Sunday, December 10, 2017

Bagels, Lox, Corned Beef, Challah, Rye Bread: What is Jewish food?

"English... has been using [the word] schmaltz for at least eighty years in a sense undreamed of in Yiddish. The earliest metaphorical use given by the OED is from a 1935 article in Vanity Fair that describes schmaltz as 'a derogatory term used to describe straight jazz.' ... Schmaltz was the rendered essence of square, and soon came to be applied to any artistic production, musical or not, that was overly sentimental, excessively sweet, and never, ever subtle. If the emotion in sentimentality is unearned, that in schmaltz is indigestible."--(Michael Wex, Rhapsody in Schmaltz, pp 87-88)

Schmaltzy in English today has become a synonym for corny, often applied to bad jokes. Excessively shmaltzy comedy routines and self-conscious, too ethnic, Jewish comedians aren't as popular as they used to be 50 or 60 years ago. The word schmaltz makes me think of cheap jokes that bring up Jewish stereotypes -- old stereotypes that don't even particularly apply to the current generation.

Michael Wex's book Rhapsody in Schmaltz is full of this unfortunate type of humor, often very out of date, so I don't know what younger readers would make of it. I find it hard to believe that the book was just published last year (2016)!  Here's a sample corny sentence: "Goose fat is generally thought of as the tastier, more full-bodied schmaltz, the Jayne Mansfield of kosher cooking, as compared with the Audrey Hepburn that is chicken schmaltz." (p. 79).

Wex also includes quite a few colorful Yiddish sayings that incorporate specific foods into insults, character judgements, or generic folk wisdom. For example, "to fall into a schmaltz mine" in Yiddish means either "to strike it rich" or or "to stumble into an unexpected stroke of good luck: 'I was looking for Archie comics at the swap meet and found a Gutenberg Bible for fifty cents— bin ikh arayngefaln in shmalts-gribl, I fell into the mother lode of chicken fat.' Ironically, someone who does so is often described as having treyfene mazl, unkosher luck, the Yiddish version of 'the luck of the Irish.'" (p. 87). Or this: "'kugel with lard'— kugl mit khazer-shmalts— is used in Yiddish to describe un-Jewish ideas that have been given a superficial coat of Jewishness. ... if Jewish liberals still spoke Yiddish, they’d be using it on Jewish Republicans who use their religious background to justify their social and political ideas." (p. 137).

Rhapsody in Schmaltz also includes some reasonably decent historic discussions about Jewish food in Eastern Europe -- my reason for reading the book was that I expected some real history. Along with the schmaltzy jokes, the history is there; though the long digressions about the Biblical basis of some food customs are a bit tedious, as are explanations of the blessings that religious Jews said over various types of food, and how that affected their attitudes towards the food. Wex says that Sabbath foods are the mainstay of Jewish cuisine, so he spends a large amount of time describing them and how they came to be eaten on this weekly Jewish special day.

My favorite element of the book is the way it explains how some seemingly Jewish foods of great historic longevity are of very recent adoption. Potatoes -- the food my father most remembered from his childhood in the shtetl -- came into Jewish life around 1800 or 1850 when they became staples in Eastern Europe. "Czar Nicholas I, more mindful of the potato’s superior yield and short growing season than of the recent disaster in Ireland, introduced its mass cultivation to his empire and transformed the East European diet." (p. 116). Other foods, like corned beef, unknown in Europe, were bound up with the history of delicatessens in American cities like New York and Montreal.

Wex also covers foods that have been in Jewish life for centuries. For example, "Noodles— specifically egg noodles— are among the oldest Ashkenazi dishes and have occupied a prominent place in Ashkenazi cookery since at least the eleventh century, when they were mentioned under the name frimsls in the High Holiday prayer book of Simcha ben Shmuel of Vitry, who died in 1105." (p. 127).

Rhaposdy in Schmaltz explains the role in Jewish life of a huge number of foods. A few of the most entertaining or instructional topics:
  • Bagels, lox, and cream cheese, now completely incorporated into American food ways, used to be a breakfast treat only for Jews and maybe other patrons of Jewish food establishments. Bagels originated in the Yiddish-speaking areas of Eastern Europe. Christian inhabitants of this area also baked and enjoyed bagels, but didn't come to America and start bakeries and delis. Cream cheese, on the other hand, is "a purely American product, invented in upstate New York in 1872." (p. 229).  And lox is somewhere in between, having become associated with bagels late in its history and mainly in New York and other Jewish cities.
  • Corned beef, pastrami, and rye bread, which also started as Jewish deli menu items, are now widely popular in the US. I was most interested to learn from Wex that pastrami and corned beef were strictly American developments in Jewish gastronomy, not at all from Yiddish cuisine. Rye bread in Eastern Europe, he explains, was far different from the product of American Jewish bakeries. "Delicatessen as we know it," he writes in his corny way,  is "the food that kills those who love it best." And an "American variation on a few themes with roots in Europe." (p. 251). 
  • Chicken soup and gefilte fish became stereotyped Jewish foods in the US, though not without a reason. While chicken soup is cooked and enjoyed anywhere that there are chickens (which means everywhere), gefilte fish, Wex explained, was truly a Jewish invention for complicated reasons involving requirements and restrictions on foods eaten for the Sabbath. He also rants and rages because he hates gefilte fish from a jar, which is the only kind most ordinary Jews now less than 85 years old have ever really eaten. I think he missed some of the details of gefilte fish history, which I wrote about in a blog post some time ago here.
  • Cholent and goose were also Sabbath and holiday foods in the shtetls and cities of Eastern Europe. Goose, obviously, was the bird Jews ate (and used as a source of schmaltz) before they switched to mainly chicken and sometimes turkey. Cholent, the slow-cooked Sabbath stew, is explained in great detail, for the benefit of his readers who may never have seen it. "Second only to matzoh in antiquity, cholent is the only other Jewish food that might have originated with the Jews themselves," writes Wex (p. 108). The discussion of cholent and its close relatives kugel, kishka, "the stuffed neck of poultry known as a heldzl," calf’s-foot jelly, and the fruit or vegetable stew known as tsimmes all, according to Wex, were close associates of cholent. 
  • Kugel is a noodle pudding or potato casserole with traditional ingredients. "Even non-Jews considered kugel the Jewish food par excellence," Wex writes. "In 1728, Jesuits in Vilna threatened to excommunicate Catholics who ate 'Jewish kugel and other Jewish dishes.'"(p. 132). Like cholent, kugel could also be slow-cooked to allow a hot meal to be served on fire-prohibited holidays and Sabbath. Unlike cholent, kugel has taken on a life of its own in modern America. In my opinion, Wex missed some details about kugel and its Americanization.  I wrote about it a couple of years ago in this blog post. 
  • Challah is the Sabbath bread which seems to be a permanent forever fixture of Jewish Sabbath celebration. In fact, bread was part of the Sabbath ritual from early times, but the specific braided bread made with egg and oil came into Jewish life only around 500 years ago, "adapted from German breads baked for special occasions, especially Sundays." (p. 154).
  • Matzohs and matzoh balls, says Wex, owe a lot to the American entrepreneurs who developed mass-market packaged versions of these and many other Passover foods. He writes of "the matzoh ball, which began as the food of dreams ... only to end in the depressing ubiquity that has made it the main ingredient of too many lousy jokes." (p. 97). 
  • Carrots -- "Whether anchoring a tsimmes, floating in chicken soup, or crowning a piece of gefilte fish, the carrot is among the preeminent Yiddish vegetables, in part because its Yiddish plural form, mern, is identical to the Yiddish verb that means 'to increase.' Along with apples and honey and various other foods, it is eaten on the night of Rosh Hashana as part of a tasting ritual that presents our hopes for the new year in edible forms. ... Carrots are eaten to go along with a supplication that our merits might increase." (pp. 143-144). 
My overall impression is that Wex's book is flawed in its style, but contains lots of good information. I was familiar with quite a bit of the historical material, as I'm really very interested in Jewish food history. There are better sources for some of the specific materials, but he put it together in an effective way. Here to end is Wex's description of some of the best-known Jewish foods in America, illustrating again how he can be both corny and informative at the same time:
"If rugelach and chala have become moderately well known outside of the Jewish community, the bagel has managed the near unimaginable feat of actually becoming American, despite the fact that unless it’s come hot from the oven, this 'unsweetened doughnut with rigor mortis,' as it has too often been called, has half the shelf life of a fruit fly, a best-before-date of fifteen minutes prior to purchase. More than any other food discussed in this book, the bagel has been the focus of a great deal of talk about authenticity: Can bagels be frozen without losing their character? Are blueberry or cinnamon-raisin swirl acceptable bagel flavors? Are flavors acceptable at all, and if so, why stop with onion and garlic? Are sesame seeds better than poppy seeds, or should a proper bagel be seedless?" (p. 223)

Friday, December 08, 2017

The Invention of the Cherry Tomato

For a long time, I have accepted the widely publicized "fact" that Israeli scientists invented the cherry tomato. In today's Ha'aretz newspaper from Israel I read that I've been misled. The Israelis didn't invent the cherry tomato -- it's been around for centuries. Claims about its Israeli origin were amplified for propaganda reasons. The bottom line:
"The truth is that Israeli researchers developed modern varieties of the cherry tomato, which has become a commercial product found all over the world, mainly thanks to its long shelf life. Until the 1980s miniature tomatoes were a marginal crop used in dishes mainly as decoration."
Here are links to articles that explain what's real and how the exaggerated claim was propagated:
Caesar salad at an Israeli restaurant: with cherry tomatoes.
I was interested to read these two articles putting things in perspective, and exploring the topic of Israeli self-promotion.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

"Tasty" by John McQuaid: A very satisfactory book!

A few things I learned from Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat by John McQuaid (published 2015) --
  • The history of humans cultivating sugarcane -- "the world's primary source of refined sugar for thousands of years" -- began around 6000 BC in Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea. Extracting sugar from sugarcane required much cooperation from groups of humans. By 2500 years ago, sugar refining in India was becoming "an industrial art," and several forms of candy and sweetener were popular. I was especially fascinated by a myth about the Buddha being given sugar by a group of passing merchants, "a few weeks after his enlightenment." Enlightenment led to rejection of human cravings, and "thanks to his enlightened state, Siddhartha apparently ate the sweet treat with no trace of these cravings [for food, sex, money, and success], just simple enjoyment." (p. 110-111)
  • Perception of hot tastes, especially capsicum chiles, involves a mysterious combination of pain and relief from pain leading to pleasure. The neuroscience of how people react to chilis, especially incredibly hot ones, is described along with the efforts of chili growers to develop the world's hottest chili pepper. The history given here of the century-long scientific effort to understand how tasting chilis work is really amazing, and although I've read about it before, like many chapters in the book it put information together in a most enlightening way. And, we learn: eating chilis might make one live a longer, healthier life. 
  • The famous "map" of tastes on the tongue is entirely false. All taste buds have receptors for the five basic tastes -- sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. And maybe for fat and starch as well. The often-invoked theory that different regions of the tongue had receptors for different flavors was an error that unfortunately became widely accepted and repeated. The exact way that taste receptors work and their genetic basis is still being discovered.
  • Archaeologists at work at Gesher ben Ya'aquov --
    image from Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
    The earliest known kitchen dates from roughly 780,000 years ago. At Gesher ben Ya'aqov in the North of Israel archaeologists found that cave dwellers -- either homo sapiens or a pre-human species -- were cooking grains, acorns, other seeds, olives, fish, deer, elephants, and other foods. "Fire was only the most potent of a whole suite of tools used in food preparation: these early humans had a kitchen. One area was devoted to gutting fish. A space used for processing nuts had hammer-stones and pitted anvils that had been used as bases for smashing the shells of acorns before roasting them." (p. 33)
  • Coffee combines a variety of bitter flavors, brought out by the exact method of selecting beans, roasting them, and extracting the flavors with high-pressure almost-boiling water from an espresso machine. You can separate a shot of espresso into three parts, which separately taste bad but together taste good, at least to coffee lovers! The chapter about bitter tastes, including coffee, explains how people's reaction to bitter flavors -- in coffee or anything else -- is complicated, involving genes, early experiences with food, cultural norms, and more. 
  • Darwin described facial expressions for human reactions (name them) in a way that still has validity. Study of these, especially the "disgust" reaction offers insight into many food-related studies, reinforcing the idea that many human expressions are fairly consistent across ethnic groups and cultural backgrounds.
In reading about the senses of smell and taste, I've become very interested in topics covered by this book, such as neuro-gastronomy and related ways of describing human anatomy, perception, etc. But each book I have read recently has been more or less like the ones before. McQuaid's Tasty is different! I felt that I was learning something new on every page.

Rather than a more usual review, I thought I would just summarize the above interesting things I learned while reading. The book is full of fascinating topics; among them: fermentation and its role in food preparation; global warming and how it will change wine production; ways that the brain perceives tastes, and many more. The organization of the book is in fact very clear and coherent, and this isn't meant to be a summary!


Sunday, December 03, 2017

Two Lives: Alice Waters, Julia Child

Alice Waters and Julia Child were absolutely essential in creating American views of food in the twentieth century. Waters' memoir Coming to My Senses, published earlier this fall, describes her life from childhood through the opening of her restaurant Chez Panisse.  While Alice Waters' entire reputation is inseparable from her life in Berkeley, California, she actually grew up in New Jersey and Indiana (near Chicago); her family moved to Los Angeles in time for her last year of high school, and she enrolled at University of California, Berkeley, after a brief time at UC Santa Barbara. She spent time in France and in England as well: I enjoyed her narration of her adventures there.

Alice Waters was born in 1944. Her early life, as she presents it, was typical of middle class Americans of the fifties and sixties, and then she was nurtured in the very radical climate of Berkeley, the Free Speech Movement, the hippies and beatniks of San Francisco, and the heated political atmosphere of protest and opposition to the Viet Nam war. She worked for the election of Bob Sheer to congress, a radical anti-war candidate. (He lost.)

However, she writes:
"Even though I shared a lot of counterculture values, I never connected with the hippie culture of the late 1960s, no question about it. The food in particular. I didn't really have friends who were hippies either -- except maybe my sisters Laura and Susan -- because I was seeking out people who thought about food and culture in a different way. I didn't want anything to do with the hippies' style of health food cooking: a jumble of chopped vegetables tossed together with pasta -- throw in a few bamboo shoots, and call it a Chinese meal. To me, that world was all about stale, dry brown bread and an indiscriminate way of eating cross-legged on couches or on the ground with none of the formality of the table. There was an aesthetic demarcation between the hippies and me, certainly as far as the food was concerned; I thought their approach was absolutely uncivilized, unrefined." (p. 148)
David Goines: Chez Panisse Poster.
Coming to My Senses is a very enjoyable book to read. I particularly admired the way that throughout the narrative of her early life, she is able to jump forward with little observations about how her early experiences influenced her mature life. Very coherently she relates how specific things -- her mother's views, her family's food ways, her educational background... -- informed her accomplishments at Chez Panisse and her still later development as a leader in American cuisine. She has a very broad appreciation of the cultural environment in which she created, and of the reason why the world was ready for her.

Alice Waters also documents her many relationships with a variety of people, some famous, some not-so-famous. These memories are very readable and interesting; for example, her long affair with David Goines, the graphic artist, who provided the art work that is in my mind fused to the era and to my own mental image of Chez Panisse. (I did eat there once in the 1980s, and enjoyed it, though I don't recall the exact menu.)

Importantly, Alice Waters acknowledges how important Julia Child's influence had been on American food views: Chez Panisse presented French cooking in a very novel way, and developed many American twists on the French classics, but American diners in Berkeley were ready for this, according to Alice, because: Julia Child.

As it happens, I also recently read a biography of Julia Child, specifically, a quite old biography, Appetite for Life, by Noël Riley Fitch (published 1997).While Waters is inseparable from California though she grew up in the East, Julia Child, whose reputation is inseparable from Boston and the East, in fact grew up in California. Her early years were spent in Pasadena, where her family lived in a mansion among the wealthiest residents; she attended high school at a boarding school in Marin County, and then went to Smith College. So just the opposite of Alice Waters, in a way.

I enjoyed learning about Julia Child's early life and the whole atmosphere of her California girlhood. She was born in 1912 -- a few years before Alice Waters' mother was born (1916). Appetite for Life is not nearly as successful a book as Coming to My Senses or as Julia Child's own memoir, My Life in France, which I read a few years ago. After Fitch's interesting discussion of Julia Child's family and early life, she tediously presented far too much detail about Julia Child's return to California, early job experiences; her World War II job in China, where she met her husband Paul Child, and so on. Fitch describes the writing of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the development of the French Chef TV shows, and Julia Child's later experiences with great fame and success -- all in way too much detail. Just because Julia Child allowed Fitch access to all the letters, personal notes, professional records, and other closely held materials in her possession, Fitch seemed to think she had to relate every happening, no matter how repetitive. I kept reading until the end, but I'm not sure why. It was more than I wanted to learn.