The Jew And The Carrot

What Our Cookbooks Tell Us About Being Jewish

By Devra Ferst

  • Print
  • Share Share
Nate Lavey

I have often wondered what would happen if I was able to meet the matriarchs and patriarchs of Jewish food in one place. In my mind, I imagine a council of dignified cooks, cookbook authors, culinary historians and restaurant critics, some donning aprons and carrying wooden spoons, others carrying historic Jewish cookbooks, all passionately debating the best Jewish food. In this dream, there’s smorgasbord of global Jewish food.

In reality, when five of the major thinkers in Jewish food gathered to speak at the Roger Smith Hotel Cookbook Conference’s panel “Eat and Be Satisfied: Jewish Cookbooks, Past Present and Future” last Friday the situation wasn’t terribly different from what I had imagined — minus the smorgasbord and aprons. Cookbook authors Gil Marks and Joan Nathan were joined by historian Jenna Weissman Joselit and James Beard Foundation VP, Mitchell Davis for a series of mini-lectures moderated by food historian and writer Cara De Silva.

The heated debate about Jewish food and its origins was as lively as I had dreamed. Each talk focused on Jewish cookbooks in one way or another and while the topics ranged from Nathan’s lecture on French Jewish cuisine to a discussion of recipe contests in the 1920’s and ‘30’s given by Weissman Joselit, each of the speakers came back to the same key point: Cookbooks are not simply for cooking. “Cookbooks are cultural artifacts… They’re a reflection of a moment in time more than a manual,” as Davis put it.

“A good cookbook tells a story,” explained Marks. Using the editions of the “Settlement Cookbook”, as an example, he traced a movement of early 20th century Jewish immigrants away from culinary and religious isolation towards assimilation. Historic French Jewish cookbooks and recipes show a movement of Jews from Alsace westward into France, Nathan noted. More than 20 cookbooks were named during the conversation, each one illuminating a fragment of Jewish culinary thought as well as larger Jewish cultural currents that existed when they were published.

In my dreams, I’m permitted to ask this council of Jewish culinary experts a single question. So here it was: What culinary moment will contemporary Jewish cookbooks (and those in the coming years) capture? The question is nearly impossible to answer, as more and more people “return to the kitchen,” and as a wider variety of more Jewish restaurants — like the Bay Area’s Kitchen Table, New York’s Kutsher’s and D.C.’s Sixth and Rye — open, all representing different voices in the culinary scene. But the experts didn’t disappoint.

The books will display “a playfulness and irreverence,” similar to the approach to food at the new Kutsher’s, said Weissman Joselit. Nathan interjected that they will also capture a search for authentic flavors, pointing to chefs who are traveling the globe in search of the roots of Jewish dishes. There’s a “search for novelty and authenticity at the same time,” Weissman Joselit told me after the event. For many Jewish chefs and cooks, we are caught between these two ideas — wanting to preserve authentic flavor, but hoping to have some fun with it by making it our own too.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Roger Smith Cookbook Conference, Jenna Weissman Joselit, Joan Nathan, Gil Marks, Mitchell Davis

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • This 007 hates guns, drives a Prius, and oh yeah — goes to shul with Scarlett Johansson's dad.
  • Meet Alvin Wong. He's the happiest man in America — and an observant Jew. The key to happiness? "Humility."
  • "My first bra was a training bra, a sports bra that gave the illusion of a flat chest."
  • "If the people of Rwanda can heal their broken hearts and accept the Other as human, so can we."
  • Aribert Heim, the "Butcher of Mauthausen," died a free man. How did he escape justice?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.