Contemporary foodies are rediscovering the wonders of traditional Northern European Jewish cuisine.
The first time I heard about Brooklyn hipsters making and selling artisanal gefilte fish, I thought it was something from The Onion. It was not in any way possible that people were making a handmade, small-batch version of the traditional much-despised fish goo many Jewish families serve at Passover. Then I read The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods by Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern. This was no Onion story.
Yoskowitz and Alpern describe their Gefilteria as a project, which they founded with Jackie Lilinshtein in 2011, to bring Ashkenazi cuisine — traditional Jewish fare from Poland, Germany, Russia, and the rest of northern Europe — to a modern audience.
I grew up in New York City with some preconceived notions about Jewish food: brisket as dense and heavy as sandstone, cheesecake richer than Warren Buffett, and jarred gefilte fish (whatever that was). I instead became a huge fan of pastrami sandwiches and never gave much thought to the rest of the cuisine. It was best left in Europe, as far as I was concerned.
Then I read this book, which completely changed my opinion. I learned that our modern delicatessen version of Jewish food is as different from traditional Ashkenazi fare as Italian-American piles of cheese-covered meatballs are from southern Italian farm food.
The core of the cuisine was dark rye bread eaten six days a week (with white, eggy challah served on the Sabbath), along with fermented and pickled vegetables, fish from northern lakes and rivers, and slow-cooked stews. That pastrami sandwich and slab of cheesecake, it turns out, are simply the product of a people who escaped starvation and found themselves in a land of abundance.
“Jews were generally prohibited from owning or farming land” in Europe, Alpern explains when I reach her and Yoskowitz by phone. “But they often did have access to a cow or small plot next to their home.” A lot of their traditional cuisine was based on the sort of food you could harvest from a small northern garden.
Cabbages played a big role, especially when grated and fermented into sauerkraut. “Before refrigeration, everything was seasonal,” Alpern points out. “Cucumbers, garlic, dill — they’re all harvested around the same time” and combined to make those famous garlic dill pickles. Caraway seeds were used to create caraway-flavored sauerkraut.
The much-maligned gefilte fish is also seasonal. Yoskowitz notes that Passover, one of the first holidays celebrated after the ice thawed in early spring, featured meals with fish from newly accessible lakes and horseradish, made from the roots of a weed foraged after the first thaw. I had never considered that this dish was a seasonal expression of the land somewhere.
I was also surprised to learn that northern-European Jewish cuisine was created with the sort of zero-waste philosophy that any modern eco-food activist would admire.
“So much of Ashkenazi cuisine was about being smart and thrifty with limited resources,” Alpern says. “The essence of resourcefulness was found in those pickle barrels — nothing went to waste. Those live cultures — you didn’t have to buy vinegar; you didn’t need canning jars or heat to can with. It all happened naturally in barrels in your root cellar.”
Pickle-brine soup was a probiotic-rich hunger killer, as was one of the most astonishing recipes in the book: zurek, a soup made from a rye sourdough starter. “If you were a home baker — and most people were — you’d have a rye starter you were always working with,” says Yoskowitz. “When you go to feed the rye starter, you might find you need to throw some out, to make room for the fresh flour. People would have used those discards to kick-start a beverage” (namely the cousin to kombucha called kvass) or to make soup.
“In those old European kitchens, you would never think of throwing anything out. Instead you’d think, How can I use this? The essence of those kitchens was survival — that nothing goes to waste — so what’s the best way of extending, improving, expanding what you’ve got?”
Today, we tend to think of sourdough as more expensive and fancier than cheap bread. A hundred years ago it was exactly the opposite, which is why Jews who came to America upgraded to white bread, and their great-grandchildren know nothing of this history of fermenting.
“My own grandmother came after the war,” Yoskowitz recalls. “That meant she grew up with a cow and would make butter at home. But when she came to America, she couldn’t have a cow in her apartment building in Massachusetts.
“A lot of what we feel we’ve been working against, bringing this traditional cuisine back, is that shame and humiliation. They left a world that really pushed them out. Starting in America was a place they could be free. With shedding those negative memories, though, you also shed some of the wisdom that was part of that life.
“We’re trying to look back and reclaim some of the positives and beauty. Not that things were better in those days — they weren’t. They were hard and sometimes awful. But there are things we don’t want to forget that have been pushed aside.”
Like gefilte fish, zurek soup, and, of course, the artisanal, live-culture dill pickles and sauerkraut that have been all the rage in healthy-eating and organic-farming circles recently. It’s promising to see them repositioned in their native cuisine.
This spring I’ll add Brooklyn hipsters to my list of folks I’m grateful for, because they answered questions about a cuisine I didn’t quite understand and gave me plenty of reasons to seek out a really good Ashkenazi meal. Minus the pastrami.