21 November 2007

Jewish soul food - the classic blend

I recently posted on the genealogy of delicatessen delights, and today, from the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia, comes a review by literary editor Robert Leiter of a great new cookbook anthology featuring lots of Jewish food and writers.

Jews and food. Is there any more classic blend of elements? Even people who know nothing about Judaism or Jewish culture know that Jews and eating are intertwined. In fact, one of the things that seems to unite philo-Semites and their anti-Semitic opposites is their envy of the warmth and unity conveyed by the idea of the Jewish table spread with culinary riches. Some have even said that the emphasis on comfort foods after the 9/11 attacks was a longing for Jewish soul foods. And then there's the aroma of the deli, which is a ubiquitous facet of the urban landscape.

It has also long been said that the American holiday Jews feel most comfortable with is Thanksgiving. The day is reflective of no real religious philosophy, per se, except the wish to show gratitude, which unites all belief systems; and so, whatever sentiments are advanced are compatible with Judaism. The fact that food is such a central element of the festivities can't be overlooked, either. We are thanking something greater than ourselves for the abundance and fruitfulness of the land, much of which now appears on our tables - that's something Jews have been doing since time immemorial.

American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes, edited by Molly O'Neill, has a large number of Jewish contributors in its 750 pages.

Esther Levy wrote an 1871 Jewish Cookery Book and her Irish Potato Pudding recipe is on page 60:

"Boil six large potatoes in their skins; let them remain till next day, then peel them and grate on a horseradish-grater very light; then beat up six eggs, separately, the whites to a snow; add six ounces of sifted sugar, a pinch of salt, two ounces of ground almonds and the grated rind of a lemon; beat all lightly together, and bake or steam in a mould with four ounces of melted fat."

As O'Neill has noted, "In this recipe from the first known Jewish-American cookbook, the Irish potato pudding is billed as 'One that will do for Passover' and resembles a potato kugel."

The anthology is chronological and, as Leiter points out, additional Jewish writers appear as more Jews arrived in America. The list includes Edna Ferber, Mary Antin, Gertrude Stein, S.J. Perelman, Alfred Kazin, Alice B. Toklas, A.J. Liebling, Nora Ephron, Calvin Trillin, Lillian Hellman, Laurie Colwin, Maxine Kumin, Laura Shapiro and Corby Kummer.

Many have contributed essays about eating, not preparing, food.

Leiter offers this excerpt from Alfred Kazin's memoir of his Brownsville, Brooklyn childhood, "A Walker in the City."

"We never had a chance to know what hunger meant. At home we nibbled all day long as a matter of course. On the block we gorged ourselves continually on 'Nessels,' Hersheys, gumdrops, polly seeds, nuts, chocolate-covered cherries, charlotte russe and ice cream. A warm and sticky ooze of chocolate ran through everything we touched; the street always smelled faintly like the candy wholesaler's windows on the way back from school. The hunger for sweets, jellies and soda water raged in us like a disease ...

"But our greatest delight in all seasons was 'delicatessen' -- hot spiced corned beef, pastrami, rolled beef, hard salami, soft salami, chicken salami, bologna, frankfurter 'specials' and the thinner, wrinkled hot dogs always taken with mustard and relish and sauerkraut, and whenever possible, to make the treat fully real, with potato salad, baked beans and french fries which had been bubbling in the black wire fryer deep in the iron pot. At Saturday twilight, as soon as the delicatessen store reopened after the Sabbath rest, we raced into it panting for the hot dogs sizzling on the gas plate just inside the window. The look of the blackened empty gas plate had driven us wild all through the wearisome Sabbath day. And now, as the electric sign blazed up again, lighting up the words Jewish National Delicatessen, it was as if we had entered into our rightful heritage."

Do read the complete article here, and put this book on your Chanukah wishlist (it's on mine already!).

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