Food Chat: The Evolution of Jewish Cooking

By Hannah Lee

As part of the national celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month, the National Museum of American Jewish History hosted “The Evolution of Jewish Cooking in America,” a conversation with Steven Cook, Joan Nathan, Michael Solomonov, and Molly Yeh and moderated by Devra Ferst, senior editor of the website The Tasting Table.  It was held on Tuesday night and it was at capacity with 230 people, with others tuning in via Facebook.

Earlier this month, Solomonov  won the James Beard award for Best Chef in the country.  (Other Philadelphians lauded this year were Greg Vernick and Stephen Starr.)  Last year, Solomonov and Steven Cook won for their first cookbook, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking.  The two men now have a range of establishments that includes: Zahav, Federal Donuts, Abe Fisher, Dizengoff, Goldie, and the Rooster Soup Company.  The latter donates all of its profits to the Broad Street Ministry’s Hospitality Collaborative, which provides meals and services to vulnerable Philadelphians.

Nathan’s eleventh ,  King Solomon’s Table, was published this spring to acclaim, with historical context and personal narratives of food in the Jewish diaspora.  Yeh’s first book, Molly on the Range, was one of the New York Times’ top fall cookbook releases of 2016.  Her food blog, my name is yeh, which showcases recipes inspired by Yeh’s Chinese and Jewish heritage, was Saveur’s 2015 Blog of the Year and Yahoo’s 2014 Food Blog of the Year.  Yeh is a Julliard-trained percussionist who lives on a farm on the North Dakota-Minnesota border with her fifth-generation farmer husband (also a Julliard graduate) and their flock of 20 chickens, all named Macaroni.

What was Jewish food during their childhood?  Cook cited brisket with Lipton soup mix.  Nathan recalled roast chicken with garlic salt and canned gefilte fish.  Solomonov enjoyed tahini with bread (not butter) and cashew chicken, which he claimed is a Jewish food.  Yeh noted the holiday distinguished by matza balls or challah; her favorite holidays were those featuring both foods.

How is Jewish food defined?  Cook reminisced of shopping in wine stores, with labels for Spain, Italy, and Kosher.  “Where is Kosher,” he quipped.  Nathan cited: the dietary laws; the insatiable search for new foods; and the history of Jews being kicked out of so many countries and having to adapt to new local foods.  She recalled a woman in El Salvador who served yuccalatkes.  Solomonov, who loves pastrami on rye, defined Jewish foods that retain, transform, and transmit Jewish heritage.  He recently learned that the iconic fish and chips were introduced to England by Portuguese Jews.  Then, he and Nathan tussled over the origin of bagels. Yeh said arguing over food makes it Jewish.

What is Israeli food?  Cook said people conflate Israeli food with Middle Eastern food.  Solomonov, who recalled the terrible first year running Zahav, learned to adapt to local ingredients, because an Israeli chopped salad cannot be made well with American produce in the middle of winter.  Nathan cited the Ottolenghi effect (of Israeli-British chef Yotam Ottolenghi) and the Zahav effect (now in its ninth year).  She noted that Israeli cooks started travelling abroad in the 80’s and 90’s.

What Jewish food are they most excited to delve into?  Solomonov offered Georgian food (from the former Soviet republic of Georgia), but it would first have to filter through Israel.  Cook said Israeli food is now considered sexy.  Yeh recalled that her mother did not offer coloring books, but blank pieces of paper.  Little Molly learned there was no boundaries between Chinese and Jewish foods and she grew to love to experiment and blend flavors.  Nathan noted that our immigrant ancestors all embraced processed foods (many products were targeted to Jews, with Yiddish labels and advertising.)  She thinks we’re better cooks nowadays, with better ingredients.  “We can play with our food,” said Nathan.

Are there Jewish foods or food myths that should die?  The bad reputation of Jewish cooking is being dispelled, said Nathan.  Cinnamon-raisin bagel, said Cook.  Blueberry bagels, said Ferst.  Rainbow bagels, said Yeh.

What is the next food they plan to cook?  Yeh is on bagel practice and has ordered salmon to make lox.  Solomonov said a peanut butter and matzah sandwich.  Nathan plans to make a lemon cake with curd for a friend.  Cook plans to bake a pie.  He’s been on a pie jag, having made strawberry-rhubarb and lemon chess pies.

What would be their last meal?  Cooks had pastrami on rye at the Famous 4th Street Deli and exclaimed over it as his last meal.  “Which [freaked out] his son, quipped Solomonov, who prefers dim sum and a firing squad.  Nathan would chose fettucine with white truffles, while Yeh would settle for mac ‘n cheese and hot dogs.

Cook answered a query from the audience about why not a kosher restaurant?  (They were involved with Citron and Rose for a year.)  He said restaurants earn 40-50% of their week’s revenues from Saturdays.  I later asked why supermarkets can sell kosher prepared foods items on Saturday, but not restaurants.  He said it depended on the community, i.e., the level of observance.

The evening was lots of fun, and the panelists seemed to enjoy the conversation with each other.  I later showed Nathan the tattered copies of the first two cookbooks she’s written, back in 1978.  Solomonov remembered me from previous encounters and Yeh has dyed her hair since the photo shoot for her book; it’s now ombré, with blond ends.

Another NMAJH event coming up is “From Yiddish Folk to Jazz: An Arts Salon,” on Tuesday, June 27th.  It will feature music from 1917, a current exhibit, from Yiddish folk and American jazz to art songs and chamber music.  Curated by Andrea Clearfield, it will include six ensembles, including Group Motion Dance Company, Hot Club of Philadelphia, and klezmer fiddler Alicia Svigals.

The Antidote to Idol Worship

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks returned to the Kohelet Yeshiva Beit Midrash for a Shabbat Shel Ruach services this weekend.  On Shabbat morning, he gave a drasha on “The Idols in Our Lives: Contemporary Echoes of the Golden Calf.”  His opening joke to warm up the overflow audience was an anecdote from when he was appointed a knight of the British realm: Given the Jews’ stiff-necked nature and disinclination to bow, Buckingham Palace prepared a special lecturn (like the shtender used for Torah readings) that Sacks could rest his hand and incline about 15 degrees.  Upon observing this unusual behavior, the Queen turned to her husband, Prince Philip, and asked, “Why is this knight different from all others?”

Modern society is one where people know the price of everything but the value of nothing, quoted Rabbi Sacks.  This focus on material acquisition leads to a perpetual state of dissatisfaction, by focusing on what we lack– the latest model car, smartphone, or other fashionable item.  This instability leads to a state of anger, which fuels the popular unrest across the world. 

Two days before the colossal economic crash of 2008, the prominent Sothesby auction house raised $198 million for the artist Damien Hirst, breaking the record for a one-artist auction.  The most expensive piece: The Black Sheep with the Golden Horn.  Rabbi Sacks called this the Golden Calf that heralded the economic woes.

What is the Torah’s antidote to the Golden Calf?  The text immediately before and after the mention of the icon of idol worship explicitly states the divine gift of Shabbat, the sacred time that removes us from the secular state of being.  Shabbat offers three important features that counters our immersion in contemporary values; Family, Community, and Disengagement.

Rabbi Sacks participated in a BBC program on the modern family, in which he invited the noted child development expert, Penelope Leach, to visit a Jewish nursery school.  On a Friday morning, the children were engaged in their weekly Shabbat party, in which five-year-olds portrayed the roles of Imma, Abba, the children, and Bubbe and Zeide.  When Dr. Leach queried a young boy playing Abba for the day: what was the best and worst aspect of Shabbat.   The boy cited, not watching television was the worst, but the best being that it was the only time, his father didn’t rush off to work.  Dr. Leach turned to Rabbi Sacks and pointed that out as the reason that the boy’s parents’ marriage was sustained. 

Community is the place where your name is known and your absence is noted, quoted Rabbi Sacks.  Wherever he visits, after his presentation, he is always asked the same question: “I know who you are, Rabbi, but do you know me?” The person would invariably have a personal connection, however tenuous.  “Two Jews meet as strangers and find out that they’re mishpocha,” quipped the Rabbi.

Disengagement on Shabbat is when we leave behind the deadlines and worries of the secular world for a sacred time in which we spend in appreciating what we already have.  We learn to appreciate God, Family, and Community.  A woman from the Bay area in California, the heart of Silicon Valley, reported to Rabbi Sacks that modern technology has been the downfall of good relationships.  She related that their solution was a technology-free day, which we Jews know as Shabbat.  The value of Shabbat has even charmed the Archbishop (of York? Not Canterbury) who spent the full 25 hours of a traditional Shabbat with Rabbi Sacks and his wife Elaine in London, who said that the devaluation of the Christian Sabbath has led to the dissolution of the family in Great Britain.

Rabbi Sacks was invited to the President’s National Prayer Breakfast where he met up with a friend and he asked what was the mood in the country?  The friend (a Jew who was not identified) replied, It’s like being the man on the deck of the Titanic [on its way to being hit by the fatal iceberg].  The man is holding a glass of whisky and bemoaning, “I only asked for some ice.”

Rabbi Sacks has authored over 30 books, the most recent being Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, published in February.



Book Chat: How Fast Can You Run

By Hannah Lee

Starting this weekend, Philadelphia’s Independence Mall will feature an exhibit about refugees, sponsored by Doctors Without Borders.  There are currently 65 million people dislocated from their home place worldwide.  I moderated a discussion with one such refugee, the protagonist of How Fast Can You Run, last night at Main Point Books.  (The author will be speaking at other venues across Philadelphia.) 

How Fast Can You Run is a fictionalized account of Michael Majok Kuch’s 600-km (372-mile) flight, by foot, from his home in the current nation of South Sudan.  Separated from his mother at age five, and after languishing for 10 years in five refugee camps, Kuch won admission to the United States and earned degrees in a local high school, college, and graduate school.  Upon earning his master’s, he chose to return and help build a new nation.  He is now an advisor in Research and Policy in the Office of the President.

Kuch met the author, Harriet Levin Millan, when she interviewed 10 Sudanese refugees for an oral history project at Drexel, where she directs the program in writing and publishing.  Kuch had been seeking a format to tell his story.  A poet at heart— and with a MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers Workshop— Millan and Kuch decided on a fictionalized account, because of the difficulty of seeking permission from many people dispersed across the world.  Also, a novel allows Millan to enter the mind of Kuch and portray the perspective from his eyes.  Poetry would not have allowed her the scope to tell the life journey with so many harrowing incidents, including running away from wild animals and running away from Al-Shabaab, a jihadist terrorist group in East Africa.  

What was Kuch’s biggest life lesson?  Optimism.  After all the trauma and dangers of his childhood, he managed to survive.  Those survival skills give him lots of hope for a better world.  Kuch reunited with his mother in Australia 22 years after their harrowing separation.

On Being An Alien

By Hannah Lee 

            Animal species adapted to protect itself from the unknown: it’s always Us or the Other.  So, animals explore with their world warily with long-range vision, acute hearing, and a fine sense of taste (e.g., toxic substances taste bitter).  Human beings have devised more sophisticated ways to assess the foreign, the unfamiliar.  The rare pioneers are the ones who journey to a new land, try a new food, or welcome strangers.  I get that.

           In a recent issue of the New York Times [10/11/2016] on the front page, an editor wrote about a disagreeable incident when a woman yelled at his family, from the safety of her car, to “go back to China.”  Yes, Michael Luo is Chinese-born; he graduated from Harvard and probably speaks and writes English better than the provocateur. He leads a team of reporters focused on investigations and long-form narratives. In 2016, his reporters were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in three categories: investigative reporting, local reporting and feature writing. Luo posted an open letter on the Times’s website and it sparked a tremendous outpouring of responses, mostly from Asian-Americans with their own stories of racial prejudice, both overt and subtle.  As a Chinese-American immigrant from Hong Kong, I, too, have my stories. 

           People fear that this country is changing, but the ship has already left the port: among today’s young people, nearly one-half are members of racial minorities [New Republic, 11/2014].  The world is a large place and we cannot keep our borders closed— not from people, not from technology or ideas, not from viruses or pathogens.  All but the Native Americans are immigrants to this new land.

            I approach the world with curiosity and wonder.  Whenever I travel by taxi, I look at the name tags, and I ask if the driver was born abroad.  If so, I ask what they like about America, their favorite foods, and if there’s a restaurant that serves their cuisine.  It’s fun and I broaden my knowledge of other cultures, other peoples.   At my work, I routinely ask people with unusual names, what is their ethnicity? Sometimes, I’m rebuffed, but often times, it leads to a small conversation about themselves.

            Each year, Jews are reminded to remember that they were once strangers in a strange land, in the Hagadah reading on Passover [Exodus 23:9].   (Actually, to be a Jew is to be a stranger, writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.)  It seems that Americans, all of foreign ancestry, need to keep in focus the poem of Emma Lazarus (inscribed on the base of the Statute of Liberty) to develop the empathy for the foreigner:

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…

Until we are all free, we are none of us free.