By Darra Goldstein. From The Jewish Role in American Life: An Annual Review, vol. 4 (2005).
Food has the power to evoke memory, to quell fear, to provide comfort, or even to alienate when we see or taste things that are strange. The foods that we eat mark us as belonging to a particular cultural, social, ethnic, or religious group; they can be a source of pride or embarrassment (and sometimes simultaneously both). The history of Jewish food in America clearly reflects this ambivalence. Among nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Jewish immigrants, Mama’s cooking—vi di mame hot es gekokht—could represent the most cherished attributes of a lost culture as well as the vestiges of a greenhorn past that needed to be shed in favor of modernity. The larger question of what constitutes Jewish food continues to be pertinent today. In twenty-first-century America, the definition of Jewish food is no longer a philosophical discussion limited to the Jewish community. Apart from foods prescribed by the religion, such ritual foods as Matzoh (flatbread) for Passover, or traditional ones like the slow-simmered Sabbath stews, which foods distinguish Jews? Which dishes hold the most meaning for Jews as individuals, and as American Jews?
To some degree, of course, the answer is It depends, for food is literally a matter of taste. Furthermore, the concept of Jewishness as it relates to food can be perceived differently by different groups; it can also be politically fraught. Palestinians fault Israelis for having co-opted the falafel, a Palestinian dish, and turned it into an iconic Israeli food (Raviv). Conversely, the decision to privilege one food over another can reveal political savvy rather than insensitivity. Although Proust’s mother was Jewish, it was French madeleines, not Jewish rugelach, that spawned his magnum opus, and these teacakes bespeak Proust’s artistry and assimilation rather than his Jewishness. But we may ask: were madeleines indeed the stuff of Proust’s dreams, or were they simply a more convenient choice in early twentieth-century France, in the wake of the Dreyfus affair? Historically, the foods we choose to eat have revealed our identity, or the identity to which we aspire. Particularly in the context of twenty-first-century America, the boundaries of ethnicity, as it relates to food, are surprisingly shifting.
In a certain way, Jewish food is a misnomer. With the exception of Matzoh, which all Jews, regardless of their background, consume at Passover, Jewish food is simply the food Jews have eaten wherever they have lived. In other words, the foods became Jewish because Jews were eating them. One of the current buzzwords in our food-obsessed culture is local. We’re admonished to eat locally to take advantage of the best seasonal produce and also to support community agriculture. But eating locally is what the Jews have always done. They assimilated the foods of the countries they lived in, adapting them creatively to their purposes. If they lived in Greece, in the vibrant community of Salonika, for instance, they ate artichokes and rice pilafs and lamb with eggplant. In Calcutta they ate sweet and sour chicken and okra, or roast duck seasoned with garam masala and turmeric. In Spain, they ate fried noodles. To this day at Passover Sephardic Jews eat beans and rice, while Ashkenazim eschew them as not pesadig (suitable for Passover). This practice goes back to local tradition, to the practical decision to have staple carbohydrates to eat during the week of Passover (after the Columbian Exchange Ashkenazic Jews relied on potatoes to fill this need).
For most Americans, Jewish food is synonymous with Ashkenazic culture, which represents the mainstream of Jewish culture in the United States. The large immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries introduced an entirely new culture to American shores, one that was to have an enduring impact on American life in music, film, literature, comedy, theater, and, of course, food. These Jews came from the Pale of Settlement, which covered much of the territory of present-day Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus.
But the foods that these immigrants ate that we consider so Jewish – herring in sour cream, rye bread, dill pickles, borscht – were not actually considered Jewish in the old country. These foods were simply what everyone in the region ate. Rye bread was the staple throughout Russia and Eastern Europe, where the climate is harsh. Rye grain is hearty in places where wheat is not, so refined white bread was an expensive luxury reserved for the Sabbath, in the form of challah, the braided loaf that is further enriched with oil and eggs to welcome in the Sabbath Queen. Furthermore, the lactic acid in sour rye bread and in pickles provided a necessary nutrient that would otherwise have been lacking in the diet. Studies have shown that even given a wide latitude of choice, people instinctively will choose a nutritious diet (Birch). Although they did not consciously decide that sour foods were important to eat, the poorest Jews in both the Old World and the New often enjoyed a simple meal of nothing more than sour pickles and rye bread (Cooper, 149), thereby gaining a nutrient crucial for metabolism and confirming their taste for the sour. As for borscht, a soup often associated in the United States with Jewish cuisine, it is actually the oldest, and most national, of Ukrainian soups; it is what the Cossacks ate. Of course, there are many versions of borscht, and the Jews did not add pork or pork sausage to theirs, as the Ukrainians often did. Instead they made theirs with flanken or other cuts of beef. Yet the erroneous identification of borscht as a dish originating in Russia, or even in the Jewish shtetl, persists, demonstrating how closely associated the foods of Russia and Eastern Europe are with Jewish life.
Jewish food is the result of centuries of adaptation and experimentation; it is a cultural rather than a religious phenomenon. Partly for this reason we now encounter such modern adaptations as low-fat latkes (potato pancakes) that are baked in the oven instead of being fried in oil. Even though it is the oil that gives latkes their symbolic meaning, for calorie-conscious Americans, eating latkes even in this adulterated form is symbolic enough. This stance is merely the latest instance of resistance to what nineteenth-century Reform rabbis termed kitchen Judaism. Many contemporary Jews, even Orthodox ones, have no trouble ignoring the religious underpinnings of food for the sake of a slender waistline. Latkes remain Jewish by association. As Jenna Weissman Joselit has written of the Jewish penchant to adapt and transform traditional foods, what count[s is] not the authenticity of the recipe but its symbolic power and presentational value as a touchstone of authentic Jewish culture (Joselit 1994, 217).