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Chosen Food: Cuisine, Culture and American Jewish Identity

A new Jewish Museum exhibit ruminates about food

Photo: Photo by Elinor B. Cahn. 1985.031.002, License: N/A

Photo by Elinor B. Cahn. 1985.031.002

A 1985 photograph of Attman’s Delicatessen, part of the Chosen Food exhibit

Chosen Food: Cuisine, Culture and American Jewish Identity

Through Sept. 30, 2012 at the Jewish Museum

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The new exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, Chosen Food: Cuisine, Culture and American Jewish Identity, is not a full-course examination of what has traveled down the Jewish-American gullet. It is, rather, an appetizer plate, heaped with tantalizing tidbits. The visitor learns, for instance, that 86 percent of kosher-food consumers aren’t observant Jews; that, in 1935, at the request of a Georgia rabbi, Coca-Cola substituted cottonseed for beef tallow glycerin in its famous secret recipe; that when Iranian Jews immigrated to the United States, dried limes were so central to their cuisine they brought them in their pockets.

“We cover a lot of big things, but we’re not trying to be the encyclopedia,” Jewish Museum of Maryland Executive Director Avi Decter says. “You couldn’t do it.” Instead, the exhibit is a survey of what American Jews in all their diversity eat now, with enough historical information to explain how that came to be. Emphasis is placed on the global nature of Jewish cuisine and the nearly infinite variety of interpretations it has undergone.

It’s a subject some might consider beneath scholarly dignity. The museum received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for the exhibition, and the written comments of the panelists who reviewed the application betray some skepticism, Decter says, despite the NEH’s decision to support the project.

“Every one of them began with a variation of a sentence along the lines of, ‘We thought this was a joke until we read the proposal,’” he says. “It’s culture-lite, humanities-lite.” But the museum has a history of tackling unusual subjects, such as Jewish vacationing and tchotchkes (the Yiddish word for knickknacks). “The reason nobody did it before was it was so obvious,” Decter says. “Just because it’s obvious doesn’t make it unimportant.”

Portions of the exhibition, while fun, do feel a bit light. For example, visitors can choose on a touch screen what they consider to be the “most Jewish” food represented, from a field of some 20 items. Poll results are then displayed on the screen. (On the day of the opening, matzo-ball soup was in the lead.) A section on special occasions includes a loop of home videos of various festive events—bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings—that isn’t particularly illuminating if you’re Jewish yourself, have ever attended such an occasion, or are at all culturally literate.

But other sections of the exhibition that might at first seem shallow turn out to be intriguing. A panel on the modern Jewish tendency to go out for Chinese food on Christmas Day notes that this habit, fodder for many a comedian, may go back as early as 1935, and goes into detail about the changes some Chinese restaurants have made to accommodate the kosher diet. A refrigerator outfitted with a screen that scrolls through photos of refrigerator interiors in numerous Jewish homes welcomes visitors into a mock Jewish kitchen. And there’s something oddly compelling, intimate, about these photographs. One—of a refrigerator stuffed with plastic bags filled with what appear to be home-made rugelach—was taken around Purim, the label says. Another—this one filled solely with beer—is labeled “Man Cave.”

The kitchen, too, is where kashrut—the Jewish dietary laws—are explored. One of the most basic tenets is that meat and milk cannot be mixed. The exhibition’s kitchen includes daily details about sticking to the kosher laws that will likely come as news to any except those who keep kosher themselves. There are brushes for washing dishes, for example, because it’s customary not to wring out a sponge on Shabbat (the Jewish day of rest); there are three sets of utensils, labeled “meat,” “dairy,” and “pareve” (neither meat nor dairy); and there’s a panel describing the ritual search for chametz, the leavened foods that are forbidden on Passover. A feather, a candle, and a wooden spoon are employed.

But adherence to kashrut varies greatly in the Jewish world, providing something of a challenge for the exhibition’s designers. At one end of the spectrum, the practice has actually become more stringent in modern times, while at the other, many Jews simply eat “kosher-style,” avoiding pork and shellfish but buying foods that are not certified kosher. (And then, of course, as Decter puts it, there are Jews who “basically don’t give a shit.”) The exhibition goes to some pains to be clear about these divisions, and the clashes that have taken place as a result.

One interesting example highlighted is the story of what has come to be known as the Treyfe Banquet. (“Treyfe” means non-kosher.) In 1883, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations held a banquet in Ohio to celebrate the first rabbinical ordinations in the United States. The meal that was served at this illustrious, quite Jewish occasion included shellfish and mixed meat and dairy. An uproar resulted, and the banquet remains an important event in American Jewish history, highlighting as it did the differences between modern and traditional Jews.

These slices of history are the most memorable portions of the exhibition, though they may not be the main focus. It is in such details that one begins to understand how food came to be so important in the Jewish tradition. A Holocaust survivor remembers inventing “dream meals” with her companions in the camps to help stave off hunger, down to details like the flowers and the color of the dishes. (A metal spoon from Auschwitz hangs next to her story.) A charming map shows a line cutting through a swath of Eastern Europe: To the west lay sweet gefilte fish, flavored with sugar; to the east, savory, flavored with pepper and horseradish. Black-and-white photos of families cooking and eating accompany these panels, as do a number of artifacts: a 1904 rolling pin worn from use, an entire cookbook devoted to salted-herring recipes from the 1930s, a box of the ubiquitous Russian Zvetouchny tea (it became known as “Swee-Touch-Nee” among American Jews).

Chosen Food makes a strong case for the central role of food in Jewish identity, as well as in the collective memory of a people. Kashrut is a daily reminder of one’s adherence to God and community, one quote points out, while certain traditional foods are quite literally connected to historic events. The Passover seder, in particular, is described in detail, with dishes connected to each food on display. A tiny silver wheelbarrow is used for charoset, a fruit and nut paste that represents the mortar used to build the storehouses of the Pharoahs; porcelain cups are used for the salt water into which is dipped the karpas, the vegetable that is eaten to remind the diner of the tears the Jews shed while in slavery in Egypt. Another panel notes that blintzes first became popular because two of them side by side look like the tablets of the 10 Commandments. The list goes on.

The tail end of the exhibition is devoted to three videos addressing food politics, a topic that is hardly exclusively Jewish. One concerns hunger, another environmental sustainability, and a third “ethical” eating, i.e. worker and animal welfare. These videos, mostly composed of interviews with local Jewish food activists and rabbinical authorities as well as national figures, don’t break new ground in what has become a hot topic in the larger culture, but they do illustrate the variety of Jewish response. Hazon, a national Jewish environmental organization, makes an appearance, as does Magen Tzedek, a Jewish ethical food certification seal. (Contrary perspectives—like that of a rabbi from a kosher certification agency who maintains that it is impossible for him to ensure ethical food criteria are met—are included as well.)

In short, Chosen Food is an engrossing show, especially for anyone who has grown up with Jewish food. (And who hasn’t eaten their share of bagels and knishes?) As for the charge that food is a light topic, well, keeping it light has long been a way for Jews to get a point across. Along one wall of the exhibition lies a quote from comedian Alan King: “A summary of every Jewish holiday: They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!”

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