A Highly Debatable List
From the publisher:
With contributions from Ruth Reichl, Éric Ripert, Joan Nathan, Michael Solomonov, Dan Barber, Yotam Ottolenghi, Tom Colicchio, Maira Kalman, Melissa Clark, and many more!
Tablet’s list of the 100 most Jewish foods is not about the most popular Jewish foods, or the tastiest, or even the most enduring. It’s a list of the most significant foods culturally and historically to the Jewish people, explored deeply with essays, recipes, stories, and context. Some of the dishes are no longer cooked at home, and some are not even dishes in the traditional sense (store-bought cereal and Stella D’oro cookies, for example). The entire list is up for debate, which is what makes this book so much fun. Many of the foods are delicious (such as babka and shakshuka). Others make us wonder how they’ve survived as long as they have (such as unhatched chicken eggs and jellied calves’ feet). As expected, many Jewish (and now universal) favorites like matzo balls, pickles, cheesecake, blintzes, and chopped liver make the list. The recipes are global and represent all contingencies of the Jewish experience. Contributors include Ruth Reichl, Éric Ripert, Joan Nathan, Michael Solomonov, Dan Barber, Gail Simmons, Yotam Ottolenghi, Tom Colicchio, Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, Maira Kalman, Action Bronson, Daphne Merkin, Shalom Auslander, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and Phil Rosenthal, among many others. Presented in a gifty package, The 100 Most Jewish Foods is the perfect book to dip into, quote from, cook from, and launch a spirited debate.
Since tonight is the first night of Passover, this seemed like a good opportunity to talk about this book. And it is a book that is begging to be discussed. Maybe not with your book group, unless it is a predominantly Jewish book group, because really, no one else is going to care. But if you belong to a synagogue, sisterhood, Hadassah, or JCC type book group, bring it on!
Alana Newhouse is the editor-in-chief of Tablet magazine. They had posted just the list of foods online and the response was quick and passionate. Thus this book was born. Just FYI, I did not get the “gifty package” of this book; the publisher sent me the advanced reader copy which is a paperback and missing things like page numbers. But all the important stuff is there, certainly more than enough upon which to base this review.
Each food is discussed by a different author and while not all are Jewish, I would say most are. I didn’t know who most of these authors were, but there is a lovely “About the Contributors” section in the back of the book. Sprinkled in among the Jewish names I didn’t know are celebrity/TV chefs like Marcus Samuelsson, Eric Ripert, and Dan Barber; famous Jewish foodies and cookbook authors like Ruth Reichl, Joan Nathan, and Gail Simmons, and Jewish notables like the always-in-my-heart-West-Wing (but many, many other productions,) actor Joshua Malina, fashion designer Zac Posen, and the creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond” and star of Netflix’s “Somebody Feed Phil,” Phil Rosenthal. It is a fairly homogeneous group, and that is to be expected.
Each food is discussed and there are several recipes as well. Some are definitely controversial – let’s start with the obvious, bacon, but also Chinese food, and sushi. All right, it is “Kosher Sushi” so I’ll give it a pass.
I learned stuff, too, which is always a plus. Stella D’oro Swiss Fudge Cookies make an appearance in a piece written by Ian Frazier (who I know from his writing at The New Yorker). Silly me, I always assumed that Stella D’oro cookies were Italian, and the company was founded by the Zambetti family. But it was based in the Bronx in the 1930’s, in a very Jewish (80% he claims) neighborhood and they made cookies that did not contain dairy, thus rendering them pareve, and kosher. When the family sold the business to Kraft, they decided leaving out dairy was too expensive so they put it back in, lost the “pareve” label and sales plummeted. They went back to the original recipe, sold the company, strikes happened, they moved from the Bronx to Ashland, Ohio, and are still there. I loved the last line of this essay: “That the Swiss Fudge Cookie has its own story of suffering, exile, and survival makes it even more Jewish, I believe.” I believe, too.
All the usual suspects are here: lox, babka, chopped liver, schmaltz (and gribenes!), matzo, gefilte fish, challah, Hebrew National hot dogs, etc. And by usual, I mean Ashkenazic Jewish foods, the foods of my childhood, my life. But the Sephardim are also represented by pomegranate, Yemenite bread and soup, carciofi alla Giudia and more.
There is a lot of knowledge here but also a lot of laughs. This was also a nostalgic read, in a way, since a lot of these foods have disappeared from my life. I haven’t had kreplach since my grandmother died when I was a child. But I’ll be having matzo, chicken soup with matzo balls, charoset, chopped liver, macaroons, sponge cake and more tonight.
For all my Jewish readers, I wish you a joyous Passover!
4/19 Stacy Alesi AKA the BookBitch™
THE 100 MOST JEWISH FOODS by Alana Newhouse. Artisan (March 19, 2019). ISBN: 978-1579659066. 256p.