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Conversation with Jeffrey Yoskowitz

Gefilte Manifesto author talks about the Jewish food renaissance

By Stacey Dresner

Nobody knows Jewish food like Jeffrey Yoskowitz. In his popular book, The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Food, Yoskowitz and co-author Liz Alpern revitalize their families’ beloved old-world Ashkenazi Jewish foods with new and innovative approaches. The volume was a National Jewish Book Award finalist and USA Today named it a top cookbook of 2016.

Yoskowitz will share his love and extensive knowledge of the origins of traditional Jewish foods and the history of Eastern European cuisine when he discusses “Back to the Old Country: The Jewish Food Renaissance” at Temple Beth Hillel in South Windsor on Sunday evening, Dec. 15. Earlier in the day, he will preside over two pickle-making workshops for families and teens at the Mandell JCC in West Harford, Both events are sponsored by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford and the Jewish Hartford European Roots Project.

Yoskowitz has written about food, culture and politics for publications that include The New York Times, The Atlantic and The Forward, and is a contributor to the new cookbook The 100 Most Jewish Foods. He was named to both the Forbes 30 Under 30 in food and wine, and to the Forward 50

Yoskowitz is also co-founder of The Gefilteria (www.gefilteria.com), a hub for innovation in Jewish food, through which he produces culinary events, presents lectures and cooking demos, and creates content related to Jewish food. He teaches Jewish food anthropology at City College of New York and joins the Brandeis University faculty every summer to present the same topic.

The Ledger recently spoke to Jeffrey Yoskowitz about his love for Ashkenazi food and culture and his upcoming visit to Connecticut.

Jewish Ledger: How did you develop so deep a love for traditional Jewish food?

Jeffrey Yoskowitz: My grandmother – my mother’s mother – made all of the classics from scratch, all with so much love and passion, and so I grew up with a real connection to the foods but also to the stories, not just of the food, but the stories of my grandparents and their survival, the war and their families before the war, and their childhoods – it was all part of a beautiful rich tapestry of Ashkenazi Jewish life.

JL: As a child, did you spend time in the kitchen with your grandmother?

JY: Well, when I was around nine or 10, I loved my grandmother’s apple strudel so much that I followed her around the kitchen and I wrote down the recipe – you know, it was one of those recipes she just made from memory. I knew at the time that if I didn’t do that there was a chance that the recipe would be lost. So I wrote down the strudel recipe and later as an adult I revisited that recipe and started making it once I found my transcription. 

To answer your question, I didn’t really cook much as a kid, but I was always interested in food, and that was always a part of the conversations our family had. Only once I graduated college and went off to a Jewish organic farm in Connecticut did I begin to start making food and thinking about the producing of food, having conversations around food and culture, and marrying the two together.

JL: Was that the Adamah Farm?

JY: Yes, exactly. I was an Adamah Fellow once I graduated college. It was pretty magical. I was there during the summer time. In Litchfield County, there are farms all around and in the summer time the fields were so abundant with produce.

What was fascinating about the experience of farming in a Jewish context is, if you read through the Torah and you read through the Talmud, so much of the discussions are around agricultural laws. And so much of it is relevant to contemporary Jewish life. We would look at those conversations around tithing your land metaphorically. But when you are actually farming with a Jewish perspective, you are talking about these things in reality – the physical manifestations of them.

So, what does it look like to give away some of the produce that you are growing? What does it look like to allow gleaners? How do you treat the animals that you have? What are the rules around milking goats on the Sabbath? Suddenly, Jewish tradition and religion felt a bit more contemporaneous. 

It was a very eye-opening experience. I was a suburban Jewish kid from the northeast. I ate pickles all the time at the Jewish deli – but I never put it together that the pickle played such a prominent role beside the pastrami sandwich. It actually helped digestion because a good kosher pickle is a probiotic. It also helps you cleanse your palate so you can appreciate the flavor of that pastrami. It was the sort of unifying flavor of all of Eastern European Jewish cooking.

JL: In The Gefilte Manifesto you modernize traditional Ashkenazi Jewish food. What does that entail?

JY: First off, by trying to understand what Ashkenazi cuisine is in the first place. To look ahead and to modernize it first I had to look at what people think it is and what it actually is. So I started looking back to the pre-Industrial time, looking back to Eastern Europe, looking through old Jewish memoirs and cookbooks, even works of Yiddish literature, to get a sense of what daily life was like. How were people eating? How did these foods transform and change in the United States? An example is pastrami on rye. The pastrami sandwich at the deli was an American invention…Pastrami in Romania [was made by the Jews] with goose and served cold on special occasions. 

I wanted to understand a bit about the tradition that I did not know growing up and that actually led me to really understand how much of a seasonal, farm-to-table Jewish ethos there was to the cuisine. Bringing in vegetables, bringing in herring and flavor combinations that speak to the harsh winters of Eastern Europe, and the summer bounty of soft stone fruits like peaches and plums. 

In some cases there are foods that are part of the vernacular of the day. So for example, kimchi, which is a Korean dish. If you look at the sauerkraut tradition, you find that it is pretty much almost identical to the kimchi tradition. And so we make something in the cookbook called Ashkenazi Kimchi, which is essentially a little bit of a kimchi-style preparation but with all of the ingredients found in Eastern Europe. So green cabbage is the base with turnips and radishes. Things that would not be surprising – garlic and hot paprika get mixed together – but it’s using a technique that’s a little bit different – it’s creating a paprika-garlic paste and mixing it with the vegetables that makes it a little more kimchee-like. And then it’s using something like that kimchee instead of sauerkraut to make stuffed cabbage, which gives it a little bit of an artisanal flavor profile, that is a little bit more complex, and maybe a little more playfully Asian-style while still being very much rooted in Ashkenazi tradition.

There is also playfulness to the modernizing. I have a beet and chocolate ice cream in the book that also has a whole section on cocktails and beverages that are sort of a nod to different flavors and scents that are part of the Jewish sensory eating experience. Like a cocktail that uses a homemade celery syrup as a nod to the celery sodas from the deli, and a toasted caraway syrup that smells like the Jewish bakery and with which you can make a cocktail. So little ways of being playful with the tradition, but using forms that are of today.

JL: You tell a story about your family’s angst when your grandmother decided not to make gefilte fish from scratch anymore. Why was that? 

JY: What made my grandmother’s gefilte fish the best was that she was in the kitchen making it and she made it with a lot of love and that really was it. But most people I knew growing up only ate gefilte fish out of a jar. So the fact that it was homemade made it special. And when I was looking around at the world of Jewish food, I found most people went to the kosher aisle of the supermarket where it’s all about jars of gefilte fish and jars of borcht and latkes that come in a box. It’s really awful looking dishes and packaging that hasn’t evolved in 20, maybe 50, years. I looked around and gefilte fish was the most egregious example of what went wrong with Jewish cooking.

So I had my grandmother’s gefilte fish in my mind and I thought, well, if people can eat gefilte fish that they think is good then maybe they can start thinking all of Ashkenazi Jewish food is good. It became the beginning of this search for a way to present Ashkenazi culture in a new light. 

We began making an artisanal gefilte fish, which we still sell in stores around the holidays, that is sustainably sourced and looks beautiful. And in our cookbook, we have multiple recipes for gefilte fish, including a traditional stuffed gefilte fish, which is what gefilte fish in Yiddish means – stuffed fish. So again, going back to roots. If you look at the cover of the book, it’s a stuffed gefilte fish and it looks quite beautiful. It’s a very different presentation than the old patty.

JL: This past fall, you led a food tour of Eastern Europe. Tell us about it.

JY: This was the first one and it was in collaboration with the Taube Jewish Heritage tour company, which is a division of the Taube Foundation in San Francisco…We created an immersive tour that goes back to Eastern Europe and explores Yiddish culture and Ashkenazi history through the lens of food. We started this past tour in Vilnius, Lithuania. We met with the Jewish community there and we cooked with some elders who have lived there their whole lives with these old Litvak traditions. We made our way through rural Lithuania and down through the land of the shtetl in northeastern Poland. We went to Bialystok, where bialys are from and could not find a bialy, so we made our own in a cooking workshop. We went to Lublin and we visited old bakeries and baked with old-fashioned bakers. 

We were looking for the legacy of Jewish food and culture. We visited some of the new-style Jewish restaurants that have been opening… We went to the markets and talked to contemporary chefs who are looking for meaning in old dishes and old Jewish styles of doing things. We looked at how much we as Jewish people can bring to the table and what gaps can we fill in, and what can we learn from Polish and Lithuanian culinary professionals who are trying to understand all that was lost both during the war and after.

Food unlocks so much memory and history and storytelling. It was a lot of fun but also very meaningful. 

“Back to the Old Country: The Jewish Food Renaissance” with Jeffrey Yoskowitz: Sunday, Dec. 15, 7 p.m., Temple Beth Hillel, 20 Baker Lane, South Windsor. Tickets: $7/in advance, $10/at the door. For information: (860) 727-6170, www.jhsgh.org. 

Pickle-making Workshops, Sunday, Dec. 15, at 1:30–2:30 p.m. or 2:45–3:45 p.m., Mandell JCC, 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford. For more information: (860) 727-6170.

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