Communities can be defined by their food. American food — reflecting a penchant for accessibility, convenience, versatility, and portability -— reveals much about who we are and how we got here. Waves of various immigrants brought new dishes and ways of thinking about food to the repertoire.
Beginning in the 1880s, two obscure German dishes, Hamburg steak and Frankfort sausage, suddenly began transforming -— with the addition of rolls -— into American icons, the hamburger and hotdog. This was due to the demographic (the mass immigration of Germans), cultural, and technological (the invention of the mechanical meat grinder) changes in America at that time. As Chinese laborers arrived, Americans began to eat chow mein, wonton soup, and egg rolls.
During the 1950s, the Italian pasta and pizza emerged as American standards. These were joined by the Jewish bagel, knish, and rugelach. The shelves of American groceries keep changing. Twenty years ago, ketchup was the Number 1 American condiment. Today salsa surpasses ketchup in annual sales (although not volume), echoing the Hispanic influence in America (not to mention tortillas and tacos). Some once wildly popular items fade or disappear, while certain foods endure. Culture is not static. Food is not static.
Perhaps the most distinguishing aspect of American food in the past three decades has been the mainstreaming of kosher. By the beginning of the twentieth century, items such as matzah, horseradish, gefilte fish, and wine were being produced by a few factories in the United States aimed by Jews for the Jewish market. Then in 1925, America’s premier pickle producer, the H. J. Heinz Company, decided to do something totally unprecedented -– offer a kosher version of a national brand of food. At the time, it was a revolutionary idea.
Nonetheless, America’s Jewish community was growing in size and prosperity, and Heinz saw an opportunity to reach this untapped market. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the nonprofit supervising agency, devised the first and still most-recognized graphical symbol of kosher supervision, the OU, to place on the Heinz Vegetarian Baked Bean label to alert knowing customers that it was kosher. Thus was born a new industry -– kosher certification.
For a long time, the number of kosher-supervised products remained relatively small. The situation changed in 1981 when Entenmann’s bakery placed its entire line under kosher supervision. The response went beyond the Jewish demographics and the company’s expectations. This pointed out a previously little-recognized phenomenon: The impact of kosher symbols reached well beyond the Jewish community. A kosher product generally has a competitive commercial edge over a non-kosher rival.
Also at that time, manufacturers began to insist on kosher tanker trucks, which hauled most of the essential liquid ingredients in prepared foods, including oils and corn syrup. This meant that suddenly almost any product could be easily converted to kosher. By 1987, the year of the first kosher show held in Manhattan at the Javits Center, there were an unprecedented 16,000 packaged items under kosher supervision. In 2010, the number of kosher products sold in the U.S. topped 110,000.
There is, of course a difference, between kosher food and Jewish food. Kosher foods are items under kosher supervision, while Jewish foods are dishes entailing a special significance to the Jewish community. Jewish food is both local and global, the product of the culture and kitchens of the mosaic of Jewish communities across the globe.
There is a unique Jewish role in world cuisine. It is not so much innovation, but transformation and transmission. Historically, Jews have adopted local dishes, frequently adapting them to Jewish tastes and lifestyles, and then helped transmit these foods from one area to another. The English word seltzer comes through the Yiddish, because of the Jewish role in popularizing carbonated water in America. Jews may not have invented doughnuts, but they brought them to the mainstream and popularized them by creating the first doughnut machines and doughnut franchises. Jews did not invent the Middle Eastern hummus, falafel, and pita, but did spread them to the West and, therefore, they became associated with Israel. It was also in Israel, where we have the first record of putting falafel into pita as a sandwich.
There is also yogurt. Jews did not invent yogurt, but one Jewish family in particular was instrumental in transforming it from an obscure ethnic food into an international standard. Isaac Carasso, a Sephardic doctor born in Salonika, Greece, first sold yogurt commercially, naming the company after his son’s nickname, Danone. It was Daniel Carasso, who just died last year at the age of 103, after arriving in the U.S. during World War II, who first sold yogurt in disposable cups and added flavorings. Before the 1960s, very few Americans had ever heard of yogurt. After Dannon’s marketing campaign, in a few short years, yogurt became ubiquitous to America. This process of transmission is repeated over and over. Thus kosher foods become Jewish foods, while Jewish foods become mainstream.
For decades, I spent much time reading about and discussing with individuals from various Jewish communities their perspectives on their culture and foods. I am always on the lookout for a new dish or even a variation of a common one. I started with family and friends, then branched out to anyone who would share. I spent a good deal of time in New York and Israel, the principal areas where representatives from the mosaic of Jewish communities from across the globe can be found. When I meet a new person, who says, “I’m a Libyan Jew or my parents were from Afghanistan,” I think, “I’d really like to meet your mother.” Mothers and grandmothers are the best resources for traditional foods.
Some people love to share their heritage and its foods, while others are a bit more reticent. Some housewives have precise recipes, while others cook by feel -— “a pinch of this and a handful of that” — requiring my measuring the handful or cupful of ingredients to achieve accurate quantities. I received a recipe for melawah (Yemenite flaky bread) and did not like the result and went looking for others. There was a period of two or three weeks when I was making different recipes for melawah every day or so. I had it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The result was the most authentic, accurate, flavorful, and appropriate melawah for the American kitchen.
In 1986 when I launched Kosher Gourmet magazine, I started amassing in my computer every relevant recipe as well as food information coming my way. I wanted to use this data in a reference book on food, but was unsure of when or how. Then in 2007, my editor at John Wiley & Sons, Linda Ingroia, and I were discussing the follow-up to our previous successful collaboration, Olive Trees and Honey, and she suggested, “You’re a walking encyclopedia of food, so how about doing an actual encyclopedia on Jewish food?” This was a dream assignment. So I began checking my information for accuracy — there are so many bubbe meises (old wives’ tales) about food out there — and expanding and organizing it into an A- to- Z work exploring traditional foodstuffs and traditions from the various Jewish communities.
The hardest part was reducing everything into a single manageable volume, while maintaining its comprehensiveness, richness, and relevancy. I choose those things that I consider the most representative, meaningful, and pertinent. I tried to include those items held dear and of particular cultural and culinary significance. Some of the items are obvious, such as bagels, knishes and rugelach, while the Jewish connection to others is more obscure.
I strove to provide adequate space for the mosaic of Jewish communities across the globe. I could have done several books on recipes alone, but was only able to include about 300 and without the variations for which I am known. A particular dish is present for its historical or sociological relevance and a corresponding recipe is attached to illuminate the entry. I wanted these foods to provide a sense of an individual Jewish community and its history, cuisine, and mindset. As a whole, I wanted the Encyclopedia to tell the story of the Jewish people.
In September 2010, Wiley published Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, consisting of more than 650 entries in nearly 700 pages. A few are only brief explanations, most consist of about a page in length, while a number of important topics, like matzah, challah, and Sabbath stews, cover several pages and sometimes several entries. The entries cover the history, etymology, and cultural and religious significance of a multitude of foods and dishes from across the globe. I was also able to include entries on various Jewish holidays and rituals and their related food traditions. There are certainly omissions and even perhaps mistakes in the Encyclopedia, so if anyone has any additional information or dishes, please let me know at .
To be sure, today more Jews eat sushi and salsa, which are not Jewish foods, than schmaltz and shlishkes, which are. Jewish food is not merely food that Jews eat. Certain things, certain foods “feel” Jewish. Why? Certainly, it involves their use by Jews. Yet more than that, certain foods become enmeshed in Jewish life, culture, and identity. It is food in a way sanctified by its use on the Sabbath, holidays, or other Jewish occasions. Without sounding too much like Fiddler on the Roof, it is tradition.
An author, rabbi, historian, social worker, and chef, Gil Marks is a leading authority on culinary subjects in general and Jewish cuisine in particular. Among his published books are Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (Wiley: 2010), James Beard Award-winning Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World (Wiley 2004), and James Beard Award finalist The World of Jewish Cooking (Simon & Schuster, 1996).Marks maintains a website at gilmarks.com and blog at gilmarks.com/wordpress.