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Food in the United States

by Joan Nathan

In 1901 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Lizzie Black Kander published a pamphlet entitled The Settlement Cook Book: A Way to a Man’s Heart. Containing one hundred nonkosher German-Jewish and turn-of-the century American recipes, The Settlement Cook Book, now in its twenty-second edition, soon turned into one of the most successful American cookbooks ever published. The proceeds were used to help the wave of immigrants that swept into the United States at the turn of the century, and, in later years, provided the seed money to build the Milwaukee Jewish Community Center. Coming when it did, the cookbook marked a watershed in assimilation.

Kander, the daughter of German-Jewish pioneer farmers, was known as the Jane Addams of Milwaukee for her work on behalf of Eastern European immigrants. In 1896, she established the Milwaukee Jewish Mission, or settlement house, in quarters borrowed from two synagogues. By 1898, the mission had begun to sponsor cooking classes every Sunday for these immigrants. The mission women taught the girls, who ranged in age from thirteen to fifteen, how to build a fire, cook, and bake. They learned to prepare such dishes as German kuchen, cranberry jelly, and waffles in the only kosher cooking school this side of New York, according to the Sentinel, a Milwaukee newspaper. Each girl would prepare her own dish, often with her mother, older sisters, or friends as spectators.

Although they were not schooled in “New World” cooking, the young pupils of the mission kitchen were better versed in the practices of kashrut than their teachers, a problem that led to some uncomfortable moments. In 1901, the Sentinel wrote about the kashrut problems of the teacher, Miss Pattee, a graduate of the Boston Cooking School: “The other day the little tea table at which the children were to set the food they had been preparing was all in white except for a red bordered napkin laid on as a centerpiece. It gave a bit of color to the table and added to the decorative effect, but the red bordered napkin was ‘fleischig’ and it happened to be a ‘milchig’ lunch so it had to be removed before the meal could proceed. … Sometimes Miss Pattee forgets about the ‘kosher’ and mixes up the custard and the bouillon spoons, but there is always a small girl with large dark eyes and a wealth of coal black hair to point out the mistake.”

These small girls knew how to make gefilte fish and to weave eight braids in their hallah. Like more than two-thirds of the millions of Jews in America today, they could trace their roots to greater Poland, including parts of Austria and Hungary (Galicia), the Ukraine, Lithuania, and Russia. “Jewish food” came into its own with the arrival of these immigrants. Many Polish and Russian dishes not considered Jewish in Europe, like herring in sour cream, rye bread, and borscht, became identified in the U.S. as Jewish.

The first national Jewish women’s organization, the National Council of Jewish Women, was founded in the fall of 1893 as an outgrowth of a national Jewish Women’s Congress. By 1900, the 7,080 members in fifty-five cities helped support the rights of women, mission and industrial schools for poor Jewish children, free baths in Kansas City and Denver, and, of course, cooking classes in the settlement houses, such as Kander’s in Milwaukee. Council cookbooks were put out nationwide, with proceeds going toward such projects. Like The Settlement Cook Book, these books often had a German slant, included shellfish, especially oysters, and featured many goose recipes as well as other American dishes such as chicken chow mein, often made from leftover chicken soup, and Saratoga chips, a turn-of-the-century potato chip.

Other organizations followed suit. In September 1905, for example, the Montefiore Lodge Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Association of Providence, Rhode Island, published the following in a newsletter: “It was voted that ‘this lodge publish and sell a cookbook of favorite recipes.’ Two separate committees were appointed, one for the cooking recipes and the other to solicit advertising.”

Helping the new wave of Eastern European Jewish immigrants was a major concern for the more assimilated Jewish women from coast to coast. Between 1881 and 1921, the year of the first law restricting Jewish immigration, almost 2.5 million of these Eastern European Jews arrived in cities throughout the United States. All were looking for a new life; many were also hoping to hold onto their Orthodoxy, which included the dietary laws, while others were radicals who rebelled against such traditions.

They came to the U.S. carrying with them their brass candlesticks, mortars and pestles, and pots and pans, as well as century-old recipes. In many instances whole Jewish communities were transplanted, including the rabbi and shohet [person officially licensed by rabbinic authority to slaughter meat in accordance with Jewish dietary laws] . They crowded into New York’s Lower East Side, Chicago’s West Side, Boston’s North End, South Philadelphia, and neighborhoods in other cities. At one time there were almost four thousand kosher butcher shops in New York City alone. The immigrants were generally successful in finding work and housing and became a part of a network of familiar social and cultural institutions, such as landsmanshaftn, the Jewish mutual aid societies that were formed by immigrants originating from the same villages, towns, and cities in Eastern Europe. A square block in an immigrant area in any American city would include overcrowded tenements, sweatshops, basement synagogues, saloons, and cafes. In the typical tenement, tiny apartments burst with large families, boarders, and little air.

As the immigrants adjusted to the new food habits, they quickly forgot some of the foods of their poverty, like krupnick, a cereal soup made from oatmeal, sometimes barley, potatoes, and fat. If a family could afford it, milk would be added to the krupnick. If not, it was called “soupr mit nisht” [supper with nothing]. Bagels, knishes, or herring wrapped in a newspaper would be taken back to the sweatshop, providing a poor substitute for the midday lunch they were used to in Eastern Europe.

To combat all these changes and the rise of Reform Judaism in America, many Orthodox Jews clung to their old traditions, including kashrut. (The first kosher cookbook published in America, Jewish Cookery by Esther Levy, appeared in 1871). It was not always easy. In 1881 in Denver, for example, Jews were unable to acquire kosher meat, so they either had to practice ritual slaughtering for themselves or eat no meat. Later, many of them would become Conservative Jews.

One Orthodox Jew, Rabbi Hyman Sharfman, went from Kennebunkport, Maine, to Corpus Christi, Texas, in a gearless cycle car, sometimes on horseback, kashering meat and teaching people in the community how to do it themselves. Another, Dov Behr Manischewitz, hearing of the huge center of Reform Judaism in Cincinnati, decided to settle there as a shohet. He later made his fortune in the mazzah industry.

The diverse Orthodox immigrant groups lacked unified Jewish leadership. In a small town in Russia, for example, the rabbi was the leader, and everyone went to the same shohet. In New York, with millions of people and thousands of kosher butchers, not to mention the importance of the separation between church and state, there was no central authority to whom to turn for validation of the religious laws. In 1888, eighteen Orthodox synagogues in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore organized themselves and brought over Jacob Joseph, the chief rabbi of Vilna, as their head. Among his other duties, he was supposed to organize the kosher meat business. Not surprisingly, considering what he was up against, he failed miserably. By 1917, at the height of Orthodoxy in America, there were a million Jews eating 156 million pounds of kosher meat annually—or at least meat they believed to be kosher. With no central authority, individual rabbis were putting hekhsher (kosher) stamps on the meat. Some was kosher, some was not. It was not until 1944 that a food inspection bureau to authenticate kosher meats was formed in New York State. It remains in operation to this day, and its inspectors regularly spot-check all kosher meat markets across the state—yet there are still occasional problems.

Because of escalating prices, kosher meat and bread riots broke out at the turn of the century with women leading the lines. One boycott was dubbed the “war of the women against the butchers.” The battle cry became “twelve cents instead of eighteen cents a pound.”

Eastern European immigrants, many of them deeply interested in the way food was prepared, found great opportunities in the food business. The butchers, bakers, and pushcart peddlers of herring and pickles soon became small-scale independent grocers, wine merchants, and wholesale meat, produce, and fruit providers. As it was in Europe with the religious, it was often the woman who ran the store as well as the family while the husband studied in the back.

Not only did these immigrants go into the business of food, but they also adapted their Eastern European food ways to the new environment. Sunday, for example, a second day of rest, provided them with new gastronomic opportunities like a dairy brunch, an embellishment of their simple dairy dinners in Europe. Bagels, an afternoon snack food in Europe, became embellished with lox and cream cheese and eventually became an American icon.

While the women’s organizations were working to help less fortunate Eastern Europeans, another revolution was taking place—that of food technology and scientific discovery. Pioneer women like Lizzie Kander’s mother made their own yeast, corned their own beef, and prepared their own ketchups and pickles. Slowly the kitchen was transformed, liberating women from time-consuming chores. Not only was Heinz producing its bottled ketchups and fledgling companies making kosher canned foods, but companies were manufacturing a white vegetable substance resembling lard—the shortening that would change forever the way Jewish women cooked. Three years after Crisco was invented in 1910, Procter & Gamble was advertising that this totally vegetable shortening was a product for which the “Hebrew Race had been waiting 4,000 years.” Other inventions, too, like cream cheese, rennet, gelatin, junket, Jell-O, pasteurized milk, Coca-Cola, nondairy creamer, phyllo dough, and frozen foods would affect Jewish cooking in America.

With the growth of food companies, delicatessens, school lunch programs, and restaurants, American food and American Jewish food became more processed and more innovative. In 1925, the average American housewife made all her food at home. By 1965, seventy-five to ninety percent of the food she had used had undergone some sort of factory processing.

As the latest wave of Eastern European Jews became more Americanized, they began trying new dishes like macaroni and cheese and canned tuna casseroles. Jewish cookbooks included recipes for Creole dishes, for chicken fricassee using canned tomatoes, and shortcut kuchen using baking powder. Many of these Jews cared little about the impact of scientific discoveries on kashrut. Others cared deeply.

At the turn of the century, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the umbrella organization for Orthodox Jews, was established as a means of bringing cohesion to the fragmented immigrant Jewish populations. In 1923, the year it created its women’s branch, and four years after women won the right to vote, the union’s official kashrut supervision and certification program was introduced.

At about that time, a New York advertising genius named Joseph Jacobs encouraged big companies to advertise their mainstream packaged products in the Yiddish press. Jacobs’s mission was to change the way Americans thought about Jewish dietary practices. The chains and the big food companies did not know how to promote to a Yiddish-speaking population since they employed no Jews. Jacobs encouraged the Maxwell House coffee company to write a Haggadah and helped Crisco and Pillsbury to produce Yiddish-English cookbooks to teach the immigrant women, who would salivate over the illustrations in the Ladies’ Home Journal but could not read English. Now they could use Crisco to make an “American” apple or lemon meringue pie; better yet, they could serve their children “southern fried” chicken.

When canned products like H.J. Heinz Company’s baked beans and pork came on the market, an inventive man named Joshua C. Epstein, an Orthodox Jew, had a thought: What if Heinz made kosher vegetarian baked beans? Company officials liked Epstein’s suggestions, but they balked at the idea of writing “kosher” in Hebrew or English on the package. “Heinz wanted something identifiable, but not too Jewish: they didn’t want to antagonize the non-Jewish population,” recalls Abraham Butler, the son of Frank Butler, Heinz’s first mashgiah. With Jacobs and Rabbi Herbert Goldstein, one of the founders of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations of America, the three devised the Orthodox Union OU symbol, today the best-recognized trademark of the some 120 symbols of kosher certification.

Jews went into the packaged-food business, too. In a land of opportunity, some food merchants struck it rich. One Chicago baker named Charley Lubin made a luscious cheesecake; it was the beginning of the age of frozen foods, so he tried freezing his cake. It worked, and he named it Sara Lee, after his daughter.

The fast-growing influence of radio and television affected how Americans saw each other and how products were sold. The Goldbergs, a program about a fictional Bronx family, reached a radio audience of ten million in the 1930s and at least forty million two decades later on television. Just as I Remember Mama taught us about Scandinavians, The Goldbergs familiarized non-Jews with a simple, everyday Jewish family. Sometimes Molly Goldberg just cooked throughout the whole program, cutting up a chicken or chopping herring as the problems of her family paraded through her kitchen.

After World War II another “cooking lady” stepped onto television. Her name was Edith Green, and her popular Your Home Kitchen ruled the airwaves in the San Francisco Bay area from 1949 to 1954. Although this “queen of the range” was Jewish, her cooking was American—and it was “gourmet.” A week’s recipes might include veal scallopini, coffee chocolate icebox cake, coconut pudding, or frozen tuna mold. She also showed her viewers how to use the new gadgets, such as electric mixers and electric can openers, that were the products of the postwar period of affluence.

As Jewish women became more Americanized, notions of “Jewish food” changed with the availability of regional ingredients. Taste buds adjusted to local spices and new dietary guidelines. While Jews in Burlington, Vermont, ate potato latkes with maple syrup, Californians preferred theirs with local goat cheese. Gefilte fish was made with whitefish in the Midwest, salmon in the Far West, and haddock in Maine. The matzah balls, gefilte fish, and even the Passover desserts American Jews eat today are certainly very different from those eaten in Europe or in the U.S. a century ago.

But while much of “Jewish food” has changed with the times, some women use food precisely as a way to memorialize the past. Holocaust survivors and other immigrant women pass on their memories of the food—and life—they once knew by preparing lokshen kugel (noodle pudding), tzimmes (stewed carrots), mandelbrot (a strudel-like butter cookie) and kreplach (dumplings), providing their children and grandchildren with a “taste of the past” that reflects their cultural and geographic origins. Taken as a whole, they encapsulate the diversity of American Jewish life today.

Another change notable at the beginning of the twenty-first century is the increasing number of Jewish women who have entered the food industry, specifically, the kosher food business. The traditional male enclave of Empire Kosher Chickens and Gold’s Horseradish has now been joined by Lilly, Carol Ann, Aunt Gussie, My Mother’s Delicacies—women’s names. An even greater change is the fact that many of these women are Orthodox. While Orthodox Jews own a disproportionate number of kosher firms, the women of this community were generally not encouraged to enter the business world. But now, a growing acceptance of women working outside the home, combined with the need to support their large families and a traditional inclination towards the culinary arts, has led to a growing trend of Orthodox women-owned food companies of varying sizes. At the 2004 Kosherfest in New York City, the annual trade fair of the industry, women in wigs and long skirts presented a range of products to their fellow tradespeople. Twenty percent of the booths represented businesses owned or operated by women, a significant increase over the fair’s earlier years.

Jewish women have now joined the race to satisfy the rising international appetite for kosher food—primarily among non-Jews, who consider “kosher” to be indicative of healthier, cleaner products—an eight billion dollar industry in the United States alone. Ironically, while many Jews have abandoned the rules of kashrut, non-Jews have begun to seek out kosher food. But no matter who is looking for it, whether on an individual, familial or commercial level, American Jewish women of the twenty-first century have an important role to play in providing the food for, and of, American Jews.

Bibliography

Green, Edith. Oral interview, July 1991; Heinze, Andrew R. Adapting to Abundance (1990); Jacobs, Richard. Oral interview, 1991; Kander, Lizzie Black. Microfilm material. American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati; Lipman, Steve. “Crashing the Kosher Party.” The Jewish Week, October 29, 2004; Marcus, Jacob Rader. Memoirs of American Jews, 1775–1865 (1955); Nathan, Joan. Jewish Cooking in America (1994), The Jewish Holiday Kitchen (1979), and “Lights of Life, Food of Memory. The New York Times, Dec. 1, 2004; Sachar, Howard M. A History of the Jews in America (1992); Schleifer, Yigal. “Kashrut Goes Global.” The Jerusalem Report, Dec. 13, 2004; Sharfman, I. Harold. Jews on the Frontier (1977).

How to cite this page

Nathan, Joan. "Food in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 22, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/food-in-united-states>.

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