Ashkenazi American Food and Cultures of Abundance
Sierra Tishgart’s noodle kugel. Picture by Paul Quitoriano. From The New York Times, "A Surprisingly Sweet Noodle Dish for the Holidays" Dec. 2018.
Sweet and creamy lokshen kugel, a bagel with cream cheese and salmon lox, chicken roasted in margarine, chocolate babka, eggy yeast-risen challah...these are the rich foods that many of us associate with Jewish food. But nobody was eating lox and flaky chocolate babka every Saturday morning in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. These foods express the favorite flavors of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, imbued with the richness and relative wealth that many American Jews were able to enjoy in the US relative to the rest of the Jewish diaspora.
The sugared noodle casserole full of butter, sour cream, cottage cheese, and cream cheese, topped with cornflakes or graham cracker crumbs grew from Hungarian lokshen (homemade egg noodles) with curd cheese and a bit of fruit for sweetness. Salmon is a pricy fish, far more so than herring, whitefish, and carp. In Eastern European shtetls or the Jewish ghettos of Rome, Jewish families or their neighbors might have owned a cow or goat and a few chickens—enough to have richer foods (like egg-enriched white flour challah) to celebrate the sabbath, or to make curd cheese for the week. Many of the more obscure, lesser-loved by Americans Ashkenazi foods like kishke (a sausage made mostly of chicken fat, matzo meal, and vegetables), gefilte fish (a carp, matzo meal, and vegetable cake preserved in aspic), pickled herring, sourdough rye bread, beet kvass, pickles, chopped liver (chopped chicken liver and onions, sometimes other veggies, cooked in schmaltz), kasha, and pearl barley were all chosen for their relative affordability and longer shelf life. Mix some fish or meat with matzo meal and vegetables, and suddenly a single carp can last a family for months. Turnips, artichokes, eggplant, rhubarb, sorrel, mushrooms, and rye figured heavily in Jewish cuisine because they grew wild or were very cheap.
In America, many Jews were able to enjoy more financial success than they were in Europe. And besides, you did not have to be rich to buy milk or sugar or instant yeast. These heavy foods that many of us second generation and on Ashkenazi Jews eat were an expression of the abundance of life in America. These aren't everyday foods—I remember lokshen kugel appearing a handful of times for the Yom Kippur breaking of the fast, shavuot, and sitting shivah. Lox and homemade challah made appearances far more frequently, but usually as part of the sabbath celebration. The full Russ and Daughters smoked fish spread and bakery babka were for large family gatherings. But these foods would have been unimaginable luxuries for most Jews in Europe.
The recipes I share in this blog draw from the creativity of scarcity and the abundance of middle class life in America. Babka is a sometimes food, as Cookie Monster might say. As we draw closer to the High Holidays—Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur (ritual fast/day of atonement), Simchat Torah (celebration when you restart the torah-reading cycle), and Sukkot (the fall harvest holiday where you eat outside in a temporary shed decorated with gourds)—I will be posting richer, seasonal celebration foods. And while you can make them any time you like, I recommend saving them for seasonal special occasions. The honey cake is so much sweeter when you only have it once a year.