Slow Food/ Jewish Food

I would not say that I believe in “God,” or am inclined to follow prescriptions of a religion, but I couldn’t deny that I feel myself to be Jewish culturally.  At the most straight-forward level, I was raised by people who were raised by people who were raised by people who were…   There’s the humour, the inner turmoil, the Yiddish phrases, the yes-i-have- to- include -it guilt….

My husband is not Jewish; he’s a pork-pie and buttered bread and pint of bitter kind of Englishman, but he is supportive of the (admittedly paltry) efforts I make to have at least an echo of Jewish culture in my house– latke parties at Hanukah, truncated seders, a honey cake at the new year.  The only efforts seem to center around food (though I have found some Isaac Bashevis Singer tales that I’m getting read to read as the nights draw in.)

This morning I was looking at the plum jam I made last week, an incredible almost unreal and lurid pink with a bright and  tart and deep flavour, and I thought how fun it would be to make blintzes. (Yum!  Blintzes are a thin pancake folded around a nice mild simple cheese mixture, the whole thing fried in butter and served with cooked fruit or jam.)  The taste of cooked plums seems very eastern European to  me, I don’t quite know why, because I haven’t eaten them there and wasn’t really served them as a child.  I considered the lekvar (a prune butter) that fill hamentashen, a yummy Purim pastry, and thought of prunes as a necessary result of the incredible gluts that good plum trees offer– and the fact that when plums fall, you need to start cooking or eating them really quickly, so having ways to preserve them and ways to use those preserves– very important.

Eastern European Jewish food as a culinary tradition comes from eating locally, seasonally, frugally– not a political or aesthetic choice, but a fact of life.  And of course this tradition has within it creative responses to keeping dairy and meat separate, so it will often feel similar to the cuisines of other cultures (Polish, Russian, German, Italian, etc), and of course it will never have anything of shellfish or the pig, like bacon and sausage which are so central (and in fact crucial to preserving traditions, and poor cultures) to other national/ regional ways of eating.  It’s main incredients are foods that are cheap and easy to find.

Parsnips, carrots, potatoes, turnips, onions, beets.

Apples.

Barley, rye.

Eggs.  Split peas.

Simple farmer cheeses,  Cheaper, longer-cooking cuts of meat. Whole chickens as something really special.  Liver, chopped.  Gizzards to flavour the broth.  Using the bones.

Herbs like parsley and dill.

Years ago, where I cannot remember, I saw a mind-opening museum exhibition of product packaging of mid-20th century American foodstuffs marketed to the Jewish consumer.  The idea was, here we have people we can sell stuff to, let’s help them to make this product their own.  I think there were the Jewish companies like Manischevitz and that other one I can’t remember, but also mainstream food companies like Kraft and Heinz.  The exhibition had a “we-are-a-melting-pot” kind of approach, showing how Jewish consumers (probably women) would take on the buying and cooking habits of other middle-class Americans; this was the story of assimilation.

My mother would have been at the tail-end of this moment of culture and cooking.  She taught me to cook with Heinz”s ketchup as an ingredient, to make matzoh balls literally from the recipe on the spine of the box, to sweeten the sauce for prakhes (stuffed cabbage) with a famous-brand “grape jelly” as the mother of Barbara Walters had done (how she knew this detail escapes me, but she deemed it interesting.)  (Can I tell you I don’t cook this way anymore?)

I think there was a feeling amoung our people that the food we’d traditionally eaten was lumpen and heavy and probably signalled “poor.”  And then of course “health” started to seem important, so cooks abandoned schmaltz (chicken fat) in favor of industrial food oils and margarines. (And probably threw all that good resource in the bin!)  At some point in the world of American Jewish cooking that I received, international elements were celebrated, like Israeli cuisine (hippies cooking cous cous and hummous, coriander and cumin in the carrots….) which began showing up in our holidays and events.

When I find myself cooking traditional Jewish foods, I try to imagine something different.  For one my general interest and attraction to the Slow Food Movement means trying to shed elements of  industrial agriculture, industrial processessing with additives and preservative (ready-ingredients for example) as well as global marketing and shipping– meaning, I’d always prefer local, seasonal, accessible. There is on the positive side a real celebration of place, the way that food comes from a place and a culture and in fact makes that culture.  In reference to Jewish cooking, I feel a kind of  plain, undecoratedness adds to both the beauty of the food and a kind of “authenticity” that helps us remember who we were, and are.

One experiment: sauteeing (organic, too icky to think of using otherwise) chicken livers in chicken fat, which is traditional  obviously, but everyone I know in the rich world now chucks out the animal fat and imports the oil– be it olive or sunflower or safflower or canola.  The flavours of liver and onion, and nothing else–  now that tastes like the past to me, like the Chopped Liver at R&W Deli in Philly circa 1968– absolutely revolting to a young child like me being also fed TV dinners and cherry sodas.  As my friend Alix perfectly described it, chopped liver is “mud and onions.”  Slow Food, Yiddishe style.

For non-vegetarians, re-learning how to cook with animal fats (actually if organic and fed proper forage not industrial feed develop a really great Omega ratio [see Nourishing Traditions] is critical. When you think of how much embodied energy, and how much greenhouse gas emission, let alone how much living spirit, is entailed in the raising of animals for human food, it’s unconscionable not to use every bit you can.  Traditional Jewish cooking would have done this for reasons of economy.  

Seasonality would have been similarly tacit.  A Jew in the shtetl  would have placed that egg on the seder plate knowing that the egg was a thing of spring, that chickens didn’t lay methodically through the year in overcrowded henhouses.  Dandelion would be more bitter on a seder plate than romaine (which is hardly bitter at all, let’s admit)…  This is all stuff just flying off my head, and I’d like to think it through.  So by the next passover I could make a seder meal with traditional yet easily gotten local foodstuffs– and prepare all really simply, yet beautifully.

A friend inquires how/where one might get matzoh that was natural and nice.  Any ideas anyone?

If you are finding this interesting, let’s talk about what your next seder might be, what you might cook, what a real Slow Food Climate Aware Seder might look like on that white tablecloth, or feel like in our bellies.

Well, all this makes me want to go dig out my Claudia Roden…

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