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.