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Traditional Jewish Food: A Defense

Some of us are actually okay with who we are and what we eat

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What are we, chopped liver?(Flickr/winyang)

Jewish chefs’ cleaning up at the James Beard Awards earlier this week reminded me of this risible article food writer Josh Ozersky published in a recent Time. At first, I didn’t want to respond, since the piece was so obviously jerry-rigged to provoke angry responses—if something begins with the sentence, “I’m not sure how to say this without offending anybody,” then here’s betting the author is intending precisely to offend.

But I can’t help myself. Ozersky’s article is about how Ashkenazic food is bad and Ashkenazim are silly for pretending that it is not. “I’m speaking of the familiar Eastern European Jewish food that most American Jews of my generation grew up eating,” he says. “Dry and flavorless brisket, cooked in a salty fluid of Campbell’s beef broth and Lipton onion soup mix. … pasty, cold chopped liver with inexplicable pieces of hard boiled egg implanted in it; dense lokshon kugels, sweet noodle casseroles as unappetizing as a Christmas fruitcake.” This passes for food criticism? (Imagine a movie reviewer panning some film as “dry and flavorless” without at least going into further detail.) And even if Ozersky is correct about some of these delicacies—personally, chopped liver has never been to my taste—might not the comparison to “Christmas fruitcake” yield the revelation that Jews are not (as his article implies they are) exceptional in their cultural clinging to outdated cuisines as correlatives for bygone eras?

A closer reading, however, reveals that Ozersky’s problem is less with Eastern European Jewish food and more with Eastern European Jewish culture and Eastern European Jews, not excluding himself. “I’m not talking about Kosher food, which is a special department of its own,” he caveats (well, not if you’re doing it right). Clearly, religion must not be permitted to enter a discussion of something having to do with Jewishness. “Nor,” he continues, “am I speaking of what Jews eat in Spain, Israel, or Argentina—rich, dynamic food cultures that have entranced the world.” So if you are a sabra, or if you are Mizrahi—presumably what he means by “what Jews eat in Spain,” since, as the Forward noted in an otherwise obsequious blogpost, there have not been many indigenous Spanish Jews since that whole Inquisition business—then that’s okay, because your colorful culture is ‘entrancing.’ Hypnotizing! Mystical, even?

“I know,” Ozersky adds, “that a lot of American Jews have traveled to Israel and become highly attached to the foodways of their Sephardic cousins, whose love of spices and vivid flavors is in such marked contrast to our own bubbes and zaydes.” If only we hunched, bespectacled Ashkenazim out here in the diaspora could divorce ourselves more fully from our cramped Yiddish roots in the shtetl and somehow adopt the exotic culture of our “Sephardic cousins,” then we, too, might be unique and would no longer need to loathe ourselves. (Never mind that, by definition, “Sephardic cousins” in this context is an oxymoron: The only way for an Ashkenazic Jew to have a Sephardic cousin is by marriage, and since he brings it up I cannot resist noting that Ozersky’s wife was “raised by Israelis”—lucky her—and “grew up around vivid sumac and zaatar, and hummus laced with rich sesame tahini,” a self-parodically sumptuous description that only completes his Jewish re-enactment of Orientalist condescension).

“Nobody is giving Jewish food the Torrisi treatment,” he complains, referring to the Manhattan restaurant that has ingeniously updated old Italian recipes. So he hasn’t been to Brooklyn’s Mile End, then? I feel really sorry for him that his mother’s brisket is not nearly as good as mine’s is. And if he has decided that he is done with his own Eastern European Jewish cuisine and background, that is his decision to make. But please don’t take to the pages of Time and claim to speak for all of us, writing disparagingly of “an ethnicity in which we all eat bad, bland, heavy food.” Some of us don’t eat it, and some us do and think it neither bad nor bland. (Okay, it is pretty heavy.) I have no doubt his bubbe taught him better.

The Kugel Conundrum [Time]
Related: Mile End [Tablet Magazine]
Unkosher [Tablet Magazine]
Time Mag’s Attack Against ‘Jewish Food’ [The Schmooze]
Earlier: James Beard Nods Toward Jews

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HaSoferet says:

Well now you’ve got me hungry for kishke.

Can we please put all the semi-Kafkan breastbeaters on a desert island somewhere by themselves? This public dissing of one’s Jewishness is making me itch. Kudos to Mr. Tracy, and PLEASE pass the kishke!

Shmuel says:

I agree! I am proud of Ashlenazi food. And no one in my family ever made dry brisket with Cambells soup. Yuck

Gina says:

Ozersky’s mother was not a good cook or he has serious issues with her

Seth Davis says:

I’m sorry, but Ozersky has a point. Ashkenazim food isn’t “Jewish” food, but Eastern European food adopted by Eastern European Jews. Lord knows I love Katz’s as much as the next New Yorker, and I certainly don’t care to debate whose brisket is tastier, but why must we be defined solely by the Lower East Side conception of what “Jewish” food is.

Where Ozersky really misses the point is that Middle Eastern Jews don’t eat Middle Eastern “Jewish” food, but food of the peoples of the Middle East. Arabs and Arab Jews eat mostly the same food prepared in mostly the same way. There’s nothing inherently “Jewish” about hummus, certainly not about falafel, and my grandmother’s kabobs tasted nearly identical to her Sunni Muslim neighbor’s kabobs (just don’t tell her I said that.)

I love (non-dry) brisket. My non-Jewish husband loves it so much, he asks me to make it for his birthday every year. I also love good chopped liver and good matzah ball soup. And not because I grew up eating these things – I didn’t – but because they are good food.

Bob Rennick says:

When I first read Ozersky’s piece, I was perplexed at the overwhelming number of logical and factual flaws, that a competent editor of any serious magazine should have caught (except on April Fool’s Day). Then I felt sorry for his great personal tragedy of having missed out on the excellent Ashkenazic food and traditions that so many of us cherish. Apparently, he has been unable to make friends who would take pity on him and show him that his family experience was unusual, if not unique. A certified cultural therapist might be able to provide the needed counseling.

vicki karno says:

Who can resist gribenes? Way better than pork rinds.
My very reform Jewish friends whose families come from Germany rather than Russia/Poland, are just realizing what they have been missing.

Totally agree with Seth that the world of “Jewish” food goes far beyond the Pale of Settlement and that whatever someone considers to be Jewish food more heavily influenced by nationality than anything else. As a Gen Yer whose matzah balls and brisket are just as flavorful as her flan and papaya salad – I think modern Jews should proudly claim their culinary heritage and work to bring new approaches to excellent eating. B’tay’avon!

Adam says:

I have a soft spot for Jewish comfort food, but, look — Ozersky is right. Mile End is nice, but it’s not reinventing anything. Of course Jews aren’t “exceptional in their cultural clinging to outdated cuisines,” but this is hardly a defense of the food itself. Askenazic cuisine comes out of a larger Eastern European tradition that is itself largely terrible. When was the last time you had take-out Polish?

Believe me, my mother’s noodle kugel is almost certainly way better than yours, but I don’t harbor any illusions about its culinary merit. Let’s just enjoy this stuff for what it is: a comforting taste of home, and an occasional indulgence.

Alan says:

The article is pretty worthless, but I would have to agree that Eastern Europe and Jews are not a good culinary mix. Having eaten a fair amount of German/Polish/Russian food, I think you can say that their cuisine centers around two things.

1. They like pork even more than other people who can eat pork

2. If they can’t have pork they want meat in some sort of cream or sour cream sauce.

Jews might have been better off borrowing local recipes if they were banned from eating everything from the sea and moved to Japan.

minda says:

a friend remarked that we were eating poor man’s food in Eastern Europe because we were poor. We also did more physical labor just in the course of getting by.

Fish is often more expensive than meat, which is more than chicken. We have arrived! Kosher Sushi is booming.

Shabbat Shalom

Beth Shafran-Mukai says:

Let’s be real here – have we become so attached to tradition and idealizing the past that we have lost sight of the obvious? The reality is that our Eastern European Jewish diet is terribly salty, fatty, and unhealthy in a major way. Isn’t it time to consider the serious effects of obesity – among them Type 2 Diabetes, Heart Disease, and Stroke.

Eating in this manner undermines our physical health, and we would be much better served at looking at world Jewish cuisines that are based on graines and legumes, leaner and less meat, and brighter clearer flavors not dependent on salt.

Whether or not our beloved Bubbbes and Zaydes in the old country ate this diet doesn’t mean we should eat it now.

Roland says:

There is a parallel discussion to be had over English food. Yes, there are some creative reinterpretations going on, and adopting Chicken Tikka Masala as a national dish has much to recommend it, but you don’t have to be a self-loathing Brit to make a realistic judgement on a heritage characterized by overcooked peas, grey potatoes, and –yes!–flavorless beef, cooked in a salty fluid of Campbell’s beef broth…

I actually like “authentic” Ashkenazic food (and I also like all sorts of other cuisines). But what Ozersky is referring to is absolutely NOT traditional Eastern European Jewish faire. The dead give-away is the mention of Campbell’s soup. What Jewish mother (or Jewish father) would use Campbell’s soup? Certainly it’s not kosher (except for the vegetarian vegetable) and even my non-kosher (but definitely Ashkenazic) family would have considered it too “goyish” to use in “real” Jewish cooking.

I am not an expert on Eastern European Jewish cooking, but even ignoring the inauthentic use of Campbells, from what I know American Jewish food =/= what they ate in Eastern Europe. Actually, there was a tendency to eat much blander “Americanized” food amongst many Jews once we got here … as far as I know Eastern European Jewish food was full (as were the cuisines of many poor people) of foods, concocted by necessity of having to eat whatever was available, that really ended up, in the end, being yummy and quite interesting, even if a bit on the fatty side (which, when starvation was always at the doorstep, was not a bad thing).

diane katofsky says:

Wonderful memories, made by family sitting at a table sharing, my dad’s aunt’s, “Eastern European” food. I have been a vegetarian for many years, but the taste of different foods remain in my memory bank.

Mr. Ozersky, never tasted, Anna’s pastries. Don’t be a, food snob. Never Campbell’s soup! How about some, kugel?

kag1989 says:

I think that any culture can claim to some bad cooks – and in my opinion, that is what is at the heart of this article.

I happen to love the comfort foods of my youth — deliciously sweet kugel’s on Rosh HaShona, succulent, moist brisket with baby carrots and small red potatoes to soak up the broth — and of course, homemade challah and tuna salad — oh, and my grandfather’s chopped chicken liver. Oh, it was The Best! I also have to mention homemade chicken noodle soup, fried chicken livers and homemade sweet and sour soup with beef and pickled cabbage.
I think the food’s typically associated with our faith and our culture are fantastic. Now, of course, there are a few people who might have had the misfortune of having a parent who couldn’t cook… but I would be willing to bet that most of us grew up with food that has become our comfort foods; the foods we turn to when ill, or when celebrating a holiday or that we cook for our children so we can feed their soul as well as their stomach.

I also think that Kosher food is one of the healthiest diets around. All the wonderful spices, no artificial fillers or dyes or flavors. Salads, fresh meats, mouth watering desserts and wonderful fruit compots. The Kosher cook is someone who loves fresh, locally grown vegetables and fruits and who is free to cook imaginative and flavorful food for their families.

RACHEL B says:

I have to agree. Ashkenazi food is AWFUL and DISGUSTING… Sephardic and Mizrahi food, on the other hand, is delicious.

Marc Tracy is just bitter, or he has terrible taste.

And yes… I am Mizrahi myself… I have always said that the US-Ashkenazi majority, with their US-Ashkenazi-centrism, have given the whole concept of “JEWISH CUISINE” a bad name.

grampsny says:

Has anyone ever turned his/her nose up at a well made flayshikeh borscht? Sweet, lemony, with shredded beets and chunks of KOSHER beef covered with a thin, almost invisible, yet glistening, film of beef fat. Can’t make it with lamb. Dipping a piece of flat bread into it can’t compare with soaking a hunk of challah or the heel of a seeded rye bread in the soup. Oh, for the days of an unsliced, round Stuhmer’s pumpernickle bread. This was in the days before Jew killing became a European sport.

Tatyana says:

I was born and raised in a small town in Russia. At the age 24 I came to US and for the last 30 years enjoyed the availabillity of different foods here. I learned how to cook from my Bubbe. We only had what was in season so borsch, stuffed cabbage, etc. were favorite winter dishes. Campbell soup? We never heard of crap like that. All food was home made. My American-born kids call CAmpbell and Progresso fake food. Heavy? MAybe if you use Campbell. A lot of my friends are not Jewish but they look forward to parties at my house. Sorry, Mr. Ozersky, but your mom is a bad cook.

Tara S says:

Jewish food tastes bad because 1. you can’t mix milk and meat in one dish. 2. pork is forbidden, so nothing can be made out of it. Also, kosher meat tastes worse than not-kosher (whether organic, grain-fed or full of hormones), probably due to the different slaughtering techniques. Halal meat is pretty gross, too. See my blog for a better explanation:

Tara S says:

P.S. I’m Ashkenazi and grew up on this crap!

Tara S says:

There are also different climatic and growing conditions in the US and Canada. Because Canada is further north, certain cuisines are just not as good up here, like Mexican. Food is also more expensive here.


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Traditional Jewish Food: A Defense

Some of us are actually okay with who we are and what we eat

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