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From the Jewish Heartland: Two Centuries of Midwest Foodways, by Ellen F. Steinberg and Jack H. Prost. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011. 207 pp. $32.95.
As the daughter of a celebrated Midwestern Jewish cook (she was a finalist in the 1968 Pillsbury Bake-Off), I was eager to learn about the history of Midwestern Jews and their cooking. From the Jewish Heartland is the first volume in Heartland Foodways, a welcome new series from the University of Illinois Press. Unfortunately, the book does little to identify exactly what heartland Jewish food is. In many places assimilation has obliterated the distinctiveness of Jewish food, which remains alive only in a few old-style delicatessens and at the holiday table. So what is it that makes Midwestern Jewish cooking distinctive, or at least identifiable as a regional style?
Ellen F. Steinberg and Jack H. Prost are indefatigable sleuths who have tracked down some wonderful archival sources, but they don’t cast a critical enough eye on their discoveries or synthesize the material they have found into broader conclusions about what constitutes Jewish food in the Midwest. Some additions to the bibliography might have helped complicate their argument, for instance Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s essays on “Kitchen Judaism” and “The Kosher Gourmet in the Nineteenth-Century Kitchen: Three Jewish Cookbooks in Historical Perspective”; David Gitlitz and Linda Davidson’s A Drizzle of Honey (on the cooking of Spain’s conversos); and David Sax’s Save the Deli. Although the authors state that they couldn’t find any recipes for matzo in recent cookbooks (p. 130), Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Bread Bible (2003), Maggie Glezer’s A Blessing of Bread (2004), and Greg Patent’s A Baker’s Odyssey (2007) offer evidence to the contrary.
The volume provides too little context for understanding the significance of how early Jewish immigrants to the Midwest ate, because their culinary adaptations appear similar to those of many immigrant groups. The authors state that the German Jews who arrived after 1848 “were quite like their gentile German neighbors . . . solidly middle class, urban, and urbane” (p. 26). How, then, were their foodways distinguished? Did they ever share the same neighborhoods, or frequent the same stores? As for the later wave of Eastern European immigrants, it is hard to agree that “one would have had a difficult time distinguishing between an Eastern European Jewish town or village and the communities these refugees established in midwestern cities” (p. 53). Life in the Pale of Settlement was largely rural, not urban, and the threat of pogrom or famine was never distant. Though the communities these Jews established in the United States were insular and overcrowded, life in them was decidedly more secure.
The most useful parts of the book are the discussions of the Jewish Agricultural Office and of the Americanization courses sponsored by Jewish organizations, the most famous being Lizzie Black Kander’s Milwaukee Jewish Mission, whose work led to the 1901 publication of the now-classic Settlement Cookbook. Much more could have been done with the thorny matter of assimilation by looking closely at the issues surrounding kashrut that accompanied the rise of the Jewish Reform Movement in Cincinnati. Overall, the book’s methodology remains unclear. On what basis were recipes chosen from the modern Jewish fund-raising cookbooks? They seem randomly selected and not necessarily representative. Even more important, what criteria were used to determine something’s Jewishness?
For instance, how is Barry Levinson’s Mustard Museum part of the history of Jewish food in the Midwest? The answer would seem to be because Levinson is Jewish and mustard is served at delicatessens. In fact, when the authors visited the museum they “listened to the accordion ensemble [and] sang ‘Roll Out the Mustard’ to the tune of the ‘Beer Barrel Polka’” (p. 149). Both accordion and polka are more representative of the Midwest’s strong Czech, Polish, and German populations than of Jewish tradition. Elsewhere, the numerous recipes in the book are said to “demonstrate the myriad artful and imaginative ways in which the Jewish cook might celebrate his or her identity. When certain ingredients were not available, substitutions were made; recipes were borrowed, tried out, assessed, perhaps ‘tweaked’ a bit, then passed along” (p. 38). Such practices are common to any immigrant group, so it is not clear what makes certain recipes Jewish. I asked myself this question repeatedly as I encountered recipes for Wild Rice Soup (p. 151), Zucchini Soup (p. 152) (which doesn’t “fit into Sephardic tradition” simply because it contains zucchini), or Huckleberry Pie (p. 128), not to my mind a clear “expression of Jewish identity.”
Though the authors are excellent researchers, they are not as adept in the kitchen as they are in the archives. To write about food one needs to understand ingredients and cooking techniques and have a grasp of culinary history. Thus, while individual errors might by themselves seem insignificant, they are problematic when they accumulate. To name just a few: Fried Leek Pancakes are categorized under “legumes” (p. 20); a cake the authors consider impossible to “reconstruct” (p. 112) is a straightforward sponge cake; the use of pickling spices and lima beans in cholent is not “unusual” (p. 116); carrots originated not in Turkey (p. 118) but in Afghanistan; the Balkans, not the Baltics (p. 86), were “known as grape-growing regions” in the nineteenth century (the Baltics were famed for their hops, not their vines).
Although we learn many interesting details about individual Jewish experiences in the Midwest, the book does not leave us with a real taste of heartland Jewish food. The chapter on “How to Cook” offers two contrasting models: Irma Frankenstein embraced Americanization while Ruth Dunie clung to Old World ways (p. 102). So what do their recipes tell us about Jewish cooking in the Heartland? Did my mother’s winning recipe for Onion Olé make her more or less of a Jewish cook? Unfortunately this book does not provide a satisfying answer.