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.
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Potato Kugel

Potato kugel on a plate

Few Ashkenazi dishes invite as many reveries or passionate opinions as the potato kugel. It seems that everyone I talk to – everyone that has some Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, that is – has a) an often cherished memory of eating potato kugel, b) an opinion on how (or whether) it should be made, and c) a forsworn allegiance to a certain person’s or place’s version of the dish. For those of you who have not had a potato kugel, it is a dense and starchy potato casserole, slightly crispy on the outside and very chewy on the inside. It is one of Jewish cuisine’s many carbohydrate-loaded delicacies, and is utterly delicious.

Cutting a kugel with a celery stalk
I once brought a kugel to a potluck picnic, but we forgot a knife to cut it. Hence, a substitution was made. Photo mine, July 2011.

I briefly touched upon the kugel’s origins in my post on corn kugel / pashtida; let us recap in more detail. Kugels initially began as spherical, dense flour-based casseroles cooked within the Sabbath cholent stew. Even today, this practice still persists in some communities – though the Yiddish word “kugel” has since evolved from its original German meaning of “sphere.” In the nineteenth century, it also became common to bake the kugel as a stand-alone item – especially as the noodle kugel became more popular. Kugels were made with many things – and especially with the new star of Eastern European cuisine in the late 18th and early 19th century, the potato. Kugels also became popular with the other peoples Jews lived among – in Lithuania, kugelis is still a popular dish. Thus when Ashkenazi Jews fanned out from the Alter Heim to North America, Argentina, South Africa, the United Kingdom, France, and beyond…the kugel travelled with them. And stuck – so that even today, you can buy prepared kugels in kosher supermarkets and have recipes by star cooks for them. (For more on how and why they stuck, I direct you to an excellent master’s thesis by Avery Robinson.) Even the New York Times Magazine recently ran an article on potato kugels – complete with a recipe prefaced by the title “Almost Traditional Jewish Cooking.” Almost traditional indeed – for even as it is homemade, it continues to evolve.

Kugelis
Lithuanian kugelis. Photo edenpictures via Wikimedia Commons (CC/Open).

I find that the kugel is an interesting starting point to discuss Jewish authenticity. In some ways it is considered the Ur-authentic: a kugel is what so many imagine must have graced the tables of our ancestors in Eastern Europe; the dish is often presented as a traditional Ashkenazi dish at potlucks and food festivals and the like. Yet the kugel itself has evolved so much over the centuries – is it authentic only if it is made in a cholent? Only if it is made with flour? Can a potato kugel, made from a tuber that only became widespread in Eastern Europe in the 19th century, be authentic? And then there is the whole matter of the potato kugel being served alongside very … non-traditional Ashkenazi dishes. I myself have eaten potato kugel with: stir-fried bok choy (very Ashkenazi), chili con carne (ditto), and stewed collard greens (completely native to the shtetl). And if it is served by an otherwise unengaged Jew, or a non-Jew (gasp!), is it still authentic? If anything, the kugel is a reminder that authenticity becomes this impossible fashion contest, and perhaps always is.

Yet beyond this question of the authentic there is this beautiful idea that the kugel brings one “home.” Even today, there is something for so many of us Ashkenazi Jews delightfully heimish – that’s Yiddish for “home-like,” in a domestic and cuddly sort of way – about a potato kugel. Kugels, as the New York Times article noted, are “good or bad,” and it is the “good” kugel (though that term is so highly subjective!) that can bring about reveries. Or, as a friend who makes a phenomenal potato kugel once said, “it is the heimishkeit that makes it good!” It is also something that is often cooked not by recipe, but by “eyeball.” I myself make potato kugel without measurements or consulting directions, but rather from a family tradition. After all, it is something that I myself ate growing up.

And when I do take a bite, I sometimes go into that reverie, much as Proust did with his madeleine – back to that imagined Jewish home-ness.


 

My recipe is an approximation – as I noted, I make this kugel by heart, based on my grandmother’s recipe. It is a flexible and versatile recipe that pairs well with many dishes, and you can adjust it accordingly. Let me know what you do with it – and also if you have a recipe of your own you’d like to share!

A last note: one big difference between various kugel recipes is the binding agent used to mesh the kugel together. Most common are flour and matzoh meal, but my friend Joshua introduced me to the use of potato starch, which also makes a fine kugel – though one that is rather denser than the one I have here. This kugel can also be made with sweet potatoes; that is a common American variation.

Potato kugel on a plate
A slice of potato kugel, ready to meet its fate as my breakfast. Photo mine, January 2016.

 

Potato Kugel

Based on the recipe of Annushka Smit Freiman. See an additional note on ingredients below.

5 medium-to-large potatoes, peeled

One medium onion, diced

Two scallions, chopped

6 large eggs, lightly beaten

1/3 cup oil

1 tbsp salt

1.5 tsp black pepper

1 tsp ground thyme

2/3 cup flour

 

Oil, to grease the pan

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Grease a 9×9 pan for a deeper kugel, 9×13 for a slightly shallower kugel.
  2. Grate your potatoes with a somewhat wide grate. I grate by hand because I like full control over the consistency, but you can do this with a food processor too. To avoid discoloration, keep the gratings in water in a large mixing bowl.
  3. Squeeze the liquid out of the potato gratings. Or, if you’ve been storing the potatoes in water, strain then squeeze.
  4. Add the chopped onions and scallions, mix in thoroughly with the potatoes.
  5. Add the eggs, oil, and spices, and mix in thoroughly.
  6. Add the flour in two batches and mix in thoroughly until well-combined into the mixture. At this point you should have potatoes and onions in a thick batter. If your batter is too thick, add a bit of oil or an egg. If it is very watery, add more flour.
  7. Pour the mixture into your greased pan and make sure that it is evenly spread. Smooth it out on the top with a fork.
  8. Bake for 45 minutes – 1 hour in your oven, or until the top is golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean.

Note: kugels, by nature, are quite flexible. One can swap the oil for butter for a dairy kugel, or chicken fat (schmaltz) for a meat one. I sometimes use a smaller onion and add a chopped leek rather than a scallion, or I forgo the rather heterodox scallion altogether and use more onion instead.

Welcome to Flavors of Diaspora

Jewish food is inseparable from experience: beyond questions of what is “authentic” or “best,” Jewish food as an idea and as a concrete object relies on the memories, preferences, and cravings of Jews themselves. That idea is one thing academically – but it’s another thing when we actually live it by cooking and eating food through that lens of experience. That’s what I – and admittedly, many others – want to do. Hence this blog.

Flavors of Diaspora is my own attempt to explore the food experience of the Jewish diaspora through cooking recipes not passed down through tomes of “authentic Jewish cooking” and haute cuisine, but rather the experiences and words of friends, family, and the Jews all around us. The Jewish diaspora, in its scatterings, has always had flavors and taste somewhere close to the heart of the meaning of “Jewish,” and this little website is a homage to that.

(This section can also be found on the “About” tab)

This blog was born out of two desires. Firstly, I wanted to cook – well, I always want to cook. Specifically, I wanted to make recipes handed down not through cookbooks or media, but rather from friends and family through experience and memory. Jewish food is more than simply a set of cuisines: it is also an everyday practice of living in diaspora, of being Jewish, and of social interaction. Food is a way we tie memory to place, identities to ideas, and all of those to ourselves. Secondly, I wanted to explore Jewish food history in a hands-on way, but not constrained by the tawdry, cliché, and frankly snobbish idea of “authenticity.” I find, too often, that “engaged” Jews are so concerned with being “authentic” or re-enacting some or other historical fantasy of Judaism that they ignore the beautiful Jewishness under their very noses. (I, too, can fall into this trap.) I would rather cook Jewish food as remembered or lived and worry about the dressing of it later.

If you’re still interested, you should feel free to send me recipes or other food-related memories or experiences you want me to make, write about, or discuss! Here is the link to the Google form. If I write about it, you’ll be contacted before and during writing, and you’ll be credited after publishing.

A bit about me. My name is Jonathan Katz. By day I’m a civil servant in New York City. By night, I’m a nerd for all things diaspora and mildly obsessed with food – be it what I just ate, what I am eating, what I will eat soon, or “noms” in the abstract. I’ve written about diaspora, Judaism, food, migration, and other stuff for The Jewish Daily Forward, New Voices Magazine, Roads and Kingdoms, Africa Is A Country, The Jewish News, Quarterly of East Asian Studies, Border Criminologies, Makom, and The Chicago Maroon.

In addition: this blog has nothing to do with my day job – it does not represent my employer’s views or activities or habits or anything. I write this as a completely separate thing, and nothing in this blog represents my employer in any which way. (I need to say that.)

The header image, of poppy seeds – a seasoning frequently found in Ashkenazi Jewish cooking – comes from “Odedr,” via Wikipedia. The image is in the public domain.