THE BOOK OF LIFE - The 100 Most Jewish Foods
3:18PM Nov 17, 2019
COLD OPEN: It was a November day, I was cold. I went to go and make myself a cup of tea. And Stephanie Butnick, Tablet's deputy editor, and deputy editor of my book, called out to me and said, would you put that tea bag aside when you're done? I need a cup of tea too. And then someone else on the other side of the room yells Yes, Steph, leave it for me also, we all looked at each other. And we thought, Oh my gosh, the used teabag. Of course, course. It's a Jewish food.
MUSIC, INTRO: This is The Book of Life. I'm Heidi Rabinowitz. The 100 Most Jewish Foods, A Highly Debatable List started as a fun interactive feature on the website of Tablet Magazine, and then grew up to be a book. Today we've got an interview with the book's editor, Alana Newhouse, by The Book of Life's Canadian Correspondent Anne Dublin. B'tay avon! Good appetite!
This is Anne Dublin, Canadian Correspondent for The Book of Life podcast in Toronto. I'm delighted to interview Alana Newhouse, editor of a fascinating new book called The 100 Most Jewish Foods, A Highly Debatable List. NPR's The Salt calls it a love letter to food, family, faith and identity and the deliciously tangled way they come together. Alana is editor in chief of Tablet Magazine, a daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas and culture. Before that she spent five years as culture editor of The Forward where she supervised coverage of books films, dance, music, art and ideas. A graduate of Barnard College and Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Alana has contributed to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and Slate. I interviewed Alana via Skype at her home in New York City. Alana Newhouse, welcome to The Book of Life podcast.
Thank you so much for having me.
Your book The 100 Most Jewish Foods grew out of an interactive feature of Tablet Magazine. So Alana, can you tell us how the concept of this book developed? What was the spark that led you to create this book?
So Tablet, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary since we started the site, which is an online magazine, we had occasionally done "best of" lists. We did the hundred most Jewish songs and the hundred greatest Jewish films. We also did 101 great Jewish books. And as I was thinking about these projects, which we sort of saw as creating a canon of Jewish creative products, I couldn't help but realize that the next one had to be food. It was just a natural idea that came to me at one point and just seemed almost so obvious that I couldn't believe it wasn't the first list that we had done. So it grew out of features that we had already regularly done here.
Well, it's an interesting title because you're not saying the 100 best Jewish foods you're saying the 100 most Jewish foods. And before we go on, and before I ask you why you chose the items you did, I have to make a big confession. My least favorite food on the list is something called petchah, jellied calfs feet. Yeah, my mom served it sometimes for Friday night dinner instead of gefilte fish. I ate the minimum I had to without being yelled at for wasting good food. So it gave me a real kick to see that that was on your list. So I'm sure it was very difficult to choose the 100 most Jewish foods. So what criteria did you use?
Yeah, you're right to point out that it's absolutely not a list of the 100 best Jewish foods if I thought I was getting myself in trouble by making this list, trying to organize and categorize foods based on people's personal preferences would have been a real disaster. What we wanted to do instead of listing foods by their culinary success, or not, or by how popular they are currently, both of which felt like kind of irrelevant markers, frankly, was we wanted to encourage people to see food as historical driver of the Jewish story, and as something that was woven into the Jewish experience throughout history and around the globe. So when we looked at foods, we tried our best to find foods, some of which were metaphorical, like the apple from the Garden of Eden. And some of which are foods that I don't think are made at all these days, including eyerlekh, which are unhatched chicken eggs. Doubtless the countries where the Jews who would eat them live, many of them a lot of regions, so they're not allowed to be sold or eaten. But that's not really what was important. What was important was whether or not a food was a central part of a Jewish experience at one point, and whether that experience and the significance of it was something that we felt was part of our inheritance and to be seen that way. So those were our criteria. And it's of course subjective. It's based on a group of staffers at a magazine in one place doing their best to research and understand style. videos of Jewish history around this entire globe. But that's it. Those are the markers that we felt were valuable.
One of the things I loved about the book was the fact that you chose food from various traditions and places around the globe, and not just Sephardic and Ashkenazi, but Persian and Indian. And I can't even think of all of them, Puerto Rican, right. But something else that I thought was quirky and funny and great, was that you chose some things that I wouldn't necessarily call foods, right, like Bazooka gum, and Sweet and Low. So why did you choose things like that?
Well, I mean, you can also ask the same question as to why did we choose beverages? I think that we chose things that were part of the food experience for Jews. So obviously wine is a huge part of the Jewish experience, but so is seltzer, which is on the list, so is slivovitz, which is on the list, and so are what I would call foodstuffs, which may not be food that you cook or prepare in your own home or your kitchen but were nevertheless, a big part of Jewish eating experience. Those things include sugar cereals, which people who grew up observant would eat on Shabbat morning because they couldn't have a hot breakfast, or even Sweet and Low. And of course,Bazooka gum, and salt, which is a condiment, you can't even imagine, kosher food would not exist in the way that it exists and the entire cuisine wouldn't taste the way it does without salt, but it's not technically a food. So it just felt like it would be too limiting to make it only about the foods that you could eat in your home.
Well this is much much more than a cookbook. It's chock full of stories, stories about family, stories of traditions, stories of our history. So, Alana, how did you choose who would tell which story about which food? Because you're the editor of this book, I think you wrote one or two entries, but you're the editor. So how did you choose who's going to tell which story?
So when we decided to do this, we reached out to a bunch of very smart people who are sort of in our orbit, food writers, historians, cultural critics, reporters, who cover different communities. And we basically issued a very general call, we told them we were doing it and asked them for their thoughts as general or as specific as they wanted to get. And right off the bat people started asking for specific entries, they would say like brisket has to be on the list and I want to write it or you know, if somebody is going to do pastrami it better be me, and so, right away, we had certain entries stolen, right off the bat. But then the original list was about three or 400 entries because we went really wide with it. And then as we started narrowing it down, we needed to turn to people for much more specific and detailed history and questions. And so as we started turning to specific people, we realized that people that you might not expect to have had expertise in an area really did. So then we were able to match it up. And then there were just gifts like, we all happen to be just generally fans of Ed Lee, who's amazing food writer. So we reached out to him and asked him if there was any Jewish food that he had a particular relationship with. And it turns out he did and it was chopped liver and it's one of my favorite entries. So it happened a little bit helter skelter over many months, but I think in some ways, some of the matches turned out to be even better and more unexpected, in part because we let the process unfold organically.
And that leads me to my next question. So, as an editor, what did you find was the hardest part of editing this book?
It was choosing and narrowing down the entries. You know, it's painful like we have one entry for deli. So pastrami and corned beef don't even get their own entries in this book.
But if I opened the door, to that... right, I know! But if I had opened the door to that, I mean, my god, the whole book could have just been 100 best Jewish deli entires...
Well, yeah, like David Sax's book.
Exactly. And I'm sure if David had his way I would have given him 30 of the entries for deli. So we had to make painful choices. It was hard for me, you know, I see the flattening of whole universe of food when you just put one entry in for deli. There's also flattening of universes of food when you do something like, you know, there isn't matzo ball soup in the book, there's chicken soup and there's matzo balls, which are two different entries, in part because we really did see them as two different foods that had two different lores and roles that they played. But there is something funny about not having matzo ball soup as a whole entry. But we couldn't have matzo balls, chicken soup and matzo ball soup, I mean at some point the distinctions starts to overwhelm you.
Well, maybe you'll have to have second volume the next 100 most Jewish foods. So Alana, of all the entries in there, is the one that touched you the most?
I think that I was very inspired by the adafina entry. Adafina is a Sabbath Stew that was made on the Iberian Peninsula after the expulsion from Spain and Portugal and it was assumed that because there were Jews who had Christianized, either against their own will or voluntarily, but had wanted to retain their Jewishness and their Jewish tradition, they would secretly make a Sabbath Stew, slow cooking it over Friday night and Saturday, never using salt pork. Which was not a very popular thing. And they would do this at grave danger, in fact, because their servants were frequently called on by the authorities to tell them whether or not the people of the house were cooking this dish because it was seen as a marker of Jewishness. And to me the idea that food should be seen as just a frippery or something unserious and not actually a marker of identity is really undermined by that one entry where you see that food was for many people the entirety of their identity. And often they put themselves in grave danger to maintain it and to save it and to protect it. So it struck me that it was important for us to protect the memory and the history of food like that.
So I just have a couple more questions. What's their favorite incident that happened while you were creating this book?
Yeah, for sure. It was the incident that ended up as the used tea bag entry, which is that for the original Tablet interactive project, we photographed all 100 foods the same day in a studio in New York. So we had to organize and arrange for all the foods to come into the studio. We had a spreadsheet on the wall where we would keep track of everything when the food came in and when it was individually photographed. And then when it was put on the table to be photographed all together. And it was a November day, I was cold. I went to go in make myself a cup of tea and Stephanie Butnick who's Tablet's deputy editor and deputy editor of the book, called out to me and said would you put that teabag aside when you're done, I need a cup of tea too. And then someone else on the other side of the room yelled yes Steph, leave it for me also. And we all looked at each other and we thought, Oh my gosh, the used tea bag. Of course, of course it's a Jewish food.
But the problem was that we had already had our 100 food.s We had our list, we were in the middle of photographing it. And it turned out that, it was amazing, it was one of those amazing moments, where we realized that actually we only had 99 because we had miscounted. And so that used tea bag that we all shared that day is the one that we photographed.
It was beshert.
Well, I was just laughing about that because that's what my parents did. My brother and I used to tease them and ask how many cups of tea can you get from one tea bag. It was amazing how many they could get until itt was just like hot water. And I loved that entry. I loved it. So Alana, we're coming to the end. I do want to tell our listeners that if they go to the Tablet website, they can find a list of the foods A to Zed, and a little of the beginning of each story. But I hope that they buy the cookbook because it's it's a treasure trove of Jewish culture, our tradition, our food and some good recipes, too. I can't wait to try them.
I'm so glad.
So we'll put a link for that on The Book of Life podcast, Alana Newhouse, thank you for speaking with me today. I look forward to reading more and trying out some of the recipes in the 100 Most Jewish Foods, A Highly Debatable List.
TEASER: Hi, I am Marjorie Ingall, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and I will be joining Heidi to talk about where to find Jewish kidlit. And I want to dedicate my episode to all the awesome dogs who kids read to at libraries in those Read with Mudge programs where kids get to read to dogs and cuddle them and feel less self conscious about their struggling in their efforts to get words out because dogs are so non judgmental and awesome. So thank you to all the dogs.
That's adorable! Perfect, thank you.
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