What is Jewish American Food? Culinary Experts Explain.

As American-Jewish society becomes harder to define, so does its food culture.
July 2, 2020
Credit to Lauren Volo.

In a culture where two Jews usually means three opinions and four arguments, the one place we can connect is over Shabbat dinner, right? Well, in recent years, dinner tables have become steaming battlegrounds for heated debate. Critics of Israel have claimed that the Jewish state has co-opted Arabic cuisine, while Mizrahi Jews have fired back that the argument is an erasure of their grandmother’s kubbeh and histories. Food and Wine Magazine spurred mass outrage in December when it offered recipes for latkes with shrimp and squid, while others applauded the periodical for acknowledging the treif-gobbling masses. Then there was the firestorm that erupted earlier this year when The New York Times declared the best kind of matzo was not kosher for Passover.

As American-Jewish society becomes harder to define, so does its food culture. So, American Jewish University (AJU) invited Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz, the founders of the Great Jewish Food Fest and authors of “The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods,” to a June 26 webinar to discuss the subject. They were joined by AJU’s Vice President of Communications Michelle Starkman, and they grappled with the question: “What is American Jewish food culture?” 

Alpern and Yoskowitz, whose focus is on Ashkenazi food, began their mission to preserve traditional Jewish cuisine in the face of modernization, Americanization and globalization over a decade ago.

Credit to Lauren Volo.

“We saw that foods from our tradition, like a borscht, old-world pickle, blintzes or kugel — these foods were being forgotten by our colleagues in the food world, maybe dismissed,” Alpern said. “They had lost some of their ethnic identity as Ashkenazi Jewish foods.” She also noted how their mission was centered not only on preserving recipes they grew up with but to “counter the narrative that all Jewish food is the same; that, in fact, there are so many distinctive cuisines within the Jewish canon. Ashkenazi Jewish food is just one of them.”

Alpern and Yoskowitz argued that Jewish-American cuisine is defined by constraints, whether they be ingredients, kashrut laws or prosperity. “Any immigrant group arrives at new shores and they want to find the flavors of home as best as they can,” Alpern said. “Mushrooms are a huge part of flavoring Eastern European dishes and certainly used in Jewish cooking in Eastern Europe.” However, she added, recipes changed when their homeland’s mushroom varieties were unavailable to Jewish immigrants.

 “We saw that foods from our tradition, like a borscht, old-world pickle, blintzes or kugel — these foods were being forgotten by our colleagues in the food world, maybe dismissed.” 

— Liz Alpern

“The Jews of Eastern Europe couldn’t find what they wanted and started trading them on Houston Street, and eventually, people got more Americanized and they were OK with using those button mushrooms they could buy at the market or in the store,” Alpern said.

“The Jewish deli is not representative of what old-world Jewish food was like,” Yoskowitz said. “It’s a place you go to get heavy, fatty foods. That’s really what makes it so special,” he added, noting how classics such as pastrami or a steaming plate of corned beef were rare in shtetls and reserved for simchas.

Iconic Jewish dishes such as mile-high sandwiches were too luxurious for past generations of Ashkenazi Jews, he added. “That was part of the American story: the abundance. We ended up eating those special-occasion foods, the fatty foods, the heavy foods, all the time. We actually lost sight of what the everyday foods were.”

To Alpern and Yoskowitz, no food better epitomizes the American turn in Jewish cuisine quite like the pickle. Holding homemade pickles prepared with just salt brine, Alpern explained that the Eastern European dish has beneficial bacteria. However, its American variation is made with vinegar, which kills these healthy microorganisms. “Pickles are, in some ways, the essential food that symbolizes much of what was lost,” she said.

Credit to Lauren Volo.

The duo also acknowledged that Jewish-American food culture has been influenced by beloved treif dishes such as the Reuben sandwich, but believe that honoring the cuisine’s history means acknowledging kashrut customs. “Ashkenazi cooking was, by its nature, kosher,” Alpern said. “It doesn’t mean that every Ashkenazi Jew kept kosher, but the traditions that grew out of those communities were largely influenced by those kashrut rules. So there is a very close linkage, and I think if you try to untangle them too much, you will be confused.”

Yoskowitz said Jewish-American food is being bastardized not so much by non-kosher dishes, but by homogenization. “Post 1950, everything stayed the same,” he said, noting how even Ashkenazi food is not traditionally standardized but is distinguished by its origins in Poland, Lithuania, Hungary and other cultures. He expressed his distaste for how American gefilte fish frequently is garnished with carrots, or kugel generally is served with the same cornflake crust. “If you celebrate the diversity of a cuisine, you can celebrate all of the ways gefilte fish is made — whether it was baked or fried or poached or stuffed. Part of what we are inspired by in general is how to celebrate that diversity and move past that idea of there being one version of everything,” he said.

But Yoskowitz’s hottest takes concern how dishes from Mizrahi communities are gaining ground in America’s historically Ashkenazi-dominated food scene: a development he calls “falafelization.” Stating that “Falafel replaced the pastrami sandwiches at my Jewish day school in New Jersey,” Yoskowitz said he believes that Jewish-American food is being “watered down and becoming more American and more Israeli. We were watching hummus replace the chopped liver on the Shabbat dinner table.”

After the event, Yoskowitz told the Journal in an email that he believes falafel specifically “represents a nationalist effort by the Zionist movement to create a new culinary identity as part of the project of building Israel,” which erases “many cooks whose dishes were labeled as ‘Israeli’ as part of this process.”

Credit to Lauren Volo.

Yoskowitz and Alpern both told the Journal “We acknowledge that ‘Ashkenormativity’ is a painful issue in the Jewish community” and “while much of the predominant understanding of Jewish food culture in America often gets lumped together unfairly with Ashkenazi food culture, what passes for ‘Ashkenazi cuisine’ in this country has been stripped of so much of its history and its ethnic identity.”

At the end of the day, there may not be an answer to the webinar’s central question of what Jewish American food culture is. “There may, in fact, be no such thing as ‘Jewish cuisine’; rather, many amazing and diverse cuisines that all share the same umbrella,” the duo said.

However, Yoskowitz’s primary quest is ensuring that all Jewish foods, wherever they are developed in the Diaspora, are “not the watered-down, bastardized version of these amazing flavorful foods to meet a more Western palate.”

Ariel Sobel is the Journal’s social media editor.

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