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Authentic Jewish Food Does Not Exist

Jonathan Paul Katz
November 30, 2017

Jews Are What We Eat. And We Eat Nearly Everything.

by Jonathan Paul Katz

Photo credit: James Kidd

IN TWO YEARS of writing a Jewish food blog, I have received one question again and again.

“What is authentic Jewish food?”

Here’s my answer: Authentic Jewish food does not exist. “Real,” “typical,” “originally and totally Jewish” food does not exist. And we should stop pretending that it does.

Most of us encounter culinary authenticity in our Jewish lives via a romanticized and shrunken version of Ashkenazi cooking. (This fact is Ashkenormative, or centering of the Ashkenazi experience, to boot.) But how did Jewish foods -- the bagel, the kugel, the cholent to name some Ashkenazi favorites -- become Jewish at all? Historically, most of the time Jews ate whatever their neighbors ate. In Eastern Europe, Ashkenazim ate the same dark bread, farmer’s cheese, herring, and pickled cabbage as their goyishe compatriots. In Morocco, Jews ate the same bread and beans. In Yemen, the same fenugreek and bread. This is true even of foods we commonly think of as “truly” Jewish - such as kugel, dafina, and challah. Even in these Jewish dishes, the flavors and ingredients come from the surrounding cultures: spices, vegetables, and legumes among them. Foods also arrived from elsewhere - chili peppers and potatoes from the Americas, buckwheat (kasha) from East Asia, and pepper from the spice trade. Examples abound in our cuisines of other foods “made Jewish.”

Take the latke, for instance. The way we consume this dish – a small cake of hashed potato, fried in oil – has only been common since the late 18th century. Before then, latkes were usually made of cheese, and fried in butter, which was less expensive in much of Eastern Europe than pricy oils. When cheese was not used, grated turnips or grains were. Turnip or grain latkes were often fried in poultry fat (schmaltz), which was also cheaper and more common than oil. Two changes in the 18th century are responsible for the potato pancakes we know today. First, the potato made its way from the Americas through Spain and Western Europe to Eastern Europe. (Sephardim probably cooked with potatoes before Ashkenazim.) The new, cheap, reliable crop was an instant hit. Oil also became far cheaper with both new forms of production and improved preservation methods. Thus, potato latkes were able to become much more popular - and the story of commemorating the oil came later. Authenticity, made possible by change. Besides, surrounding cultures also made their own potato pancakes: blynai among Lithuanians, placki among Poles, bramborák among Czechs.

Authenticity is actually about Jewishness as a product. We identify ourselves with how we eat. Many theorists have noticed this before – the French revolutionary Jean Brillat-Savarin said “tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.” The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu took that claim two centuries later, and created a famous chart mapping types and preparations of food to economic and cultural capital. Wine signified wealth, and jams signified a lack thereof. (For an updated version, look here.) But these are contextual within a community, and more indicative of class. When we use authenticity, we are saying that one’s consumption of a food and product is what marks one as Jewish. That’s simple, but is it good? With authenticity, we fall into a hole – can any food really be Jewish? Think of the latkes.

Authenticity is a lazy way to deem some Jews “less Jewish.” Yet this completely ignores how cuisine has changed for Jews over the centuries – even within living memory! Our own grandparents, for example, can remember times when kosher meat was far more scarce. Even now, many Jews cannot afford the meat and ingredients of “authentic” Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. Besides, what kind of community does it build to deem people more or less something by what they eat? Do we want an inclusive Jewish community, or are we obligated to perform?

Our ancestors would love our modern latkes, no matter how “authentic”. Food in the old country was often meager and hard to come by. Any bounty of food was appreciated. In fact, many Ashkenazi dishes that we see as “authentic” were festival dishes meant to imitate the food of the Christian nobility. P’tcha imitated the pork aspics of the nobility, and came from a recipe introduced by Tatars in the medieval era. Challah recalled the fluffy white breads of the wealthy compared to the poor’s black bread. Gedempte fleisch was a brisket version of the nobility’s roast meats. (Perhaps today our ancestors would look at what the wealthy eat, and would ask us if we have a festive quinoa bowl or sushi for chag.)

I GET WHY authenticity is appealing. In our culture obsessed with the “real” thing, it is good to have something that is “really Jewish.” If you eat “real Jewish food,” you are more Jewish than the yokels drinking Pumpkin Spice Lattes! For others, authenticity is a Jewishness they can possess. This is especially true if they lack little other connection to the Jewish community, an ability to read Hebrew, or a community in which they feel at home.

Besides, what is “authenticity”? What exactly does someone mean when they describe a dish or a restaurant as “really authentic”? The process by which some foods are deemed more “authentic” than others has been covered elsewhere, including by me. Literally, the word means “genuine or true to the original.” For food, authenticity typically denotes cooking that is genuine or true to some original style. In popular use, this has come to mean that it sticks to a style that others assume is “typical” of the represented group and fits a notion of what should be done. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the people of that country or ethnic group themselves likely do many different things that wouldn’t seem “authentic” at all to us, like putting Worcestershire sauce in Italian tomato sauce. And what is “typical” for Jews, who are everywhere?

I think any food or dish that carries some sort of symbolic weight or memory in a Jewish community is a Jewish food. Some foods might be more common or only common in Jewish communities, others might be “what everyone else eats too.” Sometimes it is a latke, sometimes it is marmalade. Sometimes it is kosher, but maybe it is not. That is it! Authenticity is a crutch, a way for us to latch onto an imagined Jewish past rather than dealing with a Jewish present. It gives some sense of “realness” in a world where so many Jews feel distanced from Jewish communities and have only a smattering of knowledge of Jewish history and traditions. Authenticity is a way for us to deem some Jews “out,” and a way for us to not acknowledge and build with the changes that occur in our community. It has no place in a progressive Jewish kitchen.

Jonathan Paul Katz is a government writer and the author of Flavors of Diaspora, a Jewish food blog. He lives in New York City. This article has nothing to do with his employment.