Moment Magazine asked 18 experts “Is There a Secret Ingredient in the Jewish Relationship with Food?” in their latest issue — and got some fascinating answers. Below are three of them and we’ll post three more in the coming days with permission from the magazine. We want to hear what you think. Share your thoughts in the comments.
There is no way you can practice Judaism religiously or culturally without food. Food has been intrinsic to Jewish ritual, life and culture from the outset. What is the very first act that the Israelites in Egypt are commanded to do? It’s to have a communal meal—roast lamb and herbs, some nice shwarma. And with that, the beginning of the Jewish people is through a meal. The famous joke—“They tried to kill us, we won, now let’s eat”—is not really that far from the truth. Within the Jewish legal framework is an understanding that various rituals are accompanied by a seudat mitzvah, or celebratory meal, whether a bris or a baby naming or a bar mitzvah or a wedding. Any sort of life cycle event is accompanied by a seudat mitzvah. Some foods are almost sanctified by their use in these meals or holidays and rituals. So food that may have not been Jewish at one point can become Jewish. Chicken soup, for example, became very popular after a meat shortage after the Black Death, leading Europe to become a chicken-raising culture. Simultaneously, Italian Jews introduced noodles to the Franco-German Jews, and chicken soup with frimzel, or egg noodles, became standard. But then what do you do on Pesach when you can’t have egg noodles—the matzoh ball or knaidel emerges. You can see the continuing adaptation that created the cultural Jewish gastronomy.
Gil Marks is a rabbi, author of Encyclopedia of Jewish Food and founding editor of Kosher Gourmet magazine.
Jewish mixed marriages have been commonplace for decades, but they’re still more successful under the chuppa than they are in the kitchen. Claudia Roden dismissed the idea altogether in “The Book of Jewish Food,” writing “…there was no fusion of styles, no Ashkenazi-Sephardi hybrids, and no unifying element.”
This is such a hard and fast rule that when I got a letter asking me to help track down the origins of a long lost “Sephardic liver pie” recipe, I was utterly amazed, if not a little horrified.
“My grandmother Virginia usually served it at Thanksgiving,” wrote Alan Moskowitz, “and it was always referred to as stuffing.” Stuffing sounded so much more appealing than “liver pie,” and it did get me past my initial shock. The description was frankly mind-blowing, a cross between chopped liver on sourdough rye and mina, a light-textured, ground beef and matzah pie that’s as connected to the Ottoman Sephardic Passover meal as the Seder plate itself. He might as well have described a lasagna soufflé. Clearly this recipe was a deliberate fusion of the two cuisines.
Spanish cuisine is at a critical moment. Ferran Adrià, arguably the world’s most influential chef, will close his historic restaurant, El Bulli, July 30 to start a culinary foundation and think tank. The restaurant, which puts humor, illusions and even irony on the plate through the use of molecular gastronomy and other remarkable cooking techniques, did more than make waves in the world of Spanish food — it pushed the limits of cuisine around the globe. “Spain has transformed itself into the world’s effervescent center of gastronomic creativity,” noted cookbook author Claudia Roden writes in her new book, “The Food of Spain.”
Writers like Julia Moskin at The New York Times and prominent members of the food community have pondered what will happen to Spanish cuisine without El Bulli. Some fear that the closing will hurt the country’s culinary tourism business; others hope it will allow light to shine on lesser-known chefs. But no one is certain.
Standing on a precipice, unsure of what lies ahead, is perhaps the best time to look backward. “You have to look into the past to understand Spain’s complex gastronomic map,” Roden writes. Her immense and exhaustive new book does just that. The tome is an indispensable guide to the country’s traditional cuisine, tracing the cultural and religious roots of many of its signature ingredients, dishes and culinary traditions.