>> “The 100 Most Jewish Foods:
A Highly Debatable List”
Publisher: Artisan, 2019
>> “The Brisket Chronicles”
Publisher: Workman, 2019
Give the gourmand steak au poivre and the literati Ulysses because sometimes all you’re craving is familiar meat and a quick read. Those mildly hungry for books dedicated to Jewish cuisine should look no further than “The 100 Most Jewish Foods” by Tablet’s Alana Newhouse, and “The Brisket Chronicles” by Steven Raichlen. Like peanut butter and bananas, the two texts can be paired or enjoyed individually, as each offers beautiful photographs, accessible writing and the ability to allow readers to nibble away at passages without any need of finishing the whole.
Newhouse’s work is a “highly debatable list,” as she puts it.
“This is not a list of today’s most popular Jewish foods, or someone’s ideas of the tastiest, or even the most enduring,” she writes. “What’s here, instead, are the foods that contain the deepest Jewish significance — the ones that, through the history of our people (however you date it), have been most profoundly inspired by the rhythms of the Jewish calendar and the contingencies of the Jewish experience.”
Caveat accepted. Which is perhaps why brisket, horseradish and kichel appear, but falafel and Sunkist Fruit Gems do not.
The book presents each food accompanied by a short vignette and recipe. Occasional information is sprinkled throughout the pages, such as the rise in sesame-related eats (see “Halvah”) and insights into Soviet cuisine (see “Borscht”), but overall the text is light on history. Those thirsting for taxonomic entries seasoned with origins and etymologies should read Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food — the comprehensive collection offers more than a mouthful for most Jewish readers. What Newhouse’s text brings to the table is an array of entertaining writers (or, as she calls them, “an unexpected collection of contributors”), including Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Zac Posen and Shalom Auslander. Sometimes, as Newhouse points out, the contributors are more interesting than the food themselves, as evidenced by Auslander’s searing take on cholent: The author’s sad childhood memories are combined with an imaginary Oliver Twist and an encounter with the divine.
“The Brisket Chronicles” is less diverse, honing in on what Raichlen calls “the world’s most epic cut of meat.” Apart from explaining how to purchase, prepare and serve brisket, Raichlen packs his pages with mouthwatering images and instructions.
In a passage dedicated to “a real deal Texas-style brisket,” he writes, “Well, here’s the big kahuna: fourteen pounds of pure proteinaceous awesomeness. The brisket that makes reputations — and fortunes… I suggest serving it unadorned so you can appreciate the complex interplay of salt, spice, smoke, meat and fat. Texas tradition calls for a loaf of spongy factory-made white bread. Or up the ante and serve it with garlicky Lone Star Toast.”
Raichlen’s writing offers a particular flavor that, like its subject, teeters between bravado and subtle sweetness. When discussing brisket sous vide and its secondary status to “the real McCoy,” Raichlen notes, “Cooking brisket involves struggle — man against meat, as it were. Struggle in rendering the fat, converting the collagen into gelatin, in caramelizing, even in controlled-burning the animal proteins into a crust.
In a very real sense, that struggle comes through in the taste.” Later, when lionizing his Aunt Annette’s holiday brisket, he writes, “Long before my indoctrination into barbecue, I ate brisket. So did every other Jewish kid in the neighborhood. Brisket was the ultimate holiday dish, and nobody made it better than my aunt, Annette Farber… Lavished with apricots, prunes and other dried fruits, it was the sort of sweet-salty, meaty-fruity mash-up typical of so much Ashkenazi cuisine.”
Elements of Raichlen’s rhetoric feel a bit overseasoned, but in general the narrative flavoring works throughout. Ultimately, the book bodes well as a multi-seasonal gift or instruction manual. Part investigator, part cookbook, part food porn, “The Brisket Chronicles,” offers a bit of what so many readers are searching for: a delightful way to satiate their hunger. pjc
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.