Jewish American Heritage Guide // Food
By Rachel E. Gross
Moment’s Top Ten Jewish-American Foods
Long ago, a few Jewish foods made themselves an indispensable part of the way Americans eat. So thorough was their assimilation that their popularity swiftly overshadowed their cultural origins. (These days, who thinks “Jewish” when they reach for their bagel and schmear?) In recognition of these culinary superstars, Moment editors put their tastebuds to work to come up with a list of their favorite Jewish-American foods. We’re willing to bet you eat them more often than apple pie.
In 1956, The New York Times struggled to explain these mysterious rounds, settling on “a doughnut with rigor mortis.” Today, the bagel needs no explanation. Its popularity has proved as eternal as its circular shape, making it America’s most popular breakfast bread and spawning such abominations as blueberry bagels. Many Americans aren’t aware that the bagel is Jewish, or that the word comes from the Yiddish beigen, “to bend.” All they know is that they need one for breakfast, toasted.
Sunday brunch in 1930s New York meant a plate of Eggs Benedict—but not if you kept kosher. Jews came up with an ingenious alternative, replacing ham with lox, hollandaise with cream cheese, and an English muffin with a bagel. And voila, an American classic was born. Now you can find lox—or more often smoked salmon, which is cooked through rather than cured in brine—on crepes, in sushi, and even at Starbucks.
Your Jewish mother was right: Scientists from Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine recently confirmed that chicken soup is indeed medicinal, unclogging stuffy noses and preventing inflammation. But no further evidence is needed that the “Jewish penicillin” has become a universal symbol of comfort, nourishment and mothers the world over. Often served with egg noodles, kreplach or plump matzo balls, the soothing brew has become a national cold cure.
First we fried them in honor of the Hanukkah miracle, in which a little cruse of oil lasted a whopping eight days. Then we kept frying them, because they also turned out to be miraculously tasty. By tapping into the same potato-oil combo that gave us French fries and potato chips, latkes proved too addictive to be contained to the holiday season. Today the “little oilies” aren’t just hot, they’re haute: Fine-dining establishments serve them made with everything from zucchini to butternut squash, garnished with crème fraîche, wasabi and caviar.
The sandwich has humble beginnings, starting as a simple, affordable meal served by Jewish delis in New York. By the 1940s, the corned beef sandwich had put on some inches: American cooks added layers of meat and add-ins. Today it’s a nationally beloved icon. It’s the lunch of choice for President Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel and even astronauts: In 1965, dissatisfied with freeze-dried hot dogs, the crew aboard the Gemini mission sneaked a corned beef sandwich into zero-gravity. Sadly, it would become both the first and last space corned beef sandwich, after a disapproving NASA got wind of the prank.
A Reuben without a kosher dill to accompany it? Sacrilege. (Never mind that Reubens are treif.) The palate-cleansing spears, which Jewish food historian Gil Marks calls a mainstay of the Jewish deli experience, have multiplied and spread throughout American culture. Now we eat them by the barrel: Americans crunch more than 2.5 billion pounds of pickles each year, or 20 billion pickles, according to Pickle Packers International. The most popular are kosher dills (which gain their distinct acidic flavor not from vinegar but from lactic acid fermentation), not that most pickle enthusiasts are kosher-sensitive.
While the question of which Middle Eastern country lays claim to the chickpea dip is still a matter of fierce debate, what isn’t debatable is its popularity. Once relegated to the ethnic aisle, hummus is now just about everywhere—from the plastic pretzel-and-dip snack packs at 7-11 to the pantry of actress Natalie Portman, who once told Vogue that she ate her weight in hummus every day. Hummus has even transcended the chickpea: Now we’re slapping the name on any ol’ puree of black bean and edamame, mixing in flavors from Thai curry to basil pesto, and touting it as a health food.
Rugelach, which means “little corners” in Yiddish, was once known as a Jewish holiday treat. Now it’s becoming as ubiquitous as the croissant, served at Whole Foods bakeries the nation over. It’s said that Austrian bakers first whipped up these buttery cookies in 1787, to commemorate the expulsion of the Turks. The crescent shape mirrored the emblem of the Ottoman empire, making eating one a symbolic gesture of eating the enemy. Enemies may come and go, but rugelach is eternal.
Brisket is a dish of patience. While endless variations abound, all involve stewing the tough cut of meat for hours until it’s fall-off-the-bone soft. The centerpiece of almost every Jewish holiday meal, brisket was once considered the most economical and least-desirable cut of the cow. Now it’s a pricey national comfort food. Brisket is a key ingredient in the corned beef and pastrami industries and lies at the heart of Texas barbecue lore, where some consider it the state’s “national” dish. Sorry to break it to you, Texas, it was ours first.
The beverage first bubbled its way into the national consciousness as a medicinal tonic. Initially, it was peddled on the streets of New York by Jewish immigrants from carts. By the 1880s, soda fountains poured out versions flavored with lemon, chocolate and milk, as well as a concoction called an egg cream (surprisingly, the key ingredient was neither egg nor cream, but seltzer, mixed with chocolate syrup), and seltzer became a city-wide craze. One of the few low-calorie Jewish foods, today it’s enjoying a sparkling renaissance. It turns out even Scarlett Johansson is a fan.