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.
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.
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.
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 Nationis spectacular. For a lovely, if incomplete, takedown of “locavore” thought, The Locavore’s Dilemma by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroki Shimizu is quite good.
I have wanted, for a long time, to research how people figured out which foods were safe to eat. How were unsafe foods found? How were necessary preparations found? It is a huge topic, and my hubris became clear rather soon. There are scientists who have spent their entire lives figuring this out.
Even then, I have now spent a few weeks down the rabbit hole of poisonous food, poisons, and food. The big thing is that the historical study of food poisoning is completely bonkers. For example: we find a lot of early pottery that sort of looks like a colander. Turns out the items were used to make cheese, which is one of the first safe ways people had to eat milk. Before then, people would eat milk and get really sick, from lactose intolerance. But diarrhea when you are malnourished is dangerous, and people died. Cheese saved lives. Later, lactose tolerance became a more common genetic mutation in Europe and India. This was probably because that in resource scarce areas, where milk was one of the only reliable foods, people who could not digest it died. Then there are other mysteries. Corn was bred from teosinte grass in what is now Central Mexico several thousand years ago. At some point, ancient Mesoamericans figured out how to soak the corn in various alkaline substances. This process, nixtamalization, makes corn more nutritious and flexible. The initial moment was very likely an accident. But later “research” was probably toxic at times – too much alkaline, or not enough washing afterwards. Alkaline substances are sometimes fine for you. There were also certainly instances when someone burned the wrong tree for ash, with terrible consequences. This goes toward the major theme of a lot of what I read: what happens later.
Something that has struck me is how often people die after we know what foods are safe. Mushrooms are one example. We know that some mushrooms are poisonous, and they look like safe mushrooms. There are details that distinguish them. These were important things to learn in communities that relied heavily on foraging. (Communities in Eastern Europe and the Balkans foraged through modern times.) This knowledge was mostly transmitted orally through folk tales and folk wisdom. The knowledge was not always right! People were confident, forgetful, or rushed to assuage hunger or finish the day’s work. And people died. Elderly people, disabled people, and young children were most at risk. When even a mouthful of a deadly mushroom can destroy one’s kidneys, those most at risk died. People of all ages and bodies died, though, centuries after it became common knowledge that a mushroom could be deadly. Monarchs died, composers died, and countless ordinary people died. Even now, many people die from relying on folk legends about mushrooms, such as the idea that all deadly mushrooms are brightly colored. We also have known for millennia that ergot can render rye and barley dangerously unsafe. Yet it still ends up in flour – often under conditions of hunger – and was responsible for several medieval epidemics. Today, occasional incidents still pop up. And let us not forget the people who eat fish that is plainly rotten, drink raw milk despite the risks we know, and consume unwashed salad greens, e. coli and all.
You may have noticed that I switched into the present tense. This is a current topic: people still die from food poisoning every day. Besides, more than half of all food poisoning comes from food prepared at home. Obviously, this is relevant now. Our concern about restaurant safety needs to come alongside giving people the knowledge and tools to prepare food safely at home. Methods include an accessible kitchen, simpler and less risky food, or industrial food. But it also is important from a historical perspective. Until recently, almost all people mostly ate food prepared in domestic settings. The risk then was from the family hearth. The food that killed people was the peasant food, the mother’s food, and the grandmother’s cooking of yesteryear. This is where that oral knowledge comes in – and where it was forgotten.
In the Jewish world, this is no different. Deadly food is mentioned in the Bible. In II Kings 4, the prophet Elisha throws some flour into a pot of gourds and herbs to ward off “death.” Scholars now think that the plant mentioned is colocynth, whose flesh can cause severe gastrointestinal distress. Flour may reduce the distress. The story is didactic: that some of G-d’s creations can kill you. In the Holy Land with sweet and toxic oleander, and colocynth with poisonous flesh and edible seeds, this was important and life-saving knowledge.
Later Jewish communities had to deal with the dangers of their local environments. In Europe, one found deadly mushrooms, dairy products made with rotting milk, and badly brewed alcohol. In the Middle East, you had the risks of oleander, colocynth, and algal blooms in the sea. Adulterated or diseased grain was a threat everywhere. Many Jewish foodies have embraced a romantic history of Jewish food. We rue lost traditions of food preservation and certain delicacies and ties to the land. And while the traditions are beautiful and worth keeping, it is also important to remember why our grandparents embraced industrial foods. Homemade killed, and food was risky. Abundant, relatively safe food was the promise that pushed immigration. The idea of clean, Jewish food contributed to the rise of Zionism. The search for safe bread motivated Bundist movements in Europe and leftist Jewish movements in the Middle East. Food was, and is, life.
Death and deadly foods are a glaring omission from romantic histories of food. I get that it is not fun to think about the food that kills people. A food activism that focuses on yesteryear why we have to go forwards, not backwards. We are all familiar with the horrors of industrial food, but let us take a moment to remember the horrors it reduces. People died trying to figure out what we can eat, and people die figuring out what they are able to eat. Should we not avoid meeting our fate at dinner too?
This is the first of two posts on institutional cooking.
People who cook for large groups do not get enough respect. In our deeply problematic classification of jobs in this country, cooking for large groups is considered “unskilled” labor – whereas somehow moving imaginary quantities of money is considered “skilled.” (Capitalism is really absurd at times.) Cooking may be a menial, manual labor, but it is a labor that requires deep skill – especially when you are turning out food to feed a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand. When you are cooking in a complex institutional setting, it becomes a skill of almost super-heroic proportions.
I and friends have learned this truth the hard way by wandering into occasional institutional-size cooking gigs ourselves. Back in my college days, I somehow ended up cooking lunch a few times for a small, lovely Lutheran church near my campus. Cooking lentil soup and pasta for ten people is a fairly straightforward matter. Cooking for a congregation of over one hundred is a much different undertaking, and after a few hours I found myself completely, utterly exhausted. The fatigue came not just from the physical labor, but from the mental labor of working with much larger quantities, having to adjust my normal cooking habits to the huge quantities I was making, and learning how to work with a soup pot large enough for a small person to fit inside. (I discourage cannibalism.) Other friends have come to dread “cooking duty” in the Israeli, South Korean, or Finnish Armies, which thrusts one into a context where one has to go from zero to feeding a hungry platoon on often substandard ingredients fairly quickly. It is an egalitarian approach to push everyone through the hard labor of large-scale cooking. In another context, I have watched friends spend hours as the institutional mashgiach (kosher supervisor) for college Shabbat dinners, supervising large quantities of food for halachic minutiae. Many of my friends and relatives lived (and some still do) on kibbutzim in Israel that had huge, communal dining halls of varying quality. And of course, there have been the other encounters: helping friends navigate hospital food systems, reading about the unionization of cafeteria workers, and the flurry of articles last year about kashrut in the American prison system.
I have been thinking about institutional food for a while, and how it affects the way we approach and think about food. When I say institutional food, I am referring to food cooked as part of a wider institutional framework not primarily focused on food. These institutions include school and college cafeterias, nursing homes, armies, prisons, hospitals, and places of worship. Institutional cooking, in my mind, has two other defining characteristics. One is that such cuisine is generally made for large groups – institutions provide for the needs, food and otherwise, of hundreds or thousands of people on a regular basis. Those people have a variety of needs and preferences, allergies and aversions, practices and metabolisms, which compounds the challenges of cooking, already made difficult by the scale of the endeavor. The other defining aspect is that institutional cooking has a certain industrialization or standard process to it – necessary to even cook at that scale. Though we often think of processing and industrialization as a modern endeavor, the idea of producing rations in a standard way for many institutions dates back centuries, to madrassas in the Ottoman Empire, monasteries in Western Europe, and armies the world over.
I am only offering some thoughts here. I am a civil servant who does food history as a hobby, and there are many people who have built a career out of studying institutional cooking, not to mention the multitude of institutional cooks themselves. (“Nothing about us without us” should also apply to discussions of labor.) These thoughts are essentially evidenced ideas about how Jewish food and institutions intersect both at the individual level and at the systems level. At the end of this, I will cite some things that you should read, whose have informed my thoughts.
And why does institutional food matter? It is tempting in our craft-addled food culture to forget that institutional food is real food with real influence on the way people eat, what people think of as “good” or “bad” or “normal food, and how people approach the labor of food at all. Many assume that craft culture, with its (expensive, anachronistic, and white) renditions of (often normally inexpensive and created by people of color) “real food” influence people the most. Certainly, it is an influence. But unless you are incredibly rich or have an incredibly unusual upbringing, much of the food you will eat during your most formative life phases in North America, Europe, and Israel is institutional. Cafeteria food at schools, universities, and army mess halls, food at synagogues and churches, food from mass kitchens if you are hospitalized or imprisoned. Tastes are formed by the often-“disappointing” preparations of certain ingredients, and other dishes are looked forward to on a rotation. When many students graduate to cooking on their own, the reference points for a normal meal have been shaped not just by food at home or out, but by years and years of institutional food. Jewish communities, with their own schools, hospitals, yeshivot, synagogues, and institutions – and not to mention kashrut practices and traditional foods – are no exception. Even craft culture imitates the food of institutions and seeks to influence it.
With these ideas in mind, I will now go through a few small discussions of institutional food. Keep in mind that these are brief and extremely incomplete, each of these seven points could be the topic of a doctoral thesis on their own.
Jewish communities have a lengthy discussion on the kashrut of institutional food, but not the labor and logistics of it. Cooking is work, and I cannot labor that point enough. It intersects with disability, with race, what we eat and do not, and how we even conceive of food. It involves strenuous movements like chopping, lifting, and straining in areas of high temperature, often for hours on end. At an institutional level, this labor takes on special characteristics, such as large implements, huge quantities of ingredients, and vast industrial kitchens. It is dangerous labor, and it is hard work. This work is also often taken for granted – and as unpalatable as cafeteria food can be, there is a lot of labor behind it. Even beyond labor, the logistics of actually getting edible food in large quantities to huge, hungry groups of people are astounding. There are trucks that bring food in, pipes to carry waste water away, hiring systems for workers, quality checks, safety checks, and the very task of moving huge quantities of material. So little do we discuss this outside of nerdy food studies circles, or professional circles themselves. Why? The faces of the labor are probably one clue.
Who, specifically, is doing the labor of institutional cooking? How does this affect our foodways? Food work in the developed world and developing world alike is often the work of marginalized people. In developing countries, this may be migrants or members of lower castes. In the developed world, this is often done by working-class immigrants, people of color, and/or women. Jewish communities are no exception, and the United States is no exception. Institutions that serve primarily white clientele often have a cooking staff made up of entirely Black and Latina women. Again, Jewish institutions are no exception. There are two major notes to take from this fact.One is the way this work is closely tied to the way labor, race, and gender intersect. Not only is institutional cooking manual and menial labor, but it is also associated with groups marginalized in Jewish and wider society: people of color and women. This tie means that ordinary people are far less likely to respect that work than say, that of the mashgiach (though more on that later). Because people of color and women are also more likely to face workplace abuse, bad working conditions are less likely to be noticed or addressed. Many institutions simply do not pay their food workers enough to live on. Jewish institutions are among them. What would changing that system mean for our food practices?The other matter is that the cuisine changes. I discussed in a post last year the way Black domestic workers influenced and shaped Jewish cooking in North America. Not only were African-American women bringing home challah and kugel, but White Jewish children were raised on foods more frequently associated with African-American and Caribbean cultures. (Yes, most Ashkenazi Jews in the United States are White.) Let us leave aside that much of “mainstream” North American food was created by enslaved Black people; Michael Twitty’s book can never be topped by a few pithy sentences. What I want to note here is that the people of color, often women, who work in institutional food settings affect the cuisine that is served in institutions themselves. How so? Well, they are doing the cooking! They make adjustments to food when situations arise based on what they know. Sometimes seasonings are changed – actually, frequently. Cooking times are adjusted. The time something is left on a burner is increased. Last-minute incidents of spills and freezer problems cause all sorts of new things. All these change the final product, especially in large quantities. Often, workers make the foods they know how to make in large quantities from their own communities; it is far easier to make the things one has seen prepared many times over, and food workers are no exception to that rule. (Hence the frequency of rice and beans as a base in some cafeterias, hearty stews in others, or fried okra and biscuits in Southern Jewish institutions.) As much as any home cooking or elite TV show, these contributions shape the very idea of what food “belongs” in institutions.
I will share one favorite example. The Filipina and Palestinian Arab women and Mizrahi men who work in my grandmothers’ almost entirely Ashkenazi nursing home are responsible for feeding the residents. The great hits of Ashkenazi Israeli cooking are there: soups, salads, schnitzel. So too, are foods that seem to have started off as last-minute additions: certain rice dishes, stewed and stuffed vegetables, and okra in various forms. Those dishes are often the best-tasting, and beloved by many residents. Mind you, many of these happy consumers did not eat okra for the first eighty-five years of their lives with any regularity.
What does “Jewish” institutional food look like? What gets filtered through the process of industrialization and simplification? Is there an institutional kosher cuisine? I ask this for two reasons. One is that I often see the same things or combination of things being served at Jewish institutions, usually adaptations of Ashkenazi, Israeli, or Western European food. (I am distinctly aware that all of these terms are highly loaded.) In some ways, we can call this a “culinary” tradition of what ends up on school, hospital, army, and synagogue trays and plates. The other is that the combination of the minutiae of strict interpretations of kashrut and the challenge of cooking for large groups of people for a long time on a daily basis produces certain challenges. As a result, some foods become unfeasible because of the effort or cost involved – dairy if one practices chalav Yisrael, eggs if one is machmir (fastidious) about blood spots, certain green leafy vegetables if one follows certain rabbi’s guidelines on vegetable washing and preparation. Some foods are also much easier: breads, pastas, rice, cabbage, soups. Institutional kosher cuisine, to me, feels like an endless sea of soups.In tandem with this last point: if there is an institutional-kosher cuisine, why is so much of it meat-based? Given the expense of kosher meat, the commonality of vegetarianism in Jewish communities, and the number of additional rules involving meat, I am somewhat surprised at how many institutional kitchens are certified as “meat.” Part of me wonders if this is a cultural thing – meat is seen as “ideal” for a meal. Another part wonders if it has to do with the extended arguments about the kashrut rules on dairy and the general Haredi monopoly on kosher certification in North America, Europe, and Israel. And part of me wonders if it is simply … part of the culture at this point.
Even though I just critiqued this, what does institutional kashrut even look like? I know that I just excoriated Jewish communities for so heavily concentrating on kashrut a few paragraphs back – and indeed, I do maintain that the concentration on keeping kosher has masked the very real matter of who does the labor, how they are treated, and what that entails.I still find kashrut interesting for other reasons, though. Not for the matter of keeping institutional kitchens and food systems kosher, though that is fascinating too – much has been written about this by Roger Horowitz in Kosher USA, Sue Fishkoff in Kosher Nation, and by organizations providing kosher supervision themselves, such as Star-K and the Orthodox Union. Rather, I am interested in how people change – or do not change – their practice of kashrut in institutional environments. There are so many things to investigate, but these include:
How do people become looser with kashrut at institutions? Some institutions may offer food adhering to one’s normal kashrut practices, but even that can be limiting. How does one choose food, if possible, that meets one’s standards internally? How does one decide when and where to loosen the standards? For example, I myself would normally be upset if tongs used to serve non-kosher meat landed in the broccoli without being washed. But at many institutional cafeterias, I have not cared. Other friends have found themselves making exceptions or even redefining what they generally think of as kosher, not just in a given and unusual situation. People like maintaining traditions, but they also want to eat enough. Do people ever become stricter? If so, why?
In addition, why do Jewish communities seem to only discuss the holiness or cleverness of the work of the mashgiach (kosher supervisor), but never the labor or discomfort it can bring? Being a mashgiach can involve long periods of time in hot spaces, like any kitchen job, with an attention to detail that evades many. One must often explain arcane rules to people who not only do not understand the rules, but may not have a common language with you. It is a standing, moving labor. Pay varies widely among mashgichim, as do work conditions. Do we consider how well mashgichim are compensated, especially given that some certified-kosher food products can often be so expensive? How much money from institutional food practices actually goes to the mashgiach? (At this point, I have to acknowledge that kashrut is not separate from labor.) And if a business is paying for certification, or a rabbinical authority with questionable business ties, what pressures do mashgichim face to choose between their interpretation of halacha and their job security? How have kosher practices changed in response to the work conditions of mashgichim? How have mashgichim changed their practices in response to “popular” kosher assumptions or concerns?
Let us zoom out to the urban level: how do Jewish communities build their own institutional food systems? Here, I am primarily thinking of certified-kosher food. The rules of strict kashrut are arcane and complicated, and many will only eat commercially prepared food that is under rabbinical supervision. For prisoners, members of the military, and people in hospitals far from Jewish populations, food must often be shipped long distances, and often in bulk. Take two to three meals a day and multiplying it by 30 days in a month, or 90 days in a quarter, and even food for two or three strict kosher-keepers becomes a hefty shipment. For the caterers and industrial providers that have arisen for this population, that is a steady stream of revenue – but also requires planning to make sure food is not left unsealed, shipped safely over long distances, and is still edible at journey’s end. In areas with bigger Jewish populations, hospitals and schools often have their own kosher kitchens or kosher catering, which draws from a network of trusted suppliers and certified sources. Those suppliers also provide to the other parts of the food chain – supermarkets, restaurants, and sometimes consumers. As a result, there is a whole Jewish food system parallel to the “mainstream” food system – just as there are other parallel systems.Much has been written by Roger Horowitz and Sue Fishkoff (linked below) about keeping these food systems kosher. I am more interested in the social dynamics of such a system and how it interacts with wider ideas of a Jewish community – and how such systems enable Jewish communities to form or dissolve. This, of course, is something I could spend a lifetime pondering.
People with disabilities often spend more time in institutions than abled people, and more time eating institutional food. Special schools for the Deaf and children with cognitive disabilities are often boarding schools; adults with cognitive disabilities often live in group homes or facilities. Many people with cognitive disabilities never learn how to cook. Those with chronic illnesses spend more time in hospitals, and college students with disabilities are often more reliant on cafeterias at their schools. Of course, elders in nursing homes are often wholly reliant on institutional food – especially if their disabilities prevent them from cooking, or living somewhere with access to kitchen facilities. As a result, institutional food often looms larger in a disabled person’s life.The tragic irony is that this food is often inaccessible. Food produced at an industrial scale is often difficult to tailor to severe allergies or specific dietary needs, or produced in ways that some people cannot consume. For example, I have volunteered at many soup kitchens that serve lots of hard, crunchy food. For a clientele that often lacks dental care, have untreated dental problems, or have swallowing problems, this sort of food is impossible to eat without pain or even danger. Never mind that many chronic illnesses are accompanied by a host of food intolerances.
The food is also, as we all know, not usually very good, and not just in terms of taste. For many people, the depressing matter of relying on terrible and often inedible food day after day is a major trigger for mental illness. For Jews and many other groups, the food is also not the food of one’s community or the foods that one might prefer or even know. There are huge Jewish institutional food systems, but that does not mean all Jews who rely on institutional food have access to adequate, nutritious, and appropriate food. Even being vegetarian can cause problems in institutional settings. The lack of control over what one eats is yet another stab to dignity.
What would accessible and good institutional food look like? I cannot provide the answer in a paragraph, but it ties to the systems I described above. To build a food system that is accessible at all, changes in the way we shop for, package, and talk about food are needed – and not to mention kitchen design and recipes themselves. On an institutional level, this may involve a larger workforce and much more separate “streams” for dietary needs – and less of an attachment to the craft-culture, slow-food mentality. It would also take into account different cultural approaches to food and expectations, and not impose the desires of dominant groups. I also believe that such a shift would need to start, first and foremost, with the input and ideas of the disabled people most affected by institutional food right now: elders, adults with cognitive disabilities, and those in medically-based assisted living facilities. “Nothing about us without us.”
The memory of institutional food is long-lasting. Originally, I was going to post some things and anecdotes told to me by people over social media, but so many people sent stories in that there will now be a subsequent post. Suffice to say that not only do memory and institutional food shape cuisines and how people cook, but also that this combination produces fascinating, funny, and often cringe-worthy stories. (The post will be a blast.)In any case, I have been wondering three things about memory and institutional food:a. How does institutional food create common communal memories of Jewish food? When I say this, I do not mean the abstract memory often cited by academics, but ideas and tropes that people have experienced themselves. Students who have eaten at Hillels and camps in the United States all seem to recall salty soups, Israelis all seem to remember meat loaves and oily, oily potatoes from Army service. The eggs at Jewish hospitals seem uniformly “bouncy.” Institutional food, clearly, creates the memories that turn into jokes, anecdotes, and common wisdom.
b. Institutional food “teaches” people the bounds of Jewish food. How does that carry over beyond institutions? It is well known that cafeteria food and school food is a place where people are “taught” what the food of a nation, group, or community are. Hence the recent emphasis on pork in French cafeteria food in response to growing diversity, or the focus on “national” foods in Scandinavia, Central Europe, and Japan. Jewish food is no different, and a simple scan of the menus from Jewish day schools and camps shows that food also has an educational element on kashrut, tradition, and conspicuous absences. There are Israeli salads, matzah ball soups, and stews, but certainly little fake treyf or, G-d forbid, real (Yael Raviv has discussed institutional cooking as a place of teaching extensively in her book Falafel Nation.) But after the Jew graduates from school, camp, yeshiva, and/or the Israeli Army, what effect does this education have? Do people subconsciously follow these lessons on what gets eaten and when, or are they intentionally subverted.
c. How does institutional food “reshape” people’s habits and approaches to “normal” and “weird” food? In tandem with this, how do encounters with emotional food determine what people see as “normal” food? I am thinking here of a few things. One might include impressions of what other people expect. Another might include what gets determined as normal food at all. And another are the feelings when your own communities’ foods and memories are not included in the institutional framework – and the way that shapes your approach to the foods of your communities as well. Institutional food is deeply white in the United States.
Tam ve-nishlam, here is the end of my scattered thoughts on institutional food. Two more notes:
First, look out for an upcoming post about readers’ memories, thoughts, and anecdotes on institutional cuisine. I have heard some wild stories, and personally seen a few myself. The tales range from gross and unappetizing to delicious and heartwarming. I have never been so excited to write a post.
Secondly, I am going to ask you, as the reader, to do a bit of thought. How have you interacted with institutional food – as an eater, as a worker, as an employer, or in other ways? What carries over into your home cooking, into restaurants, and into your food preferences? And how do you relate to the people who do the labor of institutional cooking and food supply – or not?
Some resources on institutional food:
The United Food and Commercial Workers’ International Union represents food workers across North America: http://www.ufcw.org/
More than slightly related: you should listen to Episode 2 of the podcast Farm to Taberto learn about unpaid prison labor and all the problems that come with that on farms, for the human rights of prisoners, and how institutions interact with our food system. Dr. Sarah Taber is awesome, too.
One of the most fascinating places in the New York area is the 5:04pm train from Hartsdale, in the posh suburbs of Westchester County, to Grand Central Terminal in New York City. On the train, you will see many black women boarding, most of whom are returning to the Bronx from their day’s labors as domestic workers in Scarsdale, Bronxville, Greenburgh, and Eastchester. The conversations meander from politics in the countries of the Caribbean – many of the women hail from Trinidad and Jamaica – to celebrities to the toils and tribulations of their job. Oftentimes, the topic is cooking: what they had to cook for the children, for the parents, for a party, or for a Shabbat dinner. You may even hear mentions of “matzah ball soup” or “kugel.” Many of these dishes are Ashkenazi Jewish – for many of the employers are Jewish.
Black women have worked as domestic labor in some Jewish kitchens for two centuries. In the post-war suburbs of America and South Africa, where many Jews who were white moved after World War II, wealthier families were able to hire workers, mainly black women, for domestic tasks. In the South, Ashkenazi Jews assimilated into Southern whiteness and also employed black servants – and before the Civil War, some owned slaves. A similar process occurred with Ashkenazi Jews in South Africa, and with white Sephardic Jews in the Dutch Caribbean. Black domestic workers and slaves before that – and other household staff who were people of color – were overwhelmingly not Jewish (with some rare exceptions). For the sake of this piece being focused, I will be focusing on the experiences of white Ashkenazi Jews and non-Jewish black workers – given that the experiences of white Sephardim and Ashkenazim of color have whole different dynamics. In any case, this history of interaction is strong and complex enough – from day domestic workers in Haredi Brooklyn to housekeepers in Los Angeles – that a thorough investigation could produce far more written work than this simple article.
Unfortunately this history has been used as fodder by anti-Semites. The cases of abuse – too common for domestic workers generally – in which Jews have done wrong are blown up, and false narratives about Jews have been cover for very anti-Semitic things. This, however, should not be used as an excuse to not examine how domestic workers live and act in Jewish spaces, nor how some Jews have sometimes had access to whiteness. And, in the latter case, we also must note how employing domestic labor was part of Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews accessing whiteness. We have to be able to confront anti-Semitism as a real thing, and acknowledge and work with the fact that some Jews have white privilege and class privilege while still being oppressed as Jews, and other groups (women, queer people, disabled people, and others), without losing our minds. This is not only to write Jewish history by the custom of our ancestors, but to also think of how power dynamics shape our everyday lives.
And so we turn to the kitchen. Food is fundamentally at the center of power, in the Jewish world and elsewhere. Likewise, domestic labor is closely connected to and often comprises food preparation. What happens when these intersect in the Jewish kitchen? The result is that domestic workers have had varying degrees of influence and interaction with Jewish cooking. When combined with racial dynamics between white Ashkenazi Jews and black employees, it then seems that in the course of Jewish access to whiteness, black domestic workers come to play a role in the Jewish kitchen.
Anecdotally, at least, this role is well confirmed: it is by the hands of domestic workers, often women of color, that many Jewish foods are placed on the tables of the white and wealthier members of the community. I knew this growing up in a well-off suburb in the New York area: many of my classmates at school had families who employed housekeepers that often made traditional Ashkenazi dishes – particularly the labor-intensive ones – for Shabbat dinners and festivals. The families were almost always White or read as such, with a few East Asian spouses. The housekeepers were almost always black, and generally from the various Anglophone islands of the Caribbean. Hence holishkes, stuffed cabbage, brisket, or matzoh balls in these wealthy suburbs, and in well-off Jewish households across the country, are made by the hands of black, non-Jewish women. And, of course, in South Africa I had met many black women who cooked Jewish food for their employers – especially as it is far more common for well-off families to have domestic workers there. The Jewish community in South Africa tends to be wealthy and is almost completely White – and part of their assimilation and access to white privilege was employing domestic workers. Both my parents, and many other South African Jews who grew up in the apartheid era, ate Ashkenazi foods cooked by black women, and even today this pattern is quite common.
When I thought of this piece, I asked around to friends from other parts of North America – and from South Africa – for their experience in this matter. The stories came in. One friend told me on Twitter that he grew up convinced that stuffed cabbage was a Southern tradition, because his grandmother’s black housekeeper made it when he was a child, and apparently well at that. Another reader, daughter of a working-class Haitian immigrant to Miami, told me about her mother’s love for chopped herring, found while working as a home aide for an elderly German Jewish man. The good folks of the Writing the Kitchen group on Facebook directed me to literary references and their own memories of black domestic workers cooking in Ashkenazi kitchen – including literary references. South African and American friends sent me documents from Orthodox rabbinical authorities explaining what employers must tell their domestic workers – assumed to be not Jewish! – about a kosher kitchen. (This American one from the Orthodox Union is especially cringe-worthy.) Friends and colleagues from Texas and Southern California, meanwhile, pointed out that many of the domestic workers laboring there were indigenous Mexicans from the state of Michoácan – and they carry their own experience and interactions. So clearly the idea that black women and other women of color are cooking Jewish food for white, wealthy employers is something that is known in the Jewish community.
Yet this contribution – if limited to the upper echelons – is under-documented. Yet it does show up in histories of the Jewish South and the Jewish Caribbean. Some historians have recalled from their own childhoods the black cooks and nannies who often made Jewish foods that their white Jewish employers cherished but could not cook – for example, Robin Amer’s recollection of Dee Dee Katz in her family’s kitchen. Others noted that many black domestic workers took home Jewish dishes to their own families – or, more frequently, introduced white Jewish families to Southern dishes. Hence Michael Twitty has noted the presence of herring and grits or matzoh-meal-coated fried chicken in the Jewish canon of the South – in no small part from the domestic workers that many white Jewish families employed. In South Africa, employing black domestic workers was a sign of status in the white middle class, and many Jewish families did so. There too, many memoirs and historians note the culinary role of this labor. But when it comes to writing Jewish culinary history, or Jewish history at all, this aspect disappears alongside the less savory aspects of a communal rush to whiteness among Ashkenazim.
Cooking was not and is not glamorous work. It is all too easy as a food blogger – and I mark myself guilty as charged here as well – to forget that for most of history making food was a backbreaking, never-ending task. In many cases, it still is. To employ someone to do this task for you was not only a marker of being able to afford such a service, but a strong marker of power: that you were able to access enough privilege to have someone else do the labor of cooking for you. This is a very material consequence of Ashkenazi Jews becoming white: even if they were “liberal,” to have a black domestic worker making Jewish food was itself deeply embedded in the politics of power. (There is no easy way out of these dynamics, as the French theorist Michel Foucault noted, and certainly not in food, because food is a product of labor.) Even in the post-war era, with machines and shipping to reduce the labor of cooking – never forget that “Slow Food” is a deeply forgetful movement – the long hours and difficult work of cooking many traditional Jewish dishes has often in wealthier circles still fallen to black domestic workers. In the United States and South Africa alike, this fact is reflective of a power dynamic that wealthy Ashkenazi Jews have just enough whiteness to perform ethnic consumption while avoiding some of the labor behind it. (Of course this leaves out the less wealthy Jews, the majority, who did not employ domestic help.) Given that Jewish food is often used as a marker of authenticity, or as a point of continuity, it should thus be said that the labor of these black women – often unacknowledged – was responsible for forming the next generation of Jewish culture.
And here we have a lesson about the dignity of labor and the sometime whiteness of Jews. Even as Ashkenazi Jews in the United States and South Africa faced anti-Semitism, they were also able to – if they could afford it – benefit from whiteness and offload the actual labor to domestic workers who were often black. Then the benefits of authenticity in a remnant culture increasingly accepted as “European” were frequently accessible without the hard work – as well as the collective memory of dishes that were often only eaten on the most festive of occasions in Europe. Those less wealthy could also benefit from occasional whiteness, but often simply did not make labor-intensive foods often – it was not that they did not care for authenticity, but that the labor and ingredients to make foods like lebkuchen, ptcha, gedempte fleish, and kreplach simply cost too much to be anything more than an occasional treat. In many ways then the continuation of Jewish cuisine – always limited by class – was possible partly due to the whiteness of its progenitors, and the labor of the black women they employed.
Some black domestic workers probably took Jewish foods they cooked for their employers home to their families – given that this occurred more generally with other white employers, it is a safe assumption. (If anyone can find documentation of this, let me know!) And in turn, many Jewish employers in the United States were introduced to the food of the black South from their employees. Cornbread and collard greens became staples across the Ashkenazi South, and many Jewish families incorporated grits into their daily routine. In South Africa, mielie pap and stampmieliesbecame the childhood favorites of many a South African Jew who grew up in the 1950s – despite strong societal condemnations by whites of eating the food of black South Africans. And then, today, there is another trend which I see: many young Jews who grew up in the New York or Boston areas were babysat by Haitian, Trinidadian, and Jamaican immigrants – and resultantly have a strong domestic memory of and preference for West Indian and Caribbean food. When Ross Urken wrote in Tablet magazine about his Jamaican nanny, it sparked a conversation across social media that lay evidence for how the babysitters and housekeepers of Westchester County had an influence strong, yet unacknowledged, marked by a love for rice and beans and fry plantains.
Jewish cuisine belongs to Jews, but Jewish cuisine is as much a product of the non-Jews that have worked with or for Jews over the centuries, that have lived with us and loved us (or hated us!), that have learned from us and from whom we have learned. This split belonging is an inconvenient truth in an age when myths of nationalism and popular propriety abound in cuisines Jewish and not, but it would be a dishonor to the hands of laboring domestic workers to disregard this difficult fact: that the traditions of the Ashkenazi Jewish kitchen been maintained, expanded, and transmitted by the hands of the hardworking Caribbean women on the 5:04 train to Grand Central, stopping at Fordham.
Firstly, I would like to challenge my readers – and myself – to spend the time before Passover, a holiday of liberation, thinking about the intersection of labor paid and unpaid and underpaid and the maintenance and creation of Jewish cuisine. Who benefits? Who determines the cuisine? And how do power relations map out in the kitchen? It is patently obvious that food is political, and that the kitchen is at the same time a gilded cage and an artistic studio equipped with chains. The labor is often unrelenting, but at the same time food and its preparation can be a linchpin of power – or a reminder of oppression and domination. How do we see this in the social contexts in which Jews live and work?
To that end, here is some suggested reading on domestic labor in the Jewish culinary context, and some background on the black hands that shaped American cooking:
-“Dee Dee’s Kitchen” discusses the contributions of one black servant in a Jewish home in Natchez, Mississippi, and her mastery of Jewish cooking for a family that could not exactly cook for itself.
-Marcie Cohen Ferris’ “Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South” is not only an invaluable resource on Southern Jewish Cooking, but one of the best chronicles to date of black domestic workers’ contributions to the Jewish table. It also is one of the most honest and least fantasy-ridden depictions of the ways in which white Jews adopted Southern racial codes I have found.
-Toni Tipton-Martin’s “The Jemima Code” is not only an incredible compendium of African-American cookbooks, but also a keen analysis on the role black cooks and especially black women have played on American cuisine.
-Finally – and I am so excited for this – Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene, a historical cookbook of African-American cuisine. Twitty is one of the most prominent Jewish chefs out there today, and his blog Afroculinaria is a real treat.
Because domestic workers are often the most abused and under-defended workers in the United States and South Africa – and the base of a working class that is female and generally not white – I also urge you to donate to organizations fighting for their rights:
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.
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.