Reclaiming Ashkenazi Cuisine: The Gefilte Manifesto

My grandpa Jake was a gifted storyteller in the spinner-of-tall-tales manner. So when he described the one time he ate ice cream as a boy—far superior to any frozen dessert you could buy in our huge suburban supermarket and so memorable he hadn't forgotten it in fifty years—I was, of course, skeptical.

After all, he also said the weather in the Old Country was better too—never that cold because it was remarkably “dry.” And we’re talking Minsk, Belarus.

But when I read Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz’s compelling new cookbook, The Gefilte Manifesto, I had an aha moment. When asked what she missed most from her childhood home in Szumsk, Poland, now Ukraine, Jeffrey’s grandma Ruth replied simply, “butter on toast.” Because that butter was fresh from the udder--churned from cream just skimmed from the pail of warm milk the family’s dairy cow produced.

Pantry staples like butter, rich sour cream, farmer’s cheese, schmaltz—the building
blocks of Ashkenazi cuisine—were local, sustainably sourced, and seasonal then. “That’s part of what made it delicious,” they write, “even though it was often very simple food.”

These days we celebrate the nose-to-tail cooking approach of Williamsburg, Brooklyn; the near-obsession with seasonal eating of California and the Mediterranean; and the new-found passion for fermenting among millennials.

But such virtues are at the heart of Ashkenazi cooking too. Or were, that is, until so many Jewish food traditions disappeared in the kitchens of twentieth century North America, reaching a nadir in mid-century. The D-I-Y balebustas of the Old Country would have plotzed to find pantries full of non-food foods, like artificial ingredient-laden margarine, as a replacement for wholesome butter, even in dairy recipes; cottonseed oil used as fat during Passover; and a proliferation of unpronounceable chemical additives the OU somehow certifies as kosher—though they are certainly not “fit to eat.” To say nothing of prepared mixes for making latkes from potato powder and jars of grey dust-colored orbs in fish jelly.

Some Ashkenazi cookbook authors try to reinvent the cuisine for today’s palate. Others  recycle “authentic” recipes, relying on your inner Bubbe Nostalgia  to heighten the taste quotient. Well, to paraphrase Bogie to Bergman, “we’ll always have bubbes.” But Liz and Jeffrey rarely see a need to inject new flavors into their dishes to make them appealing. While they initially toyed with au courant seasonings like curry, sriracha, and turmeric in their gefilte fish, for example, ultimately, they tell me, they realized they preferred to "build on top of the classic flavors of the Ashkenazi kitchen. We use ingredients that weren’t available in the shtetl of course, but we are mainly interested in introducing flavors that are complementary, rather than flavors that mask the Ashkenazi nature of the dishes." (A semi-exception here is their inspired kimchi-stuffed cabbage.)

Instead of reimagining, they are reclaiming a cuisine that has offered naturally great eating to begin with—“as balanced and nutrient rich as any of the popular diets we deem healthy today.” Far from the all-brown meals East European Jewish cooking conjures up to most of us, it’s full of color: a borscht “with swirls of sour cream the most stunning shade of magenta in the natural world, and carrot citrus horseradish…the brightest condiment” in the pantry.

Their clever use of leftovers sounds like resourceful generations of yesterday's Jews, but tastes like today: pickle brine goes into breads, salad dressings, and cocktails. A bumper crop of grapes gets spiced with cardamom and pickled.

So food  lovers who fear that  Ashkenazi cuisine will succumb to kitsch or finish in a fusion of pancetta-wrapped matzoh balls can take heart in The Gefilte Manifesto that  Liz and Jeffrey issued: “…taking food traditions seriously and reclaiming the glory of Ashkenazi food—what it has been and what it can be. We of The Gefilteria plan to bring our foods out of the jar and back to the streets, to the pushcarts where it began, to the flavors of the people.”

Rumors of the death of Ashkenazi cuisine have been greatly exaggerated. The Millennials have taken charge!

For a sample of their cooking, try their delectable Crispy Chicken with Tsimmes (below). It’s perfect for the fall holidays,yet easy enough for a weekday dinner too.

Sephardic or Askhenazi