1940s Archive

An Alphabet for Gourmets

Originally Published April 1949

K is for kosher…

… and for a few reasons why the dietary laws laid down by Jehovah to Moses about 1200 B.C. have rightly been called “one of the best economic regimes ever made public,” gastronomically as well as otherwise.

These interdictions, which, except to the orthodox Jews, have come to mean very little beyond bortsch-and-blintzes in any restaurant which displays the Star of David, are puzzling mainly because so few people really know them (including a great many modern Jews, who are astonished to learn that they can read them easily in Leviticus, the Third Book of Moses in the Old Testament…and very good reading it is, for anyone with a true gourmet’s curiosity…).

Its complex rituals for the butchering and inspection of meats by properly trained men need bother no one, since they are taken care of by experts before food is bought and prepared for the table; but the ancient, sensible, good rules for cookery, to be followed or at least pondered on, are best told as Moses told them to his people more than a thousand years before the greatest Jew frightened the Romans in Jerusalem and then, after the Passover feast, died, perhaps to save them.

Pragmatism, of course, often triumphs over religious principles, as when, in G. B. Stern’s The Matriarch, Babette Rakonitz inadvertently discovered the excellence of ham and managed to enjoy it for many a long year by pretending not to know what she was eating. It is easy to reason as Babette did, when wealth and wanderings have turned people willy-nilly into tolerant cosmopolites, like the Rakonitzes. And there are many Jews like them.

It is the poorer ones, the oppressed, who have held fiercely and loyally to the ceremonial laws bound round and round them, who, centuries after their nation disappeared to rise again, stand unshakable as a race of great religions faith. It is an astonishing and moving thing that after so many flights from terror, after so many vigils in strange lands, the Jews still feast and fast as Moses told them to.

It is exciting, gastronomically, to recognize the influence of their wanderings in their wealth of dishes: olives and oil from Spain and Portugal; German, sweet-and-sour stews; cucumbers, herring, butter cakes, and coffeecake, from the hospitable Dutchmen; fishes stewed and stuffed, and soup made with goosey drippings, from Poland; from Russia and Rumania the blintzes, the buckwheat groats called kasha, and the sweet heaviness of fruit compotes and preserves…and bortsch thin or thick, hot or cold, any time of the clock or calendar…

But it is not the international flavor of the Jewish cuisine that makes it really exciting as much as it is the fact that many dietary and ceremonial laws have of necessity evolved a peculiar art of substitution, disguise, and even trickery (a trickery which has nothing to do with dishonesty, as was the case in rich Babette’s delicate gluttony, but which is one solely of flavorings and spicings).

Fish is a favorite of the Jews, because of the many prohibitions about preparing and eating meats. Highly seasoned salmon, for instance, is one of the main dishes for the Sabbath, when all cooking is forbidden, since it can be made the day before and served delectably in a hundred ways when it is cold. Fish is convenient, too, because there is no prohibition against cooking a cold-blooded animal with cream or cheese or any other milk products, as is the case with red meats.

Meat is usually served only once daily in Jewish households that can afford it at all, but even so, relatively few vegetables are eaten in most orthodox homes, since they cannot be prepared with butter or cream at any meal containing meat, and the cooks are therefore not educated to cope with them. They are eaten more by the poor people in soups than by the wealthier classes, although salads are more in favor than they were even a few years ago.

Fortunately there are a great many feasts to be observed by good Jews…but there are also alarming numbers of strict fasts. A few of them, like the Fast of Esther, which precedes the Feast of Purim, are observed now only by the very religious, but Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, will be a period of purification and reflection as long as the world rolls, probably, wherever a Jew may find himself.

There are semifasts, too, such as a one-day period in the summer heat hen no meat should be eaten: a simple, dietetically sound rule to protect any wandering and ill-housed people, whether in the desert of Arabia a thousand years ago or in a New York tenement next August.

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