The roots of Ashkenazic cuisine lie in medieval Germany.
Reprinted with permission from The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, published by Knopf.
In medieval Europe, Jews had congregated in separate parts of towns for protection and so as to be able to practice their religion, and Jewish quarters grew up around synagogues. In Germany, the Judengasse (Jewish quarters) had their own cemeteries, schools, laundries, public baths, law courts, slaughterhouses, and bakehouses. Housewives brought their food to be cooked in the communal oven and did their cooking at the bakehouse. Few had cooking facilities at home. One part of the bakehouse was reserved for meat, another for dairy. The oven and cooking utensils, including huge copper cauldrons used for wedding feasts, were provided free by the congregation. A shohet, or slaughterer, was available. There were banqueting rooms and dancing halls for weddings and festivals, and for getting together on the Sabbath, and there were guest houses for travelers. A community fund provided those who could not pay with three days’ free board and lodging.
The religious dietary laws were abided by with strict tenacity, and this had the effect of involving Jews in food trades. Because wine manufactured by a gentile could not be consumed and food cooked by an unsupervised gentile could not be eaten, Jews were encouraged to produce and sell wine and food themselves. At one time they controlled the market in wine and grain, dealing in oil as a side line. In Southern Europe they owned flour mills and vineyards. Jewish orchards were renowned in France. In France and in Germany, where Jews had had vineyards along the Rhine as early as the fourth century, they produced wine. In Germany they reared geese. Throughout Europe, Jews were much in evidence at city markets and country fairs, selling pickles, preserves, and pastries. Jewish bakeries were common.
There was a strong ascetic streak in German Jews, and their lives were inclined to spirituality rather than sensual expression. Ethical writings from medieval times are full of encouragement towards frugality and self‑restraint in eating—“the most animal of instincts.” Rabbis expressed distaste at the way their French, Italian, and Spanish coreligionists enjoyed their meals and their glass of wine. In Eat and Be Satisfied, John Cooper quotes a 13th‑century letter reprimanding the French Jews for “studying the Talmud with their stomachs full of meat, vegetables, and wine” and another warning that “gross overeating is as dangerous to the body as a sword, besides that it bars one from occupation with the law of God and the reverence due to him.” But despite all the protestations they were hearty eaters like the Germans. They ate like the Germans—substantial foods, warming soups thick with oats, barley, groats, and dumplings; heavy rye and dark breads; pickled and boiled meats and sausages; freshwater fish and salt herring, cabbage and carrots. They had a penchant for strong flavors, such as horseradish, sour pickles, and sauerkraut, and for sweet‑and‑sour and savory‑sweet combinations like cabbage and apple. And like the Germans, they stuffed goose necks, chopped goose liver, and chopped and stuffed fish.