I once asked a hard-working deli man what’s the toughest part of his job. I got a rant.
“People just have to criticize. You can’t believe how many people will tell me they had an uncle who cured his own lox and I should get his recipe. I have to stop myself from jumping over the counter and strangling them. Really? Did your uncle serve lox to 300 people every day during a lunch rush?”
The poor man sighed. “I call them the deli police. They can’t just say, ‘Hey, that’s good.’ They always are looking to bust you.”
Welcome to the world of Jewish food: It’s hard to be a real expert when everybody thinks they know better.
The truth is, there are a lot of things the self-appointed experts don’t know about Jewish food. So often relegated to a sitcom punch line—Seinfeld’s marble rye, anyone?—Jewish food is something far more varied and complicated than delis and appetizing shops. From their origins in the Middle East 3,000 years ago, through exile and ingathering, Jews have adopted the foods of the far-flung lands where they’ve lived, while adapting them to a set of dietary codes, holidays, and rituals.
Over the centuries, food hasn’t just been a part of Jewish culture—it has also defined Jews apart from other cultures. The result has been both wonderful—I mean, who doesn’t like a good matzo ball?—and tragic (consider the 13th-century Spanish Jews burned at the stake for turning down a dish containing pork).
Today, the vast majority of Jews don’t follow the kosher laws, and Jewish food has made its way out of the ghetto. A new generation of chefs is rediscovering the spectrum of Jewish influences, from medieval Spain to the modern Jerusalem, and there is a full-on resurgence of the traditional deli underway, from Wexler’s in Los Angeles, to Mogg and Melzer in Berlin.
That means one thing is certain—there will be a whole new generation of deli police out there who haven’t the slightest clue of what they’re talking about. To set the record straight, here are nine taboo topics in the Jewish food world that people should start talking about.
1. You don’t know what lox is.
Can we all get on the same page here? Lox is one thing and one thing only: brined salmon—unsmoked, uncooked. In olden days, filets of salmon (the Yiddish word is pronounced laks, from the German lochs) cut from the fatty belly were set in barrels of salt brine to cure, then sliced parchment-thin and served cold. Gravlax, the Scandinavian version, is brined with herbs like dill, pepper, and juniper berries, and maybe splashes of aquavit—delicious, but not so Jewish. Nova Scotia salmon, known as Nova, is cold-smoked after brining or curing. Its lightly smoky, salty flavor and firmer texture makes Nova a popular bagel topping, and it’s often confused with lox. Finally, there is smoked salmon, which is cured or brined then hot-smoked at a higher temperature until it is firm and fully cooked. Good for appetizers, not so much for bagels. At the new Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side, you can get a sampler plate that includes a bit of all these. (Photo by Liz Barclay)
2. The best Jewish cuisine isn’t what you think it is.
When the great wave of Jewish migration from Eastern Europe broke upon America’s shores, it pretty much wiped out any memory of the Jewish cuisines that came here before. Many of the first Jewish immigrants came from Spain and Portugal—Sephardic Jews whose cuisines hewed much closer to the ingredients of their Mediterranean homeland. (New York City’s first Jewish residents, who settled in Lower Manhattan in 1654, were from Recife, Brazil.) But then came boatloads of bubbies and zaydies—Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews from the colder European climes. They plied the streets of Lower Manhattan with their lox, bagels, pastrami, sour dills, corned beef, and rye. Before long, the Ashkenazis had taken over the narrative, and Jewish food became synonymous with all things heavy, fatty, and salty.
If that’s your full understanding of Jewish food, it’s also your loss. In their 3,000 year history of ingathering and exile, Jews have picked up food traditions from Syria to Sweden to El Salvador, and synthesized them into dishes that will blow the shmaltz right out of your mind. In Israel, home to far more Jews from Arab lands than the States, you are far more likely to find hilbeh than herring. Yotam Ottolenghi conquered London and the cookbook world with his version of this alt-Jewish food. Only now, at restaurants like Balaboosta and La Vara in New York and Palomar in London, will you get a taste of the great dishes of Sephardic cuisine. Some are variations of popular and established foods where the Jews lived—like the salty sour Moroccan soup harira. Sephardic cooking uses more herbs, more spices, more olive oil, and less chicken fat or butter. Of course, matzo—the traditional Passover “bread” of flour and water—is pretty tasteless in either cuisine. (Photo: Facebook/Balaboosta)
3. Hummus isn’t Jewish. Marketing hummus is.
For centuries hummus lived quietly in the Arab Middle East, just an appetizer on a plate. Then one day in 1986, Zohar Norman, an Israeli taxi driver living in Queens, decided to start selling the dip to homesick Israelis, eventually clearing about $1 million in sales. But the business began to take off when Rabbi Yehuda Pearl bought out Norman in 2002, then sold share to Israeli food giant Strauss Group, which in turn teamed with PepsiCo. In just over a decade, consumer spending on hummus has reached $1 billion a year, and Sabra controls 60 percent of the American market. As hummus heads for salsa and peanut butter levels of popularity, its Arab countries of origin have been left wondering how they missed out—and Lebanon has actually threatened to sue Israel in international courts claiming it invented hummus. Meanwhile, Israeli companies have turned their sights to za’atar and harissa. (Photo: Facebook/Sabra)
4. The gourmet food boom in America was an indirect result of the Holocaust.
In 1939 a German textile manufacturer named Max Ries fled Hitler’s Germany and arrived in Chicago. Like many Jewish immigrants, he saw a business opportunity in importing and selling foods from back home to homesick refugees. But noticing a lack of variety in the American diet and a growing taste for the exotic, Ries began selling imported European cheeses out of the back of his station wagon to grocery stores along Route 41. Soon, as Dana Goodyear documents the story in Anything That Moves, Ries was employing a small army of German-Jewish refugees like himself, selling everything from Cuban lobster to chow mein noodles. He Anglicized his business name to Reese Fine Foods, and millions of jars of marinated artichokes and canned escargots later, could rightfully take credit for pioneering the $86 billion gourmet food trade in America. (Photo: specialtyfood.com)
5. Jews do not control the media, but they did popularize foie gras.
When Jews moved into Northern France in the Middle Ages, they found themselves without their beloved olive oil—a crucial cooking fat for a community that adhered to kosher rules prohibiting the cooking of meat and milk together. Nor could the Jews do as their French neighbors did and use lard. The solution: Jews found they could produce gobs of high-quality poultry fat—a perfect substitute—by force feeding ducks and geese. As Jewish cooking expert Joan Nathan writes in her cookbook Quiche, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France, foie gras, the luscious lobes of liver from force-fed geese, was the happy side effect. Jews became the purveyors of the best foie gras. Force-feeding geese became so prevalent in the Jewish community that, in 1570, the chef of Pope Pius V wrote that Jews were known for the finest goose liver in Europe.
At the same time, 11th-century Jewish scholar Rashi condemned foie gras, writing that Jews would have to answer to God, “for having made the beasts suffer while fattening them.” The tradition continues. In 2003, Israel’s Supreme Court banned the production of foie gras. Meanwhile, the largest foie-gras producers in the world? Hudson Valley Foie Gras, founded by Michael Ginor and Izzy Yanay—yes, Israelis. (Photo by Liz Barclay)
6. Kosher food is a multi-billion dollar industry that may not be clean, healthy, or kind.
The word kosher is blessed with all kinds of positive connotations in English: clean, healthy, safe, ethical and, yes, blessed. That’s no accident. Hebrew National’s classic advertising campaign convinced Americans that kosher food “answered to a Higher Authority.” But assuming any food with a kosher seal on it is any of these things is taking a leap of faith. In the world of kosher certification, kosher means one thing and one thing only: Does the food conform to Jewish dietary laws as laid out in the Bible and interpreted by rabbinic authorities over the years? The shelves of kosher markets are full of processed foods that Moses—much less Michael Pollan or Mark Bittman (both Jewish)—wouldn’t recognize. Coca-Cola is certified kosher, and no one is going to think you’re extra holy for drinking a Big Gulp Full Throttle Blue Demon Slurpee, which is OU-certified. And while kosher slaughter in theory reflects a once-revolutionary concern for animal welfare, in practice there have been many instances of cruelty and abuse documented at kosher slaughterhouses. These revelations have spawned a movement for “ethical kosher,” standards spearheaded by groups like Hazon and Uri L’Tsedek.
Indeed, if you have strong political beliefs, you may find that Orthodox Union hechsher, or certification, even harder to swallow. The OU, by far the biggest of the kosher agencies, is a non-profit institution that uses its ample certification revenue to support its very worthy educational institutions, programs for disabled children, camps, and a political activism arm, the OU Advocacy Center. The OUAC, which lives at the conservative end of the spectrum, is staunchly against the Iran nuclear deal. A recent OU-penned op-ed in the Washington Post was entitled, “Iran Deal Inspections Aren’t Kosher.” Hey, they would know, right? (Photo: growingupgabel.com)
7. The old delis killed off their fanbase.
The first wave of Jewish delis offered traditional foods made in the traditional ways: barrels of lacto-fermenting pickles and sauerkraut greeted customers who didn’t know the first thing about probiotics. But as American food generally became industrialized, its portions larger and its menus longer, delis aped the trend. Portions and prices ballooned. Food quality tanked. Local food safety laws looked askance at the barrels of curing salmon and hanging meats. Assimilation played a role too: to appeal to a new generation of Jews who wanted to see themselves as more worldly, deli menus stretched to include items like fajitas, tuna niçoise, flapjacks—God forbid your menu was “too Jewish.” The result: delis became nothing special, and when tastes evolved toward authentic, responsible food in non-gut-busting portions, the old delis looked…old. Fortunately, a new generation of delis has risen, like New York’s Mile End, San Francisco’s Wise Sons, L.A.’s Wexler’s Deli, and Portland’s Kenny and Zukes: chef-driven, artisanal, and fully focused on the traditional foods that made delis great. (Photo: Yelp/Dwayne Y.)
8. Kosher Wine Doesn’t Have to Suck.
You know it as sickly sweet Maneschewitz or fizzy sweet Bartenura. Either way, when most people go looking for a great bottle of wine, they quickly pass over the kosher rack. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Despite the fact that Jews are a wine-loving people going way back to Noah, two facts contribute to the bad reputation. Firstly, Jewish immigrants on the Eastern seaboard were compelled to make wine from the local Concord grapes, which are not for winemaking (“a wet, feral mammal in a bottle,” writes wine maven Jeff Smith). Secondly, according to kosher laws, wine made or handled by a non-Jew or a non-Sabbath-observant Jew cannot be considered kosher. The only way around this admittedly un-P.C. restriction is to “purify” the wine by boiling it. Done these days by flash pasteurization, the boiled wine (called “mevushal”) inevitably suffers. But around the world, superior kosher wines are produced without that step. Look for “Non-mevushal” somewhere on the label. Seek out producers like Covenant, Mt. Tabor, Castel, and Abarbenel. And remember the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not settle for sucky kosher wine.” (Photo: covenantwines.com)
9. Q: Why Do They Eat So Much Pork in Spain? A: Jews
You ever wonder why a Spanish restaurant menu reads like the porky version of Bubba Gump? There’s eggs with jamón, asparagus with jamón, even trout with jamón. The reason goes back to the Spanish Inquisition, one of history’s great genocides. In the 13th century, Inquisitors forced Jews and Muslims to convert to Catholicism or be exiled. Many chose conversion. But by 1492, the Church suspected many of these Conversos were secretly practicing their faith. Those suspected of being secret Jews would face an auto-da-fe—burning at the stake—or be imprisoned and have their property confiscated. Food, a builder of Jewish identity, became its destroyer. Spaniards inserted pork into any and all dishes to test their neighbors. And Conversos ostentatiously ate pork at every occasion, publicly, to prove their sincerity. The word Marrano, slang for swine, came to mean these “New Christians” who remained Jewish. Today in the jamón-producing village of La Alberca, a yearly pork-eating feast marks the time Jews and Muslims ate ham to prove their Christianity. The highlight of the festival comes when a pig is released to run through the streets. The pig’s name? El Marrano. (Photo: bellotaskate.com)