18 December 2010

Food: When oysters were kosher

Did you know that a 19th-century Reform Jewish kitchen cookbook offered recipes for oysters and ham salad, along with challah and latkes?

Chicago residents are in for a delicious treat when culinary historian Jane Ziegelman speaks at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies on Sunday, December 19.

The talk - "When Oysters were Kosher," begins at 2pm; a book signing of Ziegelman's new book, 97 Orchard, follows.

Tickets (call 312-322-1733) are $18; $10 for Spertus members, and $8 for students.

A century ago, "Aunt Babette's Cook Book" (1889) provided a look at Reform Judaism then. Babette, in reality, was Chicago homemaker Bertha Kramer, a member of the city's Reform community.

Ziegelman's appearance is in conjunction with the Spertus exhibit - Uncovered & Rediscovered: Stories of Jewish Chicago - and she'll share Kramer's story.

The Spertus talk will focus on an affluent community wanting to assimilate and leave the ghetto, as evidenced by what they ate. The story also presents the Ziegelman's upbringing and she states that "So much of Jewish history can be told through its food."

Ziegelman, director of the New York Tenement Museum's culinary center, is the author of a new book, "97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement" (Harper Collins, $25.99).

The Chicago Jewish News carried a story by editor Pauline Dubkin Yearwood on the new book, which offers this word picture of an expertly prepared carp for Shabbat dinner:

When we first meet Natalie Gumpertz, in Jane Ziegelman's book “97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement,” it is a Friday morning in the late 1890s, and Mrs. Gumpertz is preparing a fish for Shabbat dinner that night.
The carp “lays snugly in an oblong vessel, like a newborn in a watery cradle. From our current vantage point, it looks intact. In reality, however, the fish has been surgically disassembled and reassembled. It is the kind of culinary operation worthy of the trained professional, yet the responsible party is standing in front of us, an ordinary home cook.”

After Mrs. Gumpertz, who immigrated to New York from Prussia in 1858, slits the fish down the middle, she scrapes the flesh from the skin, chops it, stuffs it back into the carp, lays the creation on a bed of fish bones and onions, simmers it, then, when done, moves the pot to an open window to cool.

Then, “moments before sundown, start of the Jewish Sabbath, she slices her carp crosswise into ovals and lays them on a plate. The cooking broth, rich in gelatin from the fish bones, has turned to jelly. The onion skin has tinted it gold. Mrs. Gumpertz spoons that up too, dabbing it over the fish in glistening puddles. To a hungry Jew at the end of the workweek, could any sight be more beautiful?”
Who wouldn't want to go out and catch a carp after reading that?

Ziegelman, writesYearwood, "came into possession of what she describes as 'a whole wealth of family genealogy and history of this real-life woman who lived on Prairie Avenue (in Chicago) in the second half of the 19th century. She belonged to the world of Jewish society and she wrote this cookbook, and I use her as a kind of example of a lost culture.'”

Kramer's cookbook (Bloch Publishing, Cincinnati) was known as the "treif" (not kosher) cookbook. It included recipes for shrimp, lobster, ham, squirrel and rabbit, as well as an all-oyster supper.

For more information on "97 Orchard," read the complete article at the link above.

The new culinary program at the Tenement Museum will present immigrant chefs (professional and home cooks), cookbook authors and many other people who will be cooking together and talking about food.


  1. Hi Schelley
    Read the blog with interest although I am sure that oysters were never kosher unless you are Reform or Liberal. As an aside to this you are probably aware that Shechita is under attack in Europe and in New Zealand. In the UK Jewish Chronicle someone wrote in about 3 weeks ago suggesting that the campaign to protect shechita would not be fully supported by the UK Reform Jewish community as it had abandoned kashrut. This attitude was attacked in this week's JC by a Reform member who said "how dare he assume that reform members are less likely to be committed to the Jewish Faith than those who are "Orthodox"".
    Reading blogs like yours and JewishGen and Cemetery Scribes make me realise how lucky you are in the States to have so much available in resources and seminars. Here in England we only have the JGSGB which looks after the whole Country. One think, your blog has encouraged me to write my own blog. Not sure if anyone is reading it, but I enjoy writing them. any suggestions on the blog would be appreciated.
    Best Wishes
    Tony Benson

  2. Hi, Tony.
    The post focused on a cookbook pubished in 1889 by a member of a prominent Chicago Reform family. When the Reform rabbinical seminary in Ohio started operation, their banquets included ham. It was a long time ago! As you may know, when the Reform movement started - a very long time ago - in Germany, its leaders wanted to worship on Sundays not Saturdays to show their assimilation out of the ghetto.

    In the US, many Reform congregations now edge towards the Conservative/Masorti movement's practices.

    Jewish history and genealogy cover the spectrum from complete assimilation to ultra-Orthodoxy. I believe we need to understand all of this to - in turn - understand how our ancestors lived and the societies in which they lived.

    with best wishes

  3. The title is a poor one, because Reform never claimed oysters or ham to be kosher, they just declared that the laws of Kosher were obsolete, as were the laws of shabbat, family purity etc.
    They reformed Judaism to suit their style of life, whereas Conservative saw that there would no longer be any sort of resemblance of the Torah, so they went back a step and conserved those points they felt would still keep a Jewish flavor to their form of being Jewish.If you could not walk to the Temple it was OK to drive otherwise people would not come,etc. Sadly we see that neither of these two movements succeeded in preventing intermarriage, assimilation etc.

  4. Cincinnati's Losantiville Country Club (the club for Cincinnati's wealthy German Jewish community) was infamous for including shellfish and pork on the menu.

    Rabbi Wise led the movement to make Reform Judaism almost a kind of protestantism without Jesus and Cincinnati was the heart of the movement.


  5. Anonymous6:15 PM

    Considering that the official Reform stance is kosher laws are outdated and a mute point,this wanna be shiksa knows nothing with her When Oysters were Kosher garbage.To quote The Tenets of Reform Judaism:"The basic Reform philosophy is that it is a Reform Jew's responsibility to study and consider kashrut so as to develop a valid personal position. For although "classic" Reform Judaism did reject kashrut (as noted in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885)