3 new books dig into appetizing topic: Jews and food

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Three very different new books underscore how complex the Jewish relationship to food can be, with our identities often expressed by what and how we eat.

Michael Wex’s “Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It” is an exploration of the phenomena at the heart of Ashkenazi foodways.

One of Wex’s achievements in his bestselling “Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods” was to reveal the religious underpinnings of familiar and unfamiliar Yiddish words and expressions — restoring a context otherwise incomprehensible to most people unschooled in traditional Jewish text and practice.

A similar spirit pervades “Rhapsody in Schmaltz,” with the first quarter of the book devoted to the formative role of biblically and rabinically established dietary restrictions.

Wex offers an intelligent, well-researched and often funny introduction to how Ashkenazi food customs were established and practiced. And he draws from his deep knowledge of his native language and culture to provide dozens of examples of the roles foods play in Yiddish, showing how food-infused idiomatic expressions and sayings communicate a worldview (as in the well-known curse, “May you grow like an onion, with your head in the ground”).

Of course, much of what defines Jewish eating habits is what we don’t eat (or aren’t supposed to). For a variety of reasons illuminated by Wex, pork has ended up at the top of the list.

And fittingly, an extraordinary amount of pork is consumed in award-winning food writer Elissa Altman’s new memoir, “Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw.” The forbidden meat manages to function throughout the book both as symbol and as breakfast.

I expected from the book’s title that this would be a tale of the author’s rebellion against her observant family — part of a recently expanding subgenre of Jewish memoir.

But Altman’s father had already done the heavy lifting in this department. The son of an Orthodox cantor, he took to eating forbidden foods as a means of declaring independence. When it came to Judaism, the most salient factor in Altman’s upbringing was perhaps her parents’ ambivalence.

Set primarily in Queens, New York, in the late 20th century, this is a well-written family memoir in which food is a touchstone. I can’t think of any scene with as memorable a dissonance as when, as an adult now living in rural New England, Altman is bringing home a freshly slaughtered hog. With the sun beginning to set, she notes, “I remember that it is Shabbos, and the prayer I spoke nearly every Friday night during my childhood summers echoes in my head — it’s been 40 years since I learned it — and I whisper it to myself: Thy Sabbath has come.”

There is no moral to the story, but Altman’s personal growth is reflected in her ability to embrace the “outlaw” elements in her life — including her lesbianism — that once caused her to feel shame or fear of exclusion.

I don’t ordinarily write about cookbooks, chiefly because I lack the time, patience and talent to test recipes. However, I want to mention Liz Alpern’s and Jeffrey Yoskowitz’s cookbook “The Gefilte Manifesto” because it, too, is very much about the relationship of Jews to food.

Much effort and ink has been devoted to staving off the disappearance of the Jewish deli. “The Gefilte Manifesto” represents what is to me a much deeper project — to forge a connection to Ashkenazi food in its largely vanished natural habitat, primarily the shtetls of Eastern Europe — and to the people who made it.

It gives one hope that the authors who are performing this act of resuscitation are barely into their 30s, although wise beyond their years.

Alpern and Yoskowitz run a Brooklyn-based operation called The Gefilteria in which they have sought to give new life (and respect) to gefilte fish, as well as other specialty foods. They are clearly motivated by love of the culinary heritage they have stepped up to inherit.

The attractively presented book has much to recommend. There is particular attention to preserved and pickled foods, but I was also struck by the emphasis on seasonal produce — not an association most of us have with Ashkenazi cooking, in part because we have largely allowed the cuisine to be defined by the paramaters of the urban deli.

The emphasis is not on reproducing the foods of the shtetl. Rather, the thrust is on developing an appreciation of the foods and of the spirit of those who cooked them. For example, Yoskowitz and Alpern evoke “the resourcefulness of Jewish cooks,” who often had to make more with less, and even pay tribute to this quality with a small section advising the reader on what to do with ingredients left over when making foods from the cookbook (including a sour dill martini made with leftover pickle brine).

Now go eat.

“Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It” by Michael Wex (320 pages, St. Martin’s)

“Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw” by Elissa Altman (304 pages, NAL)

“The Gefilte Manifesto” by Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz (352 pages, Flatiron Books)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.