American Jewish Cuisine

The development of a uniquely American Jewish cuisine.

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The words "Jewish food" tend to conjure up images of Ashkenazic comfort foods like gefilte fish, Sephardic dishes like couscous with vegetables, or Middle Eastern delights like falafel and hummus. But with nearly six million Jews–approximately 40% of the world’s Jewish population–calling America home, American Jewish cuisine has become a category unto itself.

Many of the Tribe’s most iconic foods–such as blintzes, borscht, and brisket–were considered normal regional cuisine in the countries where they originated. It was not until Jews moved to the United States, and continued eating these foods, that they took on Jewish cultural significance.

In Jewish Cooking in America, author and culinary historian Joan Nathan argues that America has become a major "culinary center" for the Jewish Diaspora. Her comprehensive timeline begins in 1654, when 23 Sephardic Jews arrived in New Amsterdam, and follows the successive waves of Jews arriving in and spreading across the country. Not surprisingly, she tells the tale of a veritable Jewish melting pot (no pun intended!) in a country that "welcomed immigrants from all over the country [and also] incorporated their foods into the diet."

Packaging, Plenty, Partnership

Today, the majority of American Jewish foods can be defined by three common themes: packaging, plenty, and partnership. As Jewish immigrants transitioned from life as poor tenement dwellers to business owners, they began to package and market their favorite home- cooked foods.

Companies like Manischewitz, Streit’s, Fox’s U-Bet, Rokeach, and Lender’s became synonymous with American Jewish food. They added legitimacy (if not quality) and a sense of permanence to Jewish cuisine, ensuring–for better or for worse–its inclusion on supermarket shelves for decades to come.

On this side of the Atlantic, Jewish food took on distinctly American-sized proportions. Being Jewish in America was, and still is, deeply tied to notions of material success, and what better way to prove one’s successes than with lavish amounts of food?

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Leah Koenig is a writer and cookbook author whose work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Saveur, CHOW, Food Arts, Tablet, Gastronomica, and Every Day with Rachael Ray. Leah writes a monthly food column for The Forward and a bimonthly column for Saveur.com called “One Ingredient, Many Ways.” She is the former Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning blog, The Jew & The Carrot, and she is a frequent contributor to MyJewishLearning.com, where her recipes are very popular, and highly praised. Her first cookbook, The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals for the Contemporary Jewish Kitchen, was published by Rizzoli in 2011. The book was named one of the “Best Books of 2011? by Library Journal and The Kitchn called it “a big, beautiful book that is also down-to-earth and completely accessible.”

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