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  • From the Jewish Heartland: Two Centuries of Midwest Foodways
  • Ted Merwin (bio)
From the Jewish Heartland: Two Centuries of Midwest Foodways. By Ellen F. Steinberg and Jack H. Prost. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2011. x + 207 pp.

Food maven and humorist Calvin Trillin, who grew up in Kansas City, once gave a talk at a Jewish Community Center in the Chicago suburbs. He called it “Midwestern Jews: Making Chopped Liver With Miracle Whip.” An audience member came up to him after the lecture and conceded that, while quite unorthodox, it was certainly an interesting metaphor. “It’s not a metaphor,” Trillin rejoined. “It’s a recipe. That was how my mother made chopped liver. I think she considered schmaltz déclassé.”1

This story is not quoted in Ellen Steinberg and Jack Prost’s new book, From the Jewish Heartland: Two Centuries of Jewish Foodways, but it might as well be, since it perfectly encapsulates their depiction of Jewish food in the heart of the nation as a tasty blend of tradition and innovation. Their highly readable study elucidates the ways in which Jewish immigrants from all over the world preserved their identity by adapting the dishes that they identified with their heritage. In so doing, the authors contend, these immigrants and their descendants shaped the contours of Midwestern Jewish life.

Scholars perennially struggle with the question of whether or not the United States has its own cuisine, with many arguing that the nation’s food and foodways are simply an amalgam either of immigrant styles of cooking or of regional ones. Marcie Cohen Ferris’s monograph Matzoh Ball Gumbo (2005) explores both possibilities in demonstrating how Eastern European Jewish food has united with the traditions of the American South. Essays on New York Jewish food can be found in a number of scholarly works, including Annie Hauck-Lawson and Jonathan Deutsch’s anthology Gastropolis (2008) and Ilana Abramovitch and Sean Galvin’s collection The Jews of Brooklyn (2001). But the story [End Page 97] of Jewish food in the Midwest has not been told in any comprehensive way until now, and we have Steinberg and Prost to thank for rectifying that omission.

Their book takes an unusual approach; it is part academic history, part cookbook. This makes for an engaging style, but also an occasionally disconcerting lack of scholarly rigor. Because the authors are dependent on recipes as a principal source of historical information, they are strongest in conveying a sense of an individual’s relationship with Jewish food and weakest when it comes to supporting their argument about the role of food in communal Jewish life.

Steinberg and Prost, both of whom are anthropologists, were extraordinarily diligent in investigating the creators of particular recipes that they found in Jewish cookbooks and in tracking down descendants of these women and interviewing them. This makes for some compelling stories, such as those about Ruth Dunie, a Russian immigrant who fled persecution to settle in St. Louis and who recorded recipes for raisin wine, potato glace (fat-covered potato dumplings), and kuchen (cake). Her granddaughter, Carol Christian, filled in the picture with her memories of Ruth’s cinnamon and chocolate babka, cinnamon toast, cheese and jam blintzes, and chopped liver. The authors are careful to include not just Ashkenazic recipes but Sephardic ones as well, so that the reader gets a fairly comprehensive picture of the types of dishes that Midwestern Jews ate. One gets a rich sense of the creative use of Midwestern ingredients in traditional Jewish dishes, so that Sephardic borekas (turnovers) were made with sweet Michigan cherries, pumpernickel bread incorporated Iowa sunflower seeds, and gefilte fish came from Minnesota northern pike.

But recipes and reminiscences alone can provide only part of the story that the authors want to tell. The best chapters of the book situate these women’s stories in a broader framework, such as a discussion of why late nineteenth century American food tended to be bland. The authors adduce a plethora of reasons, including negative attitudes toward highlyspiced foods on the part of more acculturated Americans; the fact that spices were often adulterated with sawdust or dirt; the widespread use of spices...


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