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.