BOOK REVIEW: ‘From the Jewish Heartland’
Sometimes a book jacket has the perfect illustration and this is one of them. Pictured there is the traditional Jewish candelabra for the Hanukkah festival, only instead of nine candles filling it, there are nine ears of golden corn. What a perfect substitution that is, using the very symbol of the Midwest’s agricultural bounty as a link with Jewish tradition. And how appropriate for this highly informed and informative book by two Illinois anthropologists that shows just how important the region was in developing American Jewish cuisine.
Most Americans associate distinctively Jewish food with New York or with the other port cities along the eastern seaboard that were settled by Jews as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries. But as Ellen Steinberg and Jack Prost tell us, its roots in the Midwest go back further than many might guess. There’s a plaque to one Ezekiel Solomon in Mackinaw City, Mich., commemorating his arrival in 1761 and throughout the 1800s, Jews settled in the heartland of the North American continent. Many things drew them there, economic opportunity, homesteading, fine soil for agriculture and above all the bounty that it produced. And, as the authors point out, while other immigrant groups maintained a national tradition based on where they hailed from, Jews defined their culinary heritage, along with so much else in their culture, according to a religious one:
“The dishes these immigrants from Eastern Europe prepared and ate were the ones that bound them to their faith, enforcing and strengthening their relationship with the Almighty and each other, and were an expression of ‘Volksgeist’ (group spirit). Indeed, their foodways were tied up with traditions, anchored to a ritual calendar, and governed by rules and regulations.”
Ms. Steinberg and Mr. Prost examine a variety of primary and secondary sources to illuminate the effect on this cuisine of the circumstances that were so different from those that they obtained back in Europe, from utilizing the ubiquitous corn to developments in technology such as refrigeration. Still, one sees lingering effects even after innovation has rendered them less vital, for instance the taste for cured and pickled meats like corned beef and tongue and pastrami, so necessary as a way of preservation before iceboxes and refrigerators could be relied on to stop fresh meat from spoiling.
And despite the preponderance of a religion-based ethnic culture, national differences based on the differing homelands of individual Jewish settlers inevitably cropped up. The authors have a keen eye for spotting subtle touches, noting for instance the presence of an unexpected dash of sugar in a recipe as evidence of Polish influence, and showing how Lithuanian Jewish food differed from the Hungarian variety. The book is crammed with reminiscences - and recipes - to illustrate all this.
One of the fascinating features of a book like this is the way it not only introduces us to a slice of the past but shows how some of the things we think cutting edge now are repeating what took place a century or so back. Those food trucks purveying ethnic cuisines on our city streets echo the “mobile merchants” described in this book. Peddlers brought back from the country all manner of produce they had obtained there and sold it all over the city, just as they had taken merchandise from the city out into the country where there were customers eager to buy it since what stores there were out there offered a more limited stock.
And they were inventive with what they brought back: hot dogs sizzled on improvised grills, corn transformed into popcorn and fruit into distinctive homemade candy plus ice creams and shaved ice snowballs. As the authors note, “These mobile merchants moved through their neighborhoods and beyond, meeting the desires and needs of their customers, linking countryside to city, and in so doing, helped shape Midwestern Jewish-American life and foodways.”
Of course, this dynamic was going on in other regions of the country, but the authors make a convincing case for the Midwest being the crucible for such enterprise. And certainly it fanned out across the United States, influencing and forming tastes all over.
Take, for instance the renowned “Settlement Cook Book,” which had its origins in the National Council of Jewish Womens Sisterhood of Service that served the under-privileged Jews of Milwaukees Haymarket neighborhood. “The first edition … contained 24 cooking lessons and 500 heirloom … recipes, and came out in 1901.”
“This early 20th-century book changed forever the way multiple generations of Jewish immigrants cooked by demonstrating how American ingredients could be incorporated into traditional Jewish dishes, and by showing how American ways of cooking could be applied to Old World foods to make them ‘more palatable’ and healthier. For the Eastern European Jewish women, it became an introduction to American life and the American kitchen. For many Jews today, it is THE Jewish cookbook. In fact, when we were soliciting heirloom recipes from women in Michigan and Wisconsin, they told us they still use ‘The Settlement Cook Book.’ “
After delighting in the myriad tastes and traditions of Midwestern Jewry summoned up by this evocative book, readers will be much less likely reflexively to think New York when they encounter the delightsofthe delicatessen or savor a traditional Sabbath or other Jewish holiday dinner.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
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