“People assume that the Ashkenazi way of doing food is the crux of what Jewish food means. The reality is that Jewish food is a text, and there’s different types of text. Oral and written, of course. And then you have the text of the land of Israel. Then comes the diaspora itself. In other words, it’s your personal identity with the text, the idea of Israel, and where we live.” – Michael Twitty, in an interview for Chow, 4/10/2014
Michael Twitty teaches remarkable Torah. He is Jewish, African American, a food historian and chef, and he has a way with words. The interview above (click that link!) is chock-full of interesting insights about Jewish food. His book, The Cooking Gene, is a masterpiece on the links among food, identity, and culture.
If I ask a random American what “Jewish Food” is, likely they’ll say something about deli food, or bagels. However, Jewish food is much more varied than that. There’s Sephardic food, replete with rice and rich flavors, and the food of the Israeli street (falafel, anyone?) Digging deeper, there’s the food in every Jewish home, which is as individual as Mom’s best recipes and Dad’s skill with the grill. Jewish food is any food Jews eat around the Jewish table, which over time becomes infused with Jewish meaning.
An example: I grew up in the American South, and on holidays we had something called chess pie. Every slice is a sliver of gooey sweetness. The first few years I was a Jew, I made the typical Ashkenazi things for Rosh Hashanah, but eventually I switched over to making my chess pie, because I don’t know of any sweeter dish on earth. For me and my family, it’s a Rosh Hashanah dish now, and every bite includes not only sugar, butter, and spices, but the hope for a sweet year. I swear it made the pie taste even better.
Another example, this one for Passover: A friend gave me her mother’s recipe for brisket, a very elaborate and wonderful old Hungarian recipe. I made it, and tinkered with it, and fiddled with it, and a few years ago I realized that it had morphed into something entirely different, a brisket that was a mix of the original recipe and the techniques I learned from my grandmother. Here it is, and unlike the chess pie, it can be made kosher for Passover:
beef brisket, approximately 1/2 lb per person
2 cans tomatoes, with liquid
1/2 potato per person, carrots, and onions to cover the bottom of your roasting pan
fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon mustard
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Buy brisket for the number of people you have coming. I normally figure 1/2 pound per person.
In a deep roasting pan, put a layer of cut up potatoes, carrots, and onions.
Cut the brisket into as many pieces as you need to to handle it easily.
Brown the brisket on all sides on the stovetop over high heat. Brown the fatty side first, then brown the other sides of the meat in the fat.
Put the browned pieces of brisket in the roasting pan on top of the vegetables.
Sprinkle with fresh ground pepper, 1 teaspoon of paprika, and 1/2 teaspoon of ground mustard.
Deglaze the browning pan with a cup of wine (I use red, white is OK, do not use a sweet wine.)
Add 2 large cans of whole tomatoes, cut up, to the browning pan and bring it to a near-boil.
Pour the liquid over the meat and veggies, cover the pan (either with a lid or foil, but get a good seal) then put in the oven.
After 15 min, reduce heat to 300.
Allow it to cook until the meat is falling apart. Normally I cook it for 8 hours or even more.
Remove the brisket to a carving board and allow it to rest for 30 minutes before slicing. Slice perpendicular to the grain.
Strain out veggies, reserving liquid, and put them in a separate bowl.
Put the liquid in a saucepan on the stove and heat to reduce it for a gravy.
Are there any foods that have taken on Jewish meaning in your Jewish home? Share recipes if you are willing!
Image: Chess Pie, by Kristen Taylor. Some rights reserved.