Tag Archives: jewish food

Jane Ziegelman on Food and the American Story

97 Orchard, by Jane Ziegelman, tells the story of five immigrant families living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century. The stories of these Irish, Italian, German and Jewish families emerge through the food they cooked and the struggles they faced. Ziegelman chatted with Moment about American food, Jewish food and the place of immigrants in the American story.

What was the inspiration for 97 Orchard?

The inspiration was the tenement itself. A while back, when I was a graduate student at NYU studying urban anthropology, I heard that this new museum was opening on the Lower East Side devoted to America’s urban pioneers, immigrants who settled in tenement districts on the Lower East Side. I worked as a volunteer collecting oral histories from former tenement dwellers. They needed people to go around and collect histories of people that had once lived at 97 Orchard Street. One of the people that I met during that time was Josephine Baldizzi, [one of the women featured in 97 Orchard].

Anyone who’s been in that building feels its history and the sense of all of these people having lived there moving through the building. It’s a kind of haunted place in the best sense of the word.

Why did you choose these families specifically?

I chose the particular families because of the ethnic diversity that they represented.

Did you feel a special bond or closeness with any family or character in the book?

I really identified with the women. It seems to me that the men kind of check out in some of the stories in this book, and the women are the heroes of the story. In the Gumpert story, the father essentially abandons his family under the pressures of keeping his family housed during a particularly bad economic period. He buckles under the pressure and leaves the responsibility of caring for the kids to his wife, and she does what has to be done. That’s the story of these immigrants, that they take care of business. They find a way to do what has to be done, particularly in the interest of their children. These were people who had the ability to defer their own dreams and put aside their own needs in the interest of the next generation. And to me, that is really heroic behavior.

How did you decide that food was going to be the way through which you told these stories?

I’ve seen food as a really useful tool for interpreting culture and also as a way to enter the everyday lives of people who are not exactly like us. That’s part of the appeal of food. On one hand, food is something we all need. It’s a biological necessity. On the other hand, it’s tied up with all kinds of really profound human aspirations. It’s tied up with family and God and nature and our relationships to our community, so it stands at this really interesting point between heart and biology. It’s also just so incredibly concrete. I’ve always been interested in the way people lived and the texture and the tastes and the smells of everyday life, and I think food is a great way to get at that.

Is there such a thing as American food?

American food is defined by its diversity. It’s a direct reflection of the American people. This wasn’t always the case, but the immigrants who came to this country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries really changed the way we eat.

What about Jewish food?

There is no one Jewish cuisine—there are many Jewish cuisines. Jewish food is the food that’s important to us. That changes with geography and with time, so the category of Jewish food is this ever-shifting concept, but when you say Jewish food, I know what it is to me, and I think other Jews know what it is to them.

What is it to you?

To me, Jewish food is the food made by my grandmother. It’s chicken soup with kreplach, and it’s honey cake. It’s vegetable barley soup. It’s chopped liver. When I just got out of college and I got back to New York I’d meet my grandmother for lunch in the city, and we had to go someplace kosher, and our favorite place was Ratner’s. So everything on the Ratner’s menu—that’s Jewish food. The borscht, the blintzes, the kasha varnishkes and the knishes.

What was the most surprising thing you learned when researching the book?

The big surprise was how much farming went on in New York City, in the tenement district. There was this whole tradition of animal husbandry on the Lower East Side. The Jews raised geese and other kinds of poultry, the Italians raised goats and the Irish kept pigs. This was shocking to me. The life of children on the Lower East Side was also a real wake-up call, the fact that kids went to work at eleven or twelve years of age and that ten-and eleven-year-old girls were called ‘little mothers’ and bore the responsibilities of grown women.

Which immigrant groups are having the same kind of culinary influence on America today?

In New York, it’s people from Thailand, Vietnam, China—East Asians and Southeast Asians; Latin Americans and Mexicans; people from the Caribbean. Those are the three groups that are making their presence felt in New York. Caribbeans and Latin Americans are really active as street food vendors, so we’re seeing this kind of food on the streets. New York’s Chinatowns—and there’s more than one—are just extremely vibrant places, and Western people are discovering them and trying their food.

 

 

Stay Salty, Smoked Salmon

by Theodore Samets

Growing up, I was scared of lox.

Well, at least I thought it was lox. Turned out, the slimy, pinkish orange, cold fish I abhorred—but have come to love—wasn’t lox at all, as my parents called it. It was nova.

As I grew older, I fell in love with the stuff. But in rural Vermont, where I grew up, it can be hard to find anything but pre-packaged “smoked Atlantic salmon,” $5.99 for a four-ounce package.

Then, a few weeks before my bar mitzvah, friends of my parents brought some fresh lox back from Montreal. It looked the same as smoked salmon, but boy was it different. I was a man; it was time to give up kids’ fish and move to the grownup version.

I had been introduced to belly lox, and life would never be the same.

Incredibly salty, bright orange, and full of flavor, belly lox isn’t smoked; it’s cured. Fold it over a half of a sesame bagel—with cream cheese, of course—and you feel like you’re eating the real deal.

There is no debate as quintessentially Jewish as “nova vs. lox”; experts move beyond this question to “Russ and Daughters vs. Zabar’s” and “Montreal vs. New York bagels.” (For me, there’s no question: If there was a way to get fresh Russ and Daughters lox onto a just out of the oven “white” Montreal bagel, I’d be in heaven.)

Fans of belly lox know one thing: We’re in a minority. Indeed, on a recent visit to Russ and Daughters, I ordered lox, only to be asked by the woman behind the counter, “Are you sure that’s what you want?”

“Yes,” I responded, “Belly lox please.” Many people, it seems, order lox when they really want smoked salmon.

Despite the supposed Jewish affinity for either type of cold salmon, it seems accidental that lox is a Jewish food at all. Several years ago, a New York Times exposé looked at just how lox and a bagel became the stereotypical New York brunch.

In the essay, Erika Kinetz wrote that it was a feat of timing combined with the then-inexpensive costs that connected smoked fish to the Jews:

Eastern European immigrants would have appreciated lox both for its price—9 cents for a quarter-pound in the 1920’s and 30’s—and for its convenience. It was easy to handle — and pareve, making it acceptable with milk or meat. It fast became a staple.

Today, lox may still be a staple of the Jewish diet, but it’s certainly not cheap. My lunchtime order (belly lox and light plain on toasted everything) at Ess-a-Bagel runs $10.75 before tax, and a quarter pound of fish there will run you $9.25. That said, it’s worth every penny.

Despite the differences between lox and smoked salmon – and let’s be clear, these differences are important – there’s something that makes the fish a unique connector between Jews all over North America.

Kinetz points out that, historically, lox is more of a New York phenomenon than a Jewish one. The claim is verified by by Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish, where he writes, “The luxurious practice of eating lox, thought to be so typical of eastern European Jews, actually began for them in New York. Lox was almost unknown among European Jews.” Still, the fish has taken on a life of its own among Jews. Lox’s natural partner, the bagel—according to Rosten, first mentioned in print in the 1610 Community Regulations of Cracow, which stated that “bagels would be given as a gift to any woman in childbirth”—has been part of Jewish cuisine for 400 years, making “lox and bagels” an appropriate alternative for expressing oneself as Jewish in the ever-complicated “religion” box on Facebook.

Bagels may have the more overtly Jewish history, but they’ve become part of the American culinary mélange. (It’s hard to imagine, but less than 30 years ago, only one in three Americans had tried a bagel.) Even though it’s the bagel that’s Jewish more than lox, the orange fish still has a Jewish air about it, as it’s intrinsically linked to the food with which it is most commonly served.

If recent musings in the Times and elsewhere are any indication, the assumed Jewish connection to cold, salty orange fish isn’t going anywhere. In an era where Jewish leaders are worried that future generations won’t hold on to everything from federations to Israel to kashrut, lox seems safe.

Just don’t tell those young people that what they’re eating might not actually be lox.

Montreal Bagels Do It Better

by Lily Hoffman Simon

The Mile End neighborhood in Montreal was the heart of the Canadian Jewish immigrant community. The region brought bagels and smoked meat to Canada and beyond, giving new life to Jewish food. The legacy of this Montreal Jewish community is now hitting New York, with the opening of Mile End, a delicatessen in Brooklyn based on the renowned Jewish cuisine of Montreal. The opening of this deli is more than just a tribute to Jewish Canadian roots, however—it also reflects the tendency to turn elements of Diaspora culture into trendy, consumable commodities.

Mile End, the restaurant, is a hot topic among North American Jewry, inspiring mentions in Tablet magazine and The New York Times, among other publications. The Montreal community is excited as well, claiming that the restaurant’s opening marks the validation of the long-asserted opinion that Montreal bagels really are superior to the fluffier Southern alternatives. The deli acknowledges the supremacy of Montreal cuisine and illuminates the essential contributions of the Jewish community to North American culture. It is no news that Jewish pride is based on food, but to what extent? And to what extent is the American recognition of Jewish culture based on the ability to consume culture?

American society is based on consumption and an emphasis on a supposed multi-culturalism. In order to maintain distinct cultural practices in a society that tends towards assimilation, groups are forced to turn their respective cultures into something others around them can understand; overwhelmingly, this happens through the commodification of cultural elements. This makes sense—if North America is based on consumption and capitalism, a cultural experience needs to be something people feel is attractive enough to invest in, which tends to mean buying.  People can bop around in global food markets and stores, producing a sense of cosmopolitanism and international connection through exposure to different kinds of dress and cuisine. The opening of the Mile End deli contributes to this pattern by transforming the traditional Jewish experience of eating smoked meat into a trendy experience. The Mile End neighborhood itself is undergoing the same kind of cultural commodification. The area is now one of the hippest, multi-ethnic regions in Montreal. The roots of Jewish Montreal, culture, and cuisine are slowly being appropriated by consumption-driven cosmopolitanism.

The same logic goes for the way Jews experience other cultures. Take the example of eating Chinese food on Christmas. This North American Jewish tradition offered poor Eastern European immigrants the opportunity to feel worldly not through the mass extravaganza of spending that surrounds Christmas, but instead through cultural (and literal) consumption of exotic Oriental food. Not surprisingly, Mile End restaurant is going to be serving Chinese food this Christmas.

Jewish food has played a huge role in Jewish cultural development, making it a perfect gateway for non-Jews who wish to experience something Jewish. But a Jewish experience and understanding goes deeper than simply eating a bagel with cream cheese and lox. Experiencing a culture should include a deeper understanding of where it came from and how a particular cultural element developed, among other things. A connection to a culture and its true continuity cannot come only from consumption. It must come from real engagement with and understanding of a culture, and how it evolved. Mile End restaurant is perpetuating a superficial connection to Judaism, which has a necessary place—but that alone is not enough for Jewish continuity.

Recipe: Bumuelos In Red Wine Sauce

Here’s another great Hanukkah recipe.  Jews of Spanish origin developed bumuelos or buñuelos—fritters or pancakes fried in olive oil and dipped in honey or sugar syrup or sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar—as sweet Hanukkah treats.  Here’s a modern take on the Sephardi classic!  Read more on the history of Hanukkah foods in Moment‘s latest “Talk of the Table” here!

BUMUELOS IN RED WINE  SAUCE

Makes about 14-15 (Serve 2-3 per portion)

For the Bumuelos:

  • 1 cup water
  • ½ cup butter
  • Pinch salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 ½ cups sifted unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 4 eggs
  • Canola oil for frying

For the Red Wine Sauce:

  • 2 cups sugar
  • ⅔ cup dry red wine
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 4 whole cloves

Prepare the Red Wine sauce first: Mix the ingredients together in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower heat and cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the syrup thickens to the consistency of honey. Keep warm. (Overcooking the sauce will make it harden). Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, bring the water, butter, sugar and salt to a boil and set aside. Place the flour in the bowl of a mixer. Turn the mixer on low speed and add the boiling liquid mixture. Continue mixing on low speed until a soft dough is formed that leaves the side of the bowl. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition.

Heat 1½” canola oil in a wide pan. Line a plate with paper towels. Using a medium ice cream scoop or two tablespoons, form a ball of the mixture and slip into the hot oil. If the ball is difficult to form, beat in an additional tablespoon or two of flour. Fry 4-5 balls at a time on medium-high heat till golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on the paper toweling to remove excess oil. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Reheat the wine sauce over low heat until very warm.  Pour 3 tablespoons of sauce on each serving plate. Set 2-3 bumuelos on top and serve.

“Adapted from The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking, by Phyllis Glazer with Miriyam Glazer (Harper-Collins 2004).”