Knishes, brisket, borscht, flanken and overstuffed corned beef on rye.
Imagine American Jewish food, and one envisions Ashkenazi fare brought by the 2.5 million Eastern European immigrants who settled here between 1881 and 1921.
But long before pastrami ever hit a New York deli plate, Jewish cuisine graced American shores; it began with Sephardic recipes prepared by 23 settlers whose families had fled the Spanish Inquisition to Recife, Brazil, and eventually to New Amsterdam in 1654. Instead of cholent, these newcomers cooked Sabbath meals such as beef and green bean stew flavored with allspice and hot pepper from Brazil.
The ensuing 350 years of American Jewish culinary history is the subject of a research project and lecture series by Joan Nathan, the noted Jewish food author (“Jewish Cooking in America” Knopf), and cooking show host. Among the recipes she’s uncovered: a pickled salmon dish from a New York Sephardic family’s hand-written cookbook and sweet-and-sour beef with dried plums, figs and raisins from an 1872 New York Times review of kosher restaurants.
Nathan believes “the history of food is as valid as any other history.” She explores American Jewish cookery before and after Eastern European Jews debuted their unique eats in the late 1880s.
“Jews have always been great adapters, and that extends to food,” she told The Journal from her Washington, D.C. home. “They brought out their old family recipes for the holidays but adapted daily food to life here.”
If America influenced Jewish cuisine, Jewish cuisine also made its mark on America. Early on, Thomas Jefferson praised what he called “Jew fish,” a cod fried in olive oil rather than lard.
In the following century, German Jews, with their superior ovens, baked sophisticated pastry dishes during their great migration between 1830 and 1880. From their kitchens emerged apple kuchen, sweet challahs and recipes such as Dampfnudeln, a brioche-like cake soaked in caramel and served with a vanilla sauce.
“Surely it was no coincidence that Cincinnati, the largest German Jewish city of the time, became the home of Fleischmann’s yeast and Crisco, a vegetable-based shortening for which, according to Procter and Gamble advertisements, the Jews had waited for 4,000 years,” Nathan said in a recent lecture.
As Jews continued to settle throughout the heartland, their family recipes became regionalized, perhaps most dramatically in the South, according to Marcie Cohen Ferris, associate director of the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Because the Jewish population was small and often isolated, food became extra important,” Cohen Ferris said. “It provided a link to the old world, to family elsewhere, and to relatives who had passed away. At the same time, it was what connected people to their Southern community; if you eat like your neighbors, you are one of them.”
No wonder New Orleans cooks spiked their gumbo with matzah balls; lox and bagels became lox, bagels and grits; and fried chicken graced menus.
Today, the Memphis Orthodox community hosts an annual barbeque contest, with a local grocer, Kroeger’s, providing the kosher beef shortribs.
If Huntsville, Ala., has its own corned beef and pastrami festival, trace that to Eastern European Jewry. Although much Ashkenazi food wasn’t considered Jewish back home, the victuals became “Jewish” in America because members of the tribe introduced them.
Now the culinary popular culture includes challah French toast and the bagel has become almost as ubiquitous as apple pie.
“[I’ve] visited a bagel factory beneath Mount McKinley in the far reaches of Alaska,” Nathan said. “I have … seen a sign at a bagel joint, near Plymouth Rock, advertising that Plymouth is the birthplace of french toast bagels.”
Meanwhile, traditional Jewish food continues to evolve with the flourishing of the ba’al teshuvah movement, resulting in healthier and more gourmet kosher products from coast to coast. There’s mock lobster made of pollock, for example, and kosher bison served at restaurants such as Levana in New York.
“[We’ve] come a long way since the first band of Brazilian Sephardic exiles arrived on our shores 350 years ago,” Nathan said. “Today you’re just as likely to see the proverbial Jewish grandmother taking her cue from watching celebrity chefs … rather than relying on her own tried and true, but slightly tired recipes.”
For recipes, visit www.gwu.edu/~judaic/350/food_conf.htm . “Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook” (Schocken Books, $29.95) is now in stores.