Kosher Tostones in the Heights: A Guest Post from Michael Faccini

I’m excited to share another guest post by my dear friend, Michael Faccini, who wrote a lovely interfaith seder piece last spring. This post may be controversial, but I think it is badly needed: a discussion on the intersection of race and kashrut, especially in shared spaces.

“Kashrut is only a barrier if you let it be.” This line sums up many of my thoughts about kashrut – and, during the decade when I kept some form of kashrut, my general attitude. Yet, as Michael notes in this piece, sometimes kashrut is an intentional barrier – one that often intersects with attitudes about race and class, particularly for white Jews. I know many firm kashrut-keepers who don’t let kashrut be a barrier for building community, and who ardently question the way race often intersects with supposedly neutral ways of keeping kosher. Sadly, I know many who do not.

I hope you read and enjoy this piece. Michael has generously provided his kosher recipes for tostones – a classic Dominican side dish and snack – at the end of the post, so please be sure to reach that point too. Michael has requested a shout out to his favorite Dominican spot in Washington Heights, El Valle Seafood. I would like to add Albert’s Mofongo in Inwood, which very helpfully has a lard-free mofongo for those of us who avoid pork (and lard-filled ones for those that do eat pork). It is delicious, and here in Greater Washington I frequently miss it.

“What are you making?” said with a confused and concerned face. That’s how I’ve ended up introducing a lot of fellow Jews to the luscious fried delight that is tostones. I make excellent tostones (technique to follow), but I’m not so sure that a white Jew from rural Montana should be anyone’s introduction to tostones and plantains in general. It feels particularly strange because most of those people have been roommates past and present in Washington Heights. I find myself wondering: how exactly do they live in this largely Dominican neighborhood of NYC and not know what a tostone is? 

It seems like an innocent and easy question, but answering it reflects a lot of the challenging racial dynamics I’ve seen among the Jewish community living in the Heights. Before moving here, I was introduced to the Heights as being a Jewish neighborhood. As home to Yeshiva University, a sizable Orthodox population, and a popular traditional egalitarian shul, there are ways in which that is true. There are long and deep Jewish roots in the Heights and a recent significant population growth of young Jews, particularly students and young families, in the neighborhood. When I first moved to the Heights in the summer of 2019 to attend rabbinical school, that description fit. Living on Bennett*, most of the people I saw walking around the neighborhood were visibly Jewish, wearing kippot, tzitzit, and sheitels or tichels, or people I met through Jewish roommates. 

A couple of weeks after moving in, though, I needed to cross over Broadway to St. Nick for the first time, to buy a shirt from Goodwill for a job interview. That’s when I met a more realistic representation of the Heights, known to some as the Little Dominican Republic. On the St. Nick side, Spanish is used prominently in signs and also heard throughout the neighborhood. There are street vendors of all kinds, many selling fruits and vegetables common in Caribbean cooking and foods like chicharrón and tamales (obviously not Dominican, but delicious). And, most clearly, the majority of the people you see on the street are Latin American (Latine), Dominican particularly. The income is also apparent. It’s no coincidence that Goodwill was located in that part of the neighborhood (it’s since closed), along with storefronts like Boost Mobile, health insurance companies that service Medicaid and free federal plans, and community-owned businesses. Looking for housing later, I learned that those couple of blocks from Bennett to Wadsworth/St. Nick are worth a difference of $200-300+ in rent. 

Green coconuts with the tops peeled off
(Photo MaxPixel/CC)

If the neighborhood is so clearly Dominican, why was I introduced to it as a Jewish neighborhood? To me, part of the answer lies in the history of the Heights. Jewish immigrants, particularly in the aftermath of the Holocaust, were a prominent community in the early 1900s. Because of the historic roots in the neighborhood, there can often be this sense of reclaiming and returning to the neighborhood. “We’re not moving in, we’re moving back.” I understand the temptation, especially for individuals whose families were early members of the Jewish community in the Heights. At the same time, it ignores why Jews left the neighborhood. A lot of the Jewish community moved out during the White Flight of the 1960s/1970s. That’s when the Dominican community moved in in large numbers following the assisination of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, transforming the neighborhood to the largest Dominican community outside of the Dominican Republic. And things were not great when they arrived, only getting worse when the crack epidemic began. Violent crime, particularly through gun violence, was prevalent. The Dominican community came together in the 90s/early 2000s to change the neighborhood and make it what it is today. That’s when we see the boom of young white Jews moving to the Heights and clear gentrification-fueled attempts to rebrand the neighborhood to WaHi after SoHo (thankfully these have failed). 

Those dynamics influence what I see as a core reason for seeing the Heights as a Jewish rather than Dominican neighborhood: segregation. While of course there are Dominicans living west of Broadway and Jews living east, the racial demographics largely fall along geographic lines. Perhaps more notable, though, is the very limited interaction between the two groups, outside of customer service, childcare providers, domestic help, and (Jewish) landlord to (Dominican) tenant. If you live in the Heights and you’re Jewish, almost all, if not all, of your social contacts are also Jewish. It would make sense, then, to see it as primarily a Jewish neighborhood, especially if you live on a street that is largely Jewish.

fried seasoned plantains
Fried sweet plantains (maduros), one of my first posts, from when I myself lived “in the Heights.” (Photo J. Katz, December 2015)

Going back to food, these contribute to some of the answer for why I meet a lot of Jews in a Dominican neighborhood who don’t know what a tostone is, even though that’s the cultural equivalent of not knowing what a tortilla is in a Mexican neighborhood. If you don’t realize and/or care that the neighborhood is Dominican, you’re not going to really be exposed to those foods. It’s often more than lack of exposure. There is a profound lack of curiosity and often a desire to be separate that people justify on religious terms, particularly kashrut. 

I naively underestimated that dynamic when I entered a conversation over a Shabbat meal shortly after moving back to the Heights. I’d shared that I chose to move away for a while because I found the clear segregation (and Jewish apathy toward it) too difficult to deal with, particularly with some personal challenges at the time. Somehow the conversation moved to suggestions about how that could be approached. I suggested convening religious leadership from both communities, as the Catholic church and local synagogues have a lot of sway in their respective communities. Immediately I was met with this litany of reasons why the synagogue leaders wouldn’t feel comfortable. “Okay, so what about the Reform congregation?” According to this person, that wouldn’t work because the neighborhood was “too religious” for that community to be a good representation. I started to get the sense that my roommate’s friend was wanting separation.

Starting to feel the futility, the conversation switched to tactics. Heavily influenced by a lifetime of watching Anthony Bourdain, I suggested a communal meal to start the process. Food, after all, has always been my soft entry into other cultures, including Dominican culture. Immediately the concerns about kashrut came forth. Which, you know, have some validity. Dominican food is not exactly known for its great vegetarian options and those would still pose some difficulties for people only eat hechshered kosher food (food prepared with supervised ingredients in a kosher kitchen). “Okay, what about if they prepared vegetarian food in our kitchens under supervision?” For those unfamiliar, this is a totally legitimate, although not universally accepted, way of solving the kashrut issue because the food would have hechshered ingredients, be prepared in a kosher kitchen, and there are ways to deal with concerns about someone not Jewish doing the cooking. And that’s how I finally understood that the issue wasn’t about kashrut or religion.

Her face was filled with absolute disgust at the idea of a Dominican cooking in her kitchen or the kitchens of anyone she knew. A year and a half later and I am still horrified at her response. Dominicans can stock our food at the store. Dominicans can scan and bag our food. Dominicans can clean our kitchens. But God forbid they cook in our kitchens, at least if they’re cooking their cultural foods and doing so as our equals. I find it hard to believe that a non-Jewish Italian making fresh pasta or Japanese person rolling sushi in our kitchen would have elicited the same disgust.It was fear and hatred of the racial Other dressed up in the guise of religion and kashrut. 

This is an extreme example, but, when it comes to Latine food particularly, kashrut is often used as an excuse not to explore and form closer bonds. There are some real challenges. I won’t deny that. I experienced them when I used to keep kosher. It’s hard to find things that you are confident are vegetarian and there’s often a language barrier in verifying ingredients/preparation. While there is at least one vegan restaurant that serves Dominican food, I don’t expect to see a successful kosher-certified Dominican restaurant in my lifetime. That’s why I learned how to make things like tostones and sofrito and bacalao. I wanted to experience the food, but needed to make it kosher. Was it as good as the real stuff? Probably not. But I didn’t let kashrut keep me from exploring food so I could get a better sense of Dominican culture while also getting to know Dominican coworkers. Kashrut is only a barrier if you let it be

Some would argue that that’s one of the reasons behind kashrut. Not being able to eat with your neighbors makes it really hard to form close bonds and, therefore, to marry with them and have children with them. Ignoring that this doesn’t seem to apply to pizza or Eastern European foods that commingled to make some quintessentially Jewish foods or sushi or a whole lot of other things, this begs the question: is that a value we want to have in 2022? And what does it mean when a majority white group applies that to Latine and/or Black communities and certain Asian communities**? None of us can say with any certainty that reluctance and/or refusal to make kosher mofongo isn’t a reflection of racism. For me, the answer to values in 2022 and beyond is no. My reasons for no longer keeping kosher are many, but the greatest benefit I’ve seen is my ability to experience other cultures and form closer bonds with people from those cultures. I wouldn’t have been able to form some of the close bonds without unrestricted food sharing. I love making tostones on my own. But I love making tostones with a friend and eating their food even more. 

Now for that tostones recipe…

Tostones - fried green plantain - on paper towel
Tostones (photo M. Faccini, December 2021)

Tostones

Select green plantains, the greener the better; 1 plantain makes 8-10 tostones.

Peel the plantains- I cut a slit through the skin the full length of the plantain to start the peeling process (if you are making more than 3 plantains, soak them in salted water to prevent discoloration).

Heat a skillet with an inch of canola or other neutral oil over medium heat.

Slice the plantains into ¾” slices.

Fry in the oil until lightly browned on each side.

Remove and immediately flatten using a glass or other flat object.

Return the flattened plantains and fry until light golden brown.

Drain on a paper towel and salt to taste, or season with Adobo for more flavor.

*I’m choosing to use geographic and other street markers even though they may mean little to people who don’t live in the Heights or haven’t before. Living in St. Louis and now the Heights, I’m very familiar with the ways in which a street is often the line of segregation and how much difference a block or two can make for demographics, housing prices, and safety. In St. Louis, that’s Delmar Boulevard. In the Heights, that line is Broadway. My goal is to make the invisible visible to fellow Jews living in the neighborhood that find a way to ignore those lines of segregation.   

**Asian cuisines that have been made kosher, such as Chinese and Japanese food, have a pretty clear class correlation. Jews felt comfortable sharing Chinese food and making Chinese food kosher at a time in which we, too, were new immigrants and shared a similar socioeconomic status. Japanese food, adopted more recently, is primarily associated with upper-middle/higher class. Asian cuisines from cultures that have had less economic success, such as Vietnamese and Thai food, rarely find their ways onto kosher menus. (Jonathan note: Krishnendu Ray has an excellent book about this broader trend.)

Sweet Plantains (Maduros) for Hanukkah

fried seasoned plantains

As a resident of Washington Heights, I see plantains everywhere. The Dominican community that calls this neighborhood home – and, in fact, predominates in much of it – has ensured that the beloved and delicious starch of the Dominican Republic is available in any food store in the Heights. Cheaply, too.  Like many Jews in the Heights (where we are another major constituency), I have also converted to having plantains as a regular part of my diet – be they boiled, steamed, fried, chopped up and put into soup, baked….

One dear reader, Mia Rachel Warshofsky, pointed out to me that fried plantains – the most traditional and delicious but by far the unhealthiest method of preparation – are traditional for Hanukkah in some Latin American Jewish communities. Given that I now live in another land of plantains, and, well, why not, I decided to make some for Hanukkah. Plantains are certainly less work than latkes – I was already frying them as an occasional treat – and also have a wonderful taste. I am very glad to have been informed of and introduced to this tradition. Thanks Mia!

And let’s not forget: plantains are a very important potential carbohydrate for another holiday as well. The Dominican-American Jewish blogger Aliza Hausman wrote this wonderful guide to plantains for Passover, which I strongly recommend reading, along with the rest of her blog.

How to Fry Your Hanukkah Plantains

  1. Make sure you have sweet plantains – yellow and/or black on the outside. Green plantains, though also delicious, require a bit more work. Maybe I will cook them some other time for you guys.
  2. Peel the plantains and cut them into discs.
  3. An optional step: some people claim that if you dip the pieces of plantain into salt water ever so briefly, they will be more tender. I don’t notice a difference, but will note it here.
  4. Heat a pan and add a good layer of oil – I would say at least ½ a centimeter or ¼ of an inch deep.
  5. Add the plantain discs, one disc side down, to the oil, and fry on each side until golden.
  6. Remove from pan when both sides are golden or caramelized-brown. Serve with spices, sugar, or a combination thereof! (The ones in the picture have salt, cinnamon, sugar, and white pepper on them. They may or may not have been dinner.)