Making traditions relevant

Making traditions relevant

NEW YORK — Two relatively new books tell the story of American Jewry, weaving together its past and present by examining tradition and making it relevant to today’s reader.

Where Sue Fishkoff’s “Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority” (Schocken, 2010) is robust and detailed, Leah Koenig’s “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals for the Contemporary Jewish Kitchen” (Universe, 2011) is spacious and adaptable.

With the “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook,” Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America has attempted to free itself from the matzah ball-and-chain and community cookbooks of its nearly 90-year past and plunge itself into the present-day reality of America’s Jewish kitchen.

An increased interest in local and healthy food, and the amplified availability of kosher-certified products — with an assist from popular television shows — have created a market of ever-more sophisticated American Jewish consumers, and Koenig doesn’t shy away from using trendy food items such as quinoa, miso and pomegranate.

Food is an important part of the Jewish home during Shabbat and holidays, but Jewish sensibilities don’t always kick in on the days and weeks between. “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook” attempts to fill in the gap.

The recipes are simple and fast — no six-hour braising times or intimidating French techniques. The book is meant to be used, and through its use will continue the story of American Jewish cooking. The recipes are kosher, of course, and Koenig’s tone throughout is clear, concise and friendly. She informs the reader immediately that she is not a chef, and that a more experienced cook should “think of these recipes as flavors and ideas to riff off of.”

Some of its best recipes are among the more unusual. Honey-Glazed Carrots with Za’atar presents a synchronicity of the unexpected sweetness of carrots and honey and the zing of za’atar, a dried spice mixture common in Middle Eastern cooking, and lemon zest. Sweet Potato Kale Soup with White Beans and Caramelized Vegetable Soup utilizes familiar flavors in updated ways.

“Jewish” and Israeli foods make an appearance in the form of Cheesecake in a Jar, an attractive dessert inspired by a classic Jewish sweet; Quick(er) Borscht, a 30-minute remedy to an Eastern European comfort food; and Sabich, a fried eggplant sandwich commonly on the menu at falafel joints.

Generally the recipes in “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook” are global and health conscious, and more often than not vegetarian, reflecting an increased consumer consciousness of non-meat alternatives.

“Kosher Nation” contextualizes how it is that American Jewry got to a point where Walnut Pesto and Portobello Burgers, two foods not at all associated with traditional Jewish cuisine, appear in Koenig’s Jewish cookbook published by a major Jewish organization.

Written with the probing voice of a journalist like the JTA’s Fishkoff, “Kosher Nation” is a series of vignettes: the mashgiach in China hopping from factory to factory; the kosher winemaker experimenting in Napa; the Reform rabbi negotiating kashrut with a conflicted congregation.

Connecting these stories are data and history lessons on the building of today’s behemoth kosher infrastructure that shows no signs of slowing its growth.

“Today one third to one half of the food for sale in the typical American supermarket is kosher,” Fishkoff informs the reader in her opening chapter.

This means that most people who buy kosher products are not even aware of what the small symbol on the label implies, but that many manufacturers see kosher as a hot food trend and kosher often is associated with cleaner, superior food in the American mind.

Kosher can even be connected with “hip”: The popular television series “The Office” in a recent episode had a character slap a “K” on bottles of pesto made by his mother without actually having the product certified. In his defense he remarks, “I meant like, it’s cool, it’s kosher, it’s all good.”

Fishkoff’s book helps make sense of that kind of pop culture reference.

It wasn’t always this way. Until only several decades ago, meat was the primary concern of kosher authorities and strictly kosher food in general was relevant to only a small number of observant Jews. Many Jews kept some form of kosher, refraining from pork or the practice of “eating out,” but American Jews often rejected dietary laws in an attempt to assimilate into the dominant culture.

With an increase in the number of baalei teshuvah, newly observant Jews, who refuse to settle for syrupy wine or processed cheese, combined with the increasing appeal of the kosher symbol to celiacs, vegetarians and many other demographics, the kosher industry has become relevant to manufacturers as far away as Thailand.

Fishkoff explains the rules of kashrut to the layperson, from biblical to Talmudic injunctions to modern-day stringencies that wouldn’t have been an issue even a generation ago. She breaks down the kosher industry, from “The Big Four” certifying agencies to slaughterhouses to kosher caterers, and brings the reader up to date on some of the most relevant issues facing today’s kosher consumer. They include the ethics involved in the scandal at the Agriprocessers meat plant in Postville, Iowa, and the burgeoning New Jewish Food Movement.

Throughout “Kosher Nation,” Fishkoff regards her subjects with objectivity. Even the most zealous figures — like the Chasid on a one-woman campaign to prevent Jews from ingesting insects — become sympathetic and even relatable. It is clear that Fishkoff was fascinated by the subject; the reader cannot help but be fascinated, too.

For anyone who remembers when Oreos became kosher, notices when sushi is served at an Orthodox wedding or simply wants to take a bite out of Jewish Americana, “Kosher Nation” offers a readable, in-depth exploration into the cultural shifts and subtleties surrounding the rise of an industry.

Paired with “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook,” readers have a chance to re-examine food traditions far beyond the holiday table.

Dipping back into the origins of the kosher industry in America and then cooking recipes that reflect a contemporary kosher reality prove a filling and fulfilling experience.