Book Review: Jewish food

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Our cultural identities are informed by the way we live our lives: the clothing we wear, the music we listen to, the movies and TV shows we watch and, last but not least, the foods we eat. Food has always played a major role in Jewish life – although what constitutes Jewish food is the subject of frequent debate. An increasing amount of literature focuses on Jewish cuisine and two recent works show the breadth and depth of these studies. While “Haroset: A Taste of Jewish History” by Susan Weingarten (The Toby Press) is a serious exploration of the Passover tradition, “The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List” edited by Alana Newhouse with Stephanie Butnick (Artisan/Workman Publishing Company) is a humorous collection of essays about 100 different Jewish foods. An added treat is that both works feature numerous recipes.
While several foods eaten at the Passover seder (for example, matzah and bitter herbs) are mentioned in the Bible, the same cannot be said for haroset. Although it’s spoken of in the Mishnah, the question asked is whether or not eating it on Passover should be considered a mitzvah (something commanded by God). However, the comments don’t explain what ingredients were used to make haroset. There is a hint that Jews had been eating some food with spices before the destruction of the Second Temple, but Weingarten notes that is a matter of debate. Since the Mishnah says that flour should not be added to haroset, the food might not only have been consumed on Passover.
The specific ingredients used for haroset have varied by culture, with contemporary Askenazic Jews generally settling on a mixture of apples, nuts and wine (with some individual differences). However, almost every nationality of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews seems to have their own specific recipe. None of the mixtures would have originally been very sweet, even those using apples, because, before modern times, most apples were tart. At one point, pear was among the fruits added, particularly in Germany. More typical were dates, figs and pomegranates. Several varieties of nuts were used, including walnuts, almonds and chestnuts. The first mention Weingarten found of wine being used as part of the mixture is in the 11th century. The previous liquid most used was vinegar. All of these mixtures, however, contained spices; among the different ones used were ginger, pepper, cinnamon and cloves.
Another aspect of the haroset that has generated discussion is exactly what the food symbolizes. For example, there are commentaries that say the haroset represents the clay that the Israelites in Egypt used to make bricks. (In some traditions, people actually mix clay, grit or dirt into their haroset.) The spices represent the straw used to make the bricks. The explanation for using apples in haroset comes from a midrash (rabbinic story) about Israelite women who seduced their husbands under apple trees after pharaoh declared that all male Jewish babies were to be killed. If this had not occurred, Moses would not have been born, so some rabbis believe haroset should be eaten in memory of those apple trees. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, haroset symbolizes blood, although whose blood is not specified. Weingarten believes this symbolism may have been the origin of the blood libels of Europe. For example, in 1329, Jews were accused of using Christian children’s blood to make their haroset. Although many American Jews learn that haroset represents the mortar used to cement the bricks the Israelites made, that explanation is mentioned only in passing.
“Haroset: A Taste of Jewish History” is a perfect work for anyone interested in the evolution of Jewish food culture. Weingarten includes so many fascinating details about the development of haroset that it was difficult to decide which ones to discuss. For those looking to try different types of haroset, the concluding chapter contains more than 25 recipes from across the world.
While “”Haroset: A Taste of Jewish History” is a serious work, the essays in “The 100 Most Jewish Foods” range from serious to laugh-out-loud funny. The book design is beautiful, from its table of contents, which features pictures of the foods to be discussed, to the clever illustrations by Joanna Avillez. Many of the short essays are followed by a recipe for the food under discussion. The essayists include scholars, food writers, chefs, novelists and artists. The list of foods chosen was controversial when it originally appeared on the Tablet website. Some of the dishes are rarely cooked in modern times, while people debate the edibility of others. (For example, some people love gefilte fish, while others think it looks and tastes like road kill.) In her introduction, Newhouse explains the foods included are the ones “that contain the deepest Jewish significance – the ones that, through the history of our people (however you date it), have been most profoundly inspired by the rhythms of the Jewish calendar and the contingencies of Jewish experience. That many of them are also delicious is obvious, and Darwinian: It’s how they’ve survived as long as they have.”
While the list includes obvious Jewish foods – matzah, bagels, flanken, hamantashen and chicken soup are just a few examples – it also features some – Chinese food, black-and-white cookies, Entenmann’s (particularly its doughnuts), geese and cottage cheese – that some readers may not associate with Judaism. (For example, I grew up in an area that used to have only one Chinese restaurant and my first introduction to black-and-white cookies was a non-Jewish coworker who bought one as a weekly treat from the local non-kosher bakery. My desire to have goose someday comes more from Charles Dickens’ writing, which I read long before I knew that goose was the Jewish European fowl of choice.)
The real fun of the book – and it is really fun to read – is agreeing or disagreeing with the authors’ opinions. For example, I completely disagree with Marc Tracy’s comment in “Hebrew National Hot Dogs” about the use of ketchup on hotdogs, which he seems to think is sacrilegious. (Although I now love mustard, ketchup is still my condiment of choice and that includes on hotdogs.) Ráchel Raj writes of “Flódni,” a multilayered cake that sounds difficult to make, but wonderful to eat. Unfortunately, no recipe is included. (Not that I would actually make it, but I might have tried to convince a friend to try.) The essay about “Apples” by Dan Barber is funny because it includes the story of Adam and Eve told from the point of view of the apple. Shalom Auslander writes of his hatred of cholent and how depressed he becomes when people want to talk to him about it. While the subject may make him depressed, readers will laugh at his comments. Newhouse, the editor of the book, notes her agreement with a young rabbi that getting rid of good “Kiddush Cookies” is the true cause of Jewish secularism. While there are so many other essays worthy of discussion, it’s impossible to discuss them all. However, I do feel it’s important to note my complete agreement with Tom Colicchio that “Whitefish Salad” is far better than lox.
“The 100 Most Jewish Foods” is delightful and its design makes it a perfect housewarming or holiday gift for anyone interested in food and/or Judaism. It’s easy to read and fun to debate. Readers may also want to compare their favorite recipe to those offered in the book, or try some new or unusual food. There is certainly plenty in the book to enjoy and love.