Review by Philip K. Jason
The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List, by Alana Newhouse. Artisan Books. 256 pages. Hardcover $24.95.
The alphabet never tasted so good.
A huge and dazzling array of contributors brings to life what would seem to be an impossible task: a plausible gathering of what’s “most Jewish” in the palates of Jews across time, space and memory. The contributors are at once erudite and down to earth. Author Alana Newhouse gives them brief but impressive identification at the end of the book so that readers can connect their perspectives to their credentials.
Readers will chuckle at the book’s table of contents. It provides a delightful visual image as an identifier for each selection, in which these same images reappear. They exist to make us hungry.
The format is basically a mini-essay followed by a recipe. So, we travel and gorge from adafina (a Sabbath stew) to Yemenite soup, with the expected and plenty of surprises along the way.
Just where it needs to be is the apple, given a personality by Dan Barber, who plays the part well, complaining about being blamed for Eve’s lack of discipline but then boasting about having flourished all over the world. The apple’s journey is a guilt trip. Apple cake becomes the choice for instruction.
The recipes share a professionally structured style that readers will find efficient without being overly formal. Measurements are given in the vernaculars, so the reader will always know such things as: a half cup of sugar is 65 grams. Chocolate Babka immediately caught my attention, but I plan to get my babka by giving a copy of the book, properly bookmarked, to a good friend who bakes.
Okay, so you’d expect a section on bagels, but don’t tell me you anticipated Bazooka gum. Bialys are another must, as are black-and-white cookies, blintzes and maybe bokser. And borscht is inevitable, with this section offering a brief essay on “The secrets of Soviet cuisine.”
The section on brisket is best read overnight.
“C” is for carciofi all giudia (artichoke Jewish-style). “C” is also for challah, charoset and cheesecake – AND chicken. Yes, there is a section on Chinese food that explains in detail “Why Jews Eat Chinese Food on Christmas.” The mysteries of cholent and chopped liver come next, laced with both wisdom and humor. Chopped liver? Of course. And there is a lot more to the (pardon the pun) c-section.
I have to speed up now: dates, deli, dill; eggplant, Entenmann’s, eyerleckh; flanken; gefilte fish, goose and the wished-for gribenes; halva, hamantaschen, haminados and Hebrew National hot dogs.
Let me depart from the alphabet now and address some other charms of this “most Jewish” book.
Many of the contributors are notable writers, or at least darn good ones. Often, they take the opportunity to personalize their entries with memories of family gatherings, holidays and lifecycle events at which Jewish food is not the theme, but somehow the bonding agent. We can trace how a recipe was introduced, passed along to others, sometimes modified, but always linking the generations – just like Hebrew school, but usually with greater impact.
These personal stories that link the food with the occasion and the family are sometimes humorous, but always moving and inviting.
There is a surprising and welcome inclusiveness in the scope of the recipes. A favorite of Tunisian Jews, Pkaila, is one of the surprises. Adafina is from the Iberian world, and Haminados are among the Sephardic tastes readers are lured to sample. Jews from the Republic of Georgia indulged themselves with Labda, which also has a connection with Persian cuisine. Jews in India enjoy Malida at the Seder table. Treatments of matzo are manifold. One of these is the Sephardic Mina de Matzo. And you don’t want to miss trying Mufleta, Persian rice and Ptcha – foods with various origins across the Jewish world. Tsimmes, of course, is universally familiar.
Well, the person who put all this together, New Yorker Alana Newhouse, is the editor-in-chief of Tablet, a daily online magazine with a huge following. Founded in 2009, it features Jewish news, ideas and culture. A graduate of Barnard Collage and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, Newhouse has contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and Slate.
On Monday, December 2 at 11:30 a.m. at the Hilton Naples, Alana Newhouse will be speaking at a Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival luncheon. The book will be available for sale and signing. Find details about the complete festival series of events, along with a ticket order form, author bios, book descriptions and sponsor information in section B of this issue or at http://www.jewishbookfestival.org. Need an answer fast? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call the Federation office at 239.263.4205.
This article appears in the November 2019 Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples)