We have a common image of Western European food as bland and boring. Not spiced or subtly spiced in the hopes of bringing out a “natural” flavor or one that does not cause “excitement,” Western food is seen as nearly flavorless except in the hands of the most seasoned cooks. Many abhor it, while white nationalists and racists claim it as a heritage rather than the supposedly malodorous cuisine of “Other” groups. Even in the Jewish realm, traditional Ashkenazi food is narrated as “bland” (a patent myth). And in all this, the food of the medieval ancestors – idealized by the right, misunderstood by the left – is assumed to be much the same, save for the potato and corn from the Americas. Bland, and certainly not spicy.
But what if I was to tell you that…this was not the case? That the high cuisine of Medieval Europe more closely resembled the fragrances of Middle Eastern and Indian traditions today? That ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and pepper permeated the tables of the wealthy? That the idealized bland cuisine of Europe would have been looked down upon by the who’s who of Medieval Europe?
For that is indeed the case.
Paul Freedman’s Out of the East: Spices in the Medieval Imagination is a revelation. The book is a holistic examination of the way that Medieval Europe was shaped and changed by the spice trade, which through circuitous means brought pepper, nutmeg, cloves, galangal and other spices from India, Indonesia, and West Africa to the (generally wealthier) tables of Europe. In Europe, a cuisine emerged of deeply spiced dishes – often referring similar ones in Muslim countries – that would resemble more closely the Indian or North African cuisine of today than any Western European forebears (save, perhaps, that of Spain). Spices touched on morality – for Protestant thinkers protested the “moral decay” spices induced – and on status – for one could show wealth with many judiciously used spices. And so too were the sweet and spicy aromas and tastes of seasonings associated with the divine – it was said that the corpses of saints smelled of cloves, as did the Garden of Eden. Indeed spices ruled the imagination – as they did politics.
Traced too are the culinary roots of modern political systems. Globalization in many ways is rooted in the spice trade that stretched to what was then the far corners of the earth, bringing cloves from Eastern Indonesia all the way to Portugal. Colonialism – and the European encounter with the New World – took off on a search for spices, and it was control over the spice trade that brought the Dutch to begin four centuries of varied power in Indonesia, culminating in colonial rule. Capitalism, in many ways, also began with the trade in spices. Though the book is about flavors of then, Freedman deftly hints at the continued consequences of the medieval hunt for certain tastes today.
Over the course of the book’s ten chapters, Freedman makes short shrift of many common myths about food and globalization. Many have always sought food from afar and to escape what Rachel Laudan poetically termed “the tyranny of the local.” To claim that today’s so-called “authentic” European cuisine has a form untouched by trade is to trade in mythmaking. Spices are proof that Europe’s food has referred to others and depended on others since ancient times, as Freedman clearly shows. In addition, European food has not always been “bland” or dependent on herbs for flavor. Once upon a time, the high cuisine of France and England was also spicy and pungent and peppery – and bland was certainly not a flavor pursued before the abnegations of the Protestant Reformation. And then there is this matter of medieval European cuisine: it was not always the same, and it was never solely rooted in Europe. What we consider modern French or European cuisine only arose in the seventeenth century, and the knights and dames of the High Middle Ages would probably feel more at home with Moroccan or Palestinian food than what white nationalists or anti-globalists seem to call their heritage today.
In a time when white supremacists seek an idealized and fake medieval “authenticity” to justify their disgusting aims, Out of the East is a reminder of a cosmopolitan medieval world. Not to say that racism didn’t exist – it certainly did, as did strange myths about the people of the lands from which spices came. Rather, it was that the knights and nobles of Europe in the Middle Ages looked far afield for inspiration, for thought, and to furnish their tables. It was not home cooking that was seen as worthy of celebration, but rather one that spoke of networks reaching across the Earth. Meanwhile, those of lower rank in the medieval hierarchy sought to imitate the elite with similar spicing – such that pepper, a plant grown in India, became common. Muslim Arabs may have been a theological opponent, but in every way the culture was dependent on them – much as we in the United States eat indigenous foods like corn and rely on immigrant labor today. Some things never change, and some things always go against nationalist histories.
What implications does this history have for discussing Jewish cuisine? Firstly, we may need to reconsider what medieval Ashkenazim considered “typical” of high Jewish cuisine. This step goes beyond remembering that potatoes only arrived in Eastern Europe in the late 18th century – rather, it indicates that what “good eating” looked like, even for the poor, was vastly different from today. The black pepper of Lithuanian Jewish cooking and the tang of many Hungarian dishes is a remnant of what once may have been a highly festive cuisine – and, if Gil Marks’ z”l research is any indication, certainly was. Secondly, we also can better understand now as well the ways in which Sephardic cuisine differs from that of Spain – in that many of the spices were kept in exile even as Spain moved on to different flavorings in the modern era. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it is a reminder that Jewish cuisine went under exactly the same influences as other cuisines – and is as much a product of trade and interchange as it is of preserved tradition.
Ah, German and Austrian pastry. I claim that the main reasons I am learning German are its usefulness in researching Jewish history (and delicious food), my own heritage, an interest in trains, and the stunning beauty of the language. But I cannot deny that the wonderful pastry traditions of the German-speaking world – anthologized beautifully in Luisa Weiss’ Classic German Baking – is a very key draw for me to the stringent cases, bizarre genders, and complex plurals of die deutsche Sprache. The German-speaking world is particularly famous for its elegant cakes, buttery-creamy pastry, and the oh-so-wonderful delights of nutty and tart flavors combined with the sweet, heady rush of sugar. By this world of pastry and cake I am well and truly smitten – or, perhaps to be more appropriate for the topic of this post, ich bin sehr vernarrt! A man who can make me a perfect Pflaumenkuchenor Lüneberger Buchweizentortewill not only receive an instant marriage proposal from me, he will also have proven himself instantly adept at Jewish food. What more could I ask for?
German pastry, despite its exterior appearance, is also a deeply Jewish tradition. Many of the earliest Jewish cookbooks from the late 19th century were published by and for German Jewish communities in der Heimat and abroad: Milwaukee to London to Cape Town. The recipes within them include the cakes and pastries that differed by region but not ethnicity or religion in their homelands. One could learn to make an apple cake, a buckwheat cake, a Streuselkuchen or Dampfnudeln from these cookbooks. Some were Jewish specialties – such as the doughy potato-based Berches bread – and some were not. Many of these recipes were shared with other Ashkenazi communities – among them the Austrian and Bavarian strudel and recipes filled with poppy seed or almonds. In the United States and Canada, the popularity of German pastries became so ingrained in Ashkenazi Jewish communities that their origins as German and/or Austrian – and not necessarily specifically Jewish – were forgotten. (Many of my New Yorker friends are surprised to learn that non-Jews eat strudel!) In Israel, meanwhile, German bakers who arrived before the establishment of the State began a proud baking tradition that continues to this day. The recipes still do not differ that much from their butter-laden German counterparts, other than the occasional substitution of dairy ingredients.
The pastries are also delicious – like this poppy seed cake, filled with a variant of my beloved mohn. The nuttiness and timbre of the poppy seeds balances with a dense, doughy pastry and the sugar throughout to bring your taste buds on a very pleasant journey. Now, this poppy seed cake is not technically “Jewish,” but it is so very Jewish. Poppy seed pastries are deeply traditional – just think of hamantaschen! – in the Ashkenazi world, and I have seen similar recipes to this one in several Jewish cookbooks. In addition, poppy seed is a popular filling for the cake known as babka – which, though differently shaped and yeasted, is not dissimilar in final product to this cake. Not to mention that many babkas are also covered in streusel! In any case, this cake would be readily recognized as an Ashkenazi one at many a synagogue potluck.
Mohnkuchen mit Streuseln (Poppy Seed Cake with Crumble Topping)
The cake is ready for the oven! (Photo mine, January 2017)
Begin by making the streusel. Mix together the flour, sugar, and cinnamon, then blend in the butter with your hands or a fork. You should get small crumbles. Set aside in the refrigerator or a cool place.
In a saucepan, melt the butter into the milk.
Add the cinnamon, vanilla, sugar, and semolina and bring to a simmer. Turn off the heat and let sit for five minutes.
Add the poppy seeds to the semolina mixture and stir to combine. Set aside to cool.
Preheat your oven to 350F/180C.
Mix together the flour and baking powder. In a separate bowl, mix together the sour cream, milk, butter, and sugar until smooth.
Add the flour to the butter-cream mixture and blend together with a pastry knife or two forks until you get a smooth dough. If you want the dough to be more pliable, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for fifteen minutes.
Line the bottom of a 9-inch pan (square or round) with parchment paper.
Roll out the dough on a floured surface to be ½ inch/1.5cm thick, and lay on the floor of your pan. It is perfectly fine if a little rolls over the edges.
Evenly spread the poppy seed mixture on top of the cake dough. You can fold over the far edges of the dough on top of your filling.
Evenly distribute the streusel on top.
Bake for 30 minutes, or until the crust of the cake is brown. When the streusel starts to brown, you can cover the top of the cake with tinfoil.
Leave to cool for at least 45 minutes before serving.
Thank you to Yael Shafritz, Aaron Marans, Alex Roesch, and Yonit Friedman for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.
The question became then, what style do I use? Until recently, lentils were viewed as a food of mourning and famine in the Ashkenazi world, and were thus disdained until the early 20th century – though by 1938, when Fania Lewando’s vegetarian cookbook in Yiddish was published, lentils were common enough in Lithuania to appear in several recipes. A soup recipe was among them. In the Sephardic and Mizrahi realms, however, lentils were an everyday, quotidian, and celebrated food. The lentils used in the Mediterranean – and in Claudia Roden’s Egyptian recipe – were red, but brown and green lentils are more common elsewhere. And, of course, seasoning differed across the Jewish world – as well as the carbohydrate or presence of meat or dairy in the soup. There are as many Jewish lentil soups as Jewish communities.
I recently made my own lentil soup – a throwback to my grandmother’s recipe, but with more vegetables and a slightly sharper flavor than her very meaty and saltier soup. This soup is probably closest to a French lentil soup, but with Palestinian seasoning. I used the green lentils common in France, along with the very Nordic split peas and leeks in the place of onions. Leeks go well with lentils: their sharpness and vegetal flavor balance out the lentil’s starchy meatiness. Meanwhile, the sumac and za’atar add a pleasant bitterness to the soup – and the fenugreek adds an irresistible aroma.
Green lentils in a jar. (Photo mine, December 2016)
Sauteing the leeks and tomatoes. (Photo mine, December 2016)
It was a cold and depressing day in New York – and the venom of Trump’s recent election polluted the entire city in the many hushed voices whispering between the trees’ falling leaves. Dark, threatening, and draining. I sat with my friend Karen – almost an aunt really – in her Bronx apartment, and we spoke of our fears as we ate pieces of raw fennel. The beautiful flavor of the raw fennel – earthy and vegetal, licorice and dilly, cooling and sweet in its anise strength – was cooling against our tongues. Healing, interesting, and fuel for our work. In the time when our Presidents eats food for its ease and not for what it is, who think the poor must work to even deserve food – the basic, simple tastes can give us the power to continue. Strength and power and comfort – from fennel.
This community dates to the earliest days of the exile after the destruction of the Second Temple – and perhaps before, since Jewish migrants, merchants, slaves, and soldiers were present in Rome from the 1st century BCE. Jews brought foods familiar to them to and encountered the same foods in Italy – and these foods often became both a comfort and an integral part of memory on festivals. Fennel, which is known as shumar in Modern Hebrew but as gufnan in Mishnaic Hebrew, was among these. Sicilian Jews ate fennel for centuries – and, after being expelled in the Inquisition by the Spanish then-rulers of the island, brought fennel to the rest of Italy. In times of anti-Semitism, poverty, welcome, and having the ear of the Doge of Venice, fennel was part and parcel of Jewish cuisine. Elsewhere, fennel was also consumed by Jews – in Morocco and in Germany – but became a marked part of Italian Jewish cuisine.
Holding fennel in my hand (Photo mine, December 2016)
The smell of licorice takes over as I chop the fennel. (Photo mine, December 2016)
Fennel is also a testament to the cosmopolitan worlds past of Jewish Livorno, Venice, and Rome. Historians of Italian cuisine have noted that these communities traded foodstuffs extensively with both the great communities of the north – such as Germany and Poland – and the neighboring Arab world. Foods such as coffee, goose, and fennel were introduced by Jewish traders to the wider population – and certain foods, including fried artichokes and fennel risotto, were known as “Jewish” in Rome and Venice respectively. This history was largely erased by the mid-twentieth century, when the twin pushes of nationalism and fascism sought to “make Italy great again” by creating a monolith of heritage and cuisine. But Italian cuisine – to the chagrin of nationalists – is deeply Jewish and Arab, and Jewish cuisine likewise can sometimes be deeply Italian. In this age of cuddly white nationalism, it is a helpful fact to remember. Once, fennel was the comfort introduced from the not-so-foreign “other.”
This recipe for fennel is simple and tasty. The licorice taste of the fennel, which is too strong for some, is balanced out by the garlic and cheese, which make this dish quite hearty. If you want a lighter dish or a more vegetal one, remove the cheese and cut the garlic in half. It is also traditional to make this dish with large chunks of fennel that retain the shape of the vegetable – which makes for a wonderful final presentation.
It has been almost a year since I started this Jewish food blog, and I am only now making challah. This, I admit, is to the chagrin of many readers: since starting this blog I have been asked, harangued, flirted with, email, telephoned, texted, and Snapchatted (!) for my challah recipe. I deflected for a while: “I don’t often make challah,” I told myself. Then again, nor do I make quince jam that often. Besides, making challah is really fun.
Challah occupies a vaunted place in the American Jewish imagination. It is challah that is the marker of Shabbat, challah that is the marker of holidays, challah that non-Jews ask Jews about, challah that goes in French toast, challah that every Ashkenazi cookbook seems to include. As a bread, it’s pretty delicious, and it’s not the worst symbol of Judaism out there. That said, challah is also a very interesting example of how class and luxury intersect with Jewish practice to create a tradition that evolved quite a bit over the 19th and 20th centuries.
Challah evolved from the tradition of serving special bread on Friday night to commemorate the showbread used in Temple ceremonies in ancient times. The name itself commemorates the Biblical commandment to “separate the challah” as a tithe to the Kohanim, or priestly class. (Today, those that still follow this commandment burn the challah instead.) At some point in the Middle Ages, challah came to refer to braided, wheat-based breads with egg in the Ashkenazi world. These breads have also been called kitke, berkhes, and koylatch at various points. It should be noted here that non-Ashkenazi communities have their own “challahs” and other Shabbat breads. (Note: the Hebrew plural is challot, sometimes Yiddishized as khales,but “challahs” has entered colloquial American usage. I use the latter here.)
Challah before rising…
…and after. (Photos mine, October 2016)
Ultimately, challah is not unique. Other Central and Eastern European cuisines have similar braided, egg-based breads, such as the Hungarian kalács and the Lithuanian velykos pyragas. The recipes that we know today probably came from interactions with our neighbors and was certainly not a Jewish invention alone. Challah was historically a bread of luxury: in a region where rye was the predominant grain and wheat was pricy, one did not simply eat challah every day. Moreover, the eggs – another commodity that was not cheap before the 20th century – made challah that much more of a treat. Thus the bread became part of the special nature of Shabbat: a culinary way to set the day aside from the rye-filled workdays of the week. Having challah or any wheat bread more frequently was a sign of prosperity, having “black bread” on the table on Friday night was a sign of poverty.
Challah started out as a celebratory ritual, but has become a culinary force of its own in the United States. In a country and era with plentiful wheat flour and eggs, challah has gone from being a marker of celebrations and good fortune to being a frequent treat. One can buy challah every day in New York – fulfilling the claims of early immigrants, as documented by Michael Wex, that the United States was a country “where one could eat challah every day.” You can find challah French toast, challah bread pudding, challah grilled cheese, and I have even seen deep-fried challah. Those in the 19th century who celebrated having a challah every week would probably be stunned by this abundance. Even then, for most Ashkenazi Jews in the United States, challah is firmly a “Shabbat food.”
The tradition of making challah at home, by hand, has continued strong in this environment of industrialized plenty. Some use family recipes passed down through generations. Others add new ingredients first encountered in the United States – like chocolate chips. Some braid new patterns, others use food coloring to make “rainbow challahs” for gay pride. Making challah, like all Jewish cooking, is still a gendered practice: historically, like other culinary pursuits, it was considered a “women’s practice.” Many still consider it as such.
Many “schools” of challah exist. Some challahs are braided with three strands, others with the far more intricate six strands, and for Rosh HaShanah, braided round challahs are served. Some challahs are large and fluffy – aided by a second rising of the dough. Other challahs are dense and tightly packed – but still sweet and soft. Many people fill their challah with raisins, cinnamon, or even – as one colleague did – fig paste. Density varied historically, but sweetness – like that of gefilte fish – was a Polish trait, encouraged by the 19th-century proliferation of the sugar beet industry there. In all forms, though, challah is delicious.
This recipe is for a denser, smaller challah. The salted egg-wash gives it a pretzel-like twang; indeed, “pretzel challah” is increasingly popular. As for the density, I like challah to be cute and soft, but also able to absorb a good amount of soup, stew, or sauce. After all, I too cannot resist a piece of challah dipped into lentil soup.
5 1/2-7 cups (23-30oz/660-840g) white bread flour, plus more for kneading
1 egg, beaten
1/5 cup (50mL) cold water
1/2 tsp table salt
Sesame seeds or poppy seeds for garnish (optional)
In a large mixing bowl, mix the yeast and 1/4 cup of the water. Leave alone for ten minutes. Your yeast should “proof” and start to bubble in the water. (If it does not, you need new yeast.)
Add the honey, salt, oil, eggs, and the rest of the water. Mix well until thoroughly blended. You can use a whisk or wooden spoon for this step.
Now, add the flour, one cup at a time. Mix it in first with the spoon, and then with your hands. Flour your palms to prevent the dough from sticking. You should have a thick, but not too sticky dough, by the end.
Now you should knead the dough on a well-floured surface with your hands, also floured. Knead for ten minutes, or until you have a smooth and elastic dough with the texture of an earlobe (yes, I am serious, as are others). If your dough gets sticky, add a tablespoon of flour to your hands and the dough. If you have never kneaded bread dough before, I recommend this video.
Place the dough ball into a clean bowl, and cover with a towel or cheesecloth. Leave alone at room temperature to rise for one hour or until doubles in size.
Punch the dough down, then knead for a few minutes on a well-floured surface with well floured hands. You should once again have a smooth, elastic dough with the texture of an earlobe. Split the dough into nine equally-sized balls. If you want longer loaves, split into six equally sized balls – this will make two long loves.
Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Prepare a large tray – cover the bottom in either tin foil or, preferably, parchment paper.
Now it is time to braid the challah. Roll three of the balls into ropes about 8-9 inches (20-23cm) long (or longer for bigger loaves) and lay out side by side on your baking tray. Lay the right rope over the middle rope close to the top, so that the right strand becomes the new middle strand. Then, lay the left strand over the new middle strand so that the left strand becomes the new middle strand. Repeat, alternating, until you can’t loop the ropes anymore without extending them. Then, pinch the ends together. (Here is a nice video from Once a Month Meals.)
Repeat for the other two loves as you did for the first one. Give a few inches/centimeters space between the loaves, since they will expand while baking.
Mix your ingredients for the egg wash.
Brush the egg wash on your loaves so that the surface is “glistening” but not dripping. You can do this with a pastry brush, cheesecloth, or a paper towel. At this point, you may choose to sprinkle sesame or poppy seeds on top.
Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until the top is golden brown, the intersection between the ropes is no longer doughy, and the challah sounds hollow if hit on the bottom with a spoon or the backside of a fork.
Thank you to the 17 of you who participated in User Acceptance Testing for this challah.
Rosh HaShanah is coming up, and with it, hours upon hours of cooking in Jewish households across the world. The Jewish New Year is a traditionally a time for much feasting and many dishes, and is more generally two days of deliciousness. Over the next few weeks, this blog will feature a few recipes common to Rosh HaShanah and the subsequent holiday of Sukkot.
Hundreds of variations of this dish exist. Even within my own family, three generations disagree on what best constitutes this dish. My grandmother’s recipe has a strong taste of caraway; my mother prefers the dish without any caraway. I myself the additions of both caraway and garlic for a more pungent final product. Others use pepper and vinegar for a sour taste, or raisins for a sweeter one. Across the variations, however, a sweet-and-sour taste is maintained.
On a recent trip to Atlanta, I found a most interesting cookbook in a secondhand bookstore: the 1973 cookbook of the employees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The book itself is beautiful, and provides a really great insight into what the intellectual class of the 1970’s liked to eat. Some of the recipes are quite quaint to American readers nowadays – think “molded rice” and other wobbly “salads” – and many are quite familiar, such as the Korean Spinach Soup. Yet others are extremely complex, and generally of Continental European origin – even including the infamously difficult Sauerbraten. Among this cornucopia of recipes, I found a not unfamiliar – albeit not kosher – recipe for red cabbage! It is said to be a Hungarian recipe. This version is unusual, however, in that it uses pears, which makes the final product far sweeter. “Sweet and sour” indeed!
The 1973 “A Culinary Collection From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”
The red cabbage recipe, by Janos Schulz and Linda Gillies. (Contact me if you would like a transcription.)
I provide my somewhat more garlicky recipe here. This recipe is based on my grandmother’s, which was very heavy on the caraway – a taste, though welcome, which can become quickly overpowering. The garlic and caraway balance each other out well.
Red Cabbage With Apples
Based on the recipe by Annushka Smit Freiman
1 medium-sized white onion, finely diced
7 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon table salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried caraway seeds
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 medium-sized red cabbage, diced
2 medium-sized tart apples (Granny Smith or Antonovka*)
2 tablespoons butter or a vegetable seed oil, for frying
2 cups water
Heat a saucepan or other broad, slightly deep pan on a high heat. Then, add the butter and melt across the pan’s bottom, or add oil and spread evenly across the bottom of the pan.
Add the onions and garlic to the pan and sauté.
When the onions and garlic begin to soften, add the salt, pepper, and thyme. Mix thoroughly into the onions. Sauté for 30 seconds, then add the vinegar.
Once the pan stops sizzling, add the apples and cabbage to the pan and mix thoroughly with the onions, garlic and spices. Then, add the water.
When the water is boiling, reduce the heat to medium and braise for 20-30 minutes, or until the cabbage and apples are soft and the water has reduced. Serve hot.
*If you are so lucky as to have access to Bramley cooking apples – which are easy to find in the United Kingdom but not so much in the United States – you can use one of those large ones instead.
Thank you to Alex Cooke for participating in User Acceptance Testing.
Picture this: it’s the late 1960’s, and my mother and her family are in a car driving through Western Europe. They immigrated to Israel a few years before from South Africa, and its their first trip together out of the country they had just moved to. For my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, it is her first time in Europe since the Second World War. As they pass through the Swiss and French countryside, her eyes are on the landscapes and plants familiar from her Lithuanian childhood (Europe is remarkably uniform in its middle latitudes). And, as they drive along a country road – at my grandfather’s characteristic crawl of 20 kilometers an hour – my grandmother yells in her strong accent:
“Darling, you must pull over! The bushes are full of yagdes! Shvartze yagdes!”
That is to say, “berries! Black berries!” Which were regularly made into jam during my grandmother’s childhood.
Jams and preserves are, to put it simply, a pretty big deal in Ashkenazi Jewish cooking. Some of these jams and preserves might be familiar to North American or South African readers: plum jam, strawberry jam, and cherry jam. Others – such as the radish or beet ayngemakhts still served by many families at Passover – may seem a little foreign. (Even more foreign to some is the Yiddish term preglen ayngemakhts – literally “frying jam” – for cooking the beets in a sugar and honey mixture.) Fruits would be picked in their seasons and made into lekvar (povidl), jams, or preserves, which would then be sealed and preserved for the whole year. This practice paralleled that of local gentile communities – whose diasporas in America still import jams from the homeland to this day. Historically, for some Jews jam was a frequent part of the diet; however, for others – in fact, until the 19th century, for most Jews in Eastern Europe, it was a special treat. When sugar became cheaper in the 19th century after the development of industrial refineries to process sugar from beets, jams became far more economical to make – and began to more frequently appear on Jewish tables. By the time of the great emigrations of Ashkenazi Jews in the late 19th century, fruit jams and preserves were frequently found on Jewish tables. In her 1937 Yiddish-language vegetarian cookbook, published in Vilnius, Fania Lewando thought it useful to include an entire section on jams and preserves – perhaps indicative of her audience’s need for them.
Even today, preserved fruit shows up in a lot of places in Ashkenazi cooking, be it in desserts like hamantaschen to new recipes in books like Leah Koenig’s Modern Jewish Cooking. And, of course, Eastern European Jews in North America have assimilated into another jam-eating culture: that of White America. Though Smuckers and Welch’s, or even Bonne Maman, hold hardly a candle to homemade jam, they all draw on a long American tradition – white and black – of jam-making that dates to the earliest years of the colonial era. Much of this tradition was first expressed in the eighteenth-century marmalade – which, more often than not and like every other White American food, was made by enslaved people in the South and often the North – and not only by white housewives, as later myth would have it. This marmalade itself was brought to England by Portuguese Jews fleeing the Inquisition there – and the fruit was originally quinces, not oranges. (Colonial cookbooks contain recipes for quince jam, and so does this blog – albeit an Iranian version.) So in many ways there is an interesting dichotomy: jam is from the “old country” of Europe, but also something that is a very old Jewish influence on American cuisines.
For this post, I made a berry jam in honor of my grandmother’s love for yagdes. The strawberries and blueberries from farms here in New York State are in season, and I bought a big batch of fresh berries to make into a jam. Blueberries themselves are native to North America; my grandmother would have probably had the very similar bilberry. My jam is a little tart, though I certainly added more sugar than my grandmother, who loved tart food, would have wanted. Feel free to add more sugar to your taste – or enjoy the tart bite that could send my grandmother into a nostalgic reverie.
makes about five cups – this recipe can be easily multiplied
1 pound / 450 grams strawberries, with the leaves removed
14 ounces / 400 grams blueberries
2 tablespoons lemon juice or white vinegar
1 cup white sugar
3/4 cup water
In a large pot, mash the strawberries and blueberries together until you have a thick pulp. If your strawberries are large, it may help to chop them into chunks first.
Pour in the lemon juice or vinegar, sugar, and water, and mix thoroughly with the berry-pulp.
Bring the mixture to a boil on a high flame. Once the mixture is boiling, reduce the heat to have the mixture simmer.
Simmer the mixture, stirring regularly, for 30-35 minutes, until the mixture has thickened into a jam. Here is how to check: dip a cold metal spoon into the mixture, then hold it on its side. If, instead of drops, a “sheet” comes off the spoon, the jam is at your desired thickness. Otherwise, continue simmering the jam.
When the jam is done, remove from the heat and let cool. Scrape off some of the foam (“jam scum”*) and place it on a separate plate or bowl.
Once cool, pack the jam into containers. The jam keeps in the refrigerator for about two weeks and in the freezer for three months. You can also can it using a safe method to do so, though I would recommend slightly increasing the amount of lemon juice in the initial recipe for canning, and doing so with a larger batch. This jam goes very well at the bottom of a quark-based cheesecake, between the cheese and the crust.
*”Jam scum” – the “useless” foamy bit at the top of the jam that is trapped air – has a hallowed place in much of 19th-century Russian and American literature – for in this period jam scum was a special treat for many children. One of my favorite scenes in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – and one of my favorite scenes of food in literature – is Dolly’s thought-monologue on the delights of jam scum as she supervises her maid Agafea/Agatha’s jam-making at her country house in Part Six.
The author thanks Brian Pritchett, Robbie Berg, Amy Estersohn, and Kate Herzlin for participation in User Acceptance Testing.
“Doesn’t fenugreek make your sweat smell?” This was the question I received from an incredulous friend as I ate my lunch one workday in Lower Manhattan: this time, a sandwich in which I had included hilbeh, the Yemenite fenugreek paste. Indeed, many ask if the pungent spice will cause their sweat to be “nasty” or if the smell might be repulsive to potential partners. Others, perhaps, see a good sign in a partner that smells like fenugreek. I’ll leave the merits of a fenugreek- or not-fenugreek-scented paramour aside to come back to the fact that everyone agrees – and biology confirms – that fenugreek is a food that “smells,” and the hilbeh I am about to introduce has a whole aspect to it beyond its garlicky, pungent taste and delightfully gelatinous texture.
Before I continue, I should mention that hilbeh is one of the more fascinating dishes in the Jewish culinary canon. It is a jelly made from the ground and soaked seeds of the fenugreek plant, which has been cultivated in the Middle East since at least six thousand years ago. Fenugreek is mentioned as a typical food of the Galilee during the Second Temple period in Josephus and as common in the Mishnah, in which the plant is called tiltan. In Yemen, fenugreek, which is called hilbeh in the local variety of Arabic, became a basic part of everyday food: the dip hilbeh was and is eaten daily, and by some Yemenite Jews, at festivals as well. Even today, hilbeh is considered the mark of Yemeni identity among Jews and non-Jews alike. In the world of Jewish cooking, though, fenugreek is not a Yemenite spice alone. Fenugreek is common as a seasoning in North African, Iranian, and Turkish Jewish cooking, and also makes an appearance in the Jewish cuisines of South India. On Rosh HaShanah, many Sephardi Jews eat fenugreek as a matter of ritual – for one of the words for fenugreek in Hebrew and Aramaic, rubya, resembles the word that means “to increase in merit.”
It is a biological fact that fenugreek alters the smell of one’s sweat. Raw fenugreek contains sotolone – a chemical that causes your sweat to smell, faintly, of maple syrup once you consume it. Factories that process fenugreek can also emit this smell – as most famously discovered here in New York in 2009. (This smell is also why fenugreek shows up in imitation maple syrup.) The plant itself also has a particularly pungent odor. So, though delicious, fenugreek also carries the risk of changing one’s “body odor” – and many think for the worse.
Fenugreek is hardly alone in the realm of “smelly Jewish food” – every community has its foods, from odorous herrings and pickles in the Yiddish realm to the peppery sauces of Bukharan cuisine – that is, to say, more scented than Wonder Bread. (Your author politely points out, though, that the digestive aftereffects of Wonder Bread can be very malodorous indeed.) Yet fenugreek has also been one spice that is noted as pungent, in Israel and elsewhere in the Jewish community. Of course part of this is simply because fenugreek is pungent. But the lasting power is inseparable from the fact that fenugreek is strongly associated with the Yemenite community – whose food, like other non-Ashkenazi foods, was considered smelly and unsanitary for a long time, particularly in Israel. Thus I shall delve into a bit of history:
In 1950s Israel, the odors and scents of non-European cooking were heavily policed and societally scrutinized – even as those of Ashkenazi cooking were often given a “pass.” One could begin with the “reeducation” that governmental and quasi-governmental organizations like WIZO sponsored and sought to spread in the communities of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants to the new Jewish state – which largely meant pushing immigrants towards a Central or Eastern European norm of cooking. The State also subsidized European foodstuffs – like European bread – but not, for example, the Middle Eastern pita. Meanwhile, commentary on the “unsanitary” and “unhealthful” nature of non-European cuisine was common in the media, in education, in state policy, and from more established Ashkenazi residents of the state. This, of course, all happened in a context where state policy simultaneously selectively appropriated and reworked Arab Palestinian cuisine to create a separate “natural Israeli” culinary norm.” In all of this, scent was a major factor in the day-to-day policing of food. Arab Jewish food was “smelly,” “odorous,” “caused a stink.” The smells were associated with uncleanliness, a “lack of civilization,” and ultimately – race. Fenugreek was simply one part of this history: another Middle Eastern food whose smell was not suited for the “modern” Israeli table. Even as other Arab and Middle Eastern foods became popular among all groups in Israel later on, the idea of “smelliness” or “uncleanliness” remained strong – particularly for Yemenite and Ethiopian Jewish food. A similar tendency exists in the United States, where an effective class ceiling exists for many so-called “ethnic cuisines” – fine for cheap eats, but not for an expensive dinner. Smell is a key part of that trend.
Smell is ultimately biological. But whose smell matters and whose foods’ smell matters is, like sweetness, inextricable from the racialized social and cultural context that embeds the people with whom a food is associated. Thus the odor of fenugreek, delicious as it is, is more weighted and in some ways more maligned than what many consider the equally malicious odors of brie cheese, fish and chips, mayonnaise, hamburgers, or something with the French mushroom paste duxelles. (Or, as one reader pointed out, herring in the Jewish context – may Hashem bless the non-Ashkenazim whose nasal functions have been temporarily destroyed by our pickled fish.) The fact that fenugreek is consumed by groups not at the top of the sociocultural hierarchy in Israel or the United States, and the fact that the consumption of such spices is highly ethnicized and racialized as “other,” means that the scent associated with fenugreek and its consumption thus becomes a marker of “otherness” and marginalization. And in comparison to the smelly foods of the less-maligned, there is also an element of class: after all, blue cheese is favorably racialized and made elite in a way fenugreek is not. Or, as Pierre Bourdieu might say, fenugreek is not part of an élite habitus. So, the next time you eat and smell fenugreek – or if you do so for the first time, think about how its smell is also a sign of power – or lack thereof.
And enjoy it – for fenugreek is delicious!
Here is a recipe for hilbeh, based on those of an amalgam of Hebrew-language recipes from Yemenite Jews.
1 red chili pepper, chopped, or 1 tsp strong chili powder
½ tsp coriander seeds
Soak the fenugreek seeds in hot water, in a covered dish, for up to 24 hours. I sometimes stick the seeds into the fridge. The water will cool but needs to start off hot to bring out the fenugreek’s gelatinous quality.
Drain the seeds and place into a food processor with the remaining ingredients. Blend until you have a frothy, unified mixture. If you’re using a mortar and pestle, grind the fenugreek and garlic first together, then add in the other ingredients. (In terms of time, I recommend the food processor.)
Decant into a container and allow to sit for twenty minutes before serving, on bread. You can eat the hilbeh with samnehand/or z’houg. Hilbeh keeps, refrigerated, for about a week. I find that hilbeh is the perfect accompaniment to a fried egg.
Thank you to Tzeyeen Liew, Amram Altzman, Sumaya Bouadi, Mikaela Brown, Aaron David Lerner, and Yün-ke Chin-Stern for help with a few bits of this piece.
Read the first part of the herring series here, and the Chopped Herring (Forshmak) recipe here.
I’m wary of particularism, and particularly when it’s seasoning my food – ironic, perhaps, for an ethnic food blogger. And yet in Jewish cuisine we are plagued with the particular: this is Jewish, that is “authentic,” yet something else is a sign of “assimilation.” Any Google search can return you blog after tweet after article with this hackneyed approach to food. And in all this herring is a token of an idealized past – a lieu de mémoire that takes one back to a time when “Jews ate Jewish food, and that food was herring, and people cared about our heritage.” (I paraphrase here this rendition of history that is unapologetically centered on Ashkenazim.) Herring is “special” and “Jewish,” even if the Lithuanian and Polish jars of pickled herring taste pretty much just the same as the “Jewish” ones. What is with this search for purity and authenticity in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, made manifest in herring? It cannot just be the ghost of the fear of “assimilation” – as we happily buy into the ideas of “nation” and “heritage” Christian Europe pushes on our own myriad uses of the terms. There’s something – in the sense of Pierre Bourdieu – of trying to prove one’s status as a better Jew by showing that one’s tastes are more correct, more pure. But to do that nebulous task with herring?
Herring is proof that Jewish cuisine is anything but pure.
After all, this little fish is the one that “globalized” Northern Europe before “globalization.” Herring had been consumed on the shores of the North Atlantic and Baltic since time immemorial; by the ninth century CE, when records mention herring as an important foodstuff in today’s Norway, the fish was already locally pickled and traded around the Baltic. Around this time herring was a common food for Jewish and Gentile communities in today’s Germany, and was a staple food in Scotland and what is now Lithuania. (Pacific herring was heavily consumed in Japan and native North America, but the pre-modern herring cultures there merit separate discussions.) But at a certain point, more was needed: herring migrate long distances and often quite suddenly, and close-to-shore fishing no longer provided adequate supplies. At the same time, pickling and salting methods had improved such that the fish could now be kept for a long time, for lengthy distances of travel.
Thus herring – known as “silver darlings” in later years for their high value – quickly became a valued trading commodity: fish were brought in from the high seas, pickled, and then sold at massive markets in Europe’s fast-growing medieval hubs. Herring was one of the many commodities that fueled the medieval economies of cities like Bruges, Bergen, Riga, and London. In fact, herring was one of the main items traded within the Hanseatic League after that confederation of merchant guilds and towns was founded in 1358 – and the bounds of the League closely matched Europe’s herring capitals of the day. In later years, the development by Dutch sailors of shipboard fish preservation – and the spread of that technique across Northern Europe – again propelled herring as a commodity in the 17th century. Its quantity and cheapness also allowed the fish – highly profitable for its procurers – to become popular as a staple food across Northern Europe, from Northern France to Russia. More grimly, British colonists included the fish as part of rations for enslaved Africans – which is partly why herring remains part of local cuisine in Jamaica today. (Though a Briton might have consumed herring at home, the performances of colonial rule and domination – and wealth as a colonist – meant he was less likely to do so abroad, and more likely to eat meat.) Meanwhile, trading networks dedicated to the fish had developed in Europe, which brought herring from ships through port and market towns to tables across the class spectrum in early modern Europe. Much of Europe’s poor – especially Jewish – became particularly dependent on herring, especially in Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Scandinavia, and Scotland. Meanwhile, movements across the continent – including the Ashkenazi Jewish migration from Germany into Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary in the 13th century, later German movements to the east Baltic coast, and the 17th-century Swedish imperial expansion – also brought new preparations of herring to those areas – and expanded the trade connections around the fish.
Jews were at the center of these trading networks – we were part and parcel of what made herring happen. Let’s start in Amsterdam – where this very “Ashkenazi” fish was traded by Sephardi Jews from their arrival in the Netherlands in the 16th century. By the 17th century, when Amsterdam was the major center for fish and pretty much everything else, several Sephardic families had become vastly wealthy through trading fish – though, at least in the Netherlands, few of a largely urban Jewish community became fishermen themselves. Many wealthy Ashkenazi families in Germany had themselves become rich from trading herring in Hamburg and Bremen. Further afield and of more modest means, salesmen and peddlers traded and moved barrels across the European continent, to Lithuania and Poland, the heartland of Ashkenazi Jewry (and herring), France, and elsewhere. Some of the first Jewish settlers in cities previously banned to Jews – such as Stockholm and Norrköping in Sweden – were herring merchants, as were some of the first Jews to arrive in England after readmission in the 17th century. As the herring industry and fishery continued apace in the 18th and 19th centuries, so did Jewish involvement – especially after “emancipation” in the early 19th century in many European states. Many of the first Jews to arrive in the Scottish Highlands, Iceland, Norway, and Finland had some connection to herring. But it was hardly Jews alone who were growing in terms of herring.
Jews were involved at all points in this process, but were especially active in the preservation and distribution of the fish – which still played a key part in the diet of the poor Jewry of Eastern Europe. Many families depended on herring beyond nutrition – including Marc Chagall’s, whose father sold herring in Vitebsk. Yet as much as herring was Jewish, herring was also part of a huge economy. Such was the size and importance of herring as a fish that Iceland’s industrialization, urbanization, and independence was largely fueled by the herring and cod fisheries of the country. Even today, much of the country’s infrastructure dates from the days when that infrastructure was needed … for fish. And no doubt some of that herring ended up “Jewish.” Meanwhile a similar, also-Jewish-influenced herring industry grew in Seattle and Alaska on the bones of thousands of years of Salish and Tlingit fishing for the slightly different Pacific herring. Some of that herring certainly also ended up “Jewish,” in San Francisco and New York.
And much of what we know as “Jewish herring” – and cuisine, for that matter – comes from the contacts we facilitated or were introduced to during these heady centuries. Take herring in cream sauce – a “classic Jewish” preparation for the fish, with sour cream mixed into the pickling. Its origin? Sweden – and not a moment of Jewish ingenuity. This recipe was possibly introduced to Ashkenazi Jews during the Swedish invasion of Lithuania and Poland – an event that also marked a downturn for tolerance of Jews in Poland. Later Jewish tables were then dependent on a herring industry by and large not dependent on Jewish labor; from that industry, recipes were also taken – for example, herrings with mustard or herrings with juniper berries. Even the very basic ingredients of the herring’s pickling reflected surrounding environments – such as the increasingly sweet herrings of Poland after the sugar-beet industry took off there in the 19th century. And well – though we adjusted, redid, and reworked herring – the very fact we eat the fish has plenty to do with our non-Jewish neighbors. There was no forshmak in the Mishkan.
In turn Jews left, through herring, an indelible mark on the tastes of Europe. In some cases, the tastes were a direct contribution: for example, forshmak is served in Finland and Estonia in local renditions of the Jewish chopped herring that are very much not kosher. Meanwhile, herring is prepared with Jewish recipes by Christian Russians and Ukrainians to this day, and were popular during the Soviet Union. Yet in other cases the mere presence of herring on the menu owes a lot to the Jewish trading networks that brought this cheap, pickled commodity inland – and kept it there. How else would the sea-bound herring have then ended up deep in the landlocked countryside around Minsk? Or the favored garlic of Ashkenazi cuisine in herring dishes across Eastern Europe? The entire industry depended on Jews; even after the ravages of the Holocaust, our tastes still linger across the region. Just as “authentic” Jewish cuisine is impossible without the Swedes, so too “authentic” Lithuanian silke is nothing without the Jews.
Herring is a reminder that particularism never quite captures either the cosmopolitan majesty of Jewish history, nor the complexity of the context that inevitably surrounds it. Our tastes are not just shaped by halakha and tradition, authenticity and some “Yiddish” je ne sais quoi: they are inseparable from the Swedish military exploits of the 17th century, the herring factories of Iceland and Scotland, Russian appetites, and the spices brought by Dutch and Portuguese traders through Sephardi warehouses. Without any of these factors Jewish herring is not what it is: an element is missing, but so is the Jewishness. After all, we took in all these influences and combined them for hundreds of years – just as we did other things – taking us far from the idealized purity of yore that never quite existed. And certainly not in our barrels of fish.
“The barrel always smells of herring.” – A French proverb about how a person’s origins are never forgotten
I grew up with herring. I’m not saying this to be a snob or prove my authenticity. I say this because pickled herring was constantly present in the house where I grew up. I was introduced as a young child to herring by my South African grandfather, who would stay with us for two months a year in our house in New York. He ate pickled herring almost every day for breakfast at the time – and he still, at 94, enjoys all forms of pickled or salted herring immensely. So by the age of six, I was hooked on pickled herring – be it with dill, cream sauce, “wine sauce,” or juniper berries. (As I wrote for Roads and Kingdoms, herring anywhere can send me back to my childhood.) My grandparents did not have to be present for herring either – my mother constantly kept pickled herring in the refrigerator. This was partly because she herself enjoyed the saltier varieties of herring on a sandwich. In addition, guests were often served, especially on Jewish holidays, a forshpizer of chopped herring – the leftovers of which were happily consumed by someone in the family. By the time I left for college, I had an insatiable and very homely love of pickled fish. One could say this was unusual for my generation – unless I had, like so many of my fellow hipsters, been introduced to herring at IKEA or a modern Jewish deli. (The former is not bad, the latter often does well too.) But one could also say that having grown up in New York, undoubtedly the preserved fish capital of North America – that it was destined to happen.
For many New Yorkers of all faiths, herring is a Jewish food. The city was introduced to pickled herring first by the Dutch colonists and Scottish and Irish migrants, but the most common forms of pickled herring today are those that Eastern European Jews brought with them from Poland and Lithuania in the late 19th century along with techniques for smoking fish, uses of fish, and myriad preparations of river fish. Today, shops like Russ and Daughters and Raskin’s do brisk business with a Jewish clientele seeking pickled herring, and most supermarkets with a large Jewish clientele carry at least a few brands of mass-market pickled herring. Herring is remembered by many Ashkenazi Jews as a mark of some bygone era of proper Judaism – or as a taste of a now-dying generation. Others use herring to prove their adherence to either Orthodox authenticity or a vaguely-shaped idea of Ashkenazi or “Yiddish” culture (which are sometimes combined). Meanwhile, the great Nordic obsession of the 21st-century Anglo-American bourgeoisie has catapulted the herring – also a food of “ordinary” Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and Icelanders – into the realm of “gourmet” cuisine. You can now spend too much money on “Scandinavian” or “Jewish” herrings at the chic boutiques of SoHo and the Upper East Side. Herring is Jewish and homely and Scandinavian and haute cuisine all at the same time. And by some, it is loved.
We forget – I too forget – in these reveries that herring was once an oft-maligned food of poverty. In Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries – and far before that – herring, salted or pickled, was the everyday staple of the Ashkenazi working and peasant classes. It was cheap – incredibly cheap, as it was fished, preserved, and shipped in huge quantities for the day. It was readily available and filling. And, it was consumed by pretty much everyone in much of the region – herring was a common protein source for Jews and non-Jews alike in Lithuania, Poland, and Germany. As documented by Michael Wex, Gil Marks, and Claudia Roden separately, a fairly typical meal for a Jew in late 19th-century Lithuania – be he in a yeshiva, working at a factory, or at a shop – would have been a piece of herring on black bread. The fish was so common that the Latvian-born British Jewish columnist Chaim Bermant described the diet of his childhood as such: “On Sunday, one had a pickled herring, on Monday soused herring, on Wednesday baked herring, on Thursday herring fried in oatmeal and on Friday herring with sour cream.” Herring was so common as to almost be hated by many who ate it every day. Meat was the luxury that was craved, as one Yiddish-language song opines, by those who only had “a spoiled little herring.” That said, herring also tied Ashkenazi Jewry to a wider world that spanned the Baltic and North Atlantic – an entire economy based on herring and cod, and a network of cultural influence from northern Iceland to Russia closely paralleled by the fish. (This world was brilliantly documented by Douglas Murray in his recent book Herring Tales.) Thousands of Jews across Baltic Europe, and in England, the Netherlands, and France, were also employed by the herring industry, including the father of the Lithuanian Jewish artist Marc Chagall. Herring was, for many, the food on the table and what put food on the table.
I’ll discuss global herring and the herring economy in a later post. For now, let us return to the United States and Canada, where memories and tastes shifted. Firstly, tastes shifted away from herring and foods like it. In the years after World War II, increasingly prosperous Ashkenazi Jews assimilated both into whiteness and “middle-class values” in America and the food habits and tastes of their Christian neighbors. Herring – that sour, fishy, smelly food of poverty and un-Americanness, was out, canned pears and mayonnaise were in. But then herring became stylish. Firstly, the increasing fascination with new flavors by the post-hippie yuppies of the 1980’s soon expanded beyond spicy and savory to the pickled – exactly where herring sat. Then there was the fact that Scandinavian products – including herring – became an increasing marker of class status in the late 20th century. Professionals who bought Scandinavian furniture and worshipped “Swedish design” also became interested in the herring sandwiches that fed the architects of Göteborg and Norrköping. These expanded tastes showed what Pierre Bourdieu would consider a marker of elite status, a proof of high social and economic capital that was a far cry from herring’s proletarian origins. Meanwhile, a new generation of Ashkenazi Jews, became interested in the food of their own ancestors and that of their Sephardi brothers and in other aspects of their heritage like Yiddish – encouraged, of course, by the increasing commodification and celebration of heritage in the 1980’s and 1990’s – became enamored of herring as well. In addition, in a time when the tastes of Jews in the US had shifted – both to new spices and flavors and to the mainstream sweet and bland flavors of white America, herring also provided access to a memory of the “good old days” for those disturbed by the change. Russ and Daughters was now not just an excellent place for pickled fish, but the preserved proof of a “more Jewish” time on a changing (and less white) Lower East Side. Of course, some Jews – Haredim, South Africans, and an older generation – had never stopped eating herring in the first place – or doing any of the other things a generation curious as to what it considered “authentically Jewish” (read: “Ashkenazi”).
Finally, the large-scale migration of Jews from the former Soviet Union to the United States and Canada also changed the perceptions and memories of herring. Herring – selyodka – had remained on the menu in the USSR, and Russian-speaking Jews brought their pickled herrings with them as they moved to New York, Toronto, Montréal, and Chicago. So now, there is also a whole other Jewish communal memory associated with herring – not the Yiddish yesteryear, but that of a Russian Jewish memory shaped by seven decades of novy byt.
I wondered as a child why most of my other friends were not fond of herring. To a certain extent, the tart and fishy pickled herring is – was – for many of their palates a very foreign tastes. As I had noted, tastes in North America had shifted as Ashkenazi Jews largely assimilated into whiteness – which themselves were changing in what they ate and how they ate it. As Bee Wilson in First Bite and Donna Gabaccia in We Are What We Eat have written, flavor preferences in North America and Europe, led by the restaurant and food manufacturing industries, have largely centered around a trifecta of sweet, fatty, and salty flavors in the past fifty years. These tastes – along with social cues that I discussed in a post about Arab desserts – play heavy roles in everything from the flavors of a child’s first foods – formula, baby food, and “kid food” like chicken nuggets and children’s cereal – to the hip foods their parents may eat in wealthy neighborhoods. It is into this context, as Avery Robinson has noted in his work on kugel and “Jewish American foodways,” that North American Jews, their tastes, and their idea of “good Jewish food” have been assimilated. So the tart-sour, fishy-briny taste of pickled herring would be well outside this flavor profile. Perhaps – though South African Jews are very assimilated themselves in terms of food – it is my South African parents that introduced me to herring. Perhaps I was just an unusual child. The most likely thing is that I was simply introduced very early. Now, as more of my friends come to like pickled herring, the dish is used to recall not a simpler time, but rather one of different tastes.
But herring, as you may realize, is also mobilized as a mark of authenticity and continuation – in a manner I’d rather eschew. I’ve seen a few Jews discuss how they are sad “no one eats herring anymore” or claim that they are doing Judaism properly or more authentically by eating herring. This idea, of realness, is rooted in a nostalgia that the theorist Svetlana Boym noted has a habit of “colonizing the present.” This authenticity, rooted in nostalgia, does exactly that – more so than anything truly reflective of the material past. Yes, herring is traditional in Ashkenazi communities. Yes, herring has great symbolism in our culture. But eating herring doesn’t make you any more Jewish than the person who doesn’t eat it, nor is it more right than say, only eating your fish “on sushi or a bagel.” Eat herring because you enjoy it, because you want it, and share it with your friends as something to enjoy and want, not to perform your superior authenticity to address your own insecurity at something we Jews all feel bad at doing: being Jewish. Besides, let’s not forget that for generations those “authentic” ancestors you seek to ape, those “real” Jews, were often quite keen to swap herring for canned tuna and rye bread for Wonder Bread. Or that the herring they preferred may well have been sourer and fishier than the one you do. (We are also affected by changing tastes.) What you remember when you eat herring – like what I remember – is always a “colonization of the present.”
How do we remember our humble little fish? For some, it is the food that fueled Ashkenazi Jews in the past in di alter heim – “the old country,” and a reminder of a lost taste palate or an authentic culture. For others, as it might be for me, a taste of childhood in New York or Moscow. And for others a reminder of our complex statuses as Ashkenazi Jews in North America – assimilated and not. It can be all of these or none of these. And what is forgotten when we remember is just as important – whether it is the crushing poverty that most Jews in Eastern Europe faced, the headlong rush into white Americanness the “authentic” Yiddish-speaking generation of grandparents encouraged and initiated (including the change of tastes!), the class dynamics of eating the “authentic” version an often pricy pickled delicacy, or the simple fact that in a sweet-fatty world, the tart-fishy pickled herring has a different place.
And as we remember herring, we keep eating it. At least I do.