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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shana tova!

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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)

 

The Barrel Always Smells of Herring I: How Do You Remember A Fish?

“La caque sent toujours le hareng.”

“The barrel always smells of herring.” – A French proverb about how a person’s origins are never forgotten

Blynai with sour cream and herring
Blynai – potato pancakes – in Vilnius, served with red onions, pickled herring, sour cream, and mushrooms. These are all considered to be delicious things in the non-Jewish and Jewish Lithuanian palates alike. That was a good lunch. Photo mine, March 2015.

I grew up with herring. I’m not saying this to be a snob or prove my authenticity. I say this because pickled herring was constantly present in the house where I grew up. I was introduced as a young child to herring by my South African grandfather, who would stay with us for two months a year in our house in New York. He ate pickled herring almost every day for breakfast at the time – and he still, at 94, enjoys all forms of pickled or salted herring immensely. So by the age of six, I was hooked on pickled herring – be it with dill, cream sauce, “wine sauce,” or juniper berries. (As I wrote for Roads and Kingdoms, herring anywhere can send me back to my childhood.) My grandparents did not have to be present for herring either – my mother constantly kept pickled herring in the refrigerator. This was partly because she herself enjoyed the saltier varieties of herring on a sandwich. In addition, guests were often served, especially on Jewish holidays, a forshpizer of chopped herring – the leftovers of which were happily consumed by someone in the family. By the time I left for college, I had an insatiable and very homely love of pickled fish. One could say this was unusual for my generation – unless I had, like so many of my fellow hipsters, been introduced to herring at IKEA or a modern Jewish deli. (The former is not bad, the latter often does well too.) But one could also say that having grown up in New York, undoubtedly the preserved fish capital of North America – that it was destined to happen.

Russ and Daughters herring platter
A platter of herrings at the Russ and Daughters cafe extension in New York. Expensive but worth it! (Photo mine, August 2015.)

For many New Yorkers of all faiths, herring is a Jewish food. The city was introduced to pickled herring first by the Dutch colonists and Scottish and Irish migrants, but the most common forms of pickled herring today are those that Eastern European Jews brought with them from Poland and Lithuania in the late 19th century along with techniques for smoking fish, uses of fish, and myriad preparations of river fish. Today, shops like Russ and Daughters and Raskin’s do brisk business with a Jewish clientele seeking pickled herring, and most supermarkets with a large Jewish clientele carry at least a few brands of mass-market pickled herring. Herring is remembered by many Ashkenazi Jews as a mark of some bygone era of proper Judaism – or as a taste of a now-dying generation. Others use herring to prove their adherence to either Orthodox authenticity or a vaguely-shaped idea of Ashkenazi or “Yiddish” culture (which are sometimes combined). Meanwhile, the great Nordic obsession of the 21st-century Anglo-American bourgeoisie has catapulted the herring – also a food of “ordinary” Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and Icelanders – into the realm of “gourmet” cuisine. You can now spend too much money on “Scandinavian” or “Jewish” herrings at the chic boutiques of SoHo and the Upper East Side. Herring is Jewish and homely and Scandinavian and haute cuisine all at the same time. And by some, it is loved.

We forget – I too forget – in these reveries that herring was once an oft-maligned food of poverty. In Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries – and far before that – herring, salted or pickled, was the everyday staple of the Ashkenazi working and peasant classes. It was cheap – incredibly cheap, as it was fished, preserved, and shipped in huge quantities for the day. It was readily available and filling. And, it was consumed by pretty much everyone in much of the region – herring was a common protein source for Jews and non-Jews alike in Lithuania, Poland, and Germany. As documented by Michael Wex, Gil Marks, and Claudia Roden separately, a fairly typical meal for a Jew in late 19th-century Lithuania – be he in a yeshiva, working at a factory, or at a shop – would have been a piece of herring on black bread. The fish was so common that the Latvian-born British Jewish columnist Chaim Bermant described the diet of his childhood as such: “On Sunday, one had a pickled herring, on Monday soused herring, on Wednesday baked herring, on Thursday herring fried in oatmeal and on Friday herring with sour cream.” Herring was so common as to almost be hated by many who ate it every day. Meat was the luxury that was craved, as one Yiddish-language song opines, by those who only had “a spoiled little herring.” That said, herring also tied Ashkenazi Jewry to a wider world that spanned the Baltic and North Atlantic – an entire economy based on herring and cod, and a network of cultural influence from northern Iceland to Russia closely paralleled by the fish. (This world was brilliantly documented by Douglas Murray in his recent book Herring Tales.) Thousands of Jews across Baltic Europe, and in England, the Netherlands, and France, were also employed by the herring industry, including the father of the Lithuanian Jewish artist Marc Chagall.  Herring was, for many, the food on the table and what put food on the table.

Herring + tea + apple
Herring on rye toast with tea and an apple – the Ashkenazi meal of champions. I used this photo for my herring article for Roads and Kingdoms. Normally I would put less herring on, but I was celebrating finishing my master’s degree. (Photo mine, June 2015)

I’ll discuss global herring and the herring economy in a later post. For now, let us return to the United States and Canada, where memories and tastes shifted. Firstly, tastes shifted away from herring and foods like it. In the years after World War II, increasingly prosperous Ashkenazi Jews assimilated both into whiteness and “middle-class values” in America and the food habits and tastes of their Christian neighbors. Herring – that sour, fishy, smelly food of poverty and un-Americanness, was out, canned pears and mayonnaise were in. But then herring became stylish. Firstly, the increasing fascination with new flavors by the post-hippie yuppies of the 1980’s soon expanded beyond spicy and savory to the pickled – exactly where herring sat. Then there was the fact that Scandinavian products – including herring – became an increasing marker of class status in the late 20th century. Professionals who bought Scandinavian furniture and worshipped “Swedish design” also became interested in the herring sandwiches that fed the architects of Göteborg and Norrköping. These expanded tastes showed what Pierre Bourdieu would consider a marker of elite status, a proof of high social and economic capital that was a far cry from herring’s proletarian origins. Meanwhile, a new generation of Ashkenazi Jews, became interested in the food of their own ancestors and that of their Sephardi brothers and in other aspects of their heritage like Yiddish – encouraged, of course, by the increasing commodification and celebration of heritage in the 1980’s and 1990’s – became enamored of herring as well. In addition, in a time when the tastes of Jews in the US had shifted – both to new spices and flavors and to the mainstream sweet and bland flavors of white America, herring also provided access to a memory of the “good old days” for those disturbed by the change. Russ and Daughters was now not just an excellent place for pickled fish, but the preserved proof of a “more Jewish” time on a changing (and less white) Lower East Side. Of course, some Jews – Haredim, South Africans, and an older generation – had never stopped eating herring in the first place – or doing any of the other things a generation curious as to what it considered “authentically Jewish” (read: “Ashkenazi”).

Finally, the large-scale migration of Jews from the former Soviet Union to the United States and Canada also changed the perceptions and memories of herring. Herring – selyodka – had remained on the menu in the USSR, and Russian-speaking Jews brought their pickled herrings with them as they moved to New York, Toronto, Montréal, and Chicago. So now, there is also a whole other Jewish communal memory associated with herring – not the Yiddish yesteryear, but that of a Russian Jewish memory shaped by seven decades of novy byt.

Herring fridge
The herring fridge at a Russian supermarket in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of New York. I got … excited. (Photo mine, May 2015)

I wondered as a child why most of my other friends were not fond of herring. To a certain extent, the tart and fishy pickled herring is – was – for many of their palates a very foreign tastes. As I had noted, tastes in North America had shifted as Ashkenazi Jews largely assimilated into whiteness – which themselves were changing in what they ate and how they ate it. As Bee Wilson in First Bite and Donna Gabaccia in We Are What We Eat have written, flavor preferences in North America and Europe, led by the restaurant and food manufacturing industries, have largely centered around a trifecta of sweet, fatty, and salty flavors in the past fifty years. These tastes – along with social cues that I discussed in a post about Arab desserts – play heavy roles in everything from the flavors of a child’s first foods – formula, baby food, and “kid food” like chicken nuggets and children’s cereal – to the hip foods their parents may eat in wealthy neighborhoods. It is into this context, as Avery Robinson has noted in his work on kugel and “Jewish American foodways,” that North American Jews, their tastes, and their idea of “good Jewish food” have been assimilated. So the tart-sour, fishy-briny taste of pickled herring would be well outside this flavor profile. Perhaps – though South African Jews are very assimilated themselves in terms of food – it is my South African parents that introduced me to herring. Perhaps I was just an unusual child. The most likely thing is that I was simply introduced very early. Now, as more of my friends come to like pickled herring, the dish is used to recall not a simpler time, but rather one of different tastes.

Herring on an English muffin
Herring on an English muffin. (Photo mine, June 2016)

But herring, as you may realize, is also mobilized as a mark of authenticity and continuation – in a manner I’d rather eschew. I’ve seen a few Jews discuss how they are sad “no one eats herring anymore” or claim that they are doing Judaism properly or more authentically by eating herring. This idea, of realness, is rooted in a nostalgia that the theorist Svetlana Boym noted has a habit of “colonizing the present.” This authenticity, rooted in nostalgia, does exactly that – more so than anything truly reflective of the material past. Yes, herring is traditional in Ashkenazi communities. Yes, herring has great symbolism in our culture. But eating herring doesn’t make you any more Jewish than the person who doesn’t eat it, nor is it more right than say, only eating your fish “on sushi or a bagel.” Eat herring because you enjoy it, because you want it, and share it with your friends as something to enjoy and want, not to perform your superior authenticity to address your own insecurity at something we Jews all feel bad at doing: being Jewish. Besides, let’s not forget that for generations those “authentic” ancestors you seek to ape, those “real” Jews, were often quite keen to swap herring for canned tuna and rye bread for Wonder Bread. Or that the herring they preferred may well have been sourer and fishier than the one you do. (We are also affected by changing tastes.) What you remember when you eat herring – like what I remember – is always a “colonization of the present.”

How do we remember our humble little fish? For some, it is the food that fueled Ashkenazi Jews in the past in di alter heim – “the old country,” and a reminder of a lost taste palate or an authentic culture. For others, as it might be for me, a taste of childhood in New York or Moscow. And for others a reminder of our complex statuses as Ashkenazi Jews in North America – assimilated and not. It can be all of these or none of these. And what is forgotten when we remember is just as important – whether it is the crushing poverty that most Jews in Eastern Europe faced, the headlong rush into white Americanness the “authentic” Yiddish-speaking generation of grandparents encouraged and initiated (including the change of tastes!), the class dynamics of eating the “authentic” version an often pricy pickled delicacy, or the simple fact that in a sweet-fatty world, the tart-fishy pickled herring has a different place.

And as we remember herring, we keep eating it. At least I do.

1152409615_d1fd859a3f_z
A school of herring. (Photo Arild Finne Nyboe via Creative Commons)

“Arab and Sephardi Pastries Are Too Sweet”: Sugar, Power, Taste, and the Politics of Sweets

Nota bene: this post takes a more academic turn than past posts.

This post starts because I wanted to make qatayef for Shavuot. (Sadly, I ran out of time before the holiday to make them.) Qatayef are pancakes, filled with sweet white cheese or walnuts, which are then fried and served with a rosewater-infused syrup. They are native to the Levant – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine – and are frequently served both for Ramadan, which is currently occurring, and by Syrian Jews for Shavuot. Qatayef are extremely popular in Arab communities around the world, and new types of the pastry are constantly created – for example, filled with Nutella. Like their Muslim and Christian neighbors, Jewish communities from Syria served them for festivals for centuries, and continue to do so in diaspora. The cheese variety is considered a specialty of Shavuot, and other Jewish communities have since taken on to eating them. When Shavuot coincides with Ramadan, as it does this year, one could also say it is qatayef season. Indeed, who would not want a season of delicious, spongey dough filled with luscious cheese and nuts, with the sugary taste of syrup dancing on your tongue?

Qatayef with cheese and pistachios
A more open qatayef with sweet cheese and ground pistachios – they look so yummy! (Photo Abbad Diraneyya via Wikimedia Commons)

In case you couldn’t tell, I personally think qatayef are awesome.

While looking up recipes for qatayef ­– which are also called atayef or ataif, I recalled the prior times I had eaten them: most notably, one time in an overheated Syrian pastry shop in Queens. I had been with an Ashkenazi Israeli acquaintance, who waved his hand dismissively as he told me “all these Arab and Sephardi pastries are far too sweet.” And indeed, I had heard many Ashkenazim claim that the traditional desserts of the Middle East, or North Africa, or the Balkans, and the sweets of the Jews of these regions were all a tad more sugary than tasteful. “Cloying.” “Intoxicating.” “Too sweet.”

“Too sweet,” you say?

Qatayef in syrup
Delicious qatayef bathing in glorious attar. (Photo Hasan Isawi via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

Okay, let’s back up here for a moment. “Too sweet” from Ashkenazim is kind of cute in a quaint and awkward way, given that we serve things like taiglach, little pastries that are literally doused and boiled in honey. I hate taiglach with a burning and fiery passion, but among things that I like from the Ashkenazi tradition, we find macaroons exploding with sugar, hamantashen stuffed with ever-sweeter fillings, and sour cream cakes that seem to have an expanding sugar topping as the years go by. You get the idea: we can be “too sweet.” That said, white Gentiles have also called our sweets “too sweet.” (And the food other things – this will be in two or three posts’ time.) This is also supremely awkward and tragically quaint. Let us not forget that White Middle America serves the dessert salad, which may even contain combinations of Cool Whip, Snickers bars, and Jell-O. Meanwhile, élite coastal America has gone on a juice craze in which ever-sweeter, ever-more-sugary drinks substitute for solid foods. Who has an oversized sweet tooth now?

To be fair, we shouldn’t be shaming people for having a sweet tooth. But the “proper amount of sweetness” – and whose food is “too sweet” – is always a very political determination. Just as Ashkenazim, who hold power and privilege in Israel, deemed Mizrahi food to be “too spicy” or “too peppery” in the 1950s, so too have other foods of the non-elite been called too extreme in flavor. The food of “Russians” (also Ashkenazi!) was too salty, the food of “Arabs” too fatty, the food of the Yemenites “too pungent.” And the sweets like qatayef, of course, were far too extremely sweet – or so it was said – for the Ashkenazi tongue. This is akin, as I noted above, to how Ashkenazi sweets (and sour foods too!) were held in low regard by American “reformers” in the early 20th century, or how the food of the black working class is considered “too fatty” or “too sweet” by the white middle class here in the United States. Sweetness is always political.

semolina halva
Turkish sweets are also often called “too sweet” by Westerners – but they are often so delicious, like this nutty, toasty semolina halva (ırmık helvası) I enjoyed in İzmir. (Photo mine, May 2015)

But sweetness is also a way of showing “good taste.” After all, “taste” is about status at the end of the day – as the French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu noted, “taste” and “knowledge” are the cornerstones of marking oneself as “elite.” So too – as Bourdieu himself noted, famously in his chart of the food space, that certain tastes showed more knowledge of food, more cultural and economic capital, and thus higher status. It is the same with sweetness in the Jewish world – a certain type of sweetness is othered and ethnicized as “Mizrahi” and “lower-class,” but that same “natural-sweetness” can be celebrated in an “Ashkenazi” or “elite” dessert. (Apply as you will to other ethnocultural contexts.) At the same time, it is also reversed: the love of something exotic and recherché, (which is for many folks Mizrahi and Arab sweets!) can also show higher-status standing whilst sticking with “traditional” or more well-known foods shows a lack of “cultural capital.” One interesting consequence of multiculturalism is that “knowing” an “exotic” dish – itself a deeply politically loaded term – can score you status points even as its key flavorings are dismissed as “bad taste” in the cultural economy. It is a show of high cultural and economic status to “know” and even be at ease– and I borrow Shamus Khan’s use of “ease” here – with the sweetness of a dessert, but at the same time be able to declare it “too sugary.” So it is good taste to know qatayef, but it is also good taste to recoil at the joyous sweetness it brings.

Whose “sweet” is “too sweet?” This, I have demonstrated, is as much a question of social status as it is of physical taste and ideologies of “what is good for you.” It is also perhaps biological – as Bee Wilson noted in her book First Bite, many of the base limits of our tastes are dependent on what we eat in early childhood. That might limit some of the kinds of sweetness we like, but it does not change the politics of how we express it. When qatayef and kanafeh and baklava are dismissed as too sweet in a Jewish context, it is inflected with a context that is not quite as present for other foods.

Permit me an anecdote: a few weeks after the qatayef incident, the same friend who called them “too sweet” brought me two macarons from a well-known bakery. At the time, white-collar New York was in the midst of a macaron craze – everyone, it seemed, wanted an airy almond-meringue cookie with different “elegant” flavorings. The macaron was “classy.” It was recherché. It was more “elegant” and “refined” than a chocolate chip cookie. I’d had a macaron or two before – they were fine. These macarons were supposed to be “the real deal,’ though. I took one bite and…the sugar rush went straight to my head in a way it did not for qatayef, or brownies, or jams. It was so sweet. I did not say anything – it would be rude to turn down such an expensive gift – but I silently cringed as I finished the two macarons. I wonder now: would the declaration “macarons are too sweet” be taken as axiomatic as it is for qatayef or any Arab or Arab-Jewish confections?

The moral? Let people have their tastes, but also recognize that tastes are always socially inflected. So when we say that a group’s desserts are “too sweet,” do we mean only that they are too sweet? No, because if the sweets are from a community that we have power over – Mizrahim for Ashkenazim, Arabs for Ashkenazi Jews in Israel, Jews and Arabs alike for White Gentiles in America – is it also a reflection that we have been taught, our tastes have been primed to find those things distastefully sweet. And part of unlearning that is to celebrate different tastes, but some of it is also to find where our own, in their power, can be critiqued.

Qatayef asafiri
A souped-up version of qatayef asafiri qatayef with cream – in Lebanon. (Photo Deed89 via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

And in all this we should leave the qatayef in their proper place. Which is preferably within our easy reach.


I recommend the qatayef recipe by Hala’s Kitchen, which is simple and easy to follow. For a more involved recipe, take a look at the recipe by Anissa Helou, one of my food heroes, whose post from before the Syrian Civil War is a painful look back at the now-bittersweet delicious memories of Damascus many Syrians hold.

Enjoy! (And to this blog’s Muslim readers, Ramadan mubarak wa-karim!)

Great Books: First Bite: How We Learn To Eat, by Bee Wilson

Bread pudding
Bread pudding – a childhood favorite, but also reflective of foods commonly given young children. (Photo mine, February 2016)

“To anticipate pleasure in the next meal – something that can take up the greater part of the day, in my experience – is always a form of memory. And each mouthful recalls other mouthfuls you’ve eaten in the past. It stands to reason, therefore, that the flavor patterns in our brains are highly dependent on all the things we’ve tasted in the past, especially during childhood.” (Wilson 2015, 51)

The acclaimed British food writer Bee Wilson came out with a fascinating new book this past December: First Bite: How We Learn To Eat. In it, Wilson examines how memory, childhood eating habits, food practices we learn from our parents, culture, and taste all combine to create our dietary habits and preferences. Why is someone who is picky at five picky at fifty? How is it that children can be taught to like new foods? How do our dietary habits and culturally determined desires affect the healthiness of our food choices? And if – as Wilson amply proves – likes and dislikes in food are not nature, but nurture, what can we do? Wilson explores various ways that not only show how food choices can – slowly and steadily – be changed, but also how these ideas about food even evolve in the first place.

The book is structured in eight chapters, roughly topical: “Likes and Dislikes,” “Memory,” “Children’s Food,” “Feeding,” “Brothers and Sisters,” “Hunger,” “Disorder,” and “Change.” In each, Wilson shows how food culture and habits and the way children are raised with food affect everything from eating disorders – the idea that only boys should like certain foods, for example – to how the mass marketing of children’s food has led to a global convergence around a taste combination of salt, sugar, and fat. Wilson provides a rather stunning overview.

The book is also delightfully written and flows like a conversation – or, more aptly, like a sauce! I read almost the entire volume on a five-hour train journey, and could not put it down.

My favorite sections were the first two – on what we like and how we remember it. As a diaspora nerd, I always find the question of memory particularly vexing and beautiful at the same time: is our nostalgia a “colonization of the present” by what we want, or is it a reaching into the past to make sense of the present and tie it to place and culture? In the Jewish context, how does remembered childhood memories of food – kneidlach, corn pashtida, or quince jam – determine what other foods we like, or how we envision home? (Beyond the obvious “that is where kneidlach are eaten.”) And how does our approach to Jewish food relate to what we ate in early childhood? Wilson notes that many of our tastes are determined between the ages of four and eight months, and some tastes through the third year of life. So, for example, the fact that I liked to bite into lemons as a little child (true story) might be why I’m rather fond of both dishes with citrus (in many forms) and sour food more generally. This is maybe why American babka is that sweet, or why the sour taste of schav might fail to capture the mind of someone whose earliest nourishment outside breast milk was sweetened infant formula. Wilson’s work provides a path to explore all these points.

The book isn’t perfect – I think Wilson could have done a better job of addressing class and income, and how both significantly affect the ability one has to change what one eats. In addition, the way gender is addressed is a bit underwhelming – especially given how us queer folks have very complicated relationships with food and gender. But First Bite is definitely worth a read, it’s incredibly informative, and I think many of the points can spur interesting discussions. To add a Jewish angle to this whole thing – after all, this is a Jewish food blog – I thought of two questions that I’d like to mull over, inspired by this book’s chapter on Memory:

  1. For those of us who started keeping kosher later in life, how does memory play a role in addressing the various challenges that are presented by, say, avoiding a food one used to like? Does the advent of “kosher bacon” and imitation shrimp stem from curiosity, or a desire to restore – within the framework of halakhafoods once beloved?
  2. If so many food tastes are learned in early childhood, what happens to reviving certain Jewish food traditions? It is interesting to think about how an adult’s revulsion to or love for p’tcha or schav upon first taste is in part determined by what he might have consumed at the age of two or three. What are the bounds of revival? How do these early tastes change how we cook Jewish food as adults? Is my taste for sour food in part due to my toddler-hood love for biting into lemons?

Wilson, Bee. First Bite: How We Learn To Eat. New York, Basic: 2015.

Great Books: Jewish Food in America, by Joan Nathan

Dried salmon hanging on hooks
Dried salmon on display at London’s Jewish food festival, Gefiltefest. Photo mine, June 2015.

Sometimes, those TV books are really awesome. This is one of them.

Joan Nathan – balabusta extraordinaire and America’s top Jewish food public figure– wrote Jewish Cooking in America back in the early 1990’s. The thick book – filled with history and food – won so much attention that it then got turned into a wildly successful PBS series. (I strongly urge that you find a way to watch the series, because it is awesome.) Then the book got updated to serve as a companion to the show with somehow more recipes. 

Yes, it is a “TV book.” It is also packed to the brim with recipes, popular and unpopular. You have the “classics” of various culinary traditions – kneidlach from Eastern Europe, bourekas from the Sephardi world, Yemenite soups, and challah from many traditions. You also have the less popular things – the p’tcha, calf’s foot aspic, and hilbeh – that’s Yemenite fenugreek spread – and rhubarb soups. (I have had all three and they are all delicious.) And then there are the more labor intensive ones – directions to pickle your own herring (yes, yes, yes, yes, yes), and make fish gelatin molds (please no), and to make your own gefilte fish (yes). In short, it’s…a great compendium.

Admittedly this book sometimes falls a bit too far down the authenticity rabbit hole for my tastes – there is much stock placed in the “real recipe” and Jewish “traditions” here. That said, the book is very much a product of the 1990’s, which was perhaps the era of peak “authentic.” Yet Nathan also questions authenticity throughout the book – she notes where Jews have made substitutions for spices or flavors, or added their own twists, or adopted local cuisines. Georgian-Jewish Southern Fried Chicken might be the best recipe title I’ve ever read. And the book is filled with stories of real people from throughout American history – ordinary and extraordinary Jews who cooked, ate, and rejoiced.

A link to the book on Amazon is at the bottom of this post, and I strongly urge you to look at Nathan’s writing at Tablet (the only thing from Tablet I make sure to read) and The New York  TimesBut first, let me leave you with two choice quotes from material in the book. The first is her own writing; the second is the best historical food quote I’ve seen on Judaism.

“For second- and third-generation American Jews, what was once daily subsistence became a special occasion food. In Europe, knishes, like kugels and latkes, were a way of varying the daily monotony of potatoes for the poor. Here during the sweatshop era, knishes, a portable food like pasties … were eaten for lunch every day. Thereafter these foods disappeared as daily fare. Now they are in vogue again, having reappeared in miniature form as hors d’oeuvres at weddings and other ceremonial events, and as fast-food snacks.” (Nathan 2011:4)

The shade!

“‘You wrote to me some time agoe (sic) you was asked at my brother Asher’s to a fish dinner but you did not go. I desire you will never eat anything with him unless it be bread and butter nor noe where else where there is the last doubt of things not done after our strict Judiacall method.’ – A letter from Abigail Franks of Philadelphia to her son Naphtali in London, 1733.” (Franks 1733 in Nathan 2011:131)

Nathan, Joan. Jewish Cooking in America. New York, Knopf: 1994, 1998, 2011.

Tu biShvat, Dates, and the Occupation

A pile of dates
Dates in a market in Spain. They are traditional for Tu BiShvat. Photo Hans Hillewaert/CC.

Greetings from a blizzard-bound New York! Though it is hard to think about green trees when this city is being given up to seventy centimeters of snow, Sunday night and Monday mark Tu biShvat, commonly called the “New Year for Trees.” The holiday originates in halakha (Jewish law): certain trees’ fruits cannot be eaten for the tree’s first three years of life. Those years are counted from Tu biShvat, thus it is the “New Year” for trees: Rosh Hashanah 2.0. As a New Year, it is a time of at least a little celebration. The Sephardic kabbalists of the medieval era developed a seder for the day, in which the seven species and other fruits of the soil are consumed and discussed. The theological component is that the ceremony and the holiday are an opportunity to strengthen the Etz Khayyim – the Tree of Life – the Kabbalistic metaphor for the nature of G-d and His/Her/Hir Creation. In modern times, however, the holiday has become increasingly associated with environmental causes – a sort of Jewish Arbor Day. Many foods are traditional for Tu BiShvat, but the “Seven Species” are the most common. These plants, identified in Deuteronomy 8, are those associated closely with the biblical land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates.

My favorite is the humble date. Sweet and intense, sticky and nutty: the date is quite the fruit. So I am quite happy that the Tu biShvat tradition includes date consumption – plain, in muffins, in pilafs…eating a date becomes slightly sanctified. But buying a packet of dates is not always a holy act.

See, many of the dates sold in the United States and Europe – and especially those sold in areas with large Jewish populations – are marked as “grown in Israel,” but are actually sourced from illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Many of these farms are built on expropriated Palestinian land. Many use child labor. All of them benefit from an occupying régime that abuses the Palestinian population it de facto governs, limits their movements, and violates international law. So for those of us who oppose what is wrought in the West Bank and Gaza in our name as Jews, buying agricultural products from the settlements is  … problematic. Some folks, like myself, try our utmost to not buy them – not necessarily in terms of a boycott, more that…we do not want the current situation to continue. But in an environment when so many products in the Jewish world come from settlements, or you’re not sure where they come from – it’s not as easy as it seems. “Israeli” dates and other warm-weather fruits are particularly likely to come from these areas.

Some of you may be wondering: how can I avoid funneling my money into the Occupation? Let’s start with buying dates for Tu BiShvat (or anytime), since that is a temporally topical problem. Here’s how to find dates without financially supporting the theft of Palestinian land.

  1. The easiest/lazy option is to just simply not buy dates at all.
  2. Another option that is “easy” or “lazy” is to not buy “Israeli” dates at all. You can buy Californian dates, Tunisian dates, and Moroccan dates fairly easily across the United States. Note that these may not be certified as “kosher.”
  3. If you do wish to buy Israeli dates, or no others are available, I find that one trick that works is to check the city of the hashgacha, or kosher seal, on the package. (This requires some Hebrew and geography knowledge.) Kosher seals are usually geographically based, and certain ones tend to be on settlement products more often than others. I do not buy products with any settlement indicator, and generally will also not buy products with hashgachot from Jerusalem, since many of them are sourced in the West Bank. Ashdod and Ashkelon are generally “safe” bets. I use this trick for Israeli products generally.