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book review

Potato latkes served with sour cream and applesauce.iStockphoto/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can't Stop Eating It
By Michael Wex, St. Martin's Press, 297 pages, $37.99

Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food
By Roger Horowitz, Columbia University Press, 303 pages, $35

My bubbie was a terrible cook. As she's no longer with us, and we are beyond the reach of her soggy, under-seasoned food, hopefully she won't mind my saying so.

Her chicken was boiled. Her chocolate cake was dry. The jagged edges of her kugel were so sharp they would be unsafe for a household with small children.

Imagine the shock of tasting Texas brisket for the first time, the smoky flesh quivering from its long bath in the barbecue's woody fumes, if you'd only ever known it as a wet, rubbery brick, so unappetizing it made you ask for the parsley on the Seder plate.

As a consequence, I never thought much of Jewish food.

Two new books – Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food by Roger Horowitz and Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can't Stop Eating It by Michael Wex – ask me to reconsider my people's cuisine, but not for long.

The narrative they tell, the foods they describe, are not flavour combinations born of creativity, or even necessity, but of denial.

Yes, my childhood diet contained warm, salty pastrami sandwiches loaded with mustard and a Sunday-morning assurance of as much bagel, cream cheese and smoked salmon as I could eat. But that was it for Jewish food. Everything in between was defined by what we, even as a barely kosher family, weren't allowed to eat: checking cookie ingredients for lard; spacing two hours between eating meat and dairy; shrimp or bacon as verboten as premarital sex.

"Lifelong engagement with dietary laws, the endless watch for forbidden ingredients or illicit combinations, gives rise to a way of thinking in which looking at food becomes looking for trouble," Wex writes.

Historically, Jews have been nomadic. So the cuisine borrows from everyone. But always the denial comes first.

I've heard raves about cholent. But none of its proponents, who haven't eaten it since childhood, have ever been able to tell me the recipe for the fabled stew before. And that's because it's not a recipe, but a loophole for cooking on Fridays.

Wex explains cholent as "an attempt to reconcile the prohibition against cooking on the Sabbath." Meat and sundry starches (beans, potatoes, whatever you have) are left in a hot oven before sundown on Friday, left to cook (though not technically "cooking" as a verb, only profiting from residual heat) until dinner on Saturday, thus circumventing the rule against cooking on the Sabbath, when observant Jews are not supposed to work, drive, exchange money, operate machinery or even turn on a light.

We're talking about cuisine by people who devise schemes for getting around these sacred rules – automated elevators that stop on every floor, a piece of tape on the switch for the fridge light, paying a non-Jew to run errands for you – so digressive of the original intention, that Rube Goldberg would decry them as needlessly complicated.

Wex's book frequently digresses into religious and historical minutiae. The cholent, for example, was a rabbinical diss track between Jewish sects, the Pharisees way of sticking it to the Sadducees, those stuffed shirts.

While Wex maintains a scholarly tone, Horowitz, though no less extensively researched, is more of a storyteller. His book veers toward 20th-century pop culture, providing linear answers to satisfy the curiosity of anyone who's asked about who decides what is or isn't kosher, how animals are to be killed according to shechita and what is the meaning of that U in a circle symbol on Coca-Cola Ⓤ.

"Coke, as one of the first iconic American foods to seek kosher certification, was a testing ground for how kosher law could change modern food – and how, in turn, modern food would change the practice of kosher law," Horowitz writes.

The offending element was glycerin (derived from non-kosher animal byproducts), present to the extent of 0.01 per cent in the popular soft drink, sparking debate over whether the animal byproduct could be considered bitul (a nullification of the rules). Widely respected Atlanta Rabbi Tobias Geffen ruled that the glycerin did not qualify as bitul, based on a precedent set of 12th-century Rabbi Samuel ben Meri. The glycerin was well below the 1/60th acceptable level of treif contamination, but did not qualify for the exemption because its use was purposeful and not accidental. And if this starts to sound like deleted scenes from a dry courtroom drama, welcome to Judaism. We saved you some latkes. They're cold.

Coca-Cola began making kosher batches using cottonseed oil glycerin. In 1957, it was discovered that the two glycerins were running through the same pipes, which an offended Rabbi Eliezer Silver compared to "frying ham in a skillet, then placing kosher meat in the same skillet." The company made the necessary investment to satisfy complaints. But the real conflict was not between the soda maker and rabbis, but among rabbis.

"The discordant debates in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, fought out in public among feuding rabbinic factions, were brought inside new institutions – the certifications organizations – and resolved behind closed doors between hierarchically organized rabbinic associations," Horowitz recounts.

That's the meaning of the various logos and symbols you might find on packaged food, stamps of approval from the Orthodox Union, Star-K, the Chicago Rabbinical Council or Organized Kashrut Laboratories, which study, govern and certify issues of kosher status.

These overlapping groups, paragons of extrajudicial law banding together to enforce a higher power of morality, have a familiar ring to anyone who has read an issue of the Avengers or Justice League.

In Hebrew school, an X-Men or Alpha Flight comic always tucked into my desk, I mostly ignored our teacher's lessons on language, politics and ethics. But I paid attention during the Passover story of Exodus. It had flaming hail, secret identities, spies, giants, honey wafers falling from the sky and a river that parts to form a walkway. As a devoted student of fantastical history – the Dark Phoenix Saga, the Kree-Skrull war – these were stories I could relate to.

I have the same fun reading Horowitz's book. His heroes are also locked in eternal combat with supernatural opposition. Except unlike in the Torah or comic books, Horowitz's characters are just trying to drink an ice-cold Coke or buy a kosher brisket from an ethical butcher (amid a lot of fraud).

There are still elements of Jewish cuisine that I delight in foisting upon friends: the greasy kishke, a sausage made of matzo meal and schmaltz (think of buttery, chicken-flavoured mashed potatoes); the babka, a loaf cake containing a Jorge Luis Borges poem's worth of chocolate labyrinths; my grandmother's pickles (the other one, not the boiled chicken one), a recipe she forbade me from ever sharing.

But mostly, our food, as defined by these books, is about what we refuse to eat, our mealtimes spent kibitzing over those rules.

"Centuries of rigorous schooling in dietary laws have helped to ensure that statutory principles and the arguments they provoke will almost always take precedence over matters of taste," Wex writes.

Nevertheless, halfway through Horowitz's book, I get nostalgic. Devoting an entire chapter to Manischewitz, he recounts how the Monarch Wine Company licensed the name to appeal to kosher buyers. In the 1950s, they capitalized on the burgeoning African-American market (the Concord grapes of New York were similar to Scuppernong grapes, grown in the south, both requiring additional sugar for fermentation) with print ads in Ebony magazine and TV spots featuring Sammy Davis Jr., until that secondary market outgrew the Jewish clientele. Ultimately, Manischewitz lost the Jewish audience to Kedem, when the competitors figured out how to make kosher wines that tasted good. Their one simple trick: temporarily staff an established old-world winery with observant Jews to produce a batch.

Horowitz's storytelling succeeded in worming the notorious Jewish sizzurp into my imagination.

When you ask at the liquor store for Manischewitz, and it's not Passover, they give you the same look of pity and derision we usually reserve for people standing on the left side of escalators.

I haven't drunk Manischevitz since my aunt's Passover table. At the age of 12, it was the first wine I ever tasted. Back then, I found it as drinkable as the not-dissimilar Kool-Aid.

Opening a bottle of as an apperitivo before a Chinatown dinner with friends, they're quick to review the scent. Swirling the $6.95 wine with the respect you'd grant pinot noir, they decry the nose and aftertaste as cough syrup.

But in between those two notes, there's a literal and figurative sweet spot. Helping to drain more than my share of the bottle, I'm transported back into the body of a little boy, enjoying an otherwise forbidden glass of wine, before settling in to watch the third hour of The Ten Commandments, the part with all the plagues, on Channel 11.

That's the rightful place of much of this food. As nostalgia. Best left in the rear-view because it was never that good to begin with.

Corey Mintz is the author of How to Host a Dinner Party.

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