Charting melting-pot effects on Jewish foods in America

March 23, 1994|By Gail Forman | Gail Forman,Special to The Sun

A gently self-mocking but telling anecdote that illustrates how fully Jewish food traditions have merged with mainstream American life relates how immigrants enjoy bagels and lox and a glass of tea for breakfast, first generation Jewish Americans have their bagels and lox with coffee, the second generation drinks espresso with the bagels and the third generation eats a ** croissant with cappuccino.

The story of that culinary assimilation is the subject of the just-published "Jewish Cooking in America" (Knopf, $30) by Washington culinary historian Joan Nathan. "Second generation Jews tend to get away from Jewish food," she explained during a recent interview. "And everything got bigger: Think of bagels. Cheesecake got richer. And things changed. There's jalapeno jelly rugelach."

As the author of "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen," "The Children's Jewish Holiday Kitchen" and "The Flavor of Jerusalem," Ms. Nathan knew quite a bit about Jewish history at the outset, yet she marvels at how much new information she learned from her '' most recent research.

What she found most interesting, she says, is that the history of Jewish cooking in the United States "really is the history of American immigration. It's not just recipes." For this reason, Ms. Nathan says, she does not "treat recipes as isolated phenomena. Each one has a story that connects it historically and culturally to its Jewish past." Since the book contains more ++ than 300 recipes, that's a lot of history.

And she has structured the book, which is enhanced with marvelous old black-and-white photographs, so that in each chapter recipes go from the oldest and most traditional to the contemporary. Stories flow effortlessly from the wonderment of new arrivals at the turn of the century to an analysis of how the marketing of vegetable shortening and ready-made kosher products in the 1910s affected Jewish cooking to the influences of American regional ingredients on traditional dishes. And each chapter interweaves stories of the many cultures that make up American Jewry.

Nearly 6 million Jews live in the United States, so Ms. Nathan considers America the culinary center of the Diaspora. As she traveled and collected recipes from all over the country, she met Jews whose families came from all over the world and whose backgrounds form a microcosm of the chronology of Jews in America.

A variety of cultures

Her book reflects the culinary history of these wandering Jews, from the Sephardim (descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in the same year Columbus "discovered" America) who came here in the 17th century to the German Jews who followed in the 19th century to the Jews from Eastern Europe who immigrated at the turn of the century to the Asian and Russian Jews who

have sought refuge in the United States more recently.

Since Jews usually adopted the local culture no matter where they lived, Ms. Nathan says, and "because they have lived in so many places, there is no 'Jewish' food other than matzo; charoset (the Passover spread); or cholent or chamim the Sabbath stews)."

Still, to most Americans today, Jewish food is the food of Poland and Russia, according to Ms. Nathan. That's because more than two-thirds of American Jews have roots in those and nearby countries. And that's why most people think of "Jewish food" as bagels and lox, rye bread, gefilte fish, pickled herring, kasha, knishes, kugels and latkes. But almond puddings, egg custards, bean stews, hummus, burekas, falafel and ceviche are just as "Jewish."

Ms. Nathan got her recipes from such sources as old cookbooks and other printed materials, letters, journals and interviews with people all over the United States, including "the oldest Sephardic family in New York." Francis Lazatto of Chevy Chase found his Italian-Jewish mother's recipe for spinach pasta, and chef Roberto Donna of Washington's Galileo restaurant helped Ms. Nathan figure out how to make it. And Helen Coplan, of Baltimore, contributed a "wonderful" recipe for shortcut strudel.

With the Passover holiday on her mind, Ms. Nathan particularly recalls 95-year-old Isabelle Wile Goldman of Shreveport, La., who showed her how to make Passover fish with caper sauce, originally an Alsatian recipe made hotter with cayenne pepper.

Rockville caterer Sue Fischer shared her recipe for the farfel pilaf she served for Seder last year at the White House, the first ever held there. And from the owner of Cafe Crocodile in New York, a Greek Jew who lived in Egypt, Ms. Nathan got one of her favorites, a recipe for Passover fig cake.

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