Iceland and Storytelling for Jewish Modern Food

A greenhouse with plants on green grass.
A greenhouse for growing tomatoes and other vegetables in Reykholt in Southern Iceland (Photo Salvor/public domain)

This post starts with a country that most people do not think of for Jewish food: Iceland. I recently went on a lovely trip there with my partner. Iceland has many things to love, big and small. Among these things are the food. Some of the food comes from Iceland’s pastoral and fishing heritage: lamb, skyr, butter, cod, and rye bread. And some comes from the incredible creativity of Icelanders – tomatoes and carrots from greenhouses powered by geothermal heat, bread combining the flours of the world with local flavors and advantages; and an abundance of high-quality processed foods. The latter is what I am thinking about here. As I walked through supermarkets in Iceland (something I love to do whenever I travel), I thought about Rachel Laudan’s call for embracing modernist food. If any country has heard this, it is Iceland.

Triangular red and white milk container saying "Mjolk 1 litri"
Triangular milk container from the 1960s at the National Museum of Iceland. (Photo mine, March 2022)

Iceland’s wholehearted embrace of modernity for food – and all the promises that brings – is inspiring. Much of this has to do with the fact that Icelanders aren’t overly romantic about the hardships of the past, which were particularly harsh for a volcanic country just off the Arctic Circle. Modernity is not bad or unnatural – it means that vegetables can be grown closer to home, Icelanders can have a high quality of life, and healthy food is readily available with a fair amount of variety. Some countries direct travelers to unbroken agricultural traditions. Iceland – especially its government – goes in the opposite direction. Icelanders show off greenhouses and posters explaining all of Iceland’s excellent milk products. This push comes not just as a promise of prosperity – but also as a new way of revitalizing traditions, from preserved fish to skyr to some of Iceland’s more notorious specialties. In some ways, this embrace even enhances some of Iceland’s traditions, such as the baking traditions that preserve recipes now lost in the mainland Nordic countries.

Checkered jam pastry and fried knot pastry on parchment
Icelandic pastries – hjónabandssæla on the top, kleina on the bottom (photo mine, March 2022)

We should all be like Icelanders in this way.

Some people pooh-pooh the industrial and artificial for a “natural” history they romanticize and misremember. I have made this point again and again on this blog. A lot of this has to do with the stories people would rather tell or hear about the food they eat. Stories are nice but should not be the basis for advocacy or a food system – the good old days were not very good. (Especially for Jews and Icelanders, and black people in the Americas.) Rather, as Laudan notes, we need to advocate for high quality processed foods. Or as I say, we should try to become a bit more like Iceland. For that, the advocacy and the making is not enough – we also need to tell stories.

In her masterful Cook As You Are, Ruby Tandoh asks us to imagine what a narrative (which she calls a “mythos”) for processed food looks like. As I noted, Iceland is already beginning to get there with modern food. And part of that has to do with the stories – that there is something about making the highlands bloom with greenhouses, or the clever reuse of Iceland’s volcanic features and abundant water. And let us not forget that Iceland fought off British ships – and won – to be able to fish for cod, which was then processed – and by then, in very modern ways. Those fishermen are well-remembered. There is humor in these stories, too, such as a book of poetry in honor of the discount supermarket Bónus. (I have read it, and can confirm that it is funny.)

A refrigerator with four shelves stacked with packaged dairy products
Shelves of Israeli industrial dairy. The fruit yogurts at bottom left are a personal favorite. Iceland has a similar selection. (Photo Rakoon via CC/Wikimedia, 2018)

Some of this type of storytelling does exist in Israel, with narratives of the kibbutz and the behemoth of the Israeli modern food system. I want to ask: what would American Jewish modernist food storytelling look like? Of course the stories themselves would vary – some stories would be about technology, some about ingenuity, and some about tradition. I would hope that some would be about the workers in plants and in supermarkets and the cooks in commercial kitchens. I think many would be about familiar foods – say, the workers who produce industrial matzah meal or cream cheese, or the technological ingenuity of canned, jarred beets. Others could show the promise of new technologies and tie them to traditional foods – imagine a hraimeh or gefilte fish made from fish grown in new forms of aquaculture, or borekas made in giant air fryers. And most of the stories can only be told after the innovation happens.  Nothing in this lore would negate the Jewishness of this food. Icelanders can tie their modern embrace to their rich cultural tradition – and so should we. 

So let’s start thinking of these stories.

Things You Can Learn From Autistic Cooks

This is the third post in a three-part series; you can read Part One here and Part Two here.

I am not a big believer in specific rules around cooking or what is proper. In these pages, I have called some of these rules “bullshit.” Cooking is great, but cooking is also work, and cooking is an intense experience. Sometimes, you do not have the time, money, resources, energy, space, or patience to follow everything to a T. No one has this 100% of the time. So you have to cook in your own ways, on your own terms. There is nothing wrong with that – but food media will tell you so.

As an autistic person, I find that many autistic people are better at knowing how to navigate these realities – and are not afraid to do so. We already have to navigate a whole, messy world – and food is one part of that. I think everyone, though, can benefit from some of these tricks, autistic or not. So, here are six things you can learn from autistic cooks – across the spectrums of autism and cooking habits.

cabinet of spices
A cabinet of spices. (Photo public domain)

1. Be very honest about what you can and cannot do in the kitchen.  Autistic cooks are often quite forthright about the skills they lack or find exceedingly difficult – whether it be because of common motor coordination or sensory issues or the things anyone might find tricky. While it can be good to build an ability to do something, I think there is a lesson here for everyone. It’s okay to know what you cannot do … and move on.

It can be disappointing to admit that you cannot do something, or cannot do something easily. However, this does not make you less capable or less good of a cook. No one person can do everything, and it is perfectly okay to work with certain bounds or to not do certain things. Honesty can make cooking a far more enjoyable experience.

As an example: my motor coordination is not fine enough to easily fold in egg whites into a batter, so I tend to avoid these recipes.

2. Allow yourself the time you actually need, not what you think other people expect you to need. Many autistic people are forthright about the fact that things can take more time for us – for me, it’s chopping; for others, it might be gathering ingredients or preparing various implements. We often discuss how inadequate suggested preparation time in recipes can be. We also plan more time to cook. I suggest that everyone do this – you know best how long things take for you. The suggested preparation times in books are not a dictum on your ability to cook. Give yourself lots of time, and feel no guilt.

3. Prepared ingredients are good. Many autistic people rely heavily on prepared, processed ingredients like store-chopped onions, frozen peas, packaged cooked beets, and certain kinds of mixes. These ingredients help many who struggle with the executive function of cooking, and also help those who take a bit more time in the kitchen. In addition, these ingredients’ predictability are comforting and even enjoyable by many autistic people. Many non-autistic cook shun these ingredients as short-cuts.

Yes, the original ingredients are different and in some cases taste better or are more predictable. However, a prepared ingredient can mean the difference between cooking and not cooking, or having the time to cook, or being able to cook something you want to make. They also save a lot of time and energy. I think everyone should be more honest and open about using these ingredients. As Rachel Laudan notes, we need “culinary modernism.”

Besides, many well-known chefs and food writers now make recipes that involve these ingredients and take advantage of their specific characteristics – Nadiya Hussain is particularly adept in this regard.

4. There’s nothing wrong with repetition or relying heavily on a few things. Most autistic people like repetition in some form or some shape. Food is an obvious example. Many autistic cooks, including myself, make extensive use of leftovers – dinner one day can also be lunch for the next two days. For some people, that would be dinner for two days as well. Many other people do not handle repetition in their food well – but I have to say, the repetition does make meal planning a lot easier. It is also less time-consuming (you cook once) and expensive.

Many autistic people – and for times in my life, including me – also rely heavily on a few foods. For some people, these foods are known quantities that do not introduce new things that can be overwhelming. For others, these foods do not require a huge amount of cognitive function to make. Many non-autistic people (like my partner) rely on certain dishes or foods, but it seems to be much more common among autistic people. This practice, I think, is good. It takes a lot of the cognitive work out of everyday, non-celebratory cooking – and is far easier for grocery shopping too. If you are just starting off cooking, or find cooking difficult, I think finding a few “reliable” dishes is a good idea. Two of mine for a long time were toast with spinach and eggs, and lentils and okra. (I do not eat the latter very much anymore – my partner despises okra.)

Some of you may have seen the terms “same foods” and “safe foods” bandied about. A “same food” is a food that an autistic person relies very heavily on – sometimes for dozens of meals in a row, a “safe food” is one that can always be consumed. I find a lot of the discourse in the autism community about “same foods” and “safe foods” absolutely cringe-inducing.  I also think that this discourse represents a minority experience, and is often rooted in people using autism as an excuse to feel entitled to other people’s labor, time, and work. As an autistic person, I find this infuriating.

The lesson here is about repetition as a concept, and reliability as a concept, but also being mindful of not being entitled to other people’s labor, time, or work. The vast majority of autistic people find regularity without that entitlement. Please do so too, non-autistic readers.

5. Substitutions are an art, not a cop-out. Many autistic people have sensory or taste aversions to certain foods: basically, eating these foods can be a painful, highly distressing experience. (To the point where many autistic people can handle an emergency better than they can handle a surprise encounter with certain foods.) As a result, autistic people often make substitutions when cooking.

Many people think substitutions are a cop-out. I disagree. Knowing how to replace something to imitate a flavor or make a similarly delicious dish is a tricky task that is as much a creative exercise as anything else. You can also find delicious new ways of doing things by doing so. Autistic cooking discussions endorse and support substitution – and I think we all should take a page when we talk about food and cooking. Substitutions are not a less-than!

A few years ago, I made a substitution cheat sheet for the blog – my examination of autistic cooking has made me realize that perhaps it needs expansion.

I want to give a special shout-out to Ruby Tandoh here, whose new book, Cook As You Are, contains substitution advice for every single recipe. I know she has discussed food and worked with autistic and other disabled cooks in the past (including me!), and I hope she kicks off a new trend of everyone joining us in appreciating the art of substitution.

6. Recognize cooking as cognitive work. Cooking takes thought, and not just in deciding what to make: one has to keep an eye out for several things happening at the same time, from making sure the water is still boiling to chopping vegetables to ensuring the rice cooks properly. These things all take energy to monitor – even if you do not notice it. Autistic people more readily acknowledge the attention and thinking that any cooking takes. I think everyone – and especially those who rely on others to cook for them – should do the same.

A quick note: many autistic people prefer “identity-first language,” because autism is part of an identity and can’t be separated from the person. Other people on the autism spectrum prefer “person-first language,” because they want to emphasize the humanity first. (Some non-autistic people like to mention something about not being defined by the autism, which tends to rub most of us the wrong way.) I switch between the two in my day-to-day life, but many of the people I spoke with strongly prefer identity-first language. So I am using that.

Thank you to the dozens of fellow autistic people who I spoke with while preparing to write this piece, particularly those on the Autism Meals Facebook group.

Jewish Food, Dementia, and Inclusion

Two forget-me-not flowers
Forget-me-not: the international symbol of dementia advocacy (Photo by Ithalu Dominguez)

Hello! I have not posted much content in a while. Graduate school keeps one busy – although, I am pleased to say, the work is applicable to the community! And part of this work has involved lots of fieldwork and lots of writing. But now I have the time, during my break, to write a new post – on a topic near and dear to me.

Something I have recently thought quite a bit about is dementia. A good chunk of my graduate and recent professional work has been about social infrastructure and facilities for older adults, especially those with memory loss. We live in a culture that does not value people with dementia, and it is a shame. Even other discussions about disability, including some of mine, do not adequately consider people with dementia and their needs. To make better lives for older adults with dementia, we do not just need proper infrastructure, nor is it only keeping them out of congregate facilities. (Both are essential.) Rather, we need to have a cultural overhaul – and that includes food.

Trays of vegetables and fruit on a metal table
Institutional settings do not always offer choice. (Photo public domain)

We often forget that people with dementia have personalities and preferences – and that extends to palates too. As memory loss progresses, people with dementia have different experiences. Sometimes, they prefer one thing that is somewhat new. In other cases, and especially for immigrants, their preferences revert to those of their teenage or young adult years. When it comes to food, these tendencies might manifest as a strong desire for one food, or a preference for food from a home cuisine. Institutional food usually does not meet these desires. Nor do many standard programs that encourage “healthy eating” – while forgetting that “healthy food” is different from person to person.

Regularity and independence matter a lot when we talk about food and dementia. Many older adults with memory loss are given no agency over their lives – and though support is sometimes needed, support is different from forced dependence. Often, no preference about food is offered – or the opportunity to control how much is eaten, and how. At the same time, routine is grounding. Often, a regular meal or snack on the same day or at the same time is helpful and empowering. Variety, often forced, can be disquieting or distressing for some people. Yet we live in a food culture that often considers repetition or leftovers “boring” or “dull.”  This problem is part of a wider one: people with dementia are also often excluded by the food practices of everyone else. Older adults with memory loss are often talked past when food is discussed, and their preferences and needs are often dismissed. We can start by allowing for their independence and need for regularity.

Three baked challahs
Challah: a traditional bread that can be grounding. (Photo mine, October 2016)

What does that look like for Jewish food? We already have regularity: challah and other traditional breads on Shabbat, weekly festive meals, and traditions around what food gets eaten when, like herring, cholent, brik, and bourekas. Keeping up these traditions can help include people with dementia in two ways. One is providing that grounding regularity. The other is that, for many Jewish older adults, these foods may meet a need grounded in an earlier stage of life. Encouraging these traditions can be a powerful form of inclusion. At the same time, all of us can do more to encourage independence. People with dementia should have the chance to eat independently, and their preferences should be respected. If they do not want “Jewish food,” that’s okay. Jewish tradition and food should not be forced.

I strongly encourage my readers to complete the Dementia-Friendly America video series, to learn how to better support your family, friends, and neighbors with dementia.

Shabbat Brownies

As a busy graduate student, I have largely been sticking to these simpler recipes during my semesters. Sometimes, these are very obviously Jewish, but this time, I am providing a brownie recipe. I call these Shabbat brownies, because they taste great a day or two later – making them suited for baking for a Shabbat lunch! Make them on Thursday night or Friday afternoon for a tasty end to the meal. (Have one or three as a snack in the meantime.)

While the origin of brownies was likely in church communities in central Maine, they became quite popular among American Jews – just like everyone else in North America. There is a certain type of very fudgy brownie that seems to be popular among synagogues across North America. While they are good, I tend to prefer a cakey brownie – one that relies heavily on eggs.

brownie on parchment paper with brownies behind
This stock photo’s brownies look oddly similar to mine, if a tad denser. The photographer is more talented than I, hence… (Photo Pixabay/CC)

Hence this recipe. I used to have a different recipe, but here is my updated version. Thank you to my boyfriend, housemates, colleagues, and classmates for testing the various iterations.

Shabbat Brownies

Makes 24 brownies

2 sticks (1 cup) butter + more for greasing

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1 cup granulated white sugar

½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

½ cup whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

6 large eggs, room temperature

1 ½ cups sifted white flour

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C.
  2. Grease a 9”x13”/23cmx33cm (or similarly sized pan) with butter. Line the pan with parchment paper, then grease the parchment paper again with butter.
  3. Melt the butter and chocolate chips together until smooth. You could do this in a bain-marie, but I just do it in the microwave: put the chips in a deep, microwave safe bowl, add the butter in chunks, microwave on high for a minute, then stir together. Put the melted chocolate-butter mixture in a large mixing bowl.
  4. Add the sugar and cocoa powder and whisk together until thoroughly combined.
  5. Add the milk and vanilla extract, and whisk together until thoroughly combined.
  6. Crack the eggs into the bowl, and then whisk together until thoroughly combined and the mixture is smooth.
  7. Add the flour, baking powder, and sugar. Whisk together until the batter is thoroughly combined and is a smooth, thick consistency. Make sure all the flour is thoroughly mixed in!
  8. Pour the batter into the pan. Bake for 30-45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean or with only a few crumbs. Let cool before cutting.
  9. Store in an airtight container for up to four days.

Beef and Leek Goulash (Is It Goulash?)

This is a stew that, like many things called “goulash,” would not be called “goulash” by everyone. But maybe it would. In any case, it is a variation on a delicious theme.

Goulash in a bowl over egg noodles
(Photo mine, November 2019)

Stewed meat with vegetables in a red sauce is a fairly common Central European dish. The dish started off as a Hungarian herder’s stew – although, with its meaty content, it may have been somewhat of a nobleman’s dish too after the Magyars settled on the Pannonian plain. The dish spread, by dint of the Holy Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires (and massive, centuries-long migrations across Central Europe) throughout the region, and similar names largely stuck. When chili pepper was introduced in the early modern period – and paprika became particularly popular – the dish evolved again in Hungary and other countries, to include the modish spice. That practice – and the common use of tomatoes – spread as well, to Germany and Austria, to Russia, and to the United States. The dishes were often quite far from what is typical in Hungary – for example, American goulash often contains pasta, and Scandinavian ones are less piquant. (Though goulash in Hungary has evolved into dozens of related dishes, like pörkölt and halászlé!) Across these countries, Jews often cooked versions of these stews with kosher meats, and likely contributed to their development in many countries by introducing additional ingredients or cooking methods from other Jewish communities.

Finished and plated tamatiebredie with mieliepap.
Tamatiebredie with mielie pap. (Photo mine, June 2017)

Of course many cultures also have their own variant on these stews – South African bredies, Argentinian carbonadas criollas, Filipino calderetas, and so on. The sticking power of the name “goulash” is probably from the influence of Hungarian cuisine and culture across a wide area as a result of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Cookbooks for early 20th-century Jewish housewives often have a variant of this dish in them. These sorts of stews, and goulash in particular, were a mainstay of German-speaking middle class families in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – it is raised in nearly every major book about German Jewish cuisine. Many Ashkenazi Jews explicitly sought to assimilate into this culture, and in some cities were a key part of the middle class and its practices. Housewives were expected to maintain a certain type of cultural refinement and practice in the home, and cookbooks were key parts of communicating this. So was what you ate – and goulash, which would have been considered luxurious by working-class families – was one of many recipes that were part of there. When German-American Jews wrote similar cookbooks for settlement houses where Eastern European Jews studied (or were pressured to study at), goulash was often included.

This recipe is my variant on these dishes. Like even Hungarians before the 18th century, when paprika was introduced to Central Europe, this goulash is made without paprika. Instead, I gain sharpness and depth from the leeks and the dill, but it is compensated by sweetness. Leeks are a delicious, hearty addition to any stew – just be sure to wash them properly! I served this stew with egg noodles, but it would probably be wonderful on rice as well.

Beef and Leek Goulash

2.2lbs/1 kg beef chuck stew meat, cut into 1 inch/2.5cm or so pieces

1 large onion, diced

5 cloves garlic, crushed

2 medium-large leeks, washed, chopped, and washed again

3 carrots, peeled and sliced

1 tablespoon white or rice wine vinegar

1 16-oz/450g can diced tomatoes

1 tablespoon table salt

1 tablespoon soup powder OR 1 tablespoon bouillon base

1 ½ teaspoons ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried dill

1 tablespoon white sugar

Water as needed

2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil (depends on fattiness of meat)

Prepared egg noodles, rice, potatoes, or bread (for serving)

  1. Place a stewing pot or casserole pot over a high flame. When hot, add 2 tablespoons oil, and then add the meat. Brown the meat, stirring frequently, for about 3 minutes. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and set aside. If not much fat has melted off the meat, or you are low, add some more oil.
  2. Add the onions and garlic and sauté, stirring frequently, until wilted and softening, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add the leeks and carrots, and mix in thoroughly with the onions. Then, add the vinegar. Cook covered, stirring occasionally, for 5-10 minutes, or until the leeks have wilted.
  4. Add the tomatoes and spices and mix thoroughly. Bring to a boil.
  5. Add the meat, and then water to cover (about 1 or 1 ½ cups). Mix in thoroughly, then bring to a boil.
  6. Lower the heat to a simmer, and then simmer, half- or loosely covered, for 1 to 1 ½ hours, stirring occasionally.
  7. Serve hot with egg noodles, rice, potatoes, or bread.

Thank you to Ziva Freiman and AJ Faust for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.

Babka Series 1: In Honor of the Store-Bought Babka

This is the first of what will be three posts about babka.

My mother’s friend Abby says that babka is a ghost that will haunt you until it is eaten. In this case, I prefer many exorcisms. I love babka.

Chocolate babka slices on a blue porcelain patterned plate
(Photo Katrina Parks/Flickr via CC)

Too bad that it’s a pain to make.

A sweet yeasted dough, twisted and wrapped around a filling of chocolate, cinnamon sugar, or fruit and perhaps sweet cheese. Sounds simple, right? In fact, it is not. Sweet yeasted dough is quite difficult to work with, and wrapping it around the filling is always my downfall. (My hand-eye coordination, to quote my boyfriend, is “erratic.”) As it happens, bakeries sometimes do a very good job with their babka. I am more than happy to fork over some money and enjoy the babka without the anxiety.

Babka is, in fact, a very common food that people will only ever savor store-bought. Jewish bakeries across the world specialize in the Ashkenazi treat. Haredi bakeries in Jerusalem make “Krantz cake” – an alternate name for babka – that people from all walks of Israeli life travel from across the country for. The beautiful bite of the dough and the coy sweetness of the filling is a triumph. Breads in New York has become famous for their babka, which seems to elicit joy everywhere. (Note: I believe that all properly-made babkas cause joy.) In any case, Breads’ perfectly textured babka is divine. I have seen visitors from out of town bee-line to Breads for babka before going anywhere else in the city. And of course, one cannot forget supermarket babkas. As dowdy as these can be, some brands’ babkas are perfectly tasty and delectably un-shareable. A few readers have mentioned the Trader Joe’s babka as their ideal babka, but I am more partial to Green’s obscenely swirly chocolate babka.

Of course I want to make my own babka. A plum jam and cottage cheese babka will never be mass market in a country rightly obsessed with chocolate babka. Yet it is so delicious – especially when you hit a plum and a gob of cheese right by a doughy bit. Divine! The braiding is beautiful, and making a babka is really the height of Ashkenazi balabostakeit. I should try it out! But I am also a klutzy graduate student with limited time and even more limited hand-eye coordination. I refuse to only have babka as often as I can make it.

So I have no shame in buying from a bakery. In fact, that has been done for generations. Now, babkas have long been in the repertoire of Ashkenazi home cooking – especially as Jewish communities, like neighbors, used leftover bread dough for the task. However, making babka – and actually, challah and bread generally, was hard work then, as it is now. It also used relatively expensive ingredients, which is why both were reserved for a Sabbath treat. Many people did not have the time or energy, and one of the promises of America or Canada was the prosperity to have a treat like that – and pay someone else to make it. Babkas were a frequent feature of bakeries that opened up across Jewish neighborhoods in New York in the early 20th century – and continue to be a feature at remaining bakeries today. Having a babka that’s not “homemade” is a tradition.

Enough rambling. I want to know: what’s your favorite babka?

Mistakes Made Jewish Cuisine

My maternal grandmother left a mountain of recipes. I wrote about some of these for Handwritten Magazine before. The recipes are delicious and replete with typos or forgotten ingredients. Mysteriously, 0s are doubled or removed, so the recipe ends up calling for “20 grams flour” rather than 200. Entire ingredients, like flour, are forgotten. So are basic steps, like frying onions. When one cooks from the recipe, it is an experiment of trial and much error. It took nearly twenty attempts to get her pumpkin fritters right.

Fish on ice in a market
Cooking a whole fish for the first time – or after a long time – can result in various mistakes. (Photo mine, December 2017)

So, to this year. My mother and I were tasked with bringing stuffed matzoh balls to a Passover seder. These kneidlach are stuffed with fried onions and garlic and are very, very tasty. We opened the sheaf of my grandmother’s typewritten papers with her recipes to the matzoh ball to find that … mysteriously, she seemed to call for as much margarine as matzoh meal. Being experienced enough to know that this couldn’t be right, we consulted other recipes for a more sensible ratio. We realize now that my grandmother meant 20 grams.

As I reflected on this bizarre typo (and imagining fat globules swimming through my soup), I thought about all the ways Jewish cuisine might have been shaped by mistakes. We often think of cuisine as some sort of unbroken tradition. I have written repeatedly, here and elsewhere, why that is bunk. We also valorize the creativity of our ancestors in using and taking in new ingredients, or making things out of limited ingredients, or having the bravery to try something new. That is somewhat more accurate, but there is still something lacking. And so I would say this:

Mistakes have shaped Jewish cuisine. They may be typos, omissions, spills, accidental omissions, or random accidents. Sometimes they change it for the worse, sometimes for the better, and sometimes we never know. A dish might end up being better with the accidental addition of a spice, or leaving out something else. It might become a longstanding tradition – I suspect that whoever first made the gelled broth of gefilte fish probably left the broth out for too long by mistake. A mistake may also turn into someone’s “secret ingredient.” My formerly-secret ingredient of black pepper in applesauce started as an accident.

Soup with squash, beans, and noodles garnished with sour cream in a bowl
I have not made this soup for a while, and I am liable to make a mistake while making it. (Photo mine, February 2018)

That said, people make mistakes more often than they withhold secrets. When a recipe does not work out, some people’s first instinct is to assume that the cook left out an ingredient to preserve their domination over a dish. The mythical “secret ingredient.” I doubt that this is usually the case, though ardent cooks can be as vain and petty as anyone. Rather, I am more convinced of the fact that cooks forget that they do things in a way, or that they add something in such and such a way, because it is so natural to them. I beat eggs in a certain way, so that the whites get a bit puffier, but I never thought to include that in a recipe, for example. That mistake will change the final product, unless you too beat your eggs in the exact same way. In addition, you can always mess up when cooking from someone else’s recipe. And these mistakes determine, I think, a bit of what gets cooked and what does not. If a mistake makes a dish hard for someone to recreate, then that dish will likely not appear on the table – or appear in altered form. Likewise, if a mistake leaves you with a bad impression of a dish, then you will not be inclined to cook it again. As I write this, I wonder how many creative, tasty, and wondrous dishes have been lost to mistakes by author or cook. My grandmother’s pumpkin fritters very nearly met this fate, because she forgot to mention flour at all.

Things get lost in translation, too. One thing that often never gets really appreciated is how different “eyeball” quantities can be in different languages – ktzat in Hebrew is not necessarily a bit in English, and that is not un poquito in Spanish either. Now, apply that measure to salt, or pepper, or nutmeg (as I have witnessed), and see what results. The same goes for directions: meng in Afrikaans can be expressed by several words, not just mix, in English. And, of course, “to taste” is impossibly personal and extremely cultural. So when parents give their children recipes, or friends give their friends recipes, or someone squints over a newspaper in a language they speak imperfectly (guilty as charged), unintentional mistakes can be made quite easily. And the end product is different. Sometimes the change is not so great, but sometimes it is better or tastier.

Pihtije, a Serbian aspic
Aspics, like the pictured Serbian pihtije or the Ashkenazi p’tcha, were maybe invented out of a mistake. (Photo VI via Wikimedia/CC)

And then there are the dishes you end up forgetting to make for years at a time. I have not made brownies, for example, for about five years. (Shocking, I know.) I know that when I make them the first time, I will probably mess something up. If I make them for someone, they might not like “my brownies” – even if I try to convince them that my brownies are normally delicious. If that person is my boyfriend, I might not end up making them for quite a while, or ever again. Transpose this idea to a rarer dish, or one that might not be easily made. It is quite possible that many things have been given up, because they are too hard to make right, or so hard to recreate that they are easily messed up. Beyond changing ideas of “good” and “bad” and assimilating a cultural aversion to wobbliness, one reason that p’tcha is probably no longer as common, for example, is that it is actually quite easy to mess up. Other dishes or variants of extant ones have probably been lost in the recesses of many memories. Still others are changed by the mistakes that you make in re-creation.

Part of me wants to think only of the happy accidents – after all, which genius realized that gefilte fish is perfectly paired with horseradish? But cooking and cuisine are not only happy or happy accidents. A lot of learning to cook, and researching food history, is not noticing a thing and then making a disaster of your dish. These disasters help us figure out what to cook, how to cook, and how not to cook. And when we learn from others how to eat, what to eat, and how not to eat, these disasters can add up to a cuisine. Mistakes have changed the way Jews talk about, cook, eat, and remember food, and that is something worth noting – just like my grandmother’s missing 0.

When Bacon, Shrimp, and Whale Are Perfectly Jewish Eating

Bowl of meaty Cincinnati chili with cheddar cheese on top.
Cincinnati chili. (Photo CC/Wikimedia Commons)

This piece starts with the young man I have been dating for a few months, David. He is very Jewish. David is also from Cincinnati, and one of his favorite foods is Cincinnati-style chili. For those of you who are not familiar, Cincinnati chili is more of a meat sauce than a chili. The delicacy is Mediterranean-spiced ground beef served on spaghetti, with any or all of beans, onions, and mild cheddar cheese on top. The combinations are culturally set in stone. Though Cincinnati chili has its detractors, it is widely loved. The local Skyline chain has a following so big that it has expanded to nearby cities, and the Cincinnati diaspora in Florida. The chili is also not kosher, given that it mixes meat and milk. Even so, David and his family love it, and it is in his family tradition.

Learning about Cincinnati chili from David – who makes and eats it at least once a week – got me thinking about Jewish treyf. Not in the Orientalist and perhaps overanalyzed ‘safe treyf’ of white Jews eating Chinese food in New York. Nor was I thinking about the real and life-saving practice Conversos in Spain adopted: Jews in hiding added lard to traditional dishes to avert the deadly eyes of the Inquisition. I did think of the famous Treyf Banquet that heralded the split between Reform and Conservative Judaism in the late 19th century. I also thought of the newer version held in San Francisco quite recently, with wondrous bacon treats. Rather, I was curious about treyf as an everyday practice. How did it get inserted into family and community traditions? How did folks relate to treyf with their Jewish identity, and vice versa? Could I discuss this without the tired discourse of “reconciling”? On a more basic level, were there Jewish treyf recipes that I could discover? Also, which treyf?

Brown closed clams
Clams – forbidden to some, delicious to others. (Photo Michael Dorausch via Flickr/CC)

I was also exhausted over the level of judgment that went into Jewish treyf. Recently, I fell off the “traditional egalitarian” bandwagon, much of which seemed to involve ever-more-performative kashrut. The consistent dismissal of Reform and Reconstructionist practice appalled me. So did the judgment against our parents’ and grandparents’ not-echt-halachic practices. Handwringing about authenticity bothers me more and more nowadays. The endless jabs about Jews who had “forgotten their heritage” strike me as cruel. Nothing in our communities, not even the halachically-shaky ban on microphones on the Sabbath, would be totally recognizable to a religious person from two centuries ago. So I figure it would be more interesting to answer the questions I raised above. For certain, it would be more useful to do so. The Jewish community may not always have a given interpretation of kashrut. But we will always have treyf-eaters.

Canned vegetables on a shelf.
These might be treyf. Who cares? (Photo Parenting Patch via Creative Commons)

I set out to find some answers, beginning with a post on Facebook. I asked my Facebook following to answer a few questions. If they were a Jew who ate treyf: why? What did they eat? What did they do before or after, if anything different? Do they have any neat traditions or recipes involving treyf? What about some funny stories? At the end, I threw on an addendum reminding folks not to judge fellow Jews for not keeping kosher. I expected a few responses.

A few shares and many comments later, several dozen people responded. Most of these responses were by private message. (I have made all respondents anonymous.) In fact, as I begin writing this piece, I still have a few responses to read! I was really touched to see how many people responded to my hasty request. What was better though was to see the variety of stories, perspectives, and ideas that people from all walks of Jewish life shared with me. I am going to be thinking about all the wonderful things I learned and was struck by for a long time.

Fried bacon on a white plate
Bacon: a perennial favorite of treyf eaters. (Photo Kim Ahlstroem via Flickr/CC)

Here are a few patterns that emerged.

Firstly, guilt was a less common emotion than defiance or pride. Many past works talk about guilt as a driving emotion around Jewish treyf consumption. But my (admittedly unscientific) sample seemed to be less guilt-ridden about the whole thing. Though one person did note, “we Mexijews [Mexican Jews] talk about it all the time.” Rather, many people were proud of the fact that they did not keep kosher and were still totally Jewish. “I’m as Jewish as a rabbi,” one person said, while another said that “Judaism isn’t about diet for me.” Both then happily listed their preferred treyf. Others felt defiant, especially if they had left religious communities, where kashrut wars are often the sour undercurrent of daily life. “Halachic chops – not as tasty as pork chops!” one person commented. For many people, treyf is a symbolic way of defying the things that defined their past. So an ex-Orthodox Jew might eat pork ribs on Yom Kippur, or someone leaving an abusive household may eat treyf as a symbol of their liberation.

White salo with pepper
Salo, preserved pork fat from Eastern Europe, with pepper. (Photo Roland Geider/Wikimedia CC)

Defiance and pride are hints to a larger thing. Treyf is always interpreted through a Jewish prism. People took into account all the communities they lived in, and all their lived experience, and filtered their Judaism through it. This went to treyf. Even people who always ate treyf interpreted their treyf in line with their Jewishness, not as a resistance to it. For Russian Jews, it was a part of their heritage of Soviet eating and nostalgic cooking. “I love salo,” my colleague said, “whatever the rabbis say.” For Israelis, it was a treasured memory of being secular and Jewish in the ‘60s. My mother, who lived in Israel then, recounted with glee the delight of eating grilled pork chops on kibbutzim. (I highly recommend the Israeli documentary Praise the Lard about pork in Israel.) For diasporist Jews, treyf is often a central part of being diasporist. One person noted that the Reuben – famously treyf – made them feel Jewish.

Judgment from others was mentioned, sure, but largely negatively. “Judaism isn’t a diet,” and “I’m just as Jewish as a 613 mitzvot keeping Jew” were two of many statements. And in return for people judging their Judaism, treyf-eaters shared some wonderful humor about their position. A few people reminded me of various kashrut scandals, like the chronic worker and animal abuse in Postville, Iowa. On a more humorous note, one respondent from Maine mentioned the blessing her father recites for shellfish. (How regionally appropriate.) And of course, one of my closest friends cherishes his San Francisco family’s tradition of Dungeness crab. I would too.

A shrimp cocktail with a lemon over lettuce
The shrimp cocktail, with a treyf fan favorite. (Photo Jon Sullivan, released to public domain)

On a day-to-day level, certain treyf is more common than others. Some of this is seasonally and financially based – Dungeness crab, for example, is expensive and seasonal. Otherwise it is a taste thing. Most treyf-eaters seem to love bacon and shrimp. Some common treyf however – like canned clams – was rarely mentioned. The most beloved treyf for many is bacon. It is a love that I do not quite share, since pre-kashrut me never got the hype around it. Bacon ends up in soups, in breakfasts, on sandwiches, and in lentil soup and matzah balls. One very nice bacon-maker even told me about his business making bacon, and experiments with flavor! Jewish recipes were often improved with bacon or shellfish. I received recipes for lentil soup, cholent, matzah balls, brisket, shakshouka, latkes, and even hamantaschen with bacon. Similarly, an appetizing spread, hraime, or again, shakshouka benefited from shrimp. I guess then that bacon-wrapped shrimp is the ultimate treyf. Not because of the combination, but because of the crowd of treyf enthusiasts pleased.

For many people, eating and making treyf is also a part of livelihood. Many people worked or work in food service. Treyf is on the menu, treyf gets eaten. Others work in jobs where they often have to eat with clients, coworkers, or consultants – and it would be rude not to share in the shellfish soup. As I noted, one respondent had a bacon-making business. Another had spent time cooking shellfish in his first job as a restaurant chef. These respondents often had the greatest insight into how expensive it was to keep kosher.

Clam chowder with oyster crackers in a smiley face
The clam chowder is smiling! Treyf has never been this happy! (The photo is CC/Flicker from The Cooking of Joy. Joy, the author, has posted her clam chowder recipe here.)

And how often times, it is a privilege. If your job depends on it, you will eat treyf. It is rather baroque and classist to critique someone’s Jewishness based on that. Some did not keep kosher because of a history of eating disorders. In that case, imposing new dietary restrictions can be quite dangerous. If anything, because it is to save one’s life, Jewish tradition would also prefer that one not keep kosher if it is unsafe. Also, many treyf eaters stopped keeping kosher because of the labor and expense involved. The bacon and shrimp were less interesting to them. To them, there was no controversy at all in eating cheaply, well, and Jewishly, with the added benefit of canned clams or bacon. Judging someone based on that would be markedly cruel. Keeping kosher does not make you a better person. Being mean does make you a worse one. Especially being mean over someone enjoying or even celebrating treyf that is affordable, accessible, and tasty food.

Not all cheap treyf is celebrated though. Some treyf is more controversial. Several different respondents did not “get” ham. They found it it was “the weirdest meat” or bizarrely sweet. Others loved ham, and fondly recalled eating it at weddings and b’nai mitzvah. I was surprised to see how many respondents were uncomfortable with ham, although pre-kashrut me also found ham a tad “wiggy” in big quantities. One person said that the gelatinous-meat-sweetness of ham was an aversion for them. That aversion carries over into kosher foods like ptcha and gefilte fish.

Pihtije, a Serbian aspic
If you do not like ham, you might not like p’tcha – or pihtije, p’tcha‘s Serbian cousin. (Photo VI via Wikimedia/CC)

Milk-meat combinations seem to go unnoticed. Sure, a few people did comment on cheeseburgers. I, for one, will always remember my college classmate’s Brie and ham on matzah. Here is the thing: it is far lower on the “forbidden” list than whole categories of animals. A milk and meat combination can also be harder to spot. Someone who does not keep kosher might not guess that the pumpkin cheese soup had chicken stock. The bacon bits, though, will be noticed. So will any other treyf, as was discovered at a synagogue a respondent attended as a child, where an order mix-up led to quite a bit of shrimp lo mein at the synagogue’s door. Compared to incidents like these, a cheeseburger is minor.

A cheeseburger
This cheeseburger is comparatively no big deal. (Photo in public domain)

I will have a separate post for funny stories, and a third one for stopping kashrut. Too many anecdotes were received to do justice to them in this post. Besides, many people provided insight into why they do not keep kosher now. But already, we can see some patterns, and some avenues for inquiry. We also are reminded of one thing: you can eat as much treyf as you want, and still be as Jewish as anyone else.

The outcome of this research has made me question my own kashrut practice, and why I keep kosher at all. I do not eat treyf animals, I keep a kosher kitchen, and in New York I eat kosher or halal meat, which I consider equal. The kitchen is for my more traditional friends. That said, I do not have a reason why I personally do not eat treyf. It used to be emotional, but that has gone with my own realignment of Jewish values. The judgmental environment I left, or to quote the youth, “yote out” from has dissolved any feeling of “upholding tradition” through my diet. For me, Judaism is a lived and evolving tradition, not a diet, weekly lifestyle practice, and set of givens. Pork is off the table forever, because of a traumatic and rather gross incident in my teenage years. But I do not have any negative feelings about shellfish, catfish, beef stroganoff, or kangaroo. At this point, kashrut is habit. I do not know how long it will stick outside of my home kitchen.

Black and white photo of a man in a fur parka standing under a wooden structure with drying meat hanging from the wood. The structure and man are on a grassy-muddy field.
A Yup’ik man in Western Alaska drying whale meat sometime in the early 20th century. Whale was caught, slaughtered, and dried for sustenance. The tradition is under threat but continues today. (Photo Public Domain/Library of Congress)

If I change, I do have something to keep. I promised my indigenous friends that, should I stop keeping kosher, whale and seal would be my first real treyf. In a world where colonialism is still very real, it is so important to keep native traditions alive, and I think that would be an important step of solidarity against continued colonial abuse. As a settler, I feel obligated to support the minhagei hamakom of the peoples from whose loss of land I still benefit. A mitzvah, in treyf. Afterwards, I will head on to my nearest Skyline, order a 5-Way – spaghetti, meaty chili, onions, beans, and cheddar cheese – and take a bite, and I will recite the prayer meant for everything:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam, shehakol nihiyeh bidvaro.

Blessed are you, Lord Our God, King of the Universe, who created all per his will.

A heartfelt thank you to all of you who responded. As my gift to you, please enjoy my favorite song about treyf. It is by the Jerry Cans, a band from Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, and is in the indigenous Inuktitut language. It is called Mamaqtuq, and it is about hunting for seal to eat. Watch it here.

A Guide to Not Being Averse to Aversions

On readers’ request, I am starting off 2019 with something very practical: a guide to avoiding common aversions.

Food aversions are a real and serious thing. More than a dislike, an aversion is to a taste or texture. Exposure can throw one’s senses and function out of whack. Sometimes, a food aversion can make someone feel violently ill. This reaction happens famously to pregnant women, but really can occur to anyone. The reaction also happens without an allergy. Other times, an aversion can leave a sticking sense of anxiety or discomfort – as happens with me when I accidentally consume a marshmallow. Many people get raised heart rates, jitters, or nausea from aversions.

It's a fish head on a board!
Fish is a common aversion. (Photo Toby Dylan, CC)

Aversions are difficult to shake. Doing so takes time, effort, and most importantly, the person’s consent. (It is a painfully slow process.) It is not your job to “help” someone lose an aversion as a host or cook, unless you are explicitly told so by the person. You would not consent to someone making you anxious, jittery, or ill because they felt like it. So do not do it to your guests, friends, or family! Believe your guest or friend, and cook something that they can eat.

As it happens, substitutes are a venerated part of the Jewish culinary tradition. Meats have been replaced with fish and beans for dairy dishes. Kosher animals replaced pork in meat dishes that imitated whatever neighbors ate. An entire world of dairy-free, pareve desserts exists for serving at meat meals. Vegetable shortening was first marketed among American Jews as a pareve substitute for butter. (Gil Marks discussed this extensively in his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.)

Medieval illumination of noblemen in traditional tunics and boots around tables eating meats and breads under trees and drinking. Dogs are drinking at a creek in the foreground. The trees are tall and in full foliage, the image has red and blue illuminated borders.
Some of these noblemen probably had aversions, though they were probably identified as something else in 15th century France. (Image from Le Livre de chasse de Gaston Phébus, 15th century.)

I mean to say:  there is no shame in swapping. We are lucky to live in a time when we have the ability to do so. We have historically unprecedented access to good, safe, and varied food products. We can take advantage of this plenty to better accommodate aversions. Not that aversions did not exist through history – they most certainly have. More that we can now better identify and address them.

This list is meant to help. I have listed some common aversions and substitutes. Try different things! Sometimes, though, you need to avoid the recipe. This is particularly the case when there is an aversion to a broad category of food, like fruit, or flavor combinations, like sweet and savory. (Or specific aversions, like my friend’s aversion to “cold, wet kitniyot.”) There are many delicious foods and I am sure you will find something for your guest to eat that you can enjoy too.

This chart is for when you only need to substitute one ingredient, and is aimed to common aversions rather than common allergens – which are different! Please do not “try to get someone to like X.” That is rude, and forcing people to eat abominable food goes against Jewish tradition and basic decency. This chart is meant to help you be a nice host, and make something good for everyone!

Canned vegetables on a shelf.
Canned vegetables: not just a life saver, but also a good place to find substitutes. (Photo Parenting Patch via Creative Commons)

Cause of aversion Good substitutions
Onions I find that leeks and scallions tend to work well if you need something to replace the texture. If the flavor is okay, a half teaspoon to a teaspoon of onion powder (depending on brand) for each onion. You can also ramp up the garlic. Raw onion can be replaced with cabbage and fennel, but keep in mind that it changes the flavor.
Garlic Garlic has a very distinctive, pungent flavor, so it is difficult to replace. I would enhance the flavors of other spices, or add some more onion or scallions. Asafetida, fenugreek, and celeriac root serve as good substitutes for pungency. Celery is a good substitute for body and aroma.
Tomato (raw or cooked) Raw tomato is usually fairly easy to leave out of things like salad. For cooked tomato, I suggest using tomatillos or eggplants to substitute in sauces, though keep in mind that the sauce will be far thicker. If the texture aversion has to do with seeds, remove the seeds and cook with just the flesh of the tomato. The seeds are hard to use alone but are very good for compost.
Bell pepper Tomato flesh can be used in most places as a substitute for bell pepper.
Mushrooms Depending on the type of mushroom and consistency, you can replace them with marinated tofu, eggplant, zucchini, or turnips.
Squashes Mushroom is a pretty solid replacement for zucchini. For pumpkin or butternut squash, using sweet potato is a time-honored American tradition.
Eggplant Zucchini is a fairly solid replacement for eggplant in dishes that do not require long cooking. Mushrooms with a strong acidic counterpart work well for longer cooking.
Fish Tofu, seitan, or mushrooms tend to work quite well. There is an Ashkenazi tradition of making “false fish” with chicken, but I have never had this and cannot confirm the effectiveness.
Cabbage or Brussel sprouts For some things, broccoli (which is ironically the same species) works very well in my experience. This is particularly true for slaws and quickly cooked dishes. For pickled and raw dishes, dark lettuces also work very well. For longer-cooked dishes, fennel is a good substitute, but keep in mind that the flavor will change.
Eggs If you are just trying to make a cake moist, applesauce is by far the best. Eggs are hard to replace in some dishes – for those, use an egg replacer or common baking combination. Where the egg is eaten in egg form, soft tofu or mushrooms.
Mayonnaise Greek yogurt works very well, as does any non-dairy yogurt.
Beets Very difficult to replace, but I have had moderate result with harder varieties of squash, like butternut. The color is inimitable.
Cilantro Parsley or the Mexican herb epazote tend to work quite well.
Visible seeds, like poppy or sesame seeds 99% of the time, you can leave them out. If you really want the flavor, add some ground poppy or sesame seed into the batter or dough of what you are making.
Raisins 99% of the time, you can leave them out. For a flavor substitute, just add a bit of sugar.
Caraway seeds Fennel or dill seeds.
Fennel seeds Caraway seeds
Fennel The flavor is going to change, but for texture and approximation, leeks and caraway seed.
Mustard For dry mustard, horseradish powder or more black pepper and vinegar. Add a bit of yogurt or mayonnaise if it’s for wet mustard.

 

 

Modernist Jewish Cooking

I am starting this piece in Israel, where I am visiting my grandmother at the moment. Israel, as I have written before, is a really weird place in terms of food. There is plenty already written about the influence of Palestinian cuisine on Jewish cooking, continued diaspora traditions, and the “kashrut wars” in Israel. I have even watched a fantastic documentary about the pork industry in Israel. What I find most interesting, though, is that it is ground zero for industrial Jewish foods. Most of the canned gefilte fish, powder-mix matzah ball soup and latkes, and instant farfel have some link to industrial food companies here. If they were not invented here, they are certainly made here.

Canned vegetables on a shelf.
Canned vegetables: a life saver for some. (Photo Parenting Patch via Creative Commons)

My grandmother is a fan. At the age of 91, she still enjoys her jarred gefilte fish on Passover, Mandelbrod from big boxes, and the smell of soup made from powdered mix. (She also eats some food that is unlikely to ever have an industrial market, like baked fish heads.) I used to dismiss these products as industrial dreck. But now I find them fascinating, because they still influence our homemade cooking. And just as Israel’s government uses nostalgia to drum up support for Zionism, so too do these food products use nostalgia to not just sell their wares, but redefine Jewish cuisine.

We who write about food are too quick to dismiss these products as unimportant to the grand story, or only negative. Except we often end up imitating them. For people whose first experience of Jewish food was these foods – and we have sixty years of this – that is the “benchmark” for whatever we make. It also becomes the norm. And we end up adding more of the things that people want … which often circle back to these products. Never mind that some people do not have the time, energy, ability, or resources to make everything “from scratch.” Making stock, making kneidlach, and making farfel takes time. The industrial manufacturers hit on a market – and the result is fascinating. Why? Because of how it plays with our psychology.

Makers take memories, smash them together, and create food products out of them. I find that fascinating. The company of course uses that “authentic” taste to sell the food. And eventually those tastes – which are often similar – become fixed. So then we have to adjust our handmade recipes to reflect those. We cannot remember the pre-industrial food that we never tasted! What we mistakenly call authentic is as much a product of marketing as anything else, even foods like p’tcha that do not have a version from the box. Some mourn this reality. I do not.

Five brown bouillon cubes in open wrappers.
Bouillon cubes – just as Jewish as homemade stock. (Photo Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

We have to remember that industrial food came about and stayed for a reason. Well, actually, it came about for many reasons, right alongside the development of capitalism, redistribution of wealth, and redistribution of cuisines. Food has also, in all civilizations, been industrial to a certain extent, with products being made, processed, and consumed in separate places. To return to the point though: industrial food made it far more efficient, practical, and possible to make food, make different types of food, and make a variety of food available. Canning made vegetables more regularly available during the winter. Dried pasta made noodles affordable. The packaging of rice made it shippable. Industrial bread made affordable bread without dangerous or unsavory additives that often caused illness or debilitating pain from indigestion. (The latter was common in Europe before the 19th century.) The natural next step in some ways was to industrialize other foods. That went well with the faith in scientific everything of the early and mid-20th century. True, these foods were seen as suspicious, and the women who were first to embrace them were often criticized for not doing things “the real way.” But the ease and simplicity of cooking them made industrial foods much more popular. Women, who still do most of the housework in homes today, had more time. (The use of industrial food maps closely to the ability of women to enter the workforce.) Fewer people were malnourished than before – a fact that goes contrary to many screeds about the obesity epidemic. Things that were once rare for most common people, such as chicken in the United States and pasta in Italy, became common. For Jews, festival foods also became more common – though the gefilte fish from the jar was certainly quite different. In Israel, industrialized food got a population of refugees dumped by the Israeli state into transit camps through a long period of austerity. Industrial food also ameliorated the malnutrition common in Palestinian refugee camps – as it still does today. The high-end “organic, handmade” cuisine that later developed in Italy, France, and the Bay Area is not natural or historic. It is an elitist reaction to a new common availability of food, which happens to be industrial. And though industrial food can improve, we should not simply dismiss it.

What would Jewish cooking look like today without industrial food? The honest truth is, I do not know, and nor do you. Industrial food has changed our tastes: it is so common that it is part of all of our memories of taste. It has been around and popular for generations. I would hazard that what we considered the central parts of Jewish food would have a lot less meat, a lot less complexity, and many more foods reserved only for the most important holidays. Perhaps there would also be less salt. I do not think it is useful, though, to recreate pre-industrial Jewish cooking. We are at five generations of cooks who have grown up with stock cubes and bouillon powder, canned tomatoes and packaged noodles, jams from the store and premade matzah meal. Those tastes are in all of our palates – even the ones with organic, fair-trade labeling. We cannot reconstruct that taste. We simply have to move on and acknowledge that these jarred and canned foods, whether or not we like them, a part of our cuisine. We should partake, and participate in how they are developed.

20180316-142253-supermarket-israel-2018
The lines of Israeli industrial dairy. The fruit yogurts at bottom left are a personal favorite. (Photo Rakoon via CC/Wikimedia, 2018)

In short, we should embrace what I call modernist Jewish cooking. (The term is an adaptation of Rachel Laudan’s term “culinary modernism”). It is pointless and unhygienic to masturbate to fantasies of the authentic Jewish kitchen. Why complain about frozen gefilte fish, when we can make it different or better for us? Why judge the person who makes matzah ball soup from the box? (Would you rather they not eat?) Why should we be so scared of the shortcuts our grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew better to malign? Why should we romanticize the misogynist misery of cooking “in the old days,” a misery that hundreds of millions of women still live? Why should we embrace the myths of the “natural” kitchen, when nothing about human cooking is ever fully “natural”? And can we even run away from these tastes, that shape us as much as anything that is celebrated?

For more reading on industrial food, I highly recommend the work of Rachel Laudan and Josh Ozersky. “A Plea for Modernist Cuisine” (Laudan) and “In Defense of Industrial Food” (Ozersky) are two of my favorite articles ever written about food. For more on how industrial food products emerged, read Laura Shapiro’s Something From the Oven. For more on industrial food in Israel, Yael Raviv’s Falafel Nation is spectacular. For a lovely, if incomplete, takedown of “locavore” thought, The Locavore’s Dilemma by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroki Shimizu is quite good.