What is Jewish Food, anyway?

I warned you that I’m going to use this platform to write about Jewish food history, a topic on which I’ve made presentations. I hope my meanderings are interesting and maybe answer some questions.  Please let me know if it gets too long, too detailed, too too!

After having gone on about Shabbat traditions, let’s get back to the beginning and this interesting question. Very little is really Jewish food, considering that Jews adapted local cuisines to fit the specialized needs of kashrut (kosher) wherever they have lived. There are loads of references to food in the source of all Jewishness, the Torah, nothing inherently makes even those foods Jewish. Raymond Sokolov, the late, great food writer, wrote that King Solomon sang of drinking spiced pomegranate wine. Today’s food trends have popularized this multi-seeded fruit – one we always had at home (in season, that is). It was not a common item in most Askenazic kitchens. Sokolov also referred to Elisha’s soup of wild herbs (see 2 Kings 4:38-40).

Perhaps the better question is – what is Jewish food to you? Many people in America think of 2 particular and well-known known dishes – gefilte fish, chopped liver – as Jewish. Also associated as Jewish food are pickles, chopped herring, potato pancakes/latkes, cheesecakes, borscht, and strudels. That’s because the majority of American Jews are descended from East European (Ashkenazi) Jews. It was peasant food of the shtetl – the provincial townlets and villages, food of the poor. Sephardic and Jews in other lands had their own traditions.

Spoiler alert along these lines – My parents had a mixed marriage – Ashkenazi and Greek Jewish. My mother looked down on anything Ashkenazi all her life. She grew up in New York’s Lower East Side and her Jewish identity was frequently was questioned. She did not fit the typical Ashkenazi Jewish mold, like countless many other non-Ashkenazim. She despised gefilte fish. On the other hand, she loved chopped liver. Let’s look at each.

Gefilte (stuffed in Yiddish) fish is that odd oval-shaped fish ball or croquette often eaten as a first course on the Sabbath and holidays. This dish can be traced to the Mishnah, which prohibits the removal of bones from fish to be eaten on Shabbat (based on the prohibition against separating). In medieval Germany, cooks ground the meat and bones from freshwater fish (carp/pike) together then mixed them with eggs and seasonings, onions and carrots, and matzah meal. It was all stuffed back into the skin and baked. Today’s gefilte fish is boiled in a rich fish stock (see below).

Fish getting stuffed

Why fish? A few reasons. Each Hebrew letter is assigned a number; the letters of the Hebrew word for fish, dag, add up to seven. So, Shabbat, the seventh day of the week, is honored by eating fish. Also, in ancient times, fish was a fertility symbol. Jacob gave his children the blessing to multiply as did the fish. In addition, it is believed that the Messiah will come in the form of a great fish in the sea. 

Fish Market, Athens, Greece
photo by my brother, Peter Fromm

Gefilte fish in song, from a Yiddish folk song written in the late 1800s: It’s a thousand flavored treat/First tasted at my mother’s knee,/ It’s precious, it’s so good, It’s the Jewish national food/ As you eat, it melts right in your mouth,/ The gefilte fish themselves are Jewish.

Many of us grew up with the version that comes in a jar or can along with jellied broth. Ethel’s Food Products in Chicago was the first canned and kosher gefilte fish 1931. It was made with a combination of pike, pickerel, and whitefish in a secret recipe. And despite my mother’s aversion, I’ll never forget the story of my mother’s shock to find a live fish in the bathtub, thanks to my oldest brother!*

*And my big brother reminded me of his superior memory – the fish was in the fridge, not the tub!  

Here’s another story about gefilte fish:

Now, chopped liver (gehakte leber) and another question. Was pate/foie gras a Jewsish food the French adopted? Some think so! The dish dates back to the medieval Alsatian Jewish communities where, of course, foie gras also originated. It was created in part to meet the requirements of kashrut. Some rabbis questioned the force-feeding of geese on ethical and halachic grounds. Because chickens were already a basic component of the Jewish diet, Alsatian Jews used chicken livers. Instead of goose schmaltz, chicken fat was used to add moisture.

Another fish tale. What is the origin of the quintessential English fast food – Fish and Chips? This street food is considered “the undisputed national dish of Great Britain” by the National Federation of Fish Friers. The Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, before the 15th century expulsions, fried fish (usually cod or haddock) for Shabbat in oil (pescado frito), not lard like their Catholic neighbors. Perhaps what became known as fish prepared “in the Jewish manner” was brought to England by the Sephardim from Holland when they were re-admitted by Cromwell in the 16th century. And the chips? That’s another story, in short, in the early 1860s, Joseph Malins, a Jewish immigrant, opened up a fish and chips shop in London and introduced chips with the fish.

Best served in today’s newspaper!

Joke time – Chopped liver has featured prominently and derisively in the jokes of Jewish comics and popular culture.

Q: How can you tell the gefilte fish from all the other fish in the sea? A: It’s the one swimming around with the little carrot on its back

Yes, from time to time I make chopped liver – using either chicken or sometimes beef liver.  I sauté the meat using olive oil usually with onions and garlic, or garlic powder. When the meat is cooled,  I chop it with finely shopped onion and hard boiled eggs. Of course, add salt and pepper to taste.  I have my Greek grandmother’s wooden chopping bowl. It’s cracked so it sits on the windowsill with fruit in it. I also have my mother’s old chopper (hochmeister), but rely on my food processer for the chopping.

And gefilte fish? We eat it once a year, at Passover.  My husband’s family has Ashkenazi roots. When we lived in Oklahoma, a co-worker (Bridgid Brink) gave me stacks of back issues of cooking magazines. I went through them all and cut out recipes of interest for a future day, including most of the Jewish recipes.  Then we moved to Miami Beach. Our first Pesach here, I remembered these recipes and pulled them out.  There was one for a South Florida gefilte fish – red snapper, habanero peppers, and lime in the horseradish.  I made it and I continue to make it.  It’s really not hard at all and so much better than the jarred and canned versions.  Better yet, the recipe is from our noted, local chef, Allen Susser.  I’ve had the chance to meet him several times and he is such a nice man and a philanthropist.  Here’s the recipe, give it a try if you’re feeling adventurist or creative. http://www.chefallens.com/recipes/kids-recipes/red-snapper-gefilte-fish-with-lime-grated-horseradish/

One comment

  1. At least one of us has a failing memory. I don’t remember a live fish in the tub, have a vivid memory of a carp that I’d knocked on the head, thought was safely dead and put in the fridge. It wasn’t dead, it was shamming, and when mother took it out it flopped. Loud was the scream.

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