Reclaiming Yiddish tam, one recipe at a time
Gefilteria co-founder is part of the retro chic Jewish food movement.
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
The Gefilte Manifesto, a new cookbook from Jeffrey Yoskowitz, who grew up in Summit and Basking Ridge, and Liz Alpern, his business partner who hails from Long Island and like Yoskowitz now lives in Brooklyn, showcases the foods people of a certain age left behind in our parents’ refrigerators. Borscht? Maybe your mother or grandmother swears by it at 89, but perhaps you have never deigned (or dared) to taste it. Sour cream, its age-old accompaniment? Didn’t modern medicine cast that off as artery-clogging poison? How about pastrami — salt, anyone?
And even if one had the tam (taste) for these foods, when would contemporary adults juggling work and home manage to find the luxury of time to cook slow foods like roast goose with apples and onion, or of course, stuffed gefilte fish?
That’s exactly the kind of questions Yoskowitz is hoping the book will raise, he told NJ Jewish News in a telephone interview just prior to the book’s Sept. 13 publication date.
At 32, he is part of a generation reclaiming the foods of his heritage and reintroducing them to millennials as something worth holding onto. When he was younger, he pointed out, “I never thought about these foods as a cuisine. I never thought about a pickle beyond the nearest deli.” More than that, he said, he remembers being focused on the much more interesting cuisines of the Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewish communities than the foods that adorned his family’s own Ashkenazi holiday table.
Yoskowitz is a food writer, slow food activist, and food entrepreneur who is a cofounder and co-owner of the Gefilteria. He is also an alumnus of Adamah, the Jewish farm program, and produced a documentary about the pork industry in Israel. One of his first published articles appeared in 2007 right here in the pages of NJJN, about mainstream brands and fast food chains going kosher.
He acknowledges that “maybe only one percent” of the people who read the book will actually make the pastrami or the goose, for example.
While he said he would be “thrilled” if people decide to make some pickles (which take 10 minutes of preparation, but seven days to eat — talk about “harnessing patience,” as he puts it), he has another goal beyond cooking. The cookbook is his way of advocating for Eastern European food ways to be added to the cannon of cuisine — “to make these old traditions relevant,” he said.
And that’s why it’s not just a cookbook, but rather a manifesto.
The book, as he and Alpern state right in the foreword, “is about reclaiming our time-honored foods and caring how they taste and how they’re sourced…it’s about reclaiming the glory of Ashkenazi food — what it has been and what it can be.”
With that in mind, each recipe is not just a recipe but a story, a nugget, a web that connects us to our past and hopes to send us into the future. Take the introduction to the recipe for old country sour cream: “In a world without refrigeration, soured cream was practical and delicious,” it begins. Along with some practical pointers and tips on how this recipe will differ from what is in the grocery store (think runny), the authors also quote from a story by classical Yiddish author I.L. Peretz. “And her face always looked strained and worried, as if her shipload of sour cream had just sunk.” (from “In the Mail,” written in 1893.) It’s an ingenious way not only to capture the meaning of sour cream in the shtetl but also to simultaneously promote Yiddish literature.
So for Yoskowitz this is about flavor — don’t get him started on Jewish delis that use vinegar brine for pickles instead of the traditional Jewish salt brine — but it is also about the rhythms of his ancestors’ lives, and the foods they ate when meat was scarce. “It’s about being resourceful — that’s part of the Ashkenazi Jewish cultural wisdom passed down. But as suburban kids in the 1980s and ’90s, we did not learn these traditions,” he said. “I was not proud of these foods growing up.” He added, “We want to restore pride in Yiddish language and culture and food.”
He traces his own fascination with Jewish slow food to a Passover seder in 2011 here in New Jersey. The family had sourced its gefilte fish alternately from Zayda’s, which closed its South Orange storefront in 2010, and from a place in Staten Island that was no longer convenient for the family.
“I came home for Passover, and we had nowhere to go to get our gefilte fish,” he told NJJN. “I said I’ll make it.” And he did — with his grandmother.
And that led to the original gefilte manifesto, a document he wrote five years ago about preserving Ashkenazi food ways.
The cookbook includes some twists on old favorites, like kimchi stuffed cabbage, and a vegetarian alternative replacing the ground beef with lentils; or the more daring dark chocolate roasted beet ice cream; as well as the lighter fare that Jews traditionally ate during the week, like a spiced blueberry soup, summer borscht, and sunflower salad.
As to the question of whether people will still eat some of the foods in the book, Yoskowitz argues that while low-fat diet trends nearly killed Jewish foods, the pendulum is swinging back. “Schmaltz is popular in the health food world. Butter is having a renaissance. These are myths that have been busted. Fat is not the devil,” he said. In fact, he added, “There are probiotics in pickles and sour cream — if you make them properly. We want to push back on the idea that these foods are unhealthy, especially before they were Americanized.”
On that score, NJJN checked in with registered nutritionist Susan K. Schachter, MSRDN (master of science registered dietician nutritionist), who agreed. “There is more evidence coming to the fore about whole-fat products being necessary and good for us but they have to be from the most natural sources. I’m not talking about organic. I’m talking about grass-fed cows.” She confirmed that pickles and sour cream do have probiotic properties, as long as they are sourced properly. However, she pointed out, “I don’t think you should fry anything. So potato latkes are not great,” she warned. Ditto for the salty meats.
Yoskowitz won’t disagree. Rather, he’ll tell you the fried foods and heavy meats “are foods to eat on a special occasion. We eat cake and cookies, so might as well eat salty and fatty.” And he will also explain how Americanization turned Sabbath foods like meat into everyday food that it was never meant to be. “Beef was so cheap in America that you could suddenly have corned beef or brisket every day. But understanding Jewish food means understanding how people dealt with scarcity,” he said.
He is also full of stories about the robust goose and mushroom trade on the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century, when it was still full of tenements rented by Jewish immigrants, before it was transformed and gentrified into today’s playground for the urban hip, full of bars and trendy restaurants.
He calls himself part of a “bridge generation” that glimpsed that old world that is disappearing. “The Jewish way of being in the world will be lost. And it’s incumbent upon us not to lose it,” he said. How’s that for a dose of traditional Jewish guilt?
Maybe he should chase it with a bowl of chicken soup — or a sour dill martini.