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Reinventing Jewish Food

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Photo: Marcus Nilsson

On my plate at Kutsher’s TriBeCa are some particularly gorgeous specimens of the latke. The potato pancake, made of grated potato, onion, and egg and fried in oil, is usually served with sour cream or applesauce. At Kutsher’s TriBeCa, mine have caviar on top, the oily orange, green, and black roe and all-natural sour cream the perfect foil for the crunchy potato cakes.

“What’s with the caviar, already?” I hear my father saying. Still, even if he liked posing as a sort of New York peasant—who needs pâté when you can have chopped liver?—he’d have loved this dish. He would have loved the resurgence of Jewish food around the country, where young chefs are cooking what I can only call Deli Redux, not to mention new takes on Israeli and kosher food. Dishes from New York, of course, but also from Montreal, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Hungary, and Romania, dishes that have tradition, with a twist.

At Kutsher’s TriBeCa, which opened in 2011, the gefilte fish is made from wild halibut, the pickled herring with wasabi, yuzu, and peppers. The essentials are here, too: the blintzes, lox, pastrami, even egg creams, that will produce in American Jews the effect that madeleine cookie had on Proust, who was, after all, half-Jewish, though I can’t see him smearing schmaltz on rye bread.

“I wanted to infuse what is a peasant cuisine with taste and atmosphere and make it fun,” says Zach Kutsher, whose great-grandparents founded Kutsher’s Resort & Country Club, in the Catskills, in 1907. His restaurant in Manhattan, he says, “is Palm Springs ’68 meets the Catskills ’68.” You have to assume he has sour cream in his veins.

Like Kutsher, I grew up with this kind of food. We are the descendants of Ashkenazi Jews, immigrants from Poland, Lithuania, and Russia who jammed the slums of New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Boston, and later journeyed to L.A., Miami, and Atlanta.

Two things drove the food culture—poverty and kosher laws; religious Jews could not mix meat and dairy dishes, or eat pork or shellfish. (There are about a million more rules.)

Over the decades, especially after World War II, as Jews assimilated, tastes changed. In my house, we ate straight American food. We were never kosher (my mother never met a shrimp she didn’t love). Heavy, old-fashioned Jewish food was for special occasions—lox and bagels for Sunday brunch; brisket at my Aunt Lil’s on Passover.

“Are you a Kutsher?” asks a woman eating an artisanal pastrami sandwich. Zach greets her genially. “I spent a lot of happy summers in the Catskills,” she adds, showing him a 1970’s photo of three long-haired teenage girls by the hotel pool.

In the Catskills, once known as the Borscht Belt, where comedians from Jerry Lewis to Jerry Seinfeld got their start, Jewish food played a big role. I spent my first few summers at a resort called Homowack Lodge, and I remember the huge meals and the chopped liver my Aunt Fanny brought. All gone now, the hotel a wreck, overgrown with weeds, except in memory.

“The Catskills still have resonance for people,” says Kutsher. “We’re in a moment—a lot of young people are looking for their roots.”

“I like to think we’re essential to the resurgence of Jewish food, because we represent tradition,” says Niki Russ Federman, 35. With her first cousin, Josh Russ Tupper, she runs Russ & Daughters, her family’s hundred-year-old “appetizing store” in Manhattan. “We’re sort of a family for New Yorkers. A whole new group of younger Jews—and non-Jews—is embracing this place and the food. People want to be connected.”

For me, this is Jewish soul food. My father knew Mr. Russ and his daughters. I like to commune with smoked sturgeon on a bialy. I love shopping at Russ before holidays—any holiday—when the store is packed, everyone yakking, kissing, kvetching, tasting, and talking kids and politics. This is my temple; not just the food but the community.

The traditional appetizing store sold smoked fish, herring, maybe pickles and bagels. Over the years, Russ added caviar, even salmon tartare.

At Mile End Delicatessen, in Brooklyn, Noah and Rae Bernamoff serve Montreal-style bagels; Noah is from Montreal and, as is typical, thinks their bagels are better than New York’s. This is not true because…I say so. But the argument would tax a Talmudic scholar. Ours is hard, boiled, the hole irregular; theirs is softer, sweeter, as if a metaphor for Canadian life. Everything at Mile End—including the divine whitefish salad—is made from scratch and locally sourced. It’s as if the goal of Deli Redux is to wrest the cuisine from those delis of yore—every city has one—with the overstuffed sandwich you can never finish and the tired chopped liver.

There is some great new deli food at Mile End, and more. At night, entrées include kasha-crusted sweetbreads and, with a nod to the Jewish passion for Chinese, smoked-duck chop suey. Jewish comfort food.

At Jezebel, in Manhattan’s SoHo, meanwhile, the food is glatt kosher—the most fastidiously kosher food, but done in a modern way. They serve delicious crudo, potatoes cooked in goose fat, duck rillettes, and kosher wines. And in the Philadelphia suburbs, chef Mike Solomonov has just opened the glatt kosher Citron & Rose. “We’re doing meat on a wood-burning grill,” he says. “We’re doing sholet, a Hungarian version of the Sabbath stew we call cholent, with duck and flageolet beans.”

Solomonov’s culinary roots are in Israel rather than in Eastern Europe—he grew up shuttling between Tel Aviv and America.

“As soon as I started cooking, I found myself using Middle Eastern spices and flavors,” he says. At Zahav, Solomonov’s restaurant in Philadelphia, are dishes from all over the Middle East and North Africa—Turkish hummus with butter and grilled garlic; Moroccan chicken with almond bulgur; laffa bread. Dishes from Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Iran. “Jews came to Israel from all of these places,” he says.

“Israelis have a daring spirit that shows up in the food now,” says Yotam Ottolenghi, an Israeli who for the past 15 years has lived in London, where his Ottolenghi restaurants, food shops, cookbooks, and TV shows are adored—not too hyperbolic a word—by just about everyone. Jerusalem, his latest cookbook, written with his head chef, Sami Tamimi, was just released, and it documents not only the recipes they have invented but also the city where Ottolenghi grew up. “I think there is a current mini-trend for Israeli food, and I think that’s because Middle Eastern food has long been underexposed. There are great cooking cultures in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon; and Jews from that diaspora are now looking at the local terroir. This generation is creating something really new.”

So it’s “my son, the chef” now, instead of “my son, the doctor”? I ask Ottolenghi. He laughs. “Not quite. Not just yet,” he says, though some of his recipes, like the one for stuffed red pepper, came from his mother.

Family. Jokes. Tradition. Melancholy. Those staples of Jewish life. The “Ruth Wilensky,” a fried-salami sandwich at Mile End named in honor of the 90-year-old Montreal woman who sells nothing else. Family photos at Jezebel. Vintage portraits on the bookshelf at the Mediterranean restaurant Balaboosta (Yiddish for “perfect housewife”) in Manhattan’s Nolita.

Finally, there is, well, the restaurant Traif. Traif means “unkosher” in Yiddish. Jason Marcus, a brilliant young chef-owner, long ago realized his favorite foods were the seriously non-kosher pork and shellfish. “What does that say about me, since I’m a Jew?” he asks, bringing over a plate of pork cheeks. “I like the debate about what it means to be a Jew, about what is Jewish food.”

Chopped liver with duck, Lebanese hummus, kosher rillettes, pickled lamb’s tongue—the new generation of Jewish cooks feel free to invent, to graze, to fly in the face of the traditions they honor. But, then, what would any part of Jewish culture be without celebration, conflict, and comedy? So excuse me, I’m going to Joe Dough, in New York’s East Village, to get myself the sandwich of chopped liver, onion, and bacon they call “the conflicted Jew.”

Everything but the Schmear: Icons of Jewish Food

Matzo: Made famous by Moses: according to the Torah, when the Jews fled Egypt, they didn’t have time to wait for bread to rise, so they took unleavened bread to the desert with them.

Gefilte fish: The first recipe for this stuffed-fish dish was found in the oldest known German cookbook, Daz Buoch von Gouter Spise (The Book of Good Food), written around 1350.

Blintz: When the Turks conquered the Balkans in the 14th century, they introduced a thin pancake that was rolled up around various fillings.

Bagel: First mentioned in 1610 in the records of a Jewish community in Kraków, Poland, that cited it as an appropriate gift for women about to give birth.

Knish: Medieval Slavic peasant dish, typically served on the Sabbath as an appetizer.

Latke: Ancient recipe adapted by German Jews in the 18th century.

Pastrami: Popularized by Sussman Volk, a Lithuanian Jewish butcher in New York City in the 1880’s.

Bagel and Lox: In the 1930’s in America, the popular Sunday breakfast of eggs Benedict was adapted to meet kosher restrictions: bagels were substituted for muffins, salmon for ham, and cream cheese for hollandaise sauce.

Challah: White egg bread, usually braided, and served on the Sabbath.

Reggie Nadelson’s most recent book is Blood Count (Walker), a mystery.

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