One of my pet peeves is the veritable deluge of prepared foods and “meal assembly” emporia that has overtaken America and seem to be spreading like a stain across the rest of the world. Walk into any store selling food, and there they sit – ready-to-heat main courses and side of every imaginable ethnicity and ingredient, indistinguishable, or so the labels claim, from home-cooked (and, of course, priced at a hefty premium over the cost of the ingredients themselves). Nor is it only the mains and sides: to see how pervasive the ready-tos have become, take a walk down the aisles of any supermarket and keep mental notes of all the things you can eat right out of the container, or that pre-mix key ingredients (think cake mixes).
Even as recently as 20 years ago or so, an industrial food takeover on this scale was inconceivable, yet very much in the cards. I forget the context, but remember well reading an article in the ’90s that spoke about seasoning mixes that would enable butchers to reap higher profits from value-added, ready-to-cook steaks, roasts, and poultry. At around that same time, during my stint on Wall Street, I worked with the CEO of a company, now defunct, that pioneered treatments for cut fruits and vegetables that all but eliminated discoloration. One has only to look at the proliferation of pre-bagged cut produce to see how visionary the idea was.
What’s behind it? Obviously, from the food processors’ perspective, it’s about profits. Anything you do to an ingredient changes it from commodity to unique product, and in so doing, lowers its vulnerability to the pure-price nature of the commodity markets, taking it instead to a higher realm, where branding and marketing operate to keep prices and profits high. Never mind that the bulk of industrial food processing is based on water and sugar (including fructose sweeteners), the cheapest of additives that also offer processors the advantage of a cheap way to increase weight – both the product’s and the consumer’s (hah!).
There’s a second important financial consideration for the producers as well: labor. From-scratch food preparation requires skilled workers who can command premium wages. The workers needed to cook from mixes and industrial ready-to-heats can be had for minimum wage. Even better, machines don’t get sick or have hangovers, and a retailer can always be certain of having enough product because his distributors will have warehouses full. Once again, technology and industrial production trump competence and experience.
From the consumer’s point of view, those dishes represent savings of time and energy, but at the very dear cost of control and competence. The time issues are understandable. When I was growing up in the ’50s, moms and grandmas stayed at home and had time to shop and cook; today’s economically stressed world puts far more pressure on everyone to go out and find ways to earn money. The simple act of preparing and serving a meal has gone from pleasure to chore, and my grandmother’s pride in feeding her family as given way to a sigh of relief at not having to cook, without the guilt of having failed at this most basic of family responsibilities.
That guilt also is the driving rationale behind the “meal assembly” stores, where people can go to assemble a week’s worth of their own ready-to-heat dinners. Everything is there, pre-cooked and portion-controlled, ready to mix and match into microwaveable containers. It’s exactly the same mindset that built the cake-mix business and propelled bread machines into the appliance mainstream: here’s a way to produce a Rembrandt – or at least an acceptable reproduction – without having to learn how to paint, let alone draw.
At what cost? Monetary, certainly: the ready-tos are substantially more expensive than the sum cost of their ingredients. But more troubling, in my view, is the personal cost. I want to be able to control what goes into the things my family and friends eat. I don’t want chemical life-extenders, mold inhibitors or potentially hazardous additives (think potassium bromate) in my food. I want to decide how my food tastes, not some food chemist who’s motivated by corporate profitability targets and focus-group driven consensus. I want to know how to make the things that please my senses and those of the people I care about, so that I can encourage others to value their own competence.
My wife and I often engage in a revealing dialogue when we go food shopping together. She’ll see a ready-to that she finds appealing and say, “Ooh, let’s try that.” I’ll look at it and say, “Why? I can make it better and cheaper at home.” Sometimes we buy it, sometimes we don’t, and more often than not, when we do, it’s either too sweet, too salty, or both for our tastes (mine, certainly, since she has a far bigger sweet tooth than I). But at least we have the ability to make that choice and still have what we want.
In my grandparents’ homes, as in the shtetlach from whence they came, the food was sweet and sour – just as life itself was sweet and sour. For me, a grandchild of immigrants growing up between two worlds in 1950s America, sweet and sour came to symbolize both the contrasts and convergences of my multifaceted existence.
Sour was during the week. It was school and afternoon heder for me, jobs that took my father and grandfather away from before I woke up until after I had my supper; and for my mother and grandmothers, shopping, cleaning, child-rearing and all the other things stay-at-home wives did back then.
Sour was a pickle or sour tomato for a snack, a piece of sour rye bread slathered with schmaltz and topped with a slice of onion, a lunch of sour cream, farmer cheese and chopped radish, scallion and cucumber; or maybe a glass of ruby red borscht and sour cream, or shchav (sorrel soup) with a raw egg stirred in and chopped scallions on top. Sour was Grandma Annie stirring a spoonful of sour cream into a pot of warm milk, then pouring it into a tray full of patterned yortzeit glasses and leaving it to sour over the pilot light on her white enamel stove.
Sour was the taste of the shtetl, where a piece of sour black rye bread, a bowl of the fermented beet water called rosl and perhaps a dollop of sour cream was a day’s nourishment. After all, what could be cheaper, easier and more provident for the inevitable times of scarcity than a crock filled with sliced beets, left to ferment by the wild yeasts that fill the air? Sour was the sum of their existence.
Weekends were sweet, and so were our holidays. Sweet was the saucer of honey, the sweet-sticky teyglach and cloves-fragrant carrot tsimmes at Rosh Hashanah, and the sweet gefilte fish and oloptzes (stuffed cabbage), for Shabbes. The challah was sweet and pale yellow, with a shiny brown crust that crackled when Grandpa cut it; the prune and apricot compote was sweet (but with a touch of lemon, to remind us of the week past and the week yet to come). Sour held no place of honor at my grandma’s Shabbes table.
Sweet was spending Saturday and Sunday with my parents and extended family, cookies and rugelach from Grandma and Bubbie, cracking pecans and hazelnuts with my cousins after a big holiday meal, visits to the bakery with my father and bringing home cookies and pastries in white cardboard boxes tied with string striped like a barber pole. Sweet was going to the Saturday matinee (20 cents for a double feature, serial, newsreel and 5 color cartoons 5) with my best friend Richie and eating Black Crows, Jujubes and Sugar Daddy bars. Sweet was being allowed to stay up late so my brother and I could sit in front of the TV with our parents, watching Uncle Miltie, Sid Caesar, Groucho Marx and Dragnet.
As I grew older, my life grew sweeter, more American. Instead of a giant sour pickle bought for a nickel out of a barrel of brine, my afternoon snack morphed into a stack of cookies and a glass of milk. Living in the suburbs, away from my grandmothers, we succumbed to the enticements of the mainstream and there we chose to spend our lives, eating sweet and eschewing sour, except as an occasional culinary grace note. Weeks and weekends merged into unremitting sweetness.
Now, in my 60s, I’ve come back to sour with a deeper appreciation of both its taste and meaning. Still, there is one dish, one taste memory, that haunts me: my bubbie’s marnat – chilled sweet and sour whitefish, simmered slow and long with slices of carrot and onion in a peppery-vinegary-sugary marinade that congealed into an aspic and overwhelmed my taste buds even as the fish dissolved in my mouth. Whenever I went to see her in her Brooklyn brownstone, that was the dish I always asked her to make. And to this day, try as I might, I’ve never come close to duplicating it, perhaps because I will never truly know, as all my grandparents knew, the sorrows and joys of sweet-and sour.
Not too long ago, during a radio interview centered on Inside the Jewish Bakery, the host asked me, “What is a Jewish bakery?” I have to confess, I was stunned: no one had ever asked me that question, nor, indeed, had I ever asked it of myself. In my world, everyone knows what a Jewish bakery is – a bakery that sells Jewish baked goods.
But here’s where it gets complicated. What exactly are “Jewish baked goods?” The ones that come first to mind – bagels, rugelach, onion rolls, challah – appear to be no-brainers, but in fact all can be traced back through their Yiddish forebears to the gentile Central and Eastern European societies in which the Jews found themselves living at various times.
Take bagels, for instance. In America, we think of them as a Jewish food that made good, rising to the pinnacle of the American mainstream and assimilating away their “Jewishness.” But boiled/baked ring breads made of double-helix dough strands, called obwarzanki, are the signature street food of Kraków, Poland, and have been for centuries. And lest anyone argue that “Jewish” bagels don’t feature that ropelike twist, I would point out that a 1936 photo in the collection of the New York Public Library shows a Jewish New York City bagel peddler selling what clearly are twisted obwarzanki. At the same time, a 1938 photo in the YIVO collection shows a bagel seller in Lithuania selling the untwisted bagels we’re all familiar with. Go figure.
So how about challah? Nothing more Jewish than that, right? Well, although the term “challah” is derived from the Torah, the bread itself was a loan from 14th and 15th century German Christians, who honored their Sabbath with braided loaves, according to Jewish foodways historian John Cooper. On top of that (and on top of the loaves), the custom of decorating breads with symbols of faith such as birds, hands, keys and ladders – also often thought of as uniquely Jewish – also can be traced back to the Christians of Central Europe. Even the term “koyletch,” an alternative name for challah throughout Yiddish Europe, is of Slavic origin. And to bring things full circle, a braided, egg-glazed sweet bread called chałka is a staple offering in the bakeries of today’s Poland.
The same is true of knishes, babkas, rolls (bulkes), rye breads – you name it and the gentile host cultures had it before the Jews. Even most modern favorites come from someplace else, most obviously rainbow cookies, whose horizontal layers of red, yellow and green reprise the Italian flag and trumpet their origin.
So if everything in the Jewish bakery came from someplace else, what, after all is a “Jewish bakery?”
In my view, nothing less than the history of a people’s wanderings from place to place – from Eretz Yisrael to the Roman Empire, from Rome northward into the Rhine Valley, then west into France and England and east into Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Lithuania, Poland and Russia. At every stop, the Jews found the foods of their gentile neighbors and adapted them to the laws of Kashrut. And when it came time to move again, they took those foods with them and added to their repertoire the foods of their next home, again adapted to Kashrut.
And so the Jewish bakery is really a time capsule, a distillation of a thousand years of Diaspora, come to rest in a row of glass-fronted display cases and shelves full of bread and rolls behind the counter. Every bread and roll, every pastry, cake and cookie, reflects a specific time and place in our communal history and connects us tangibly (and edibly) to our shared experience. And you thought it was only a bakery!
Today, the world’s food culture is rapidly homogenizing. You can find U.S. fast-food franchises in Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow; Japanese ramen-chain outlets in New York, Los Angeles and London. And bagels are everywhere. TV food porn, as my daughter likes to call it, has universalized once-obscure ingredients and globalized technique and plating to the point where cooking has morphed from the deepest, most visceral (pun intended) expression of a culture rooted in time and place to a media-driven vehicle for individual creativity.
And while I do appreciate the pure sensual pleasures of sculpturally composed, artfully conceived and executed coups de table, I’m also very much aware that even the best of them lack the authentic Yiddish tam of my grandmother’s kroyt borscht, a long-simmered soup – a stew, really – made from beef flanken and an abundance of winter vegetables – cabbage, beets, turnips, carrots, potatoes and onions.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the mass-market processed food industry is wreaking its own Holocaust on family-run, made-from-scratch restaurants and bakeries, and in the process, severing the connection between people and their personal and communal histories. And sadly, as those restaurants and bakeries die, so too, dies a piece of our cultural history that most of us barely recognize, let alone miss, until it’s gone.