- From the Jewish Heartland: Two Centuries of Midwest Foodways by Ellen F. Steinberg and Jack H. Prost
As the daughter of a celebrated midwestern Jewish cook (she was a finalist in the 1968 Pillsbury Bake-Off), I was eager to learn about the history of midwestern Jews and their cooking. From the Jewish Heartland is the first volume in Heartland Foodways, a welcome new series from the University of Illinois Press. Unfortunately, the book does little to identify exactly what heartland Jewish food is. In many places assimilation has obliterated the distinctiveness of Jewish food, which remains alive only in a few old-style delicatessens and at the holiday table. So what is it that makes midwestern Jewish cooking distinctive, or at least identifiable as a regional style?
Ellen F. Steinberg and Jack H. Prost are indefatigable sleuths who have tracked down some wonderful archival sources, but they don’t cast a critical enough eye on their discoveries or synthesize the material they have found into broader conclusions about what constitutes Jewish food in the Midwest. Some additions to the bibliography might have helped complicate their argument, for instance, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s essays on “Kitchen Judaism” and “The Kosher Gourmet in the Nineteenth-Century Kitchen: Three Jewish Cookbooks in Historical Perspective”; David Gitlitz and Linda Davidson’s A Drizzle of Honey (on the cooking of Spain’s conversos); and David Sax’s Save the Deli. Although the authors state that they couldn’t find any recipes for matzo in recent cookbooks (130), Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Bread Bible (2003), Maggie Glezer’s A Blessing of Bread (2004), and Greg Patent’s A Baker’s Odyssey (2007) offer evidence to the contrary.
The volume provides too little context for understanding the significance of how early Jewish immigrants to the Midwest ate, because their culinary adaptations appear similar to those of many immigrant groups. The authors state that the German Jews who arrived after 1848 “were quite like their gentile German neighbors … solidly middle class, urban, and urbane” (26). How, then, were their foodways distinguished? Did they ever share the [End Page 113] same neighborhoods, or frequent the same stores? As for the later wave of Eastern European immigrants, it is hard to agree that “one would have had a difficult time distinguishing between an Eastern European Jewish town or village and the communities these refugees established in midwestern cities” (53). Life in the Pale of Settlement was largely rural, not urban, and the threat of pogrom or famine was never distant. Though the communities these Jews established in the United States were insular and overcrowded, life in them was decidedly more secure.
The most useful parts of the book are the discussions of the Jewish Agricultural Office and of the Americanization courses sponsored by Jewish organizations, the most famous being Lizzie Black Kander’s Milwaukee Jewish Mission, whose work led to the 1901 publication of the now-classic Settlement Cookbook. Much more could have been done with the thorny matter of assimilation by looking closely at the issues surrounding kashrut that accompanied the rise of the Jewish Reform Movement in Cincinnati. Overall, the book’s methodology remains unclear. On what basis were recipes chosen from the modern Jewish fund-raising cookbooks? They seem randomly selected and not necessarily representative. Even more important, what criteria were used to determine something’s Jewishness?
For instance, how is Barry Levinson’s Mustard Museum part of the history of Jewish food in the Midwest? The answer would seem to be because Levinson is Jewish and mustard is served at delicatessens. In fact, when the authors visited the museum they “listened to the accordion ensemble [and] sang ‘Roll Out the Mustard’ to the tune of the ‘Beer Barrel Polka’” (149). Both accordion and polka are more representative of the Midwest’s strong Czech, Polish, and German populations than of Jewish tradition. Elsewhere, the numerous recipes in the book are said to “demonstrate the myriad artful and imaginative ways in which the Jewish cook might celebrate his...