In defense of Jewish food
It was just over a week ago that my advisor told me about Josh Ozserky’s article entitled "The Kugel Conundrum" in which Ozserky bluntly declares, “Jewish food is awful.” My first reaction was one of incredulity and I wondered whether a convincing argument could be made against Jewish food. However, reading Ozserky’s attack on Jewish food, I found an article that was filled with broad generalizations, arguments that didn’t hold up, as well as an author that couldn’t see the richness of Jewish Ashkenazi food traditions.
Ozserky begins his article by explaining that in referring to Jewish food he means “the familiar Eastern European Jewish food that most American Jews of [his] generation grew up eating […],” and not kosher food, which he says, belongs to a department of its own. However, anyone who is familiar with Jewish food will know that it is fundamentally kosher food. Throughout time, Jews have taken the food of the communities in which they settled and made it “Jewish” by adapting it to conform to the laws of kashrut. Thus, traditional Jewish recipes are inherently kosher and to say that kosher food is a separate category of its own reveals a lack of understanding concerning the development of the Jewish community’s food traditions.
Following the above statement, Ozserky states that he was not thinking about the food of Jewish communities in Spain, Israel and Argentina when he was writing this article. Yet what Ozserky fails to remember is that Jewish American food is made up of more than the foods of Eastern European Jews. Ashkenazi food has become the most well known Jewish food in the US, but there is so much more that makes up Jewish American food culture. To privilege Ashkenazi Jewish food is to ignore the place of other Jewish communities in Jewish American life and the important role they play in shaping its character and culture.
One of the most surprising statements Ozserky makes in the course of this article came in the form of the following sentence, “Nobody is giving Jewish food the Torrisi treatment, raising up to a world-class level and celebrating its flavor profiles.” This short statement shows his huge disconnect with current Jewish food trends in the US. Eastern European Jewish food is seeing a revival where chefs are preparing traditional Ashkenazi recipes using quality ingredients and treating the food with the utmost respect to create delicious dishes that celebrate tradition. Restaurants that do so are opening all over North America with some examples being Mile End in Brooklyn, Caplansky’s in Toronto, Kenny and Zukes in Portland and Wise Sons in San Francisco.
Ultimately, in saying that Jewish Ashkenazi food traditions are "desolate," Ozserky is undermining the long tradition of Jewish women who have shaped the preparation of the foods that make up the Ashkenazi culinary repertoire. Food and its preparation has been one of the few areas in which Jewish women have yielded authority and has long been one of the premier ways Jewish culture has been passed on, two factors which serve to imbue this area with great importance. This article also serves to dismiss the important work that myself and many other talented Jewish food writers and researchers are doing.
Jewish food culture is alive and vibrant, with more and more people taking a renewed interest in it, and in turn constantly expanding what Jewish food means. Therefore, I think Ozserky should reexamine his position and look beyond the “dry and flavorless brisket, cooked in a salty fluid of Campbell’s beef broth and Lipton onion soup mix” he knows and reconnect with the wonderful world of Jewish cuisine.