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350 Years Of Jewish Cooking In America


Sheilah Kaufman, Food History News, January 1, 2008
For 350 years there have been Jews living and cooking in America. Where did they come from, how did they get here, and how did they maintain their culinary traditions?

Jewish cooking is unique in that we do not have a single "native"cuisine. When one talks about Italian cooking, one can make distinctions between the dishes of the north and south, but the boundaries of Italian cooking are known. When we talk of Jewish cooking we might refer to the Ashkenazic dishes like gefilte fish, chopped liver, and pastrami, or the Sephardic tradition with its emphasis on rice, lamb, and lentils. Then there is the cooking of the Bene Israel Jews of India. As a people of the Diaspora we have absorbed and assimilated the culture and foods of those lands where, over the centuries, our people have lived.

Where they came from: In the beginning two waves of Jewish immigrants went to the Caribbean islands and to French Guyana, Beleze, and Recife in Brazil in the Western hemisphere. These Spanish and Portuguese Jews knew no political boundaries, moving back and forth between English, French, Dutch and Danish islands and later the colonial mainland. The first oldest continuous Jewish community was in Surinam, begun in 1536 by crypto-Jews fleeing the Inquisition, and followed in 1639 by Jews who practiced their religion openly. Spanish islands were not open to Sephardim, that is, Spanish Jews, French territories were a bit friendlier but were sealed in 1685 with the infamous Code Noir that banned Jewish settlement on French islands.

While living under tolerant Dutch rule in Brazil, these Jews had been able to practice their religion, but the Dutch had recently lost a war to the Portuguese and part of the peace terms was the return of northern Brazil to Portuguese rule. Now these Jews would be living, as Marranos or secret Jews, under the Portuguese with the return of the auto-da-f� and the burning of relapsed Christians under the Inquisition. So they left with the help of General Barreto of the Portuguese army, who treated the defeated Dutch subjects with great magnanimity and issued rigid regulations to assure their protection.

In September, 1654, 23 Jews arrived from Recife, Brazil in New Amsterdam a city under Dutch rule which became New York City in the colony of New York in 1664. On hand to welcome them were at least two other Jews who had come from Holland in the summer of 1654 in order to do business there. One earlier Jewish arrival was Asser Levy von Swellum (Levy went on to become the first kosher butcher and the first Jewish war veteran in the New World). The 23 new arrivals had been on one of seven ships that had left Recife, Brazil and were headed for Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in Europe.

While headed for the Netherlands, one of seven ships had blown off course, been attacked by pirates, and was rescued by a French naval ship, which proceeded to put the rescued Jews on a French merchant ship that took them to New Amsterdam, the chief port of the Netherlands. This group consisted of 4 adult men, about 6 adult women, and 13 younger people) were in part Ashkenazic Jews from Germany and Italy, and in part, Sephardim, born as Jews.

Maintaining culinary habits: "When Jewish communities left the ghettoes and Jewish quarters, and when they became secular and modernized, integrating into new societies, they generally abandoned their traditional ways of daily cooking. But it was usual for them to keep certain dishes, especially Sabbath and festive ones, as a way of holding on to their old culture and identity, since these dishes evoked ancestral memories. In late 19th century Europe the term fressfroemingkeit, or "culinary Jew", was used to describe assimilated Jews whose devoutness found expression only in eating traditional dishes on Jewish holidays," observed Claudia Roden (THE BOOK OF JEWISH FOOD).

Most culinary traditions have been significantly affected by the modern technological change but the impact on Jewish cuisine has some unique elements reflective of our history, religion and culture.

Jewish cuisine also has a distinctive place in our religion both in terms of the laws of kasruth (kosher) and its role in our ritual observances, the Seder being the foremost example. Other religions have food-purity rules similar to kasruth and many use food in their religious observances, but none are as complex and all-encompassing as in Judaism. So how has Jewish cooking, built on a set of rules that has for centuries set us apart from our non-Jewish neighbors, changed over the past two hundred years? And what has driven these changes?

Change in America: The extent of change that overtook Jewish cooking in America can be seen by peeking into a cookbook compiled in Boston in l929 under the auspices of the Sisterhood Temple Mishkan Tefila. In the book, The Center Table, the authors shared recipes for the types of food Jews prepared during this era - foods from Chopped Liver; Meat Rolled in Cabbage; Stuffed Peppers; and Sweet and Sour Tongue. Foods not so far removed from those they brought with them from Europe. Currently, the wide variety of kosher cookbooks (covering the globe) offer recipes to take your palate anywhere, dishes like: Jalapeno Chicken Soup with Shiitake Matzoh Balls; Egyptian Fish with Lemon; Green Masala Chicken Curry; North African Coconut and Orange Cake.

Jewish food and the mainstream diet: But this assimilation process was, to some extent, a two-way street. Traditionally Jewish foods have crossed (mainly in the 20th) over and become part of the American culture. Bagel shops, for example, can be found across the country and not just in Jewish neighborhoods. Items like lox, corned beef, rye bread, pastrami, rugelah, humus, knishes, rye bread, and kosher hot dogs are available almost everywhere.

Technology drivers: While cultural influences have had a profound impact on Jewish cooking, we should not overlook the role technology has had, particularly in bringing kosher cooking into the modern age. The first great "invention" that helped Jews become more secular was margarine, developed in 1869 by the French chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries. Margarine, of course, gave the kosher cook the ability to use a butter-like substance in meat dishes. Next was Crisco invented in 1910; prior to its development, Jewish cooks relied heavily on goose, chicken and beef fat for a shortening, limiting their use to meat recipes. Crisco, a vegetable shortening, helped to further break down the meat-dairy barrier in kosher cooking. In fact, it was advertised by Procter and Gamble as "a product for which the Hebrew Race had been waiting 4,000 years." And finally the world of soy-based products gave Jews pareve (non-dairy) cheese, milk, and ice cream. Today one can attend a kosher Jewish wedding have a meal that includes (mock) shrimp cocktail, saut�ed veal in a white (margarine) sauce, and (soy) parfait.

Then and Now: Today the availability of unique ethnic food products has changed the way Jews eat. We have achieved a method of "fusion" cooking by experimenting with and adapting the cuisine of many cultures, making Jewish cooking more worldly and sophisticated. In addition, there are been changes in basic foods; for instance challah is now available in whole wheat. Matzah are now available in whole wheat, baked as crackers or in free form, and fat free. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg in the new world of what's kosher. Despite this welcome opening to the world, food will continue to have a central role in our lives as Jews. It evolves and adapts to new cultural influences and new technologies and yet it remains the emotional anchor for many of our observances.

Keywords: food, history, diversity