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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Kosher Style Soul Food Shaah Tovah 2010


By Debbie Shapiro

Years ago, my husband came home with a surprise package in honor of my birthday – a brand new hot-off-the-press Jewish cookbook (I guess he was sick of hotdogs and noodles). As I started leafing through the book, my mouth was watering at the full page colored pictures of knishes and blintzes, cocosh cake and kreplach. But then I looked through reading the list of recipes and almost fell of my chair when I discovered pickled lobster tails and jellied pigs' feet. Closer examination showed that this was a Jewish "kosher style" cookbook, and, as I quickly learned, kosher style has nothing to do with kosher.

Actually, kosher style is a term that defies definition. A San Francisco based Jewish group defines it as “vegetarian and fish – but with no Kashruth supervision”. The New York Times columnist Ed Levine describes Kosher Style Hot dogs as, “all beef with a lot of spices, but they have a natural casing, these days made from sheep's intestines” – yet there are several "kosher style" restaurants that sell hotdogs made from pork, and, as I discovered from that cook book, kosher style jellied pigs' feet.

On the other hand, it's possible to purchase bonafide glatt kosher imitation bacon bits that, although made of processed soybean infused with hickory-smoke flavoring supposedly taste exactly like the real thing. And I once ate in a Miami restaurant that specialized in glatt kosher cheese burgers, made from parveh hamburger and parveh cheese! 

So if imitation bacon and parveh cheese burgers are kosher, what in the world is "kosher style?"

Although there is no one definition of what makes a food "kosher style," one thing I can definitely assure you is that kosher style does not mean that the food is kosher. To some, it means traditional Ashkenazi dishes like stuffed cabbage and gefilte fish while to others it's translated as refraining from eating pork and shell fish and separating meat and dairy.


Believe it or not, many non-religious Jews actually believe that to make something kosher, a rabbi with a long grey beard ans a shabby black coat must enter the factory to give his blessings, and that's it! They have no idea of the complexities involved in certifying the kashruth of food. And since they don't believe in what they usually refer to as "all that garbage" (and to tell you the truth, neither do I – at least not in the power of mythical rabbis to bless my food to make it kosher!) then why bother limiting their gastronomical choices by keeping to the laws of kashrus?  But kosher style, that's different. It's the "taam" the "geshmak" of the Yiddishe foods they associate with Bubby and Zaidy. It's the warmth of a large family Seder and the joy of Chanukah, expressed in traditional delicacies like sizzling latkes, bagels and lox, gefilte fish with chrein and piping hot matzah ball soup. It's the melody without the song.


What can be more Jewish than bagel and lox? But although bagels and lox is considered a traditional Jewish food, it's humble origins began in Poland, where, as early as the late fifteen hundreds, it was customarily eaten in honor of the Christian Lent. Jews started making them on motzaei Shabbos since, compared to other breads, they cn be baked quickly.
It is unclear exactly when bagels were introduced to the American palate, but by the year 1900 the Lower East Side boasted seventy bagel bakeries. In 1907 the International Beigel Bakers' Union was created and from then on monopolized bagel production in New York City. With such a large Jewish immigrant population, there were plenty of buyers!

In the early 1950s, the popular magazine, Family Circle, introduced bagels to the greater American palate when the included a recipe of how to make them. The recipe was introduced with, "Stumped for the Hors d'oeuvres Ideas? Here's a grand one from Fannie Engle."
So how did bagels become paired with lox and cream cheese? And why is it that so many Jewish families view it as the traditional Sunday morning breakfast? Just as an elaborate Chanukah celebration replete with eight days of gift-giving became the American response to December 25, a traditional Sunday morning bagels, lox and cream cheese brunch was the alternative to the other Sunday trilogy of bacon, eggs and toast. The concoction became popular thanks to Joseph Kraft's advertising blitz for Philadelphia Cream Cheese, which was, and still is, certified kosher.
Although today everyone, Jews and gentile, are familiar with bagels and they are sold at all supermarkets, it wasn't always that way.  In his article, A Short History of the Bagel, Joan Nathan writes, "In 1946, my father had a feeling that the neighbors living behind us were Jewish. In those days, you didn't broadcast your religion, so he devised a plan that would reveal their cultural background. We would go to the Bronx and bring back some bagels. If our neighbors knew what the rolls were, they were Jewish. If they stared at them in bewilderment, we would know they were not. To my father's delight, as soon as our neighbors saw the bagels, they recognized them."

Friday night, our guest, a young not-yet-religious college student stared in amazement as I served the gefilte fish and chrein followed by fresh chicken soup with matzah balls. "Why, this is just like our Passover Seder!" he exclaimed. "Once a year we eat Jewish."

So what's the story behind the gefilte?
Way back before the refrigerator was invented in 1803, keeping fish fresh over Shabbos was a real challenge, which, according to some historians, is the reason gefilte fish became a traditional Shabbos food – the secret is in the chopped onions that kept the fish from spoiling. Most historians, however, assume that the recipe was created as a response to the problem of borer on Shabbos, after all, with no bones to pick, no one would inadvertently transgress that prohibition. And then, of course, with the addition of carrots, onions, bread crumbs and eggs, a little fish could go a long way, which, for the typical impoverished Jewish homemaker of Eastern and Central Europe, was a big boon.
Each country developed its own unique flavor of gefilte fish. Poland became famous for its sweet sugary balls, while Lithuanians preferred their patties with pepper and horseradish. Before the advent of food processor, making the fish was time consuming – I still remember purchasing fresh carp, grinding it with a hand grinder, grating the onions and carrots to add to it, and then, after adding the eggs and bread crumbs, beating the mixture until my arm ached.

Today, most stores sell ground fish, and most people own a food processor, which drastically cuts down the time it takes to prepare the fish. Yet, there is such an aura about making the "right mixture" that many people purchase the ready made varieties. Thanks to a mass marketing campaign Americans were convinced that the industrially designed concealed balls sold on the supermarket shelf were replicas of Bubby's fish, making store bought gefilte fish the quintessential Jewish holiday item.

By the 1950s, The Jewish Home Beautiful, a popular book published by the Women's league of the United Synagogue of America called, gefilte fish "the Jewish national dish" and on October 20, 1954, the Jewish community proudly celebrated the 300th anniversary of its arrival in America by serving gefilte fish to the guest of honor at a New York celebration, President Dwight Eisenhower. 


One of the women interviewed for my book "Women Talk" commented that although she appreciated the whole philosophy of Yiddishkeit and thought Judaism to be beautiful, it was the chulent that really made her become frum. "It's Jewish soul food; real Jewish soul food," she explained

The encyclopedia defines chulent as "a traditional Jewish stew simmered overnight, for 12 hours or more, and eaten for lunch on Shabbat. It was developed over the centuries to conform with Jewish religious laws that prohibit cooking on the Sabbath. The pot is brought to boil on Friday before the Sabbath begins, and kept on a blech or hotplate, or placed in a slow oven or electric slow cooker until the following day."
Whether called chulent or chamin, both Ashkenazi and Sefardi eat it for Shabbos lunch. But although chulent is the universally accepted traditional Shabbos food, most "gastronomic Jews" never heard of it.  On the other hand, even Israeli non-religious Jews traditionally eat it for Shabbos lunch.

Years ago, a relative of ours told us the following story about chulent: In the early seventies, a newly religious family residing in Santa Barbara, California, was making a bar mitzvah for their oldest son. Since their extended family was not religious, to prevent chillul Shabbos they hosted the extended family in a motel for the entire Shabbos. They consulted with Rav Simcha Wasserman about every detail of the affair. Each time the gadol spoke with them, he concluded the conversation with "Don't forget to serve the chulent."
The truth is, the family was a bit wary at the idea of serving such simple fare to their elegant guests. Would their relatives' sophisticated palates appreciate beans and barley? But the Rav was adamant, so the bar mitzvah boy's mother, Channie, prepared a chulent to be served after the gefilte fish, just like she did every week.

Shabbos lunch, as the entire family was sitting around the table enjoying each other's company, Channie entered the dining room and set a huge tureen of piping hot chulent on the table. At just that moment, her husband's elderly aunt, a holocaust survivor, jumped up, quickly excused herself from the table and raced out of the room. Her husband ran after her.

It was several hours before the couple returned. And when they did, they had an amazing story to tell, one that the guests will never forget

"As you all know," the elderly aunt began, "I remember nothing of my life before the war. As much as I've tried, I can't recall anything prior to Auschwitz. I have no roots, no memories. I don't know who my parents were, if I had any brothers or sisters, where I came from. Nothing. Today, however, I received it back as a gift."

The family sat in stunned silence, waiting for her to continue.

"It was the smell of that chulent that did it. When Channie placed that tureen of hot chulent on the table, I felt myself propelled back in time. Suddenly, I remembered myself as a teenager, sitting at the Shabbos table with my parents, my older sister and my two younger brothers. My mother had just placed the tureen of chulent on the table when there was loud banging at the door. Hungarian gendarmes entered our dining room and ordered us to run out to the truck waiting outside. We were taken directly to the train station and shipped to Auschwitz. My mother, my sister, my two younger brothers, they were all sent to the left. I was the only one to survive. Now, all of a sudden, I remember them. I remember my home, my family, my roots. Thanks to your chulent, Channie," she looked directly at the mother of the bar mitzvah boy, "I now have a past." The elderly aunt and her husband eventually became Torah observant Jews.

And if that aint Jewish soul food, well, what is?

Q: What kind of cigarettes do Jewish mothers smoke?
A: Gefiltered.




Lacking fins or tail
The gefilte fish swims with
Great difficulty.


The famous German poet, Heinrich Heine, wrote a lengthy poem extolling the virtues of chulent. One of the verses read (translation by Meir Marum Bernet);
Schalent is the True God's
Kosher ambrosia
blissful bread of Heaven.
Compared with such a fare . . . .

Remember the kosher song?

All the animals that I eat
Must chew their cud and have split feet
Oh kosher food just can't be beat
So throw away your ham!

Throw away your ham and bacon
I won't eat it, you're mistaken
I'm a Jew and I'm not fakin'
I eat only kosher.

So every time you're in the market
Buy only food with a kosher sign on it
It's good for you and it's good for me and
Whatdya' know, Hashem loves it too….


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