Ashkenazi (eastern European) Jewish food goes through phases of trendiness in America, and it’s coming around again.
When I was about twelve, in the mid-1970s, The Jewish Catalog by Richard Siegel and Michael and Sharon Strassfeld sparked a renaissance of enthusiasm among younger and non-Orthodox Jews for everything from Israeli dance to Hebrew calligraphy to tying the knots correctly on the corners of a prayer shawl (the early 1970s was not just the “me decade,” it was also the era of macrame). Siegel and the Strassfelds took a DIY approach to creating a full Jewish life outside the shtetl. They made it hip, interesting and fun to observe Shabbat, understand the holidays, gather friends to plant trees, bless the sun and the new moon, cast bread on the waters, pen your own Hebrew inscriptions, and make–and of course blow–your own shofar. The book quickly became a top bar and bat mitzvah gift and influenced not only the way our synagogues practiced and our religious schools taught children but how young adults, affiliated or not, felt about being Jewish in public. Everything became more hands-on and more celebratory.
What would a Jewish DIY catalog be without food? The diagrams for how to braid challah in three, four or six strand loaves were unprecedented. So were the cartoons, which leavened everything but the homemade matzah. Cartoon matzah balls flirted at the edge of the bowl before diving in, one of them tipping his kreplach hat. A man up to his armpits in a garbage can full of grapes asks if this is really the way zaydeh (Grandpa) made his Shabbos wine, and another explains ruefully to his girlfriend that he thought more yeast would make the challah lighter, not more aggressive, as it overflows the bowl and oozes toward his foot.
The Catalog also introduced a lot of people to their first taste of Israeli and Sephardi food–felafel and hummus recipes were included alongside the chicken soup and cholent, even though they were admittedly limited to ingredients most people could find in a suburban supermarket in the mid-’70s.
All in all, The Jewish Catalog set a very high bar and is still something of a classic.
By the mid-1990s, though, bagels were mainstream American food and very different from the real, crackle-crusted deal. Rye bread was soft and bland and delis were dying. Meanwhile, Sephardi and Mizrahi food were becoming more familiar and more popular in the US and UK. Prepared hummus started appearing in supermarket refrigerated cases along with spinach-artichoke party dips. Hummus from scratch started requiring dried chickpeas, not canned.
In the past few years, delis have been making a comeback–though mostly not kosher ones–and so has traditional Ashkenazi baking, though mostly via cookbooks. Kosher and otherwise Jewish cookbooks of every culinary stripe have been churning out of the big publishing houses, and Jewish authors are prominent in vegetarian and vegan cooking as well. We’re in the midst of another DIY Jewish renaissance–though more foodie- than observance-oriented.
The Gefilte Manifesto is one of the newest and possibly best of the books from a new generation of Jewish food artisans and restaurateurs, and it manages to capture some of the spirit of The Jewish Catalog.
Authors Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a pickle maker and fermentation enthusiast, and Liz Alpern, a former aide to Joan Nathan, own and operate the Gefilteria, a millenial-style craft food business based on their gefilte fish and accompaniments. It currently combines a line of frozen gefilte fish loaves and jarred condiments with direct sales at farmer’s markets and pop-up catered events in several cities around the country.
This book is the product of that collaboration, and it’s remarkable this year not least because its authors actually respect the traditional Ashkenazi foodways they’re representing. There’s no braggadocio (eep! hints of 3 pounds of bologna on white bread! sorry!) and no slavishness toward food glam, or what the Los Angeles Jewish Journal likes to call “foodie-ism.” They keep the recipes kosher and avoid the temptation (such as it is) to add tired treyf tropes like bacon or shrimp (although they do have some kimchi-infused recipes). Instead, they refresh the classics by making them fresh, with real ingredients and good technique.
Gefilte fish becomes an elegant terrine with herbs or smoked whitefish (the authors’ limited-distribution frozen signature gefilte loaf, featuring a whitefish base and a pink salmon top layer, is also pictured in a picnic shot but not given a recipe in the book). Horseradish gets a citrusy twist, and pickles range from classic half-sour dills to cardamom-spiked pickled grapes. Soups–mushroom barley, borscht for those who like it (I unfortunately never have, except for the color), chicken, blueberry, and an unusual one–zurek, an unusual Polish soup based on rye sour starter. Kreplach–Jewish ravioli–join pieroshki and include both meat and vegetarian fillings.
Yoskowitz and Alpern update cholent, brisket, chicken and tsimmes. They show you how to cure your own corned beef and pastrami, work out gribenes and knishes, and offer a selection of desserts both traditional–rugelach–and not so traditional, as in beet-chocolate ice cream.
DIY pantry items like homemade sour cream and farmer cheese, spicy mustard, wine vinegar and “everything” butter join fresh salads and breads and several varieties of pickled herring or trout. Drinks include beet kvass–there’s a general direction toward fermentation, one of Yoskowitz’s specialties–and flavored syrups for nostalgia sodas along the lines of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray and Cream sodas.
The book isn’t comprehensive but exploratory. Yoskowitz and Alpern trade cooking and tasting notes, childhood and family memories, and their experiences discovering and recreating Ashkenazi foods they didn’t necessarily grow up with. Along the way they adapt recipes and refer readers to a number of other Jewish cookbooks and authors whose ideas and food they’ve liked.
The results are attractive, modern, humorous and appetizing. Except perhaps for the shot of the two of them grating horseradish–and wearing safety goggles and kerchiefs soaked in vinegar or, as Alpern puts it, “classic protest gear.” Altogether, a Jewish Catalog-worthy production.
Yoskowitz and Alpern are touring the country this fall to promote The Gefilte Manifesto. Locally they’re staging a couple of tasting events across Los Angeles in early November and will appear at the San Diego Jewish Book Fair.