In her new release The 100 Most Jewish Foods, Alana Newhouse takes on the widely controversial topic of the origins of Jewish cuisine and the ways it is linked to specific cultures and religious backgrounds. The recipes on the “highly debatable” list range from classics such as babka, chicken noodle soup, bagels, blintzes, lox, and matzo balls to less overt choices such as chicken, concord grape juice, Persian rice, and simply “leftovers.” As much could we said about the morsels included in the book as the ones that were decidedly excluded, with the Jewishness of falafel being a highly contentious topic between Israel and other middle eastern countries due to the ongoing dispute surrounding the origins of the food.
Another highly debated food, Newhouse notes in an exclusive interview with L’Officiel USA, is the bagel. Although to many, the concept of the bagel’s Jewishness is as open and shut a case as they come, Newhouse is here to remind us that the simplest answer is not always the right answer. The bagel’s widespread popularity has also resulted in a genericizing of the fare that has rendered its Jewishness less central to its identity than its commonality. Throughout the interview with Newhouse, one thing is clear: the histories of Jewishness and the centrality of nourishment to the telling of these histories are extremely important to her. She states that “Jewishness is an inheritance” and with that in mind we can begin to understand the importance of Jewish cuisine to the religious and cultural aspects of Judaism.
Were there aspects of your book influenced by humor?
I assume so! The book is meant to be an exploration of Jewish history and culture—a story marked in part by experiences of oppression and the Jewish responses to it. There are certainly moments in the book that are laugh-out-loud funny, but what you’ll find really all over the book is an overall attitude—a posture of engaging with food from a uniquely wry angle. And interestingly I think this goes for both the Jewish and the non-Jewish contributors.
What about food is central to the experience of being Jewish?
Every cuisine emerges from certain boundaries—in most cases, a geographical one. In the case of Jewish cuisine, there were four boundaries: 1) the general kosher prohibitions against mixing meat and milk, or eating shellfish or pork; 2) the prohibition against cooking on the Sabbath and holidays; and 3) the prohibition against eating leavened bread on Passover. The fourth and last stricture is the fact that our neighbors sometimes hated us.
In my opinion, one of the foundational entries in the book is Adafina, a Sabbath stew made on the Iberian Peninsula in the aftermath of the Inquisition. At the time, Jews who had Christianized—often under duress—tried to maintain their Jewish culture in secret, especially with food. Authorities would frequently ask servants to act as spies—reporting back about which families were not cooking on the Sabbath or using salt pork. In this one dish is a whole argument about the importance of not ignoring the role that food has played in the expression and protection of Jewish identity.
Why focus on the debate surrounding the Jewishness of certain foods?
Because there is so much of it! The arguments started the minute we came up with the idea (and some of us are still debating about it).
Was there one food that Jewishness was most highly contested?
One of the early debates we had was over the bagel. At this point, it’s obviously an iconic Jewish food, but many of us also feel that it’s become so generic that it’s virtually lost its Jewish specificity. We couldn’t imagine leaving it off the list, but we also felt we had to make a critical argument about it—so that’s just what we did.
What were the most challenging and rewarding aspects of writing this book?
We did not set out to create a list of the most popular Jewish foods or the tastiest. We wanted to put together a list of foods that were most Jewishly significant—throughout history, and from around the globe. Inevitably, that meant engaging with periods in history and other cultures with which we weren’t as familiar as our own. In this way, I’d say the most challenging part of the project was also the most rewarding.
Why did you decide to release it on your 10th anniversary?
That was a coincidence! Or divine intervention. Either way, I can’t take credit for it.
What do you hope people take away from the book?
That Jewishness is an inheritance—and there’s more in the account than many of us even realize. The foods you know and love have histories you couldn’t imagine, and there are many others you've probably never heard of.
Were there any foods that were decidedly left out from the book?
Too many to count!