U.C. Davis to hold academic conference on Jewish foods

Is falafel really the “Israeli national snack,” as advertised — complete with little Israeli flags on toothpicks sticking out of a pita — on postcards throughout the Jewish state? Or was it appropriated from the Palestinians already living there?

How did American Jews have sacramental wine during the Prohibition era?

What do specific ingredients have to do with Jewish identity?

Jewish foodies, take note: An upcoming conference called “From Farfel to Falafel: Food, Wine and Jewish Culture” at U.C. Davis will attempt to answer those questions and more.

The conference, which will be held from Sunday, May 14 through Tuesday, May 16 and is open to the public, will bring a variety of academics and cookbook writers together to explore various aspects of Jewish cuisine and the role of food and wine in Jewish culture — and of course, eat and drink together. Two themed dinners will be offered, as well as a wine tasting.

According to David Biale, chair of Jewish studies at U.C. Davis, this is the third in a series of Jewish studies conferences that have combined an academic subject with a contemporary one.

“U.C. Davis is one of the foremost places in the world for food science,” said Biale. “And since we sit at a place where food and wine are very big things, it seemed appropriate for us to do that.”

As a cultural historian, Biale is interested in the important role food plays in the cultural identity of Jews. But he asks, is it any more central to our culture than it is to people of other cultures?

Even the question, “Is there such thing as Jewish cuisine?” can be loaded.

“A lot of foods we think of as Jewish are borrowed and adapted from their non-Jewish neighbors, and falafel is a key example,” he said. “Yael Raviv is the world expert on falafel, and she’s going to be talking about different foods connected to the Zionist project. There was a myth that Yemenite Jews brought [falafel] to Israel, but it’s not true.”

Donny Inbar, the former cultural attaché at the Consulate General of Israel, will deliver a paper called “Just a Spoonful of Sugar Makes the Gefilte Fish Go Wild: Secret Ingredients That Stir the Politics of Jewish Identity.”

Inbar, who is also a gourmet chef, has worked with a caterer to plan a first-rate meal based on foods found in the Bible; the menu includes goat meat and lentil stew (which he calls “birthright stew,” after its origins in the Torah) and spinach, carrot and quail-egg salad. Pomegranates and figs will be featured prominently as well. At Sunday’s dinner, a kugel maven will take diners far past its pot cheese and raisin origins. Blood-orange-and-bittersweet-chocolate kugel or lemon-ricotta kugel, anyone?

The keynote speakers will be two popular local Jewish cookbook writers, Mollie Katzen and Joyce Goldstein. Katzen, of Berkeley, does not specialize in Jewish cuisine, but became famous in the foodie world for writing “The Moosewood Cookbook” and its followers, like “The Enchanted Broccoli Forest,” with recipes from the renowned vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y. Her keynote address Sunday night is called “Tsimmes Reveries.”

Goldstein, of San Francisco, author of “Cucina Ebraica” and “Sephardic Flavors: Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean,” will give a talk entitled “How a Nice Jewish Girl from Brooklyn Learned to Cook Sephardic Food.”

Another highlight will be a film and lecture covering “The Rise and Fall of the New York Jewish Deli.”

“We’re really interested in creating an event that is both scholarly but is of interest to the community,” said Biale. “It will be a mix of academic things and fun things, and the academic talks should be interesting and accessible to non-specialists.”

Registration information: http://jewishstudies.ucdavis.edu/fwjc, or email Mary Maffly at jewishfoodconf@sbcglobal.net or call her at (530) 903-0531.

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."