Italy – and these foods often became both a comfort and an integral part of memory on festivals. Fennel, which is known as shumar in Modern Hebrew but as gufnan in Mishnaic Hebrew, was among these. Sicilian Jews ate fennel for centuries – and, after being expelled in the Inquisition by the Spanish then-rulers of the island, brought fennel to the rest of Italy. In times of anti-Semitism, poverty, welcome, and having the ear of the Doge of Venice, fennel was part and parcel of Jewish cuisine. Elsewhere, fennel was also consumed by Jews – in Morocco and in Germany – but became a marked part of Italian Jewish cuisine.

Fennel is also a testament to the cosmopolitan worlds past of Jewish Livorno, Venice, and Rome. Historians of Italian cuisine have noted that these communities traded foodstuffs extensively with both the great communities of the north – such as Germany and Poland – and the neighboring Arab world. Foods such as coffee, goose, and fennel were introduced by Jewish traders to the wider population – and certain foods, including fried artichokes and fennel risotto, were known as “Jewish” in Rome and Venice respectively. This history was largely erased by the mid-twentieth century, when the twin pushes of nationalism and fascism sought to “make Italy great again” by creating a monolith of heritage and cuisine. But Italian cuisine – to the chagrin of nationalists – is deeply Jewish and Arab, and Jewish cuisine likewise can sometimes be deeply Italian. In this age of cuddly white nationalism, it is a helpful fact to remember. Once, fennel was the comfort introduced from the not-so-foreign “other.”

Fennel growing
Fennel growing (Michal Waxman, link in Hebrew)

This recipe for fennel is simple and tasty. The licorice taste of the fennel, which is too strong for some, is balanced out by the garlic and cheese, which make this dish quite hearty. If you want a lighter dish or a more vegetal one, remove the cheese and cut the garlic in half. It is also traditional to make this dish with large chunks of fennel that retain the shape of the vegetable – which makes for a wonderful final presentation.

Stacked fennel bulbs
Fennel for sale at a market in Holon, Israel (photo Ariel Palmon via Wikimedia Commons)

Finocchio Gratinato/Baked Fennel

Based on recipes by Claudia Roden and Luca Marchiori

2 large fennel heads, roughly chopped

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon dried basil

4 tablespoons melted butter

1 tsp salt

1 tsp pepper

4 tablespoons breadcrumbs or gluten-free breadcrumbs

4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese.

  1. Preheat your oven to 425F/210C.
  2. Boil the chopped fennel in salted water for five to ten minutes, or until tender but not squishy. Drain and put at the bottom of a baking dish – 20cm x 20cm or 9 inches by 9 inches should do.
  3. Mix the garlic, basil, and butter together, then pour over the fennel. Stir in a little to make sure the fennel is evenly coated.
  4. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs, Parmesan, salt, and pepper over the fennel evenly.
  5. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the cheese is browned and the fennel is noticeably darker.

Thank you to Alex Cooke for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Resist Trump, Feed the Poor

Trump’s presidency means grim news for the millions of people in the United States, thousands of Jews among them, who struggle with food insecurity. Buried in Trump’s horrendous platform are promises that almost certainly mean reductions to funding for essential food provision programs and job losses that will add to the rolls of food-insecure Americans. I interrupt this blog’s normal programming to urge you, if you are able, to donate to these charities that put food on the tables of the Jewish and Gentile hungry. Giving food to those who need it is a Jewish tradition and command that has lasted thousands of years, and we must more than ever live that out now. Olam chesed yibaneh – a world of grace will be built, despite Trump, and it is in our hands to make that happen.

“A small bit of bread may be life to the poor; one who deprives them of it sheds blood.” – Ben Sira 34:21
This list is based on areas of the United States where the largest shares of readers live: the metropolitan areas of New York, Chicago, Washington DC, Boston, Los Angeles, Raleigh-Durham, and Philadelphia. Please email me if there are other food banks and pantries that you want me to add to this list.
You can donate money, time, food, or combinations thereof.

National
Mazon – A Jewish Response to Hunger
New York
The Food Bank For New York City
City Harvest:
Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty:
Masbia (Kosher Soup Kitchen)
Jewish Community Council-Washington Heights and Inwood
Chicago
Greater Chicago Food Depository
Chicago Chesed Fund
The ARK Chicago
Washington DC
Capital Area Food Bank
Miriam’s Kitchen
Boston
Greater Boston Food Bank
Maimonides School runs Gittel’s Kitchen, a kosher soup kitchen:
Los Angeles
Los Angeles Regional Food Bank
SOVA Community Food and Resource Program – Jewish Family Services
Hunger Initiative – Jewish Federation of Los Angeles
Raleigh-Durham
Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina:
Shepherd’s Kitchen
Philadelphia
Philabundance
Coalition Against Hunger

Challah

Challah with black sesame seeds, between my etrog and a pumpkin
Challah with black sesame seeds, between my etrog and a pumpkin. A fall combination. (Photo mine, October 2016.)

It has been almost a year since I started this Jewish food blog, and I am only now making challah. This, I admit, is to the chagrin of many readers: since starting this blog I have been asked, harangued, flirted with, email, telephoned, texted, and Snapchatted (!) for my challah recipe. I deflected for a while: “I don’t often make challah,” I told myself. Then again, nor do I make quince jam that often. Besides, making challah is really fun.

Challah occupies a vaunted place in the American Jewish imagination. It is challah that is the marker of Shabbat, challah that is the marker of holidays, challah that non-Jews ask Jews about, challah that goes in French toast, challah that every Ashkenazi cookbook seems to include. As a bread, it’s pretty delicious, and it’s not the worst symbol of Judaism out there. That said, challah is also a very interesting example of how class and luxury intersect with Jewish practice to create a tradition that evolved quite a bit over the 19th and 20th centuries.

Challah evolved from the tradition of serving special bread on Friday night to commemorate the showbread used in Temple ceremonies in ancient times. The name itself commemorates the Biblical commandment to “separate the challah” as a tithe to the Kohanim, or priestly class. (Today, those that still follow this commandment burn the challah instead.) At some point in the Middle Ages, challah came to refer to braided, wheat-based breads with egg in the Ashkenazi world. These breads have also been called kitke, berkhes, and koylatch at various points. It should be noted here that non-Ashkenazi communities have their own “challahs” and other Shabbat breads. (Note: the Hebrew plural is challot, sometimes Yiddishized as khales, but “challahs” has entered colloquial American usage. I use the latter here.)

Ultimately, challah is not unique. Other Central and Eastern European cuisines have similar braided, egg-based breads, such as the Hungarian kalács and the Lithuanian velykos pyragas. The recipes that we know today probably came from interactions with our neighbors and was certainly not a Jewish invention alone. Challah was historically a bread of luxury: in a region where rye was the predominant grain and wheat was pricy, one did not simply eat challah every day. Moreover, the eggs – another commodity that was not cheap before the 20th century – made challah that much more of a treat. Thus the bread became part of the special nature of Shabbat: a culinary way to set the day aside from the rye-filled workdays of the week. Having challah or any wheat bread more frequently was a sign of prosperity, having “black bread” on the table on Friday night was a sign of poverty.

Challah started out as a celebratory ritual, but has become a culinary force of its own in the United States. In a country and era with plentiful wheat flour and eggs, challah has gone from being a marker of celebrations and good fortune to being a frequent treat. One can buy challah every day in New York – fulfilling the claims of early immigrants, as documented by Michael Wex, that the United States was a country “where one could eat challah every day.” You can find challah French toast, challah bread pudding, challah grilled cheese, and I have even seen deep-fried challah. Those in the 19th century who celebrated having a challah every week would probably be stunned by this abundance. Even then, for most Ashkenazi Jews in the United States, challah is firmly a “Shabbat food.”

Unbaked challah on a tray
Challahs, braided, waiting to be egg-washed and baked. (Photo mine, October 2016.)

The tradition of making challah at home, by hand, has continued strong in this environment of industrialized plenty. Some use family recipes passed down through generations. Others add new ingredients first encountered in the United States – like chocolate chips. Some braid new patterns, others use food coloring to make “rainbow challahs” for gay pride. Making challah, like all Jewish cooking, is still a gendered practice: historically, like other culinary pursuits, it was considered a “women’s practice.” Many still consider it as such.

Many “schools” of challah exist. Some challahs are braided with three strands, others with the far more intricate six strands, and for Rosh HaShanah, braided round challahs are served. Some challahs are large and fluffy – aided by a second rising of the dough. Other challahs are dense and tightly packed – but still sweet and soft. Many people fill their challah with raisins, cinnamon, or even – as one colleague did – fig paste. Density varied historically, but sweetness – like that of gefilte fish – was a Polish trait, encouraged by the 19th-century proliferation of the sugar beet industry there. In all forms, though, challah is delicious.

This recipe is for a denser, smaller challah. The salted egg-wash gives it a pretzel-like twang; indeed, “pretzel challah” is increasingly popular. As for the density, I like challah to be cute and soft, but also able to absorb a good amount of soup, stew, or sauce. After all, I too cannot resist a piece of challah dipped into lentil soup.

Three baked challahs
Baked challahs. Bottom to top: one with black sesame, one with poppy-seed, and one with both black sesame and poppy-seed. (Photo mine, October 2016)

Challah

Based on recipes by Jay Stanton, Dana Katz, Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern in The Gefilte Manifesto, and Claudia Roden in The Book of Jewish Food.

Makes three small-medium loaves

1 packet active dry yeast

1.5 cups (350mL) lukewarm water

1/3 cup (80mL) honey

1 tsp table salt

1/3 cup (80mL) canola oil

3 eggs, beaten

5 1/2-7 cups (23-30oz/660-840g) white bread flour, plus more for kneading

 

Egg wash:

1 egg, beaten

1/5 cup (50mL) cold water

1/2 tsp table salt

 

Sesame seeds or poppy seeds for garnish (optional)

 

  1. In a large mixing bowl, mix the yeast and 1/4 cup of the water. Leave alone for ten minutes. Your yeast should “proof” and start to bubble in the water. (If it does not, you need new yeast.)
  2. Add the honey, salt, oil, eggs, and the rest of the water. Mix well until thoroughly blended. You can use a whisk or wooden spoon for this step.
  3. Now, add the flour, one cup at a time. Mix it in first with the spoon, and then with your hands. Flour your palms to prevent the dough from sticking. You should have a thick, but not too sticky dough, by the end.
  4. Now you should knead the dough on a well-floured surface with your hands, also floured. Knead for ten minutes, or until you have a smooth and elastic dough with the texture of an earlobe (yes, I am serious, as are others). If your dough gets sticky, add a tablespoon of flour to your hands and the dough. If you have never kneaded bread dough before, I recommend this video.
  5. Place the dough ball into a clean bowl, and cover with a towel or cheesecloth. Leave alone at room temperature to rise for one hour or until doubles in size.
  6. Punch the dough down, then knead for a few minutes on a well-floured surface with well floured hands. You should once again have a smooth, elastic dough with the texture of an earlobe. Split the dough into nine equally-sized balls. If you want longer loaves, split into six equally sized balls – this will make two long loves.
  7. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Prepare a large tray – cover the bottom in either tin foil or, preferably, parchment paper.
  8. Now it is time to braid the challah. Roll three of the balls into ropes about 8-9 inches (20-23cm) long (or longer for bigger loaves) and lay out side by side on your baking tray. Lay the right rope over the middle rope close to the top, so that the right strand becomes the new middle strand. Then, lay the left strand over the new middle strand so that the left strand becomes the new middle strand. Repeat, alternating, until you can’t loop the ropes anymore without extending them. Then, pinch the ends together. (Here is a nice video from Once a Month Meals.)
  9. Repeat for the other two loves as you did for the first one. Give a few inches/centimeters space between the loaves, since they will expand while baking.
  10. Mix your ingredients for the egg wash.
  11. Brush the egg wash on your loaves so that the surface is “glistening” but not dripping. You can do this with a pastry brush, cheesecloth, or a paper towel. At this point, you may choose to sprinkle sesame or poppy seeds on top.
  12. Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until the top is golden brown, the intersection between the ropes is no longer doughy, and the challah sounds hollow if hit on the bottom with a spoon or the backside of a fork.

Thank you to the 17 of you who participated in User Acceptance Testing for this challah.

“The Sweat Smells”: Hilbeh and the Politics of Smelly Food

“Doesn’t fenugreek make your sweat smell?” This was the question I received from an incredulous friend as I ate my lunch one workday in Lower Manhattan: this time, a sandwich in which I had included hilbeh, the Yemenite fenugreek paste. Indeed, many ask if the pungent spice will cause their sweat to be “nasty” or if the smell might be repulsive to potential partners. Others, perhaps, see a good sign in a partner that smells like fenugreek. I’ll leave the merits of a fenugreek- or not-fenugreek-scented paramour aside to come back to the fact that everyone agrees – and biology confirms – that fenugreek is a food that “smells,” and the hilbeh I am about to introduce has a whole aspect to it beyond its garlicky, pungent taste and delightfully gelatinous texture.

Hilbeh on a spoon
Homemade hilbeh. (Photo mine, August 2016)

Before I continue, I should mention that hilbeh is one of the more fascinating dishes in the Jewish culinary canon. It is a jelly made from the ground and soaked seeds of the fenugreek plant, which has been cultivated in the Middle East since at least six thousand years ago. Fenugreek is mentioned as a typical food of the Galilee during the Second Temple period in Josephus and as common in the Mishnah, in which the plant is called tiltan. In Yemen, fenugreek, which is called hilbeh in the local variety of Arabic, became a basic part of everyday food: the dip hilbeh was and is eaten daily, and by some Yemenite Jews, at festivals as well. Even today, hilbeh is considered the mark of Yemeni identity among Jews and non-Jews alike. In the world of Jewish cooking, though, fenugreek is not a Yemenite spice alone. Fenugreek is common as a seasoning in North African, Iranian, and Turkish Jewish cooking, and also makes an appearance in the Jewish cuisines of South India. On Rosh HaShanah, many Sephardi Jews eat fenugreek as a matter of ritual – for one of the words for fenugreek in Hebrew and Aramaic, rubya, resembles the word that means “to increase in merit.”

Brown fenugreek seeds in a container
Fenugreek seeds before soaking – notice their rusty color! (Photo mine, August 2016)

It is a biological fact that fenugreek alters the smell of one’s sweat. Raw fenugreek contains sotolone – a chemical that causes your sweat to smell, faintly, of maple syrup once you consume it. Factories that process fenugreek can also emit this smell – as most famously discovered here in New York in 2009. (This smell is also why fenugreek shows up in imitation maple syrup.) The plant itself also has a particularly pungent odor. So, though delicious, fenugreek also carries the risk of changing one’s “body odor” – and many think for the worse.

Fenugreek is hardly alone in the realm of “smelly Jewish food” – every community has its foods, from odorous herrings and pickles in the Yiddish realm to the peppery sauces of Bukharan cuisine – that is, to say, more scented than Wonder Bread. (Your author politely points out, though, that the digestive aftereffects of Wonder Bread can be very malodorous indeed.) Yet fenugreek has also been one spice that is noted as pungent, in Israel and elsewhere in the Jewish community. Of course part of this is simply because fenugreek is pungent. But the lasting power is inseparable from the fact that fenugreek is strongly associated with the Yemenite community – whose food, like other non-Ashkenazi foods, was considered smelly and unsanitary for a long time, particularly in Israel. Thus I shall delve into a bit of history:

In 1950s Israel, the odors and scents of non-European cooking were heavily policed and societally scrutinized – even as those of Ashkenazi cooking were often given a “pass.” One could begin with the “reeducation” that governmental and quasi-governmental organizations like WIZO sponsored and sought to spread in the communities of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants to the new Jewish state – which largely meant pushing immigrants towards a Central or Eastern European norm of cooking. The State also subsidized European foodstuffs  – like European bread – but not, for example, the Middle Eastern pita. Meanwhile, commentary on the “unsanitary” and “unhealthful” nature of non-European cuisine was common in the media, in education, in state policy, and from more established Ashkenazi residents of the state. This, of course, all happened in a context where state policy simultaneously selectively appropriated and reworked Arab Palestinian cuisine to create a separate “natural Israeli” culinary norm.” In all of this, scent was a major factor in the day-to-day policing of food. Arab Jewish food was “smelly,” “odorous,” “caused a stink.” The smells were associated with uncleanliness, a “lack of civilization,” and ultimately – race. Fenugreek was simply one part of this history: another Middle Eastern food whose smell was not suited for the “modern” Israeli table. Even as other Arab and Middle Eastern foods became popular among all groups in Israel later on, the idea of “smelliness” or “uncleanliness” remained strong – particularly for Yemenite and Ethiopian Jewish food. A similar tendency exists in the United States, where an effective class ceiling exists for many so-called “ethnic cuisines” – fine for cheap eats, but not for an expensive dinner. Smell is a key part of that trend.

"Atzel Nekhama" - in comfort - and the handwritten menu of a Yemenite eatery in Tel Aviv.
“Atzel Nekhama” – in comfort – and the handwritten menu of a Yemenite eatery in Tel Aviv. Hilbeh is listed as an item available. Photo mine, April 2016.

Smell is ultimately biological. But whose smell matters and whose foods’ smell matters is, like sweetness, inextricable from the racialized social and cultural context that embeds the people with whom a food is associated. Thus the odor of fenugreek, delicious as it is, is more weighted and in some ways more maligned than what many consider the equally malicious odors of brie cheese, fish and chips, mayonnaise, hamburgers, or something with the French mushroom paste duxelles. (Or, as one reader pointed out, herring in the Jewish context – may Hashem bless the non-Ashkenazim whose nasal functions have been temporarily destroyed by our pickled fish.) The fact that fenugreek is consumed by groups not at the top of the sociocultural hierarchy in Israel or the United States, and the fact that the consumption of such spices is highly ethnicized and racialized as “other,” means that the scent associated with fenugreek and its consumption thus becomes a marker of “otherness” and marginalization. And in comparison to the smelly foods of the less-maligned, there is also an element of class: after all, blue cheese is favorably racialized and made elite in a way fenugreek is not. Or, as Pierre Bourdieu might say, fenugreek is not part of an élite habitus. So, the next time you eat and smell fenugreek – or if you do so for the first time, think about how its smell is also a sign of power – or lack thereof.

And enjoy it – for fenugreek is delicious!


Here is a recipe for hilbeh, based on those of an amalgam of Hebrew-language recipes from Yemenite Jews.

Hilbeh (Fenugreek Paste)

Based on the recipes of Hadassa Mishmor, Rahamim Keta, and “Savta Berakha” (links all Hebrew-language)

2 tablespoons fenugreek seeds

2 cups hot water

1 large clove garlic

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp white vinegar

1 red chili pepper, chopped, or 1 tsp strong chili powder

½ tsp coriander seeds

  1. Soak the fenugreek seeds in hot water, in a covered dish, for up to 24 hours. I sometimes stick the seeds into the fridge. The water will cool but needs to start off hot to bring out the fenugreek’s gelatinous quality.
  2. Drain the seeds and place into a food processor with the remaining ingredients. Blend until you have a frothy, unified mixture. If you’re using a mortar and pestle, grind the fenugreek and garlic first together, then add in the other ingredients. (In terms of time, I recommend the food processor.)
  3. Decant into a container and allow to sit for twenty minutes before serving, on bread. You can eat the hilbeh with samneh and/or z’houg. Hilbeh keeps, refrigerated, for about a week. I find that hilbeh is the perfect accompaniment to a fried egg.

Thank you to Tzeyeen Liew, Amram Altzman, Sumaya Bouadi, Mikaela Brown, Aaron David Lerner, and Yün-ke Chin-Stern for help with a few bits of this piece.

The Cosmopolitan Herring (The Barrel Always Smells of Herring II)

Read the first part of the herring series here, and the Chopped Herring (Forshmak) recipe here.

I’m wary of particularism, and particularly when it’s seasoning my food – ironic, perhaps, for an ethnic food blogger. And yet in Jewish cuisine we are plagued with the particular: this is Jewish, that is “authentic,” yet something else is a sign of “assimilation.” Any Google search can return you blog after tweet after article with this hackneyed approach to food. And in all this herring is a token of an idealized past – a lieu de mémoire that takes one back to a time when “Jews ate Jewish food, and that food was herring, and people cared about our heritage.” (I paraphrase here this rendition of history that is unapologetically centered on Ashkenazim.) Herring is “special” and “Jewish,” even if the Lithuanian and Polish jars of pickled herring taste pretty much just the same as the “Jewish” ones.  What is with this search for purity and authenticity in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, made manifest in herring? It cannot just be the ghost of the fear of “assimilation” – as we happily buy into the ideas of “nation” and “heritage” Christian Europe pushes on our own myriad uses of the terms. There’s something – in the sense of Pierre Bourdieu – of trying to prove one’s status as a better Jew by showing that one’s tastes are more correct, more pure. But to do that nebulous task with herring?

Georg Flegel - Stilleben mit Hering und Bartmannskrug, 1600
Georg Flegel – Stilleben mit Hering und Bartmannskrug, 1600. Flegel spent part of his life in the major herring trade town of Utrecht, in the Netherlands.

Herring is proof that Jewish cuisine is anything but pure.

After all, this little fish is the one that “globalized” Northern Europe before “globalization.” Herring had been consumed on the shores of the North Atlantic and Baltic since time immemorial; by the ninth century CE, when records mention herring as an important foodstuff in today’s Norway, the fish was already locally pickled and traded around the Baltic. Around this time herring was a common food for Jewish and Gentile communities in today’s Germany, and was a staple food in Scotland and what is now Lithuania. (Pacific herring was heavily consumed in Japan and native North America, but the pre-modern herring cultures there merit separate discussions.) But at a certain point, more was needed: herring migrate long distances and often quite suddenly, and close-to-shore fishing no longer provided adequate supplies. At the same time, pickling and salting methods had improved such that the fish could now be kept for a long time, for lengthy distances of travel.

Soused herring in the Netherlands.
Soused herring in the Netherlands. (Photo Takeaway via Wikimedia/CC)

Thus herring – known as “silver darlings” in later years for their high value – quickly became a valued trading commodity: fish were brought in from the high seas, pickled, and then sold at massive markets in Europe’s fast-growing medieval hubs. Herring was one of the many commodities that fueled the medieval economies of cities like Bruges, Bergen, Riga, and London. In fact, herring was one of the main items traded within the Hanseatic League after that confederation of merchant guilds and towns was founded in 1358 – and the bounds of the League closely matched Europe’s herring capitals of the day. In later years, the development by Dutch sailors of shipboard fish preservation – and the spread of that technique across Northern Europe – again propelled herring as a commodity in the 17th century. Its quantity and cheapness also allowed the fish – highly profitable for its procurers – to become popular as a staple food across Northern Europe, from Northern France to Russia.  More grimly, British colonists included the fish as part of rations for enslaved Africans – which is partly why herring remains part of local cuisine in Jamaica today. (Though a Briton might have consumed herring at home, the performances of colonial rule and domination – and wealth as a colonist – meant he was less likely to do so abroad, and more likely to eat meat.) Meanwhile, trading networks dedicated to the fish had developed in Europe, which brought herring from ships through port and market towns to tables across the class spectrum in early modern Europe. Much of Europe’s poor – especially Jewish – became particularly dependent on herring, especially in Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Scandinavia, and Scotland. Meanwhile, movements across the continent – including the Ashkenazi Jewish migration from Germany into Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary in the 13th century, later German movements to the east Baltic coast,  and the 17th-century Swedish imperial expansion – also brought new preparations of herring to those areas – and expanded the trade connections around the fish.

An Icelandic postage stamp with herring.
An Icelandic postage stamp with herring. Iceland’s independence was partly funded by herring. (Photo via Wikipedia)

Jews were at the center of these trading networks – we were part and parcel of what made herring happen. Let’s start in Amsterdam – where this very “Ashkenazi” fish was traded by Sephardi Jews from their arrival in the Netherlands in the 16th century. By the 17th century, when Amsterdam was the major center for fish and pretty much everything else, several Sephardic families had become vastly wealthy through trading fish – though, at least in the Netherlands, few of a largely urban Jewish community became fishermen themselves. Many wealthy Ashkenazi families in Germany had themselves become rich from trading herring in Hamburg and Bremen. Further afield and of more modest means, salesmen and peddlers traded and moved barrels across the European continent, to Lithuania and Poland, the heartland of Ashkenazi Jewry (and herring), France, and elsewhere. Some of the first Jewish settlers in cities previously banned to Jews – such as Stockholm and Norrköping in Sweden – were herring merchants, as were some of the first Jews to arrive in England after readmission in the 17th century. As the herring industry and fishery continued apace in the 18th and 19th centuries, so did Jewish involvement – especially after “emancipation” in the early 19th century in many European states. Many of the first Jews to arrive in the Scottish Highlands, Iceland, Norway, and Finland had some connection to herring. But it was hardly Jews alone who were growing in terms of herring.

Siglufjörður harbor
The herring town of Siglufjörður in northern Iceland, which boomed in the early 20th century as a result of the herring trade. (Photo Hansueli Krapf via Wikimedia/CC)

By the early twentieth century, a herring economy stretched from Florø, in Norway, to Kazan, in Russia, to New York, to London, and to Helsinki. Many coastal towns in Northern Europe were dependent upon, and grew rich from, the fishing industry that grew upon their herring-rich waters. Some places, such as Siglufjörður and Neskaupsstaður in Iceland, Rotterdam (link in Dutch), and Great Yarmouth in England saw huge population growth as fishing promised money to a generation of working-class men. Coastal towns – sometimes these fishing centers, but also places like Dieppe (link in French), Stavanger, Gdańsk, and Lunenberg, Nova Scotia not only had industries centered around processing and preserving herring for shipment far afield, but also provided a generation of women employment outside the home and their hometowns – and by extension, a newfound liberation. Networks of traders – many still Jewish – then brought herring from Reykjavík to Copenhagen, Cherbourg to Lyon, Rīga to Siberia, Norway to Jamaica, and Halifax to New York. Herring peddlers  – memorialized in Yiddish literature  – and fishmongers and shopkeepers then sold the fish to an ever-hungrier public.

Jews were involved at all points in this process, but were especially active in the preservation and distribution of the fish – which still played a key part in the diet of the poor Jewry of Eastern Europe. Many families depended on herring beyond nutrition – including Marc Chagall’s, whose father sold herring in Vitebsk. Yet as much as herring was Jewish, herring was also part of a huge economy. Such was the size and importance of herring as a fish that Iceland’s industrialization, urbanization, and independence was largely fueled by the herring and cod fisheries of the country. Even today, much of the country’s infrastructure dates from the days when that infrastructure was needed … for fish. And no doubt some of that herring ended up “Jewish.” Meanwhile a similar, also-Jewish-influenced herring industry grew in Seattle and Alaska on the bones of thousands of years of Salish and Tlingit fishing for the slightly different Pacific herring. Some of that herring certainly also ended up “Jewish,” in San Francisco and New York.

herring refrigerator at a Polish supermarket
The herring refrigerator at a Polish supermarket in Brooklyn – with many herrings identical to the “Jewish” ones of an Ashkenazi synagogue kiddush. (Photo mine, January 2016.)

And much of what we know as “Jewish herring” – and cuisine, for that matter – comes from the contacts we facilitated or were introduced to during these heady centuries. Take herring in cream sauce – a “classic Jewish” preparation for the fish, with sour cream mixed into the pickling. Its origin? Sweden – and not  a moment of Jewish ingenuity. This recipe was possibly introduced to Ashkenazi Jews during the Swedish invasion of Lithuania and Poland – an event that also marked a downturn for tolerance of Jews in Poland. Later Jewish tables were then dependent on a herring industry by and large not dependent on Jewish labor; from that industry, recipes were also taken – for example, herrings with mustard or herrings with juniper berries. Even the very basic ingredients of the herring’s pickling reflected surrounding environments – such as the increasingly sweet herrings of Poland after the sugar-beet industry took off there in the 19th century. And well – though we adjusted, redid, and reworked herring – the very fact we eat the fish has plenty to do with our non-Jewish neighbors. There was no forshmak in the Mishkan.

In turn Jews left, through herring, an indelible mark on the tastes of Europe. In some cases, the tastes were a direct contribution: for example, forshmak is served in Finland and Estonia in local renditions of the Jewish chopped herring that are very much not kosher. Meanwhile, herring is prepared with Jewish recipes by Christian Russians and Ukrainians to this day, and were popular during the Soviet Union. Yet in other cases the mere presence of herring on the menu owes a lot to the Jewish trading networks that brought this cheap, pickled commodity inland – and kept it there. How else would the sea-bound herring have then ended up deep in the landlocked countryside around Minsk? Or the favored garlic of Ashkenazi cuisine in herring dishes across Eastern Europe? The entire industry depended on Jews; even after the ravages of the Holocaust, our tastes still linger across the region. Just as “authentic” Jewish cuisine is impossible without the Swedes, so too “authentic” Lithuanian silke is nothing without the Jews.

Herring on potato pancakes
Herring on potato pancakes in Vilnius. (Photo mine, March 2015)

Herring is a reminder that particularism never quite captures either the cosmopolitan majesty of Jewish history, nor the complexity of the context that inevitably surrounds it. Our tastes are not just shaped by halakha and tradition, authenticity and some “Yiddish” je ne sais quoi: they are inseparable from the Swedish military exploits of the 17th century, the herring factories of Iceland and Scotland, Russian appetites, and the spices brought by Dutch and Portuguese traders through Sephardi warehouses. Without any of these factors Jewish herring is not what it is: an element is missing, but so is the Jewishness. After all, we took in all these influences and combined them for hundreds of years – just as we did other things – taking us far from the idealized purity of yore that never quite existed. And certainly not in our barrels of fish.