By Hannah Lee
What makes food Jewish? “The iconic comfort foods of American Jews connect us with our heritage, but most of the items are not innately Jewish”, says Ariella Werden-Greenfield, a PhD. candidate in religion at Temple University. She spoke last week at the Gershman Y as part of the series on What Is Your Food Worth? coordinated by Temple’s Feinstein Center for American Jewish History. Some exceptions are bulkie rolls and matzo balls, which derive from challah and matzah, both prominent in Jewish rituals.
Jews have adapted recipes to the kosher ingredients available to them in whatever land they’ve landed. Pastrami, from the Turkish word, pastirma, we know as spiced, dried beef, but it originated in Romania where pork or mutton were instead used. The Romanian recipe arrived with the Jewish immigrants in the second half of the 19th century. In Israel, it’s made with chicken or turkey. Corned beef, a salt-cured beef, is actually Irish, but the Jewish butchers sold cuts of brisket to the Irish, so they also offered it to their brethren.
Fish was not sold together with meat products and it was not easily accessible to Jews in the Old Country. The advent of the canning industry expanded the dietary options for all Americans. Jews gravitated to herring, which was familiar and cheap; whitefish, a colonial novelty from the Great Lakes; and lox and nova, from the salmon which was previously unaffordable to Jews.
Most Jewish immigrants started life in America as peddlers. Historian Hasia Diner has written (in Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration) about how these Jews kept kosher during their rounds. Known as “orange eaters” or “egg eaters,” they ate these items, which were kosher because they had peels, while staying at the homes of their mostly non-Jewish clients. Other Jews, as they became successful, could afford new foods and they nurtured an interest in other people’s culinary worlds.
The Settlement Cookbook, first published in 1901, introduced American recipes to new immigrants. The major food companies took notice of the spending prowess of the Jews. In 1919, Crisco introduced its vegetable shortening and single-handedly revolutionized Jewish cooking, freeing it from a reliance on chicken fat, schmaltz. Maxwell House introduced its Passover Haggadah in 1934 and Heinz offered a kosher version of its baked beans in 1923. An audience member noted that the Heinz factories are cleaned and kashered on the weekends, so the kosher line is processed on Mondays, transitioning to the rest of the company’s products later in the week. In 1965, when Hebrew National launched its slogan, “We answer to a higher authority,” in reference to Jewish dietary laws, it was both a marketing strategy and a testament that the Jews have become established members of American society.
The infamous Trefa Banquet of July 1883 that served clams, shrimp, and frog’s legs to the first graduating class of rabbis from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati was a clarion call by the Reform movement that they were not beholden to traditional Jewish dietary laws. An audience member suggested that Reform Jews would not be so audacious these days.
The process of assimilation also led to the delicatessen, the “temple of Jewish culture,” according to Werden-Greenfield. In “The Deli Man,” a documentary project by Erik Greenberg Anjou, the filmmaker claims that whereas 1500 Jewish delis used to be in existence, there are now only about 150 of them. This is also the message of David Sax’s 2009 book, Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen. Werden-Greenfield disagrees with their dire predictions and their low estimates.
The assimilated generations of Jews have become “bagel-and-lox” Jews or gastronomic Jews who eat the foods of their ancestors as their sole connection to their heritage. The nostalgia for the Old Country have shifted to a nostalgia for the old neighborhoods of immigrants, said Werden-Greenfield, citing the ubiquitous display of photographs and memorabilia from the early 20th century in delicatessens and restaurants. As further illustration of their place in our Jewish consciousness, she recited this poem:
“By the rivers of Brooklyn, There we sat down, yea we ate hot pastrami, as we remembered Zion” by J. W. Savinar, in a play on Psalm 137:1.
Kosher became “kosher-style” where kashrut is negotiable. “How do we make sense of a young Jewish man opening restaurants [in Brooklyn] named Treife [non-kosher] and Shiksa [non-Jewish woman]?”, asked Werden-Greenfield. “He’s still engaging with kosher laws. He’s being naughty while confirming his discomfort with his heritage.” Werden-Greenfield also asked: Which is more Jewish? Matzah that is not processed according to Jewish dietary laws, or kosher-for-Passover bread? “Jewish food,” she concluded, “is always changing, always evolving.”