Articles

EVER EAT Haman Taschen?

DOROTHY SANGSTER June 1 1951
Articles

EVER EAT Haman Taschen?

DOROTHY SANGSTER June 1 1951

EVER EAT Haman Taschen?

Every day more Canadians are learning the succulent secret locked in traditional Jewish food like blintzes, onion buns, gefüllte fish and baby beef on rye. Some of these johnny-come-lately connoisseurs may even get into the great bagel controversy

DOROTHY SANGSTER

A FEW WEEKS AGO my husband and I attended a party at the home of a new acquaintance. Our hosts weren’t Jewish, yet - half the things on the buffet table could be classified loosely as “Jewish food”—things like the loaf of fresh black pumpernickel, the spicy salami, the fragrant herring in wine sauce, the golden cheesecake and the thick slices of halvah, that succulent, mouth-watering confection made of sesame seeds and honey.

“Wonderful,” said one of the other guests. “Something with a taste and a smell. Wonderful!”

A taste and a smell—that’s as good a definition as any of Jewish food.

What else is it?

Jewish food is first of all international food. Because the Jews in their wanderings have learned to enjoy a wide variety of national dishes, Jewish food in 20th-century North America is, in a sense, borrowed from a dozen or more European countries. For instance, Russian Jews brought with them their love of beet soup (borscht), Polish Jews their favorite recipe for meat wrapped in cabbage leaves, Dutch Jews their taste for pickled fish, and so on.

As the Jewish Encyclopaedia puts it: “From Spain, the Jews

brought the custom of frying fish and other foods in oil . . . from Germany, the habit of sweet-stewing and sour-stewing meats . . . from Poland, stuffed fish and stewed fish, and from Holland, pickled cucum-; bers, herring and jam rolls.”

Most Jewish food is rich, highly spiced, good-smelling. Its natural boundaries are the boundaries of the dietary laws of the Torah, which ordain not only what animals, fish and fowl may be eaten by religious Jews, but also how they must be killed, prepared and cooked. This triple rule is called kashruth, and foods so prepared are termed kosher, or clean.

Because of the restrictions of the dietary laws the most popular Jewish meat is beef, with veal a close second. And because Jewish food originated centuries ago when refrigeration and Grade A cuts were unknown many meats were cured or highly spiced. They still are, and now they’re preferred that way.

Time was, not so long ago, if a man craved a corned-beef-on-rye in Toronto he had to travel downtown to the restaurant district of lower Spadina Avenue or College and Brunswick to find it. Today he has merely to nip out of his front door to spot half a dozen modern food emporiums on Eglinton Avenue in North Toronto — places like the Egg and the Town House. What’s more, if he hasn’t time to sit down then and there to a dish of hot cheese blintzes or potato pancakes he can settle for smoked salmon, chopped liver and pickled tomatoes to take home in a bag.

In Montreal it’s the same. Drop in at Ben’s, just back of the Mount Royal Hotel, or to Horn’s Boulevard Restaurant, on St. Lawrence Boulevard, or to Mirsky’s Broiling House, Jennie’s Dining Room,

Boulevard, or to Mirsky’s Broiling Moishe’s, or the Bucharest and you can

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sink your teeth into a variety of Jewish dishes, ranging from a modest hot pastrami sandwich to a plate of cold gefüllte fish with sliced carrot for garnish and a pink relish made out of beets and horse-radish.

Jewish restaurants like any other restaurants — are most abundant in large cities where many people eat out. Tl us mother good place for Jewish foo' is Winnipeg, where people in search of authentic dishes like finishes

(potato dumplings with spicy meat filling), or derma (stuffed chicken neck) are likely to drop in to the Arcade, on Donald Street. Other Winnipeg delicatessens include Oscar’s, Allen’s and Samuels—all popular and busy.

Grocers report excellent sales of foods once considered exclusively Jewish, things like salami, rye bread, dill pickles and sour cream. All these items are stocked by major chain stores across Canada and store managers find an ever-growing list of non-Jewish repeat customers.

The craze for the spicy frankfurter known as “the Jewish hotdog” has

been a gold mine for Sam Shopsowitz, one of two Toronto brothers operating a meat-packing plant which sells kosher products to Ontario merchants. In his office on Spadina Avenue, “Shopsy,” whose genial 250-pound bulk is his products’ best advertisement, says, “Why, when my father died five years ago he never sold more than five thousand pounds a week of our finished food. Today we think nothing of selling thirty thousand pounds. And about eighty per cent of our wholesale business is Gentile.”

A couple of blocks away from Shopsy’s the old-fashioned Kensington

Market, T oronto’s traditional shopping centre for Jewish food, does a thriving business so much so that Baldwin Street, its main artery, was recently declared a one-way thoroughfare in an attempt to control the stream of traffic that wends its way to market on Saturday night.

What’s for sale in Kensington? Fat live clucking chickens and fresh eggs; imported herring, smoked carp, and fish still swimming in tanks awaiting your critical choice; juicy pickles in barrels of brine; onion buns, honey cake and long slices of fruity strudel; dried pumpkin seeds to suck and chew.

An insurance agent who has lived there for forty years estimates that in the past ten years Kensington’s nonJewish shoppers have increased by seventy per cent. “They come down here for baskets of cucumbers and blue grapes,” he says, “and for bread and rolls hot out of the ovens, and for fresh butter and cheese. And twenty years ago everybody said this place was finished !”

Food to Honor the Sabbath

Although Jewish food is international, there are dishes which can properly be termed “Jewish.” Judaism has been called “the only religion that brings God into the kitchen.” For six days a week the diet in many poor Jewish homes of Europe was soup mit nihel (soup with nothing in it), so that the seventh day, the Sabbath, could be honored with the finest food available.

“To provide for the Sabbath—that is their goal in life,” writes Sholem Aleichem in his classic, The Old Country. “All week they labor and sweat, wear themselves out, live without food or drink, just so there is something for the Sabbath. Is it possible that there is a Jew who does not have fish for the Sabbath? If he has no fish, then he has meat. If he has no meat, then he has herring. If he has no herring, then he has white bread. If he has no white bread, then he has black bread and onions. If he has no black bread and onions, then he borrows some from his neighbor. Next week the neighbor will borrow from him.”

Out of this poverty-stricken respect for the Sabbath, old-country Jews invented a dozen or so flavorsome dishes that are still served in orthodox homes.

Orthodox Jews are prohibited from cooking on the Sabbath; so the Orthodox housewife cooks her Saturday night dinner on Friday. For this reason one of her favorite dishes is likely to be kugel, a sort of pudding of noodles or vegetables, enriched with sugar and spice and including raisins and almonds. There are a dozen different kinds of kugel, all delicious, all capable of being prepared the day before and left in an oven without damage to taste or texture.

Tzimmes, a sweet and succulent combination of meat, vegetables and honey, is another popular casserole, especially at the Jewish New Year when it symbolizes “a sweet and happy New Year to you.” And, because a Jewish festival is usually a time for happy feasting, the harvest festival of Suecoth is ushered in with strudel, the Christmastime festival of Channukah by grated potato pancakes, and the springtime festival of Purim by Haman taschen — small pastries filled with poppy seeds or prune butter and shaped into a triangle in ironic memory of wicked old Haman, who persecuted Persian Jews centuries ago and wore a three-cornered hat.

Passover, biggest feast of all, is celebrated by a big family meal featuring such delicacies as black radish

pi.^rves, sweet grape wine and rich chicken broth with matzoth—meal dumplings—matzoth being the unleavened bread served in Jewish homes through the week of passover. The favorite Jewish bread the rest of the year is Challah, a braided white loaf enriched with eggs and saffron, glazed with diluted egg yolk and sprinkled with poppy seed. Challah emerges in a round shape for New Year’s (“May the New Year be as round and complete as this loaf!”); in the shape of a bird for the Day of Atonement (“May this dove carry our sins away!”).

Because old-country Jewish housewives are likely to cook by instinct, many recipes die with them. Realizing this, a group of young Canadian-Jewish women several years ago decided to edit a cookbook of traditional recipes. Notebooks in hand they invaded their mothers’ kitchens, where they became involved in conversations something like this:

Mother: So you put in some flour . . .

Daughter: How much?

Mother: How much? A little. In a cup, so . . .

Daughter: But that’s a teacup. How much in a measuring cup?

Mother: How should I know? A

teacup I use. And next you put in some milk . . .

Daughter: How much milk?

Mother: In an eggshell! See, like

this . . .

Daughter: What kind of an eggshell

—a big one or a little one? Grade-A Large or a pullet’s egg? For heaven’s sake, how do you know how much milk when you measure like that?

Mother: You use your head, that’s

how.

Under the circumstances it’s remarkable that the Naomi Cookbook actually came into being, went into three

editions and after many revisions has become the standard Jewish cookbook in Canadian homes.

Besides being vague about measurements the old-country Jewish housewife is usually unable to give you a standard recipe for your favorite Jewish dish because she has a pet recipe of her own that she likes better. For instance, when I asked four women how to make cheesecake, that delectable two-layer pie that melts like ambrosia on your tongue, they gave me four different answers. One woman used only cream cheese, which she beat by fork and topped with sour cream. Another used a half-and-half mixture of cream cheese and cottage cheese and stirred the concoction for twenty minutes in a mixer. The third woman swore by “mock cheesecake,” which contained no cheese whatsoever, but custard instead! The fourth told me nothing was so good as her refrigerator cheesecake, a rich blend of gelatin, custard, cottage cheese and whipped cream, chilled until firm.

Jewish bakeries advertise “Mother’s Cheesecake,” “New York Cheesecake” and “California-Style Cheesecake,” de-

pending on whether the layer of fruit under the cake is crushed pineapple, cherries, raisins, or lemon filling. Whatever the recipe, cheesecake is an upand-coming favorite in modern delicatessens.

The Gentile, eager to make some Jewish meat dish, stumbles right off on something he probably never heard of before—kashruth, which a rabbi recently defined as “that precept of our law which forbids the consumption of all cattle, animals, fowl and fish which the Torah considers unclean.” In other words, the hub of Jewish dietary laws.

According to kashruth, only quad-

rupeds which chew the cud and have cloven hoofs are kosher. Thus the Orthodox Jew' shuns all meat except sheep, goats, deer, cattle and some fowl. Birds of prey and pork are forbidden.

Next, the animals and fowl permitted as food must have been in perfect health up to the time of t heir slaughter, which must be done by the method of sehechita—by a trained and certified slaughterer using a blade so sharp and smooth that it is said to inflict no pain. Animals killed any other way are forbidden. Even then, only the forefronts of animals are considered kosher. This rules out most of the tender cuts.

so the Jewish housewife must do h best with the tougher meat cut* (Hindquarters are sold to Gentil» butcher shops.)

After slaughtering and butcherinj the permitted cuts of the permittei meat, including poultry, must blt; soaked in water for an hour, coveret with coarse salt for another half hour then rinsed of all blood, which particularly abhorrent to the Jewis law. Nowadays Jewish butchers of* perform these services for their c tomers.

The final dictate of kashruth is tli meat shall not be cooked or prepar

h milk or butter, or served at the me meal as any milk dish. So the •thodox Jew goes without butter on 9 bread, cream on his pudding or milk his tea at any meat meal. He can joy milk and butter with fish meals, it again kashruth prohibits all fish cept those with fins and scales. This minâtes shrimp, oysters, lobster, uns and many other kinds of seafood. T know few young Jewish people who re to the letter of the law when mes to kosher food. Most second nird-generation Canadian Jews fall two other groups: those who

ignore kashruth enti'ely, maintaining that it was designed for another place and another time; those who make some kind of compromise in their homes, usually to please religious parents, but don’t attempt to follow it outside.

The liberal branch of Jewish religion, Reform Judaism, does not require its members to observe the dietary laws. Orthodox and Conservative Judaism do stand by the laws, although an increasing number find it difficult to do so.

I know a man who recently attended

a convention as an official delegate and ran into trouble at noon of the first day when the meeting adjourned for lunch in .the hotel dining room. The hotel was not Jewish and could not be expected to have a supply of kosher meat, to say nothing of special kitchen utensils to cook the meals. Obviously my friend, Orthodox from the cradle up, could not eat there. Jews in that predicament have only one choice: leave the hotel and go in search of a restaurant where the dietary laws are observed.

In Montreal, Epstein’s Kosher Res-

taurant on St. Lawrence Boule\ .o-d would probably be the place. In Toronto it’s Goldenberg’s on Spadina Avenue, seven minutes by streetcar from downtown hotels.

At Goldenberg’s two chefs cook fullcourse Jewish dinners from two separate kitchens: one for fleishig, or meat dishes, and the other for milchig, or milk dishes. Meals are prepared in two separate sets of kitchen utensils, served on two kinds of dinnerware, and accompanied by two distinctively patterned sets of silverware, so that literally nothing that touches meat will touch milk.

Customers eating milk dishes sit at different tables from those eating meat, and for extremely religious Jews who like to cover their heads when they eat the restaurant keeps on hand a couple of dozen black skullcaps called yarmoulkas. Different-colored menus list milk dishes (smoked carp, noodle soup, cheese blintzes, potato pancakes) and meat dishes (sweet-and-sour meatballs, chicken livers, breaded veal chops). Goldenberg buys his meat from a butcher who employs a full-time supervisor to ensure kosher practices in his shop.

Many restaurants in Canada serve Jewish food but any resemblance to the meals at Goldenberg’s is purely coincidental in most of them. They’re simply dishes of Jewish origin.

They’re Supposed to Be Tough

Not long ago a friend offered to show me a place where they make bagels -—those shiny water doughnuts sold in Jewish bakeries and intended to be wrapped around a late-morning snack of smoked salmon and cream cheese. So at midnight—the hour bakers start work—my friend and I traveled downtown in Toronto to a shabby door on Dundas Street and made our way through a long corridor to a room where half a dozen white-aproned men were at work. On a great scrubbed table I watched Baker No. 1 roll a mound of fresh bagel dough into long strips. Baker No. 2 twisted the strips rapidly into doughnuts and passed them on to Baker No. 3, who dumped them into a barrel of boiling water to bubble noisily for ten minutes. Baker No. 4 fished them out, lined them up on long wooden paddles and shoved them into a huge oven, watched over by Baker No. 5, who hauled them out at the psychologically correct moment and dumped them on a tray in a hot fragrant pile. Baker No. 6 carried the tray into the front room and sold me a dozen delectable bagels.

“This is the way to eat bagels," I enthused to my friend. “Soft and fresh, not hard and rubbery the way they sell them in the bakeshops.”

He looked at me pityingly. “They are supposed to be hard and rubbery,” he said. “Boy, you should taste the bagels my mother makes! They’re so hard you can hardly sink your teeth in them!”