“Crisco is Kosher,” home economist Marion Harris Neil wrote more than 100 years ago in “The Story of Crisco,” a recipe book published by Procter & Gamble. Rabbi Moses S. Margolies of New York, the paragraph continued, “said that the Hebrew Race had been waiting 4,000 years for Crisco.”
Is Crisco a Jewish food, as Harris Neil seemed to suggest? And what makes a food “Jewish” anyway?
Interest in the question of what counts as Jewish food has expanded dramatically over the last decade, leading to an outpouring of writing about Jewish food history by scholars, journalists, cookbook authors and others.
One of the latest contributions to this conversation is “Feasting and Fasting: The History and Ethics of Jewish Food,” in which I have an essay on the history of Jews and Crisco. I’m interested in Crisco because I’m interested in the everyday, seemingly nonsectarian materials that Jews use to create their Jewish lives. And, frankly, it’s funny to think about hydrogenated cottonseed oil as a Jewish food.
But there’s good reason to think about Crisco as Jewish food. Harris Neil’s “Story of Crisco” was part of a decades-long campaign by Procter & Gamble to convince American home cooks, including Ashkenazi Jews, to substitute Crisco for traditional animal fats. (A free Kindle version of the book is available from Amazon.)
In the early 20th century, P&G had cornered the market on cottonseed oil for use in its soap line. They decided to use the oil to create their first edible product, hydrogenating the liquid oil to make it resemble a solid fat at room temperature.
To persuade Americans that hydrogenated vegetable oil was a food they wanted, P&G launched a colossal advertising campaign for Crisco in 1911 and 1912, created by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, a pioneer of targeted marketing.
Among others, the targeted consumers were kosher-keeping Jews, especially the 2.5 million recent Ashkenazi immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe.
Around the world, Jews have cooked in ways similar to their non-Jewish neighbors, adapting local foodways to kosher requirements (such as separating foods made with meat and dairy products).
Ashkenazi Jews, like their non-Jewish neighbors in Europe and, later, the United States, tended to fry and bake with butter and animal fats. Where non-Jewish cooks used lard, Ashkenazi Jews used schmaltz, rendered poultry fat. However, Ashkenazi cooks who kept kosher could not make parve dishes — neutral items that could be eaten alongside either meat or dairy, such as pies — with the predominant fats of the time, butter and schmaltz.
JWT’s advertisements in Yiddish-language newspapers included eye-catching illustrations that suggested ways that the Yiddish-speaking housewife could use Crisco: Feeding children and husbands by using Crisco as a shortening in cakes or frying turnips or herring in it (popular foods eaten by Yiddish-speaking Jews at that time).
Yes, Crisco, the all-purpose lubricant, would aid intergenerational Jewish relationships.
Other ads contained long explanations about how Crisco was “truly clean and truly kosher,” tying together scientific notions of food purity and cleanliness with keeping kosher (despite the fact that kosher regulations have nothing to do with health or cleanliness).
Although hechshers (kosher certification symbols) did not begin to appear on manufactured foods until 1923, P&G obtained rabbinic approval for their new product. It is extremely unlikely that Rabbi Margolies quipped the witty advertising line about Jews having waited 4,000 years to use Crisco. But P&G used his name to suggest that Crisco, as a parve cooking fat, was a solution to long-standing kosher rules of separating dairy and meat. Rabbinic approval, as well as clever advertising, taught Jews to learn to trust manufacturers.
After a hiatus of two decades, P&G returned to promoting Crisco to Jews in 1933, this time working with the influential Jewish advertiser Joseph Jacobs — creator of the ubiquitous Maxwell House Haggadah — to create the bilingual Yiddish-English cookbook “Crisco Recipes for the Jewish Housewife.”
Now the target Jewish consumers were not only Yiddish-speaking immigrant women but also their daughters, who primarily read and spoke English. This book’s English and Yiddish instructions and recipes were identical in order “to enable two people to work together on any particular recipe” (for example, a Yiddish-reading mother and her English-reading daughter). Yes, Crisco, the all-purpose lubricant, would aid intergenerational Jewish relationships.
P&G, JWT and Joseph Jacobs were wildly successful at convincing Jews that Crisco was a Jewish food.
Crisco became a staple in the American Jewish pantry, including but not only for frying Hanukkah latkes. Jewish community cookbooks created by synagogues and Jewish women’s groups would include recipes with Crisco throughout the 20th century. By the early 21st century, recipes containing Crisco were being published as heritage recipes, passed down from earlier generations.
Nonetheless, by the early 21st century, Jews’ food preferences had shifted.
In the 1990s, scientists began to raise alarms about trans fat formed through hydrogenation, culminating in the FDA’s restriction on trans fat in manufactured foods beginning in 2015.
Though a version of Crisco without trans fat has been sold since 2004, and no Crisco products have contained any trans fat since 2007, the public stigma of unhealthiness remains.
Some Jews have turned back to schmaltz, now a heritage food with older credentials than Crisco. They are guided by Jewish cultural trends, broader culinary trends away from “big food” and scientific health claims (just as in the turn to Crisco 100 years earlier).
Also, to those who wished to move away from processed foods, schmaltz offers access to an older, seemingly authentic culinary heritage of Jewish grandmotherly wisdom. Both Wise Sons Deli in San Francisco and Saul’s Deli in Berkeley cook with schmaltz.
If Jews had waited 4,000 years to embrace Crisco as a Jewish food, they enthusiastically returned to schmaltz a century later.