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.

Great Books: We Are What We Eat, by Donna R. Gabaccia

“The history of the bagel suggests that Americans’ shifting, blended, multi-ethnic eating habits are signs neither of postmodern decadence, ethnic fragmentation, nor corporate hegemony. If we do not understand how a bagel could sometimes be Jewish, sometimes be “New York,” and sometimes be American, or why it is that Pakistanis now sell bagels to both Anglos and Tejanos in Houston, it is in part because we have too hastily assumed that our tendency to cross cultural boundaries in order to eat ethnic foods is a recent development – and a culinary symptom of all that has gone wrong with contemporary culture.” (Gabaccia 1998: 5)

Everything bagel with chopped herring
Eating an everything bagel with chopped herring – so good. Photo mine, October 2015.

I love, love, love this book. Donna Gabaccia – a badass professor at the University of Toronto (formerly of UNC-Charlotte) – wrote a food history in the 1990’s that deconstructed both the idea of “ethnic food” and how mixing and matching food traditions both created American cuisine(s) and also ideas of what culinary boundaries are. Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine plays a big role in this story, and Gabaccia opens up with a tale about a Pakistani immigrant who opens up a “New York bagel” shop in Texas. In many ways, this exploration is both a celebration of how significantly various cuisines from differently-marginalized groups (Jews included) changed American cuisine, and how ultimately useless “authenticity” is as a culinary term. Is authenticity really just a performance of eating whatever everyone else thinks we eat?

On another level, this book is a must-have for another reason: if you ever needed more proof of how thoroughly important indigenous American foods are, the first chapter of this book offers a lot. Corn, beans, squash, pumpkin, turkeys, tomatoes, chili peppers, baking powder…potatoes. Potatoes. Where would “authentic Jewish” cuisine be without these New World foods?

Gabaccia, Donna R. We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. Cambridge, Harvard: 1998. Available on Amazon.com.

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.