Elana and Robin welcome their colleague and friend, Alyse Unterberger, who is a former caterer and a great lover of food (Jewish and otherwise!) She is also a Jewish mother, so we all know she is skilled in feeding people! Alyse, Elana, and Robin talk about how “Jewish Cuisine” evolved in the United States, what we think of as “Jewish food” around the world, and what some of their family favorites are.

Show Notes:

  • Alyse Unterberger’s bio
  • Vocabulary
    • Here are some words mentioned during this episode and their definitions:
      • Ashkenazi: One of two major ancestral groups of Jewish people whose ancestors lived in France and Central and Eastern Europe, including Germany, Poland, and Russia. 
      • Ashkenormativity: a form of Eurocentrism within Ashkenazi Jewish culture that confers privilege on Ashkenazi Jews relative to Jews of Sephardic, Mizrahi, or other non-Ashkenazi backgrounds.
      • Charoset: a sweet, dark-colored paste made of fruits and nuts eaten at the Passover Seder.
      • Gefilte fish:  a dish made from a poached mixture of ground deboned fish, such as carp, whitefish, or pike. It is traditionally served as an appetizer.
      • Haggadah: the text recited at the Seder on the first two nights of the Jewish Passover, including a narrative of the Exodus.
      • Knaidel: Yiddish word for Matzah ball.
      • Knish: a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish snack food consisting of a filling covered with dough that is typically baked or sometimes deep fried.
      • Kugel: a traditional Ashkenazi baked casserole, most commonly made from lokshen or Jewish egg noodles or potato.
      • Lox:  a filet of brined salmon, which may be smoked. Lox is frequently served on a bagel with cream cheese.
      • Pesach: Hebrew word for Passover.
      • Seder: a Jewish ritual service and ceremonial dinner for the first night or first two nights of Passover.
      • Sephardic: One of two major ancestral groups of Jewish people whose ancestors lived in Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East.
  • Further Reading

 

Transcript:

 

Robin
 Hey, Elana.

Elana
Robin?

Robin
Yeah? 

Elana
This is our last episode.

Robin
Ever?

Elana
Well, I don’t know about ever. Never say never. 

Robin
No, never. 

Elana
That’s true. But it is our last episode of this season.

Robin
Oh.

Elana
Maybe our listeners will just have to wait and see. There are definitely more questions to answer. 

Robin
I mean, how many questions are left in the… two?

Elana
Oh, no. Uh-uh. Nope, not gonna say it. 

Robin
All right, fine. Let’s just get into it then. I’m Robin Matthews, JLV’s Graphic Designer and Director of jkidpride and PJ Our Way Engagement.

Elana
And I’m Elana Rivel, JLV’s CEO. And we are the hosts of more than four A blogcas that answers

Robin and Elana
Some

Elana
Some of the questions people have about Judaism.

Robin
Okay, so today we’re answering the question, “what do Jews eat?”

Elana
Didn’t we start with that one?

Robin
I think, yeah. I mean we sort of, we did talk about what kosher means, right? And that’s part of it. ‘Cause some Jews do keep kosher, but it’s really not the whole conversation when we talk about what Jewish food actually is.

Elana
Like bagels, knishes, lox… 

Robin
Kugel.

Elana
Yeah. Right? 

Robin?
Mm. Mm-hmm. 

Elana
Okay. Matzah balls… 

Robin
I need to have lunch, I think. 

Elana
Well, we have the perfect guest to join us today for this topic.

Robin
All right, well, let’s get started.
All right, so today we’re joined by our friend and colleague, Alyse Unterberger. Alyse is our Director of Special Initiatives here at JLV. She’s a former caterer and a great lover of food, Jewish and otherwise. Plus, she’s a Jewish mother, so we all know that feeding people is her specialty.

Elana
Welcome, Alyse.

Alyse
Hi. It’s good to be with you guys.

Robin
You brought samples, right? 

Alyse
Oh, I knew I forgot something.

Robin
You all should know that there’s zero food on this table.

Alyse
I know.

Robin
I feel like that’s a problem.

Alyse
We will rectify it shortly, I promise. But it’s always good to talk about food even if we’re not eating it. 

Robin
True story.

Elana
Okay, so I wanna start with actually a quick like word of Torah and then I want you to share with us. 

Robin
Always bringing the—

Elana
Always a little Torah.

Robin
Always bringing the Torah.

Elana
It’s always an opportunity.

Robin
All right.

Elana
So the thing about Jewish food is, it’s like really in our DNA, right? It goes back to our great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather Abraham, who, when he had three visitors at his tent, insisted that his wife go and prepare food for them, right? So we have this model of feeding people. Whatever the food is that is available. So there’s something about that connection, right, to our ancestors that really speaks to me as someone who loves to think about cooking and preparing and how it connects us to other people in our tradition.

Alyse
Absolutely.

Elana
So that’s my little word of Torah.

Robin
I’d enjoy it more if Abraham was like, “sit down for a second, I’m gonna go get food for our guests,” instead of ordering Sarah to do it.

Alyse
Well then if you think about it, so many of our holidays are food-oriented, right? 

Robin
Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Alyse
Passover is you sit down at seder— 

Robin
Well, what’s the joke? “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”

Alyse
Yeah. Right. But it’s funny. I think there’s always been something about Jewish food that’s meaningful. I’m really fond of this cookbook author Joan Nathan. She’s one of the first people that kind of wrote about how Jewish food can be really fun and interesting, and she claims that the only real Jewish food is charoset and matzah.Because that appears in the haggadah and it goes back, you know, many, many years. And it’s universal. Every Jew, no matter where they live, refers to those two same foods in the haggadah.

Robin
Wait. Kugel isn’t in the Torah?

Alyse
It was an oversight, but, no, it’s not. 

Elana
So, but charoset also doesn’t look the same wherever you are.

Alyse
Right. But that’s one of the things we’ll talk about is that what is so amazing about Jewish food is that it looks different wherever we went. 

Robin
But I think that when you think, or at least when I think of — and this is just my ashkenormative bent, right? Is that when I think of Jewish food, I think of the stuff we all just said, like kugel and matzah balls and like that sort of— 

Elana
Carbs.

Robin
Yeah. Yum. 

Alyse
Well I think certainly people of our age and our parents’ age, and older, when they think of Jewish food, they think of Jewish deli. That is just the quintessential food that they go to, and to a large degree, that really was what Jewish food looked like for a long time. You know, when German immigrants came in the mid 1800s, they brought the foods that were familiar to them. Now, in Europe, they weren’t considered Jewish foods. They brought cured meats. They brought frankfurters, sauerkraut, things like that. But those were the foods that they ate. They brought them to the United States. They opened these delis, which then became meeting places. That’s where they felt they could eat the foods that were familiar to them. And it was comforting in a strange land. You know, to eat the foods that they knew. Um, and that became really very, very important. And then when the new immigrants came, when the Russians and the Poles and the Ukrainians came, they enjoyed this too, because it was a way to meet other Jewish communities and be part of that. Do you know that by World War II, there were over 3000 Jewish delis in New York City alone.

Elana
Wow.

Robin
3000?

Alyse
3000. I mean, it was so ubiquitous. Every community had their neighborhood deli.

Robin
Were they all kosher? Because I often think of, like, oh, I’m gonna go to a Jewish deli. I’m gonna get pastrami and Swiss.

Alyse
Right

Robin
But if you’re at a kosher deli, that’s not an option. 

Alyse
They were all kosher in the beginning, but then they changed. But the ones that lasted, things like the Stage Door Deli and the Carnegie Deli in New York, they were kosher. 

Robin
Right. So if you’re going to a — nowadays — if you’re going to a Jewish deli, you’re, it’s a style of food.

Alyse
It’s a style. Most likely. 

Elana
Most likely. And I was gonna say, most likely you still have delis that are referred to as “Jewish delis” but they’re–

Alyse
Jewish-style.

Elana
But they’re not kosher, because it has the pastrami and the deli sandwiches and the pickles and the rye bread and the pickles. 

Alyse
But the fact of the matter is that in New York today, there are only a couple of dozen delis, and part of it is the change in eating habits, you know, and people, the fact of the matter is the number of people who are keeping kosher is smaller and smaller all the time, right? They didn’t need a restaurant that was kosher, so they were happy to look elsewhere and broaden their horizon. So what was the mainstay became just another option. And now in a lot of communities, there isn’t even one. So it’s really changed a lot. 

But you know, the fact is though, that if you think about Jewish food in a broader sense, which we really should do, we shouldn’t just be looking at Ashkenazi food, which is what deli really is. I mean, there were so many people from the sephard, you know, that came over and brought wonderful foods. Wherever Jews went, they adopted the foods that they found to their eating habits. Even for people who did not come from the Ashkenazi tradition, they got used to eating it because they were the most prevalent ones that were out there. That was the largest influx for the longest time. And so even people that were from different parts of the world started eating it. 

But you know, we were forced out of an awful lot of countries in our history and wherever we went, we tried to make the food that we found acceptable to our kosher standards back in the day. So for example, if they were in South America and they were eating tamales and tacos and whatever, well instead of eating them with pork, they ate them with beef and they learned to fry their foods in olive oil instead of in lard, because that was something they couldn’t do. So it’s sort of interesting actually that after 1830 when there was a large wave of Jews who came to the United States, they were the first group that didn’t stay on the East coast. They started moving west, and the center of Jewish cuisine in that era was actually Cincinnati.
There was a really large influx of Jews, and one of the things that came out of that was the invention of Crisco, which was vegetable shortening.

Robin
Ohhh, right. Something you can cook in.

Alyse
It kind of looks like lard. It behaves like lard, but it’s vegetable shortening. And so if you look at Jews from all these different cultures, a lot of the foods that came here got adapted. And I think one of the things I read the other day, which I found absolutely fascinating, is so at Pesach, not everybody, but a lot of Jews like gefilte fish, right? It’s not as popular now as it was once upon a time.

Robin
What is it? Let’s say what it is.

Alyse
Well, gefilte fish is a, it’s mostly made from the traditional — gefilte fish is made from carp, and then it’s basically with carrots and onions.

Robin
So you blend it all up? I mean, I’m thinking for people who have never seen gefilte fish, first of all, lucky you. Second of all, it’s like a ball. It looks like a matzah ball. 

Alyse
It’s like a mousse. It really is. It can be in a ball, but you can also find it in a log.

Elana
With horseradish?

Alyse
With a very spicy horseradish. But here’s the thing that I found so interesting. So the traditional way of making it was carp. Maybe because in Eastern Europe, that was a prevalent fish. But today in the Midwest, they make it with whitefish. On the west coast, they make it with salmon. In Maine, they make it with haddock, and Alaska — there is a Jewish community in Alaska — they make it with something called Mackinaw Trout. 

Robin
Wow.

Alyse
To me, that’s the essence of Jewish food. It’s the same basic food, but it takes on a different look and a different taste, depending upon what part of the United States you live in.

Elana
Well, and going back to the earlier comment about charoset, right? So while that’s not necessarily regional to the States, we know that there are different versions of charoset that are regional to the world, right?

Alyse
That’s right. 

Elana
So there are Sephardic versions that have dates or raisins—

Alyse
a lot of dried fruits, right? 

Elana
Different kinds of nuts. Right? As opposed to sort of the traditional Ashkenazi, which is just the walnuts, apple, cinnamon—

Alyse
And wine. 

Elana
And wine or grape juices. Right? 

Alyse
And when you think about it, actually the Sephardic seems a whole lot closer to mortar. 

Elana
Yes. Stickier. 

Alyse
Right. I never really understood why apples?

Robin
Like, this isn’t holding anything together!

Alyse
Right? Yeah, exactly. So I think by broadening our ability to look at more different kinds of foods from other Jewish cultures, I think we’ve actually developed some things that are closer to. Legitimate and tastier. I mean, some of those Sephardic ones are so delicious.

Robin
All right, so here’s a joke I always tell and I think it’s accurate. I always, like my mother, for example, doesn’t like anything spicy. And when I say spicy, she’ll be like, “Does it have pepper in it? It’s too peppery!” So she won’t, doesn’t even want that. So my joke is always, “oh, well, Jews, we’re a bland people.” Which, some? Yes, right? The Eastern European, the Ashkenazi, everything’s sort of whiteish and blandish. 

Alyse
But when you start looking at the Sephardic communities, it’s much tastier.

Robin
And Middle Eastern, like, Israeli food.

Alyse
And that’s a whole other topic: is Jewish food, the food you eat in Israel, which is really a blend of all the different countries in the area? If you read the comments by people like Ottolenghi or Solomonov, they talk about how real Israeli food is a mishmash of a little bit from Cairo and a little bit from Aleppo —

Elana
But that’s exactly your point, right? That people came to Israel from all these different places and so they brought it just as they did here in the States. They did it there too.

Alyse
Right. But I think what’s wonderful about a lot of younger Jews is that they are really opening themselves up to these different foods and it would be a shame not to.Because they really are delicious in, in some ways, much more so than the Ashkenazi Foods. 

Robin
Y’know, it’s so funny when we think of, like, when I think of different ethnic foods, it’s like, “Oh, what do you wanna eat tonight? Do you wanna have Indian? Do you wanna have Italian?” No one ever says, “Let’s have Jewish!” You might say, “oh, let’s have Mediterranean,” or “let’s have Middle Eastern.” And sometimes that’s part of it. And yet when I’m faced with a full quote unquote Jewish meal, I’m like, yay, this is delicious. Let’s have this. But it never comes up as — at least in my experience — as a choice. 

Alyse
Well, I don’t think what we consider Jewish food, you know, from the past, has ever been known for its exotic cuisine. And most people think that the only one who can really make it is their own mother. 

Robin
I was just gonna say, we did, a couple years ago, a few years ago, a couple, everything is a couple years ago, but really it was before the pandemic, we did a latke taste test.

Alyse
Oh, I remember you took that.

Robin
Yeah, and Gabby, our Chief Program Officer and me and our kids, my son and her kid went and tasted latkes at a bunch of different places and rated them and we did a video, we put it out at Hanukkah. Famous 4th Deli in Philly was the winner. Just if you’re curious. But it was interesting because we all based it on how close it was to our grandmother’s latkes, you know, like our mother’s latkes or whatever. 

Alyse
Well, and we can’t really go too, A place and get all these kinds of Jewish food. Interestingly —

Robin
Ooh, that would that be good if you could. Open that restaurant!

Alyse
That’s what’s missing in our lives. When I was growing up, and I don’t know if it’s still true, there was something that we called an “appetizing store”, and this does not exist anywhere, but in New York. I’ve, I’ve sampled broadly and really everyone from New York will know about it, but anyone from who’s not from New York doesn’t. And what that was was a store that sold the dairy version of deli. So in other words, if you go into a deli, a kosher deli, you’re gonna get all your meats and everything, but you’re not gonna get kugel. And you’re not gonna get any of those foods. An appetizing store sold all the smoked fishes, whitefish, sable, kippered salmon, all these delicious smoked fishes. But you could also get potato kugel and noodle kugel and all the, you know, rice pudding — things that had dairy in it.
See, food is so intrinsically tied to everything that we do, that there’s some food story about almost every holiday, about every celebration, and that’s why it’s so much fun to talk about food.

Elana
What is a very traditional Jewish food that you have? 

Alyse
I don’t have many because I have always experimented. But I cannot have Pesach without matzah ball soup.

Robin
I was just gonna say the same!

Alyse
It’s really the only thing that my family makes consistently. We’ve changed up so many things. And you know the joke, if you sit, you know the people you sit next to and you ask, “what are you making for the holidays?”
“Well, my daughter, who’s vegetarian, won’t eat this. And my grandson, who’s vegan, won’t eat that. And then I’ve got someone who’s a pescatarian.” That’s what my family is like now. We’ve got so many different eating preferences, but we always make matzah ball soup. I make a vegan one. I make a vegetarian soup. 

Robin
So this is funny. My grandmother always made the matzah ball soup. My grandmother was many wonderful things, but a wonderful cook was not among them. And she always made the matzah ball soup for every holiday. And they were like, hard as a rock. Which is how we all prefer our matzah balls now —fork and a knife matzah balls. Like, squeeze them between your hands until they’re dense. But her mazah ball soup was chicken broth, celery, like celery and carrots boiled to within an inch of their lives, and hard matzah balls. Full stop. That was it. And, you know, you’d put the bowls down on the table, how many matzah balls do you want, whatever, knaidels.

Elana
Knaidels, yeah.

Robin
And just salt. Just, you just sit and salt and salt and shake the salt until you had enough salt and then eat it. So anyway, my grandmother always made the soup.
When my grandmother passed away, my cousin said, my cousin, you know, he was my age, and he was like, “I’ll make this soup this year.” And he made this amazing matzah ball soup. It had parsley and fresh herbs, and it was so delicious. And there were chunks of chicken in it. It was so good, and we were all like, “Um, yeah, no. Like, could someone just throw like a bullion cube into this dish with a hard matzah ball?” And it was a shame ‘cause it was so good. They were fluffy and delicious. And now we’re just back to the plain matzah ball. 

Alyse
Yeah. I will say that a lot of my friends are always saying, “Well, I have to make my apple cake. I have to make my brisket, my…” Because their families expect them to make these very traditional dishes. And I didn’t grow up with those kind of foods. And so I’m always experimenting and I’m making something, you know, one year I did a whole Hungarian thing.

Robin
See? This is why you are our guest for this podcast! We just make the same brisket every year.

Alyse
I don’t, I find it, I got bored making the same thing every year and so I’ve been very experimental, but yet, there’s something about the matzah ball soup that calls to me every year. 

Robin
Yeah. So what about you, Elana? What’s your one thing? 

Elana
My mom made a, she called it Matzah Charlotte. It was like a kugel that —

Alyse
It’s a dessert kugel.

Elana
Not dessert. We served it with the meal.

Robin
Was it savory?

Elana
It’s Orange. No, no. It’s sweet. I haven’t eaten it in, I have no idea how many years, but it’s still to me, like if we have Seder with my family and there’s not Matzah Charlotte, like I’m disappointed. Even though I’m not eating it.

Robin
What about, all right, here’s a question that every Jew will debate. Latkes with sour cream, applesauce, or both? 

Alyse
Sour cream.

Robin
Sour cream, full stop? That’s it? 

Alyse
Full stop. Yeah. 

Elana
Apple sauce. 

Robin
Because of the vegan thing, or just because…?

Elana
I think it always was.

Robin
I’m, I’m a sour cream and applesauce together.

Elana
So sour cream, though, I will say sour cream on matzah. I grew up with…

Robin
Sour cream on matzah?

Elana
Yes! And sometimes—

Robin
It would fall right off! 

Elana
No, you spread it and sometimes you put a little sugar on it top and it’s like —

Robin
All right, sour cream and sugar. This is a thing. So I grew up eating, my grandfather used to make banana stew for my brother. 

Elana
YES! Banana and sour cream? 

Robin
And sugar. 

Elana
Sugar. Totally. 

Robin
Yes. I can’t believe someone else knows that!

Alyse
So here’s the other, here’s the other question. How do you eat your matzah brei now? When I was growing up, matzah brei was strictly cinnamon sugar. When I met my mother-in-law, she made it very differently. And I always think of it as more like scrambled eggs. And it was very little matzah relative to the eggs. And she ate it with salt and pepper. And to me, I could not possibly—

Robin
We do both. You choose, like, do you want salty or sweet? And if it’s salty, it’s gonna be with egg, salt, and pepper and some sour cream sometimes. Cause why not? And then if it’s sweet, we don’t do cinnamon sugar. We do syrup.

Alyse
Oh, we’ve done that. 

Robin
Butter and syrup. 

Alyse
Well, I’m on a hunt. I have yet to find, when I was growing up, my grandmother would bring in a lot of the foods from a kosher caterer that, you know, that she trusted and they made the most unbelievable potato kugel and it was crusty. 

Robin
Usually you don’t think of potato as the one that’s good.

Alyse
But it was wonderful.I have yet to be able to replicate it. I’ve tried to make it myself. I’ve tried buying others, but it was— and my cousin and I were reminiscing about it recently, the crust, it was really crusty around the top, so it was crispy, but the inside was soft and peppery.

Elana
So if any of our listeners have a really great potato kugel recipe, send it in so Alyse can try it. And determine if it meets her standard. 

Alyse
That would be great.

Robin
That sounds perfect. 

Elana
Well, now I’m ready for lunch. 

Robin
I know. Definitely Me too. I wish we, as we spoke of in the beginning, I wish you brought samples.

Alyse
I know. I feel bad.

Elana
All right. And I’m making chopped liver to bring in.

Robin
Chopped veggie. Chopped walnut. 

Elana
We call it “veggie chopped” in our house. 

Robin
“Veggie chopped.” You don’t even mention the word liver. 

Elana
No. Just veggie chopped. 

Robin
Just don’t even speak the word. All right, good. Bring it in.

Elana
So even though this is our last episode, people can still send us questions, right? 

Robin
I mean sure. If they have them, they can send us an email at morethan4 — that’s the number4—@jewishlearningventure.org. They can find us on facebook at facebook.com/jlearn