By Adam Reinherz
Two Books Are Tasty Treats
The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List
The Brisket Chronicles
Give the gourmand steak au poivre and the literati Ulysses, but sometimes all you’re craving is familiar meat and a quick read. Those mildly hungry for books dedicated to Jewish cuisine should look no further than The 100 Most Jewish Foods by Tablet’s Alana Newhouse, and The Brisket Chronicles by Steven Raichlen.
Like peanut butter and bananas, the two texts can be paired or enjoyed individually, as each offers beautiful photographs, accessible writing and the ability to allow readers to nibble away at passages without any need of finishing the whole.
Newhouse’s work is a “highly debatable list,” as she puts it.
“This is not a list of today’s most popular Jewish foods, or someone’s ideas of the tastiest, or even the most enduring,” she writes. “What’s here, instead, are the foods that contain the deepest Jewish significance — the ones that, through the history of our people (however you date it), have been most profoundly inspired by the rhythms of the Jewish calendar and the contingencies of the Jewish experience.”
Caveat accepted. Which is perhaps why brisket, horseradish and kichel appear, but falafel and Sunkist Fruit Gems do not.
The book presents each food accompanied by a short vignette and recipe. Occasional information is sprinkled throughout the pages, such as the rise in sesame-related eats and insights into Soviet cuisine, but overall the text is light on history.
Those thirsting for taxonomic entries seasoned with origins and etymologies should read Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food — the comprehensive collection offers more than a mouthful for most Jewish readers.
What Newhouse’s text brings to the table is an array of entertaining writers (or, as she calls them, “an unexpected collection of contributors”), including Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Zac Posen and Shalom Auslander.
The Brisket Chronicles is less diverse, honing in on what Raichlen calls “the world’s most epic cut of meat.” Apart from explaining how to buy, prepare and serve brisket, Raichlen packs his pages with mouthwatering images and instructions.
In a passage dedicated to “a real deal Texas-style brisket,” he writes, “Well, here’s the big kahuna: fourteen pounds of pure proteinaceous awesomeness. The brisket that makes reputations — and fortunes … I suggest serving it unadorned so you can appreciate the complex interplay of salt, spice, smoke, meat and fat.”
Raichlen’s writing offers a particular flavor that, like its subject, teeters between bravado and subtle sweetness.
When lionizing his Aunt Annette’s holiday brisket, he writes, “Long before my indoctrination into barbecue, I ate brisket. So did every other Jewish kid in the neighborhood. Brisket was the ultimate holiday dish, and nobody made it better than my aunt, Annette Farber… Lavished with apricots, prunes and other dried fruits, it was the sort of sweet-salty, meaty-fruity mash-up typical of so much Ashkenazi cuisine.”
Adam Reinherz is a staff writer with the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.