new york | I am settled on the sofa surrounded by gourmet magazines. Seeking something spectacular to serve on Rosh Hashanah, I am marking pages displaying apple salsa and honey-wasabi chicken. Part of me is happily creative, but another part wishes I had a file of food-stained family recipes. During the 1950s, my mother erased our Ashkenazi heritage, chasing the American dream cuisine: roast beef, vegetable casseroles, Waldorf Salad and Jell-O.
Decades later, I dabbled with Indian, Greek, Japanese and Chinese cooking, cuisines I discovered in restaurants and magazines. But on Rosh Hashanah this glut of options left me spinning. Searching for culinary identity, I adopted the cuisine of my husband’s Italian Jewish family. His Israeli cousin shared her recipes, too.
Like Jewish cooks throughout history, I was influenced by my environment. For thousands of years, Jews moved around the globe with their recipes, adapting to indigenous foods and local cuisine. But when Jewish stockpots met the great American melting pot, it sparked a culinary revolution. Nowhere in the world has Jewish cooking undergone the dramatic transformation that occurred in this country. Likewise, Jewish food has left its mark. Where would the average American be without his morning bagel?
It seems that to be American means to savor dishes from every ethnic group. Cuisines such as Mexican and Mediterranean come and go with the seasons, and many Jews indulge in this feast of possibilities. Like Jewish eating habits, the Rosh Hashanah menu is in flux, swayed by cooking crazes.
“Jewish food has changed so greatly in this country, because we’re exposed to everything,” says cookbook author Joan Nathan. Her most renowned book, “Jewish Cooking in America,” (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), is an engrossing scrapbook of anecdotes, photos, historical food ads and fabulous recipes. The book offers lively explanations of how recipes became Americanized, along with the Jews who brought them from every corner of the world.
“Because of the mass media, magazines want to be up to date,” says Nathan. To sell issues, publishers feature the latest incarnation of upscale cuisine, Jewish food included. Think of articles that have featured matzah brei with portobello mushrooms or latkes with Thai dipping sauces.
“That’s not what I like at holidays,” says Nathan. “Holidays are a time to return to our roots and maintain tradition. We need consistency and so do our children.”
After morning services on Rosh Hashanah, she invites a crowd to her house for a buffet of Moroccan salads, gefilte fish molds and other delicacies, all culled from the canon of Jewish cuisine.
“Cooking traditional recipes is a way of saying, ‘This is my family, these are our customs,'” she says.
Of course, over the decades, she has tried new recipes, but they have entered her repertoire organically. For several years Nathan lived in Israel, where she experienced Sephardic cuisine. Drawn to fresh vegetables and piquant seasoning, she embraced Mediterranean cooking. She feels recipes should reflect someone’s life and not the glossy pages of magazines.
“Holiday cooking should show Jewish people where we came from. Our roots are important to us. Without roots, you can’t go anyplace.”
Every Passover, Nathan prepares her mother-in-law’s gefilte fish recipe. “I’ll make it for the rest of my life,” she says, explaining that she tweaked the recipe by lowering the cooking time from more than two hours to 20 minutes and adding parsley, which wasn’t available in Eastern Europe.
Yet this kind of tweaking is initially what altered Jewish food when it reached American shores, where cooks sought substitutions for unavailable ingredients and relished others never seen before. Because carp and pike do not swim in every part of the country, the first generation of immigrants used local varieties to make gefilte fish. Nathan explains that in Florida, red snapper was the fish of choice. In Maine, it was haddock; in Hawaii, mahi mahi. In the Northwest, salmon turned gefilte fish pink.
Enticed by American convenience foods, second-generation Jews purchased gefilte fish in cans and jars. But disappointed in the taste, many people are returning to home preparation. Along the way, the inevitable has happened — regional cooking has crept into recipes. “Jewish Cooking in America” features several twists, including Southwestern Gefilte Fish with Salsa, which evolved from a Polish recipe; and Maryland Spicy Gefilte Fish, which derives its pickled flavor from Old Bay Seasoning, an American favorite invented by a German Jewish immigrant.
Another staple of Ashkenazi cuisine, brisket, was changed forever by processed ingredients, such as ketchup and chili sauce. Furthermore, the liquid the meat simmers in varies by region. In New England, apple cider rules, while in Dixie, smoky barbecue flavor is king. In California, peppers and tomatoes simmer in the pot with meat.
Kansas City Barbecued Brisket is especially delicious. “The sauce is very American, guaranteed to satisfy barbecue lovers,” says Nathan. In this country, Jewish side dishes have gone local, too. Newish-Jewish Southwestern Tsimmes Stuffed with Chilies is a gem created by chef Lenard Rubin of Phoenix.
Of course kugels are the crowning glory of American Jewish cuisine. Besides the more common sweet cheese varieties, consider a recipe calling for coriander and corn, or San Antonio kugel, a fabulous pareve recipe that won a kugel contest sponsored by a Jewish magazine in Philadelphia.
“Jewish food is so dynamic,” says Nathan, explaining that it’s a reflection of world events, migrations of people, local produce and cuisine, the media and cross influences.
While Nathan honors Jewish heritage, she doesn’t scoff at hosts who on holidays serve recipes created by celebrity chefs. She believes people are seeking one new dish, a fantastic kicker to dazzle their guests.
“Change is the nature of the world, and we can’t stop it,” says Nathan. “The thing that worries me is if we don’t use our traditional recipes, we’ll have nothing left of our culinary past.”
She recommends dusting off old family recipes. Even if they are high in sugar or fat, they can be adjusted to comply with modern thinking on health.
In Nathan’s family, it wouldn’t be Rosh Hashanah without the plum tart she recalls from childhood and bakes every year. “It’s what makes my family special,” she says. “I want my children to know this.”
For that reason, Nathan bakes challah with her children, too. At Rosh Hashanah she is preparing her mother’s brisket recipe. While her mother served it with farfel, Nathan may instead choose the Sephardic alternative, couscous. By exposing her children to these dishes, she is teaching them about the foods that sustained the Jews through history.
“As parents, our job is to create holiday memories and to pass them on to our children,” she says. “Rosh Hashanah is a time to remember who you are. To remember who is gone in your family and to cherish them by keeping their recipes alive.”
“Jewish Cooking in America” by Joan Nathan (518 pages, Knopf Publishing Group, $35)