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What Ever Happened to Mom's Apple Cake?

December 21, 2006 By:
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Gefilte fish, chopped liver, even Jewish apple cake, it seems, have made the endangered-species list.

Once the bastions of Jewish culture and identity, food historian Dr. Carol Harris Shapiro explained that these staples are being tossed aside for sometimes healthier, often faster and usually more "American" options.

Speaking at the National Museum of American Jewish History on Sunday, Shapiro suggested that pizza has usurped hot chicken and challah as a Friday-night favorite, and that the practice of salting kosher meat at home is all but extinct.

"Think about the last wedding or Bat Mitzvah you went to," she said. "Was it gefilte fish out there on the snack tables, or kosher sushi and canapes?"

A professor at Gratz College, Shapiro began her talk by citing the overall importance of food consumption in Jewish culture and religion. She first noted that many Jewish holidays involve either the act of feasting (Passover) or fasting (Yom Kippur), and that the Torah even delineates food -- through the keeping of kashrut -- as a path to holiness.

Because of this primacy, Shapiro suggested that Jewish food -- and its culinary evolution -- offer "possibly the most powerful key to understanding American Jewish life."

Considering that the majority of American Jews are of Ashkenazic descent, Shapiro said that it's not surprising that many signature American Jewish recipes -- brisket, deli platters, kugel -- grew out of Eastern Europe.

That society, too, created a layer of "gastronomic solidarity" around Jews, said Shapiro.

Because they kept kosher, "Jews really couldn't eat food at a non-Jewish table," she said. For centuries, this "created separate social networks."

But as Jews migrated to the United States, these barriers began to recede.

"Jewish immigrants sought to be fully American and fully Jewish," said the scholar. "You can see this dynamic in food."

By way of example, she described a dish made of very Jewish ingredients -- vegetables, sour cream, pumpernickel bread -- with a very American name: farmer's chop suey.

Assimilation homogenized some even further; Shapiro cited Jews who would break the fast without having observed Yom Kippur, and those to whom Passover was solely about the seder.

For these "kitchen Jews," it was "cuisine that attached them to the Jewish calendar, and in many ways, to Jewish identity."

Shapiro also noted that the feminist movement of the 1960s and '70s, which brought women out of the kitchen and into the workplace, had a hand in reshaping Jewish palettes.

Instead of using time-honored and labor-intensive recipes, women looked for shortcuts --fast-food, take-out, microwavable meals. That radically changed how and what families ate.

Shapiro also said that the recent wave of health consciousness put Jewish food on the back-burner, so to speak. Between dishes laden with fat (noodle kugel), sodium (corned-beef sandwiches) and sugar (apple cake), the professor confirmed that "pretty much the entire Jewish Ashkenazi cookbook" has been "wiped out."

Even though Shapiro said that "food is one of the very last things to leave an ethnic group," she described contemporary Jewish cuisine as steeped "in a tremendous time of flux."

Lecture attendee Herman Jacobowitz agreed, citing his own personal ambivalence about the amalgamation process.

While he said that he enjoys the Israeli-style tapas, pungent spices and soy ice-cream his daughter serves on Shabbat, he admitted to a certain nostalgia for recipes from his youth.

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