One of the things I do not get about Christmas, or Christian winter in general, is why gingerbread is not a year-round food. It is so very delicious. The depths of the molasses cheer me. The perk of the spices gladdens me. The scent sends me into a madeleine-like reverie. In cake or in cookie form, gingerbread is wonderful. Why should we limit it to one time a year, particularly for a holiday filled with rather irksome things? Even then, I do enjoy the sheer breadth of gingerbread products in winter. As I told one friend, gingerbread is one thing I wish we just had more of in Jewish tradition. “Picture it: American Jews, 5779. Gingerbread for Sukkot, gingerbread for Purim, gingerbread for Shavuot, ginger matzoh for Passover,” I said. I think my friend thinks I have a proverbial “spider on my ceiling” now.
So imagine my surprise when I found out that gingerbread cakes have been eaten for many holidays by Jews for a thousand years. Not to mention non-Jews, too. Spiced cakes have been eaten in Europe since at least the Classical period in Greece, and became newly popular alongside other heavily spiced foods in the 12th century. Ginger itself was traded from Asia since Roman times. Some historians claim that Crusaders brought back the treat from the Middle East, but it seems more likely that Armenian monks brought the recipe to monasteries earlier in the medieval era. (Attributing everything to the Crusaders obscures how much contact there was, and how extensive contact was, between Western Europe and the Islamic World before that.) Gingerbread became a traditional gift between lovers, and popular at taverns and at fairs and festivals. Indeed, Shakespeare alludes to it in a play. Gingerbread was also medicine: many monks and nuns baked it as a tonic for indigestion. We may scoff now, but it was probably safer than many contemporary “medicines.” And, medicinal or not, gingerbread has remained popular for longer than all but a few foods.
Among Ashkenazi Jews, ginger-based pastries and gingerbread have traditionally been popular for Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, as well as for celebrations and life cycle events. Another common Ashkenazi dish, lekach or honey cake, shares an ancestor with today’s gingerbread. In fact, they were probably the same until a few hundred years ago. Jewish gingerbread and lekach derive from an Italian Jewish cake called panforte, a heavily spiced gingerbread that was introduced by Italian Jewish traders to Jews in France and Germany by the 11th century. These cakes were sold by Jews in what is now Southern Germany to a wide audience – and were widely consumed – by the start of the 13th century. However, Jews were then banned from the guilds that made gingerbread. As a result, Jewish gingerbread and honey cakes were largely only for internal consumption. These cakes were given to young boys on their first day of school, and served at weddings and circumcisions. Later agricultural advancements, such as the mass conversion from barley and rye to wheat in Europe, introduction of alkaline leavening, and the spread of sugar, changed these cakes. They became lighter, sweeter, and bigger. Ginger-based and honey-based cakes also largely separated around this time.
I find gingerbread interesting because it is a “throwback” to medieval styles of eating. Heavily spiced, darkly spiced cakes were a fixture of European elite and festive cuisine in the Middle Ages. Spices were said to carry holy odors and symbolized riches, good grace, and good living. Those who could afford it imported huge quantities of spices, and Jews were no exception. However, when imperialism made spices cheap enough for many peasants – such that Martin Luther blamed commoners’ degeneracy on pepper – the elite switched, to a much blander and less spiced diet. Gingerbread, along with mulled wine and a few bizarre Dutch cheeses, stuck it out. I am so ever grateful.
Ready to go
This gingerbread recipe is vegan. I made it for my colleagues, a few of whom are vegans, so I swapped out the egg and butter for applesauce and oil-based substitutes. The result is a very moist, spicy cake. You can serve it warm or at room temperature, and if you want, with a nice cream-cheese frosting or vanilla ice cream. Best of all, it is pareve, so if you keep kosher, it can end a solid meat meal. Enjoy!
Gingerbread Cake with Raisins
⅔ cup raisins
1 cup cold water
1 teaspoon rum extract
½ cup granulated white sugar
½ cup melted butter substitute or canola oil (I use Earth Balance)
1 cup applesauce
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup unsulphured molasses (not blackstrap)
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon table salt
⅔ cup hot water
Oil, to grease pan
Powdered sugar, for garnish
Soak the raisins in a bowl with the cold water and rum extract for 20 minutes, or until they are puffy. Drain the raisins and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Grease a 9 inch/23-25cm round cake pan, or a 9inch/23-25cm square cake pan.
In a big bowl, mix together the white sugar, oil or butter substitute, apple sauce, and baking powder until thoroughly combined. Then, fold in the molasses slowly, until thoroughly combined. It will turn a gothic dark color, and the batter will be thicker.
Meanwhile, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. Sifting will ensure an even distribution throughout the mixture. If you do not know how to sift, here is a useful video. I use a wire sieve.
Fold the flour mixture into the molasses mixture until thoroughly combined. You will have a thick batter.
Fold in the raisins into the batter, then the hot water. Mix until the distribution is thorough. The batter will be thick, but not as thick.
Pour into the prepared pan and place into the center of the oven. Bake for one hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
Remove from the oven. Allow to cool in the pan before removing the cake. Garnish with powdered sugar and serve.
Thank you to my colleagues for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.
So my piece on Modernist Jewish Cooking got a lot of responses. And a lot of readers. It is now the second-most popular piece on the site, after my bread pudding recipe. You, the readers, seem to like it when I talk about industrial food. Good news – I have more to say!
Recently, I have heard a lot of “scare language” around processed food. Some of this was in response to my piece – people were irritated or confused that “homemade” and “industrial” might, yes, be on the same plane for some people. (Chances are that your homemade food is partly industrial.) Others were friends who were shocked at some sort of thing or other, and labeled it as “processed food” – assuming I also saw that phrase as negative. Yet as I have pointed out, most food is processed at some point before getting to the consumer. And even if we say we do not like processed food now, it is so present and everywhere that it has shaped our taste buds. This process is almost inescapable. Even “organic,” “natural” cooks hearken back to industrial food now. Processed food, like taxes and death, is inevitable in the modern world. And marking some food as scary Processed Food, and other equally unnatural foods as Good and Proper does nothing more than hide a lot of facts. Besides, processed food is far more accessible for poor people, for people with disabilities, and for most everyone.
Perhaps we should advocate for industrial food that is made by properly paid and treated workers, that is high-quality, and that is something we all have a share in.
Also, this sort of organic-romance thing becomes a performance so sappy that I suddenly find myself urgently craving an Oreo. Oreos are not even my preferred industrial cookie. Just admit you kind of like the Manishevitz box mix, as some of us can infer in your performance of disdain.
In short, you love processed food, even if you say you do not. Guess what? So do I. Since I have no shame about this, I thought it would be fun to share some of my favorite industrial food products. We can get a bit of history, a bit about me, and a bit about how I use them. They are not all Jewish, but they are all Jewish. I would love to hear what your favorite ones are too.
Noodles and pasta – I eat probably too much pasta, but I do not particularly mind: noodles and I get along well. I eat a noodle product more than once a week at minimum, except during Passover. This fact of my existence is in no part due to the industrialization of noodle production and the popularity of dried noodles. Before World War II, when noodle production was far less industrialized than today, many families in Italy could only afford pasta on special occasions. Ditto for noodles in many other countries, like Japan. Industrialization made noodles cheaper and more affordable for everyone. And box pasta is still pretty damn good.
Canned beans – “Beans, beans, lots of beans, lots of beans” is not just an early 2000’s meme, but also an accurate description of most people’s diets in many times in many places, Jews included. Beans are efficient little vehicles of protein and nutrients and tastiness. They are also, in raw form, a lot of work. So canned beans are a huge improvement: no soaking or precooking, just beans that are ready to go into your meal. They are also often very high-quality. I find myself cooking with canned beans at least once or twice a week, and I am still surprised at precisely how versatile they are. Almost any bean recipe not made with lentils on this blog was made with canned beans, and the lentil recipes are doable with canned lentils as well.
Stock cubes and soup powder – I told you once how to make your own stock, but the truth is that I rarely do. I mostly use bouillon cubes and soup powder, because – let me be frank here – I do not have the time or energy to do homemade stock every time. Most people do not. And hence industrial bouillon was one of the first modern food products to emerge, in the 19th century, and has remained popular ever since. It varies incredibly from country to country – as some scholars have pointed out, you can learn a lot from going to the Knorr’s selection in a local market. It also adds a very reasonable amount of salt to whatever you are cooking. In Israel and a few other places, soup powder is now a seasoning, which I find somewhat salty for my taste, but I do not judge. For me, soup powder lets me add a bit more weight to stews and sauces, when I can add stock simply by making it from the kettle. Also, the stock cubes smell really, really good.
Crushed tomatoes – My mother’s repertoire of recipes is very heavy on the use of canned tomatoes, which is fitting, given that my mother is an Italophile who grew up in South Africa and Israel. (All three countries’ populations use canned tomatoes extensively.) Like most people, I cook a lot of what my parents taught me growing up, and so I find myself adding crushed tomatoes quite a bit. They are very handy for many Jewish dishes – shakshouka and tamatiebredie among them – but also for the lazy, haphazard stews which, with rice, make up most of my meals. On a broader level, the popularity of tomatoes in cuisines outside the Americas is partly based on the fact that tomatoes are so easily canned. Otherwise, tomatoes were, until recently, highly seasonal plants that were considered suspicious by many.
Canned corn – Picture this: it’s a blackout sometime in the early 2000s. A frizzy-haired Jewish woman and her tween son are grinning as they spoon corn from a can into their mouths. That was dinner. In any case, I live now with fewer summer blackouts, but still the same number of corn kernels coming from the can. Canned corn is really delicious. And, if you are not eating corn from the cob in season, it’s usually not that distinguishable from the fresh counterpart. (Even when fresh is available, I sometimes suggest canned, especially because a lot of fresh corn is not actually very good.) Fun fact: I once made a dish, and said person mentioned that he was pleased I had obviously used fresh corn. Indeed, the corn was fresh from a can that morning. On a more practical note, canned corn is a very good substitute when fresh corn is not practical, and actually keeps many of the nutrients for longer than refrigerated corn. It is also incredibly versatile – you can make so many things, including a lovely pashtida I made for the early days of this blog.
Jam – Ah, yes, jam. I have given several recipes on the blog, and discussed how jam became popular in the 19th century when sugar became cheaper. It is also now well-known that jam played a major role in improving calorie intake in some places in Europe in the 19th Jam was one of the first things to really be industrialized. And as much as it can be too sweet and sticky … mass-produced jam can also be delicious. Why else would I slather it on toast every morning? Jam also is a nice filling for hamantashen, and there is at least one jam that goes well with most every Jewish bread.
Mass-market pickled herring – I have written about my love for herring and its history in Jewish kitchens before, but I can never stop talking about it. And for every fancy herring at Russ and Daughters, there are at least thirty or forty much cheaper herrings from the big companies that jar massive quantities of the stuff. They are part of a long Jewish tradition of processing herring on an industrial scale.
Canned fish – While we are at it, can we discuss the miracle of the cheap and versatile protein that is canned tuna? Or the salty goodness of canned mackerel? When I was a child, my late father and I would eat mackerel on toast together; now, I bring back the 1950s with tuna croquettes. Jewish cooks leaned in heavily into the canned fish train in the mid-20th century, and I do not blame them. When it is good, it is really good.
Mass-market lemonade – I do not even have a romantic reason for adding this one; I just like lemonade. But lemon-based drinks have been popular for centuries across the Jewish world, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Jewish communities have all sorts of lemony sweet drinks on Shabbat tables around the world. The drinks vary from place to place (I am a huge fan of French lemonades) – but the lemon does not. As it happens, this is a very modern phenomenon: industrialization made sweet drinks and juices no longer a luxury, but something affordable for many people. The idea of a sweet, lemony drink in a bottle in the middle of winter appeared to our great-grandparents as a luxury from afar. Thinking about that makes me feel quite elegant as I guzzle lemonade down.
Ugiot mizrahiot – This one is a bit eccentric. The Iraqi cookie kaak – a round hard thing covered in sesame seeds – became popular in Israel as ugiot mizrahiot. Once the afterthought of bakers, this treat is now made en masse and packed in plastic by Israel’s biggest food companies. Sure, the kaak might be better fresh from the baker, but my Israeli relatives have developed a very, very strong affinity for these. So did my late father, who could eat an entire bag in one sitting. I am not ashamed to say that I have recreated the feat.
Thank you for reading! As a final bonus, here is one more fan of industrial food: my sister’s cat Mochi, whose diet largely consists of her preferred chicken kibble. (She is also an enthusiastic fan of canned black olives.) Mochi has been staying with me for a few months, and has graciously heard many ideas for the blog as I voiced them out. Thank you, Mochi.
For an excellent critique of food snobbery in the form of a novel, I urge you to read Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody. It was originally published in French as Une Gourmandise. I have read it in both languages and thoroughly enjoyed it both times. Industrial food plays a major role in the book, but as is said in the old country, “no spoilers.”
Another blog that I just found is In Defense of Processed Food, by Dr. Robert Shewfelt. It is a welcome antidote to the mythical excesses of the food movement. I intend on reading regularly, and will buy his book soon.
In my fourth year of college, I made the slightly unorthodox decision to study Turkish. Maybe it was because I loved Ottoman history, maybe because I loved the writing of Orhan Pamuk and Yaşar Kemal, and maybe because I was extremely obsessed with modern Turkish history for much of high school. Probably, it was for the food.So over the course of a year, I filled my elective slots in my schedule with an intensive Turkish language course. My Turkish is not fluent, but I have managed to get by in Turkey, watch a few delightful soap operas, and of course, read recipes.
Much of Turkey’s cuisine is very famous, but even more of it unfortunately rarely gets translated into English or taken outside Turkey. Turkish food is highly regional – after all, Turkey is a country twice the size of Montana with a huge diversity in climates, landscape, and crops. Turkish food also carries all the influences of the various ethnic groups, rulers, and trades the country has seen. In some ways, it is more accurate to talk about Turkish cuisines rather than a single tradition. In the north by the Black Sea, one finds heavy dishes with karalahana (collard greens) or pakla (corn bulgur). In the center, one finds deep meaty stews and gruels like the barley-based aşure. In the south, many dishes are prepared with tangy nar ekşisi (pomegranate molasses) and spicy peppers. Turks are often immensely proud of their home regions’ delicacies. This diversity carries over to the Jewish cuisines of Turkey.
Turkish Jews – who before the 1940’s were a major population in the country – are a diverse community: from Kurdish Jews in the East to Sephardim on the Mediterranean coast to Ashkenazim and Arab Jews who had fled persecutions or left economic turmoil further north or south. The vast majority of Turkish Jews are Sephardim, descendants of the Jews who were welcomed by the Ottoman sultan after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Their cuisines vary significantly, but all make good use of the local products of Turkey’s incredibly rich agriculture. I have found many of my favorite recipes from across the Jewish world in Turkish collections – from tripe soups to candied pumpkin. And now, I have another recipe to add to that list: kestaneli kuzu, lamb with chestnuts, beloved by Turks Jewish and Muslim alike.
Chestnuts are found across the Mediterranean basin, but the ones most common today originatein the Taurus Mountains (Toros Dağları)of western Turkey. These have been eaten since ancient times, and are often found in Ancient Greek and Roman literature and ruins. In many poor mountain communities, they were the most common source of starch until the introduction of the potato. Indeed, in Turkish Sephardic cooking chestnuts make many appearances, especially in desserts. But this recipe, kestaneli kuzu, combines two old favorites: chestnuts and lamb stews. Jewish and non-Jewish Turks alike treasure this recipe for festivals, celebrations, and nice dinners alike.
In Turkey today, kestaneli kuzu is associated with the city of Bursa, as are all chestnut dishes, but it is common across much of the country. Jewish women often foraged in forests near their communities in Turkey (as they did for berries in Lithuania) and would include their finds in foods daily and festive alike. This dish, known widely among locals, was an easy way to use these finds. Today, this hearty stew remains common, and is particularly popular on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. A similar dish exists in Moroccan-French Jewish cooking – in fact, in Israel it is associated by some with Aryeh Deri, the disgraced co-founder of the religious Shas party. It is, apparently, his favorite dish. The recipe by his wife, Yaffa (née Cohen), became popular after being published a few years ago. Though I strongly disagree with Shas’ religious-nationalist and conservative politics, the recipe is top-notch. (The recipe is cited below.)
I made a few small adjustments off the recipes I found in my research. Firstly, as do many Turks, I added raisins to the stew – which gives a lovely body to the dish and provides a sweet counterpoint to the starchy chestnuts and earthy lamb. The second decision I made was to use chestnuts that were already peeled and roasted and packaged – the quality does not suffer, and peeling chestnuts takes a lot of time. Besides, the chestnuts used for packaging are particularly starchy and tasty. The third, and most unorthodox, decision I made was to add a cup of sweet red wine to the stew – this adds a lovely undertone to all the other flavors and really brings out the meatiness in the lamb. Of course, I have written this recipe in English. Enjoy, or, better yet, afiyet olsun!
2-3 lbs (1-1.5kg) lamb stew meat, cut into chunks with the bones separated out
2 onions, diced
8 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon table salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground paprika
1 cup sweet red wine
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock (you can substitute soup powder)
9 oz (250g) roasted, peeled chestnuts
1 cup raisins, soaked in water for 10 minutes
Heat a deep pot over a high flame. Then, add the oil.
Add the meat but not the bones. Sauté the meat on high heat for ten minutes, until the meat is lightly browned on all sides. Remove the meat from the pot and set aside for a moment.
Add the bones, onions, and garlic to the pot. Sauté on high heat for five minutes, or until the onions are translucent.
Add the spices and wine, and cook for one more minute, by which time the wine should be boiling.
Add the meat back into the pot and mix with the onions. Add the stock, and water to cover the meat about 1 1/2 inches/4 centimeters.
Bring to a boil, then simmer for 1 hour, stirring regularly. Skim off the fat that accumulates at the top. (You can use the fat to make rice that goes with the stew, or dip bread into it.)
Add the chestnuts and raisins after the hour is up. Then, simmer for 15-20 more minutes.
Turn off the heat. Serve with rice and/or bread.
Thank you to Ziva Freiman for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.
Son olarak, tüm Türk ve Türkçe konuşan arkadaşlarıma yardımları ve tavsiyeleri için de kalpten teşekkür ederim. Hikmetinizle mizahınız bana çok fayda sağladı. İnşallah, gelecekte bir hayli yemekler beraber yemeye devam edebiliriz. Teşekkürler ve afiyet olsun!
Just like many nerdy New Yorkers, I spend a fair amount of time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are so many beautiful things to see and histories to learn there. Anyway, since apparently I cannot stop thinking about Jewish food at any point, I decided to spot some Jewish ties with various objects throughout the museum on a recent visit. Many of the things we consider “high art” today once had functional purposes – especially the ceramic, metal, and glass ware we now peer at through glass protective cases. These functions were, of course, largely for the upper crust of society – and in this case I will be generally referring to wealthier Jews. It should be noted that we do find plenty of “ordinary people” pottery and cookware in archaeological sites – they just do not make the vaunted cases of the world’s great museums.
Let us go take a look.
Brass ewer for wine or sherbets, 13th-century Iran
The object: A brass ewer with detailed mural-like inlays of silver and other compounds. The complex design includes medallion vines with rabbit heads, zodiacs with the planets, and harpies and astrological imagery. All of these were considered highly auspicious in the context of 13th-century Iran, and may be considered akin to similar decorative work on Kiddush cups today. (Jews, too, are superstitious.)
The Jewishness: Ewers and jugs like this would have been used for ritual purposes in many wealthier homes – especially for Kiddush wine. In addition, silver and silverwork was commonly a Jewish industry in many cities.
Iznik plates, Ottoman Empire, 16th century
The objects: A circular stonepaste plate with a colorful pattern of flowers and birds. The plate was made in the late 16th century in Iznik, which was the center of the Ottoman pottery industry. Iznik ware was popular across the empire and abroad, and was influenced by prior Arab and Persian practices, as well as Chinese porcelain traded along the Silk Road.
The Jewishness: Iznik had a thriving Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire, many of whom would have traded these wares to other centers in Thessaloniki, Izmir, and abroad. Later, plates like this would become a “template” for early Zionists to use for serving “new Israeli cuisine.”
Porcelain teapots from China and Japan, and the German, English, French, and Dutch factories that imitated them, 18th century
The Jewishness: Tea is consumed traditionally in dozens of Jewish communities, and the consumption of tea greatly expanded in the 17th century among Russian and Sephardi Jews. Jewish communities in Uzbekistan and Georgia were involved in the Silk Road trade and many Jews in maritime and overland trade with Asia, including that of porcelain.
French porcelain partial tea service used in 18th-century America
The object: This is a beautifully decorated porcelain teapot, cup, and saucer, from an 18th-century French factory, with a gold-and-back floral theme sparsely laid on a white background. Such examples come from the aforementioned European porcelain industry, which moved from “Chinoiserie” Orientalist designs to more localized European examples through the 18th century. These pieces are examples of the latter. This particular group belonged to the Loyalist Verplanck family in New York in the late 18th century, who was given the full tea service by the British commander of forces in New York, Sir William Howe.
The Jewishness: As mentioned above, tea consumption spiked in the 17th century among Jewish communities. By the 18th century, a small minority of Jews was wealthy enough to drink tea like the Christian élites they partly assimilated into. This sort of tea service would easily have appeared at the table of the Nathans or other wealthy Jewish families in 18th-century New York.
Pennsylvania Redware, 18th century
The objects: German immigrants in 18th-century Pennsylvania began manufacturing practical ceramic wares from local red clay found throughout southeastern Pennsylvania, which soon gave rise to a local style now known as “Pennsylvania Redware.” These plates, bowls, and cups often utilized a technique known elsewhere as sgraffito, which involves scratching through one level of clay slip to reveal a lower level of slip. The ceramics were largely made for a local American market, which was readily receptive. Though these plates are from the 18th century, the industry’s golden age was in the early 19th century after American independence.
The Jewishness: The same wealthy families that might have owned the French tea service would have easily possessed some Pennsylvania Redware for everyday use – and middle-class families may have served their Shabbat and weekday meals on plates like these as well.
Spanish inlaid plates and bowls, 14th century
The objects: Inlaid plates and bowls with decorative patterns from Southern Spain in the 14th century, when the region was still under Almohad rule. The style of pottery is now known as Hispano-Moresque, and utilizes detailed patterning, tin glazes, and often a metallic after-glaze. In its era it was already a luxury good, and these wares influenced Italian styles that later became known as maiolica in the 16th century.
The object: This is an incredible illuminated Haggadah from 15th-century Italy. The order of the Passover (Pesakh) Seder ritual is not only written, but accompanied by gilded and painted images from the story of the Exodus and of the Passover ritual foods. The margins also contain micrographic illustrations.
The Jewishness is obvious.
Images all mine, July 2017, unless otherwise noted.
Your humble author has been on a bit of a “spice binge” over the past month – in that he has been steadily gobbling up books about the history of spice and sugar cultivation. And so much of this literature is on the medieval spice trade – one that spawned colonialism, far-flung trade, and globalization as we know it. Medieval Europeans, Arabs, North Africans, and Middle Easterners loved their spices, and couldn’t get enough of valuable aromatics traded through complex networks from halfway across the world. And from the spices, I have been learning about the deeply different – and yet eerily familiar – cuisine of Europe in the High Middle Ages.
Many traditional Jewish dishes are holdovers from medieval recipes. Ashkenazi recipes such as kugel and forshmak grew out of late medieval German-Jewish cooking, and many Sephardi recipes grew from the pre-expulsion late medieval food of Spain. (Spanish travelers were shocked to find Sephardim eating quince jam in the 19th century, just like Spaniards in the motherland.) Some Iranian Jewish recipes date back over a millennium. When I have told friends, in conversation, about the age of many Jewish dishes, they seem surprised. “Wasn’t medieval food…bad?” Well, not always.
We believe a lot of myths about medieval European and Arab cooking. Some of these myths have a kernel of truth to them – and, of course, the food consumed in 1200 was very different to that consumed today. We know this from manuscripts, archaeology, and surrounding history. But many of these myths are the exact opposite of what actually happened – both in Jewish food and more generally in the food of the old world. Many Jewish recipes offer counterpoints to these myths, and serve as an example of what happened to food more generally in European and Middle Eastern history. So, here I will briefly discuss the five myths I’ve heard most frequently – with the Jewish foods and books that offer lessons in the other direction.
Medieval Europeans did not eat things from outside their area – and hence their food was bland. Food trade is as old as civilization itself: imported spices were found in archaeological digs at Sumer. Medieval people were no different – and there was plenty of movement of people and goods in medieval times that also brought different foods and different methods of preparing food throughout medieval realms. Exotic spices and foods were much-prized, and many crops were introduced by new rulers, such as citrus in Spain by Arab rulers. This did not make a bland cuisine – and besides, people in all civilizations had been seasoning their food with local goods for millennia.
Jewish food: P’tcha. This calf’s foot aspic is famous for turning heads and stomachs, but many Ashkenazi Jews – including myself – find it quite delicious. In my experience, it is often trotted out by nationalists as an example of “declining” Jewish culture – because people “do not eat it anymore” – and by others as an example of “weird” or “lost” Jewish food. In the 18th and 19th century, p’tcha was a delicacy that was saved for special occasions, for it took a long time to make. Now, it’s still common enough in Haredi communities and making a hipster comeback. This dish, however, is not really Jewish in origin – but Tatar. Turkic tribes, ancestors of today’s Tatars, introduced soups made of cow or sheep feet to Eastern Europe in the 13th century during Mongol rule. Hence the name p’tcha – and the similar Serbian pihtije – comes from the Turkic word for “leg” (paça in Modern Turkish). And while Sephardim eat calf’s foot soup hot, Ashkenazim and other Eastern European peoples developed an aspic out of it. Heads up: p’tcha is an upcoming blog recipe.
Book recommendation: A Taste for Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice,by Michael Krondl. This book is a wonderful biography of the spice trade in Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam, and how each of these cities was really made important initially by their trade in spices. He also takes copious notes in Venice of the city’s medieval cooking – and how much of Italian food today is from the late 19th century. He also does excellent due diligence in noting the Indonesian influences on Dutch culture that go back centuries.
Medieval people used spices to hide the taste of meat or fish that had gone off. This myth is based on the assumption that because medieval people did not have refrigeration, they were constantly dealing with food that was rotten, so pickling and spicing developed to hide the rotten taste. In fact, the opposite is true in some part: pickling and spicing preserved foods that were liable to go off quickly. Many spices were used with salt to preserve meat, and many foods were pickled and thus able to “keep” for longer. Such is the origins of today’s salted meats, sausages, herrings, lox, and other goodies. In any case, those who could afford spices generally could afford the freshest meat. Here, too, spices came to play other roles: they were seen as correcting “harmful” qualities of a fresh food, thus bringing their “humors” into balance. Spices were as essential to the medieval Galenic medical system as they were to cuisine – and humors were discussed as nutrients are today. Those most likely to deal with rotting food – the poor and peasants – generally did not have spices either.
Medieval peasants and medieval kings ate mostly the same food. I’ve heard this myth peddled by a few starry-eyed leftists who believe that everything “pre-capitalist” was good. (This is also a terrible reading of Marx.) But in medieval times, the starkest inequality was in food. Nobility, the wealthy, and those of other privileged classes generally enjoyed a much higher standard of nutrition – and a much more varied and secure diet – than their less fortunate counterparts. For the majority, poor and peasants, food was much more monotonous, much less secure, and of lower quality across the board. Even if famine was rare, diseases related to malnutrition such as pellagra were not. In fact, the lot of the rural poor would not significantly improve in many parts of Europe and the Middle East until the twentieth century – and despite problems, food is far more equally distributed now than in the Middle Ages. In the cultural realm, divisions of food by class were cemented by ideologies that someone naturally “born” into a station should not eat food of other stations. According to this narrative, nobility would be sick if they ate gruel, and a peasant would be sick if they ate white bread. Inequality in food was not only a fact of life, it was taken as the order of the world.
Jewish food: Rye and wheat bread. Bread was the truly the medieval staff of life – and bread and gruels often accounted for 80-90% of a peasant’s calorie intake. Across much of Central and Eastern Europe, the “base grain” for such bread was rye. Though we often think of dark rye breads as a somewhat upscale “ethnic” food, rye was often specifically not a luxurious or even slightly special food for most medieval Europeans. Rather, it was a base grain for an often impure bread filled with other additives – seeds, nuts, and so on – that wrecked digestive systems. Poorer folks often relied on grain that had gone off, leading to ergot poisoning. The wealthy, however, tended to eat higher-quality bread – rye breads, mixed breads, and above all white breads – for whiter flour was far more expensive. The breads tended also to have fewer additions, and were generally better proportioned with the rest of the diet. No wonder then that in the 19th century, when mass-produced white bread first became available to the working class, it was incredibly popular – it was far less dangerous and seen as healthier.
Book recommendation: Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine and Empire is magnificent, and very informative to this particular discussion. Laudan is very firm about the fact that food for the hoi polloi until very recently, by and large, was monotonous and not always secure, whilst the food of nobility, kings, and the wealthy was far better.
There were no noodles in Italy or the Mediterranean before Marco Polo brought them in the late 13th century. One of the most commonly attributed traits to Marco Polo is “the man who gave Italians pasta” – but by this time, Italians had been eating pasta for centuries. Noodles spread from China through the Silk Road to Persia during the fifth century, and are first mentioned outside China by the Jerusalem Talmud as itriyot, and later in the Babylonian Talmud as rihata – both words of Persian origin. Pastas such as rishta, lissan, and couscous were common in the medieval Arab world, from which they were introduced to Sicily, Spain, and Southern Italy by the tenth century. Pastas became popular in Sicilian and Sephardic Jewish cooking. Meanwhile, lokshen – the Ashkenazi noodle – reached Eastern Europe both from Central Asia and Provence via Germany by the fourteenth century. The Yiddish lokshen derives from the Persian word lakhsha, or “to slide.” In any case, by the time Marco Polo came back from China in the 1290s, Jews and non-Jews alike in Italy were chowing down on all sorts of pastas and noodles – though the explorer may have introduced new varieties of noodle to Venice, from which recipes spread throughout Europe. Arab Jews continued to eat their own ever-evolving noodles.
Jewish food: Jerusalem Kugel – a noodle kugel made with a tantalizing caramel with a heavy dose of ground black pepper. Though the recipe only dates to the early 19th century, Jerusalem kugel has a most medieval spice combination of black pepper and sugar – one that would not have been out of place for the many sweet-spicy pasta recipes of Medieval Italy. In some ways, the Chasidic families who invented it travelled back in time. I recommend this recipe by Giora Shimoni.
Book recommendation: Oddly enough, Claudia Roden’s A Book of Jewish Foodhas many recipes for noodles that are somewhat similar to the noodle dishes consumed by Arab Jews in the medieval world.
What constitutes national culinary traditions now is directly descended from what people ate in these places in the Middle Ages. One of the more outrageous claims of nationalism and the cult-like worship of “authenticity” is an idea that the “national” culinary traditions of today have a history that stretches back to the medieval. This is quite far from the truth. The ingredients, prevailing norms, and social context of food in the Middle Ages, across the Christian and Islamic worlds in which Jews lived, were very different from today. The boundaries of dishes and foods were different. Communities were identified differently. And how people related to the food on their plate was very different. National culinary traditions – including the “French” and “Italian” traditions we often think of as seminal and timeless – were largely invented in the 19th century, products of increased wealth, nationalism, and romantic and ahistorical ideas of country life. Widespread education spread these dishes, because they were “taught.” And though many of the recipes themselves reach back to the medieval era, it is likely that a Venetian or Parisian from the 15th century dropped into Venice or Paris today would not only not recognize the “national cuisine” of her home city, but would find that their tastes hewed much closer to North African or Turkish food today.
Jewish food: Spinach with raisins and pine nuts. This was a recipe that was indeed eaten in the Middle Ages, and all these ingredients were popular at the time as well. The preparation itself came with Jews from Catalonia to Italy through trade. However, the sweet-savory combination in Italy later lost favor, and the dish became a largely Jewish recipe that only gained widespread popularity after World War II. Italian cuisine, meanwhile, moved from a sweet-sour complex to an herbal one, and began to limit sweet foods to dessert in imitation of the French from the 18th century. So now, this spinach dish, Jewish in origin, is “Jewish” once again – though it was very popular in Northern Italy during the late Middle Ages.
Book recommendation: Sidney Mintz’s classic Sweetness and Poweris important for two reasons: one, it clearly outlines how sugar played an integral part in colonialism and the slave trade; two, it shows how the European diet was fundamentally altered by a regular sugar supply for the poor and the introduction of tea and coffee, both of which often “needed” sugar. The entry of sugar, just like changing performances of class and adjustments in the commonality of spices, radically rejigged European cuisine, and as a result what was common in 1700 was very different from what was common in 1800. Jam, for one.
What is it about? Roughly speaking, Cuisine and Empire discusses the evolution of the “culinary” family tree through the spread of foodways via trade, armies, politics, and religion. The book thus charts the expansion of culinary trends, traditions, and habits from the beginning of city-states in Mesopotamia to the comparatively luxurious “middling cuisines” of the modern First World. The tale is one of the extraordinary past of the most everyday thing. Laudan divides the book into histories of ancient grain cuisines, sacrificial cuisines in the Axial Age, medieval Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian culinary paradigms, and then the evolution of Western and global cuisines after 1650. Ancient roots of modern food are demonstrated – for example, the continued focus on carbohydrates. At the same time, what is seen as high and luxurious cuisine has changed and stayed the same – but has always been in communication with the “ideas” and “tools” that spread throughout imperial worlds.
Reading Cuisine and Empire is a truly rewarding experience – and educational, for the golden calves of culinary history are swiftly destroyed in the book’s narrative. The romance of premodern, “peasant” cuisines is swiftly dispatched – Laudan directly notes the misery and often lacking nature of “common” food for most of human history. Most cuisine as we know it today is a “middling cuisine” – a hearty fare making use of many “exotic” and formerly high-cuisine ingredients, and a good amount of animal products, but cheaper than in the past due to changes in agriculture and food distribution. Italian farmworkers and poor Chinese laborers, however, certainly did not eat the “authentic” cuisines of their countries, but rather largely a poor and wholly insufficient diet. Food was also labor intensive – grinding grain took hours, preparation was a task wholly invasive of lives. There was no romance in the duty of cooking for most – and to say so is deeply naïve and misguided, not to mention romantic.
Speaking of romanticized authenticity, Laudan also shows how our cuisines date to a time that predates the nation-state system. Foodways and ingredients, recipes and flavors, were spread through the various centers and routes of power – and most certainly do not stick with the history of an unbroken national tradition. Thus the critique in Cuisine and Empire of the doyennes of the ethnic food world – including my beloved Claudia Roden – as focusing on an ahistorical amalgam of élite recipes as “representative” is well and truly backed up by the history she demonstrates. Finally, Laudan shows that our food of today is in many ways quite disconnected from that of the past. Who knew that hemp seed was a major part of the ancient Chinese diet? (Yours truly, who has a severe allergy to hemp, is grateful that rice began to predominate in the first millennium CE.) Or the variety of foods available on the streets of ancient Rome? From the rituals of human sacrifice to the ways in which food was conceived of as digested, fermented, and “cooked or putrefied in the stomach,” Laudan shows that our modern understanding of food is quite modern indeed.
The book is, of course, imperfect. In terms of critique, I have two main comments. Firstly, this is no beach read – and though I myself enjoy dense, academic books, the tenor and tone could be quite intimidating for some lay readers. The tone can also be occasionally repetitive, but the writing is strong enough that those moments are still informative. The other one is that many of the trends Laudan mentions are not mapped out in the book to sub-Saharan Africa to the same degree of detail as other regions – even though food historical studies would support Laudan’s conclusions. This problem is important for two reasons: one, because the role African foods have played in our cuisines is still under-cited, and two, because quality food scholarship on Africa is still largely undeveloped in the West, and Laudan’s book could have made more of a contribution there. That said, Cuisine and Empire does cover sub-Saharan Africa to some extent, which is very welcome. Overall, however, this book is a masterpiece.
Cuisine and Empire is a book well worth your time, and vastly informative. And to those of us interested in Jewish cuisines, Cuisine and Empire offers some important reminders – and insights. To begin, it is a reminder of a truth often repeated on this blog: Jewish cuisine is not unique in and of itself and has been influenced and usually based on wider culinary trends – here, “imperial cuisines.” What makes food Jewish is the significance attached to it and nothing more.
In addition, Cuisine and Empire offers us a vocabulary and history to challenge the too-romanticized history of Jewish food. It was most certainly not the case that all our ancestors ate brisket and p’tcha – it is more likely that only the wealthier ate well and the poorer among us subsisted on some bread and maybe something else for most of the week. (This reality is also well chronicled by Hasia Diner.) Food is always political and tied to class, and the romanticized history is as much a “French terroir strategy” of our own in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Besides, much of our demarcation of Jewish cuisine – and this blog is not exempt from this critique! – is tied to the same nationalist storytelling Laudan critiques. Finally, it is so very important to remember how much food systems have changed in the past century – and doubtlessly much of it for the better. Thus our creations in a “middling cuisine” are not only new, but reliant on different ingredients than in the past and generally in a much better-supplied and –nourished atmosphere. The past was not pretty, but rather one of even more inequality than today. And that is one of Cuisine and Empire’s biggest lessons.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.