Jewish food to relish and cherish

13 April 2019

9:00 AM

13 April 2019

9:00 AM

In matters of culture and ethnicity, I take my lead from my old friend and guide Sir Jonathan Miller. Like him, I count myself as Jew-ish, and, as every Jew-ish person knows, you are what you eat; these traits are expressed most poignantly in our food. Not in the ancient (and incoherent) Hebrew dietary laws, which make it impractical, impossible even  —  for the few observant Jews who remain on this planet — to eat an everyday British or American diet; but in the foods that we relish, cherish and feel nostalgia for.

These almost never include the ritual foods or meals associated with Jewish religious festivals, such as the sweet apple-and-nut charoset of the Passover Seder repast, which represents the mortar (or clay bricks) our Egyptian-enslaved Israelite ancestors used. (Though Ben & Jerry’s did market a charoset ice cream flavour in Israel in 2015.) While it does embrace celebratory foods, the category of ritual dishes doesn’t really encompass potato pancakes, latkes, which Ashkenazi Jews love eating at Chanukah —  the feast of lights that commemorates the Hasmonean rebellion when a guerrilla army, led by Judas Maccabee, chucked the Hellenised Jews and Seleucid Greeks out of the Second Temple in 167–160 BCE. This was the occasion for an apocryphal Talmudic miracle: though there was only enough lamp oil for one day, the supply lasted for the eight days of Chanukah,  a holiday marked by consuming oil-fried foods, such as the Sephardi jam-filled doughnuts.

In fact, as I read the amusing pages of The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List, I could count only the matzo (unleavened bread), maror (bitter herbs, viz. horseradish) and charoset of Passover as true ritual foods. You could, I suppose, make a case for the braided, egg-enriched Challah and other breads associated with Sabbath observance, and for the Sephardi spicy chickpea, dried-fruit, grain and long-cooked eggs adafina, and Ashkenazi beef, bean and barley cholent, both of which are prepared before sundown on Friday to comply with the prohibition of cooking (or doing any other work) on the Sabbath. I have tasted each of these slow-cooked dishes once, which is quite enough; and no one will convince me that cholent is the Ashkenazi equivalent of cassoulet.

In this alphabetically-ordered compilation, the ‘B’ foods are much nicer: bagels, bialys, blintzes, borscht and brisket. One of the contributors, Liel Leibovitz, says:

The bagel is the least Jewish food in the world. Somewhere along the way [from its origins in Poland] America’s most popular breakfast bun found its way into corners of the country untouched by Jews, and lost its soul.

Among the best bagel-makers she cites a Thai-immigrant-owned shop in Manhattan and a Montreal chain ‘run by a nice Italian boy’. The great Mimi Sheraton’s entry explains: ‘The bialy was the sole invention and provenance of Jewish bread bakers in Bialystok, Poland’ and her recipe, with its onion topping, is the best in the book.

Neither of my grandmothers was much of a cook, though my maternal granny, brought up in Whitechapel, did once try to teach me how to make blintzes, the crêpe cooked on one side only, and folded with a cheese filling (the best is ricotta, blended with a touch of cream and egg). Adina Steiman’s recipe is too sweet for my taste, but the lemon zest is a pleasing touch.

Zac Posen’s beetroot borscht is, he says, puréed; but the recipe, which otherwise seems OK to me, doesn’t call for this step in the method — and my own version is more of a beetroot consommé. Lea Zeltserman’s excellent accompanying essay reminds us that, after 70 years of communism, ‘What showed up on Soviet Jews’ tables was a uniquely historic product of Soviet food policies broadly applied to all citizens, plus anti-Jewish policies, which successfully erased all religious knowledge from the community,’ and ‘explains why pork-laden sosiki [hot dogs, frankfurters] were an everyday food.’

To demonstrate the catholicity of this collection of iconic Jewish foods, Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs ask:

Why are two shiksas writing about brisket? Because we are jealous, that [we Wasps] didn’t grow up with gloriously fatty, juicy, supple brisket. It’s the perfect braising beef, full of flavour, with a thick layer of fat that naturally bastes the meat as it cooks, making it impossible to ruin.

Though I can’t account for the garlic and onion powder in the anyway unattractive sweet-and-sour sauce, the rest of it comprises a perfectly orthodox recipe. When we get to the letter ‘C’,  we arrive at the Ur-Jewish food, chicken soup.

The genesis of this book is a little hard to elucidate. It is edited by Alana Newhouse, who is billed as the founder and editor-in-chief of the daily online magazine, Tablet. She has persuaded chefs and writers such as Tom Colicchio, Ian Frazier, Darra Goldstein, Eve Jochnowitz, Edward Lee, Daphne Merkin, Yotam Ottolenghi, Ruth Reichl, Marcus Samuelsson and ‘Dr Ruth’ Westheimer to contribute to this slightly ditsy anthology. Its contents remind us that Jew-ish food comprehends oysters, bacon and all Chinese cuisine. Not necessarily (the potentially, but seldom, delicious) Ashkenazi gefilte fish (‘Not as bad as it’s made out to be!’ insists Éric Ripert, chef at Manhattan’s celebrated Le Bernardin); or floury kishke; but can be of the pleasure-giving order of lox (smoked salmon), half-sour pickled cucumber, chopped chicken liver, pickled herring, and matzo balls (for which Joan Nathan’s recipe takes a gold medal).

On the Sephardi side, though, are the real delicacies: the fried globe artichoke, Carciofi alla Giudia; hummus; kubbeh; shakshuka; and, in its vegetable supremacy, all the many dishes made with aubergines. Gabriela Geselowitz sagely observes in her preface to Joan Nathan’s Azerbaijani Eggplant Salad, that ‘as the potato is to Ashkenazim, the eggplant is to Sephardim’.

Being Jew-ish himself, Sigmund Freud fiercely opposed (as superstition) the observance of the dietary laws. Indeed, during his engagement to Martha Bernays, the daughter of the chief rabbi of Hamburg, Freud wrote a letter to her attributing his fiancée’s minor health complaints to eating too much kosher food.

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