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Soul Food

November 22, 2007 By:
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Jews and food. Is there any more classic blend of elements? Even people who know nothing about Judaism or Jewish culture know that Jews and eating are intertwined. In fact, one of the things that seems to unite philo-Semites and their anti-Semitic opposites is their envy of the warmth and unity conveyed by the idea of the Jewish table spread with culinary riches. Some have even said that the emphasis on comfort foods after the 9/11 attacks was a longing for Jewish soul foods. And then there's the aroma of the deli, which is a ubiquitous facet of the urban landscape.

It has also long been said that the American holiday Jews feel most comfortable with is Thanksgiving. The day is reflective of no real religious philosophy, per se, except the wish to show gratitude, which unites all belief systems; and so, whatever sentiments are advanced are compatible with Judaism. The fact that food is such a central element of the festivities can't be overlooked, either. We are thanking something greater than ourselves for the abundance and fruitfulness of the land, much of which now appears on our tables -- that's something Jews have been doing since time immemorial.

So, as we head toward another Turkey Day, is it so surprising to discover that American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes, a volume in the Library of America series, contains a significant number of Jewish contributors? The earliest contributors to this considerable volume, edited by famed food writer Molly O'Neill, are very gentile, of course -- and include some of the greatest writers America has produced, like Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau and Frederick Douglas. Still, on Page 60 of this 750-page compilation comes a recipe by Esther Levy for an Irish Potato Pudding. It's taken from her Jewish Cookery Book of 1871 and reads as follows:

"Boil six large potatoes in their skins; let them remain till next day, then peel them and grate on a horseradish-grater very light; then beat up six eggs, separately, the whites to a snow; add six ounces of sifted sugar, a pinch of salt, two ounces of ground almonds and the grated rind of a lemon; beat all lightly together, and bake or steam in a mould with four ounces of melted fat."

As O'Neill has noted, "In this recipe from the first known Jewish-American cookbook, the Irish potato pudding is billed as 'One that will do for Passover' and resembles a potato kugel."

The bulk of the other Jewish contributors come later in the book; this anthology moves chronologically, which means that, logically, more Jewish writers will appear as more Jews begin to be added, through waves of immigration, to the American population. And so, beginning at about 100 pages beyond Esther Levy, we find pieces by Edna Ferber, Mary Antin, Gertrude Stein, S.J. Perelman, Alfred Kazin, Alice B. Toklas, A.J. Liebling, Nora Ephron, Calvin Trillin, Lillian Hellman, Laurie Colwin, Maxine Kumin, Laura Shapiro and Corby Kummer.

The majority of these writers are represented by essays that are about the consumption of food, not the making of it, and they are not in any way concerned about whether what they're consuming is appropriate for Passover -- or any other Jewish holiday, for that matter (except for Antin, who writes about the beauty and closeness -- though not the spirituality -- of sharing a Sabbath meal). Most of them didn't or don't consider themselves to be all that Jewish, and yet that shouldn't mean that their musings about food can't be enjoyed by Jewish readers of all stripes.

Perhaps there are more Jewish writers in the latter part of the book because, as editor O'Neill points out in her introduction, food writing is a relatively recent, "almost a contemporary," invention.

"The selections in this anthology tilt to the current era," the editor writes, "because food writing since, say, World War II has been richer, more varied, more lyrical than much of what came before. ... When addressing the subject of food, women were consigned to the role of advice-giver in the Victorian household manual tradition and, until recently, did not express the full range of their experience. The appetite for food writing that evoked food's sensual pleasures was limited to a small, relatively privileged world. And then, beginning in the mid-20th century, all that changed, and there was an explosion of lively, diverse, mouth-watering food prose."

'Warm and Sticky'

Of the Jewish contributors, the most Jewish, at least in terms of atmosphere (aside from Antin, that is), must be Alfred Kazin, whose memoir of his childhood in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, A Walker in the City, is excerpted here:

"As I went down Belmont Avenue, the copper-shining herrings in the tall black barrels made me think of the veneration of food in Brownsville families. ...

"We never had a chance to know what hunger meant. At home we nibbled all day long as a matter of course. On the block we gorged ourselves continually on 'Nessels,' Hersheys, gumdrops, polly seeds, nuts, chocolate-covered cherries, charlotte russe and ice cream. A warm and sticky ooze of chocolate ran through everything we touched; the street always smelled faintly like the candy wholesaler's windows on the way back from school. The hunger for sweets, jellies and soda water raged in us like a disease ...

"But our greatest delight in all seasons was 'delicatessen' -- hot spiced corned beef, pastrami, rolled beef, hard salami, soft salami, chicken salami, bologna, frankfurter 'specials' and the thinner, wrinkled hot dogs always taken with mustard and relish and sauerkraut, and whenever possible, to make the treat fully real, with potato salad, baked beans and french fries which had been bubbling in the black wire fryer deep in the iron pot. At Saturday twilight, as soon as the delicatessen store reopened after the Sabbath rest, we raced into it panting for the hot dogs sizzling on the gas plate just inside the window. The look of the blackened empty gas plate had driven us wild all through the wearisome Sabbath day. And now, as the electric sign blazed up again, lighting up the words Jewish National Delicatessen, it was as if we had entered into our rightful heritage."

Among the other Jewish writers, aside from the rapturous prose A.J. Liebling poured forth in his adoration of French food, the majority of the prose is comic -- pieces by S.J. Perelman, Calvin Trillin and Nora Ephron come readily to mind. Not that these people didn't take eating and food preparation seriously. It's just that their tone is predominantly comic. The poet Maxine Kumin and the novelist Laurie Colwin -- now, they took their cooking, or jam preparation, seriously.

Why is it that so many good writers feel compelled to write about food from time to time? And why do we readers remember these prose samplings with the same delight we recall a great meal?

Perhaps M.F.K. Fisher, one of the great food writers of all time (or perhaps I should just say one of our greatest writers, period), said it best. "People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don't you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do? They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft. The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it ... and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied ... and it is all one."

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