Pot Roast Then & Now: A spicy tale of Jewish mothers and daughters
What can a Jewish cookbook from 1946 tell us about the 21st-century Jewish-American experience? Liza Schoenfein, the Forward’s senior food writer, and Jane Ziegelman, a culinary historian, took our signature collection of Yiddish recipes off the shelf and found a direct line from the balaboostas of yore to the kitchens of today.
How Home Economics Changed America
When Regina Frishwasser sat down to write the “Jewish American Cook Book,” she had a particular reader a mind. That woman was young and recently married, a novice homemaker. Born in America to immigrant parents, she was someone who had grown up on typically Jewish foods, but had never learned the secrets of preparing them. The “Jewish American Cook Book” would fill the gap in her culinary education.
The idea of a Jewish women who couldn’t “cook Jewish” was something possible only in America. Back in the old country, cooking knowledge — which included a full command of the kosher laws — was passed from mother to daughter, the two generations standing side by side in the kitchen. In America, in cities like New York, Boston and Chicago, Jewish girls were exposed to a welter of competing culinary influences, giving mother a run for her money. Her most formidable rival was her daughter’s home economics teacher.
In its original incarnation, home economics was a turn of the 20th century social reform movement led by Protestant, middle-class women. Its main goal was to revolutionize housekeeping by treating it as a science, a composite discipline that involved aspects of engineering, chemistry, biology and bacteriology. Home economists believed that if a woman wanted to do her job effectively, she needed to understand the science behind household tasks. The set of tasks they were most interested in revolved around food.
In the late 19th century, home economists founded cooking schools that offered classes in nutrition, kitchen chemistry and the processes of human digestion. (Among the best known of these pioneers is Boston’s Fanny Farmer, cooking school principal and author whose 1896 cookbook is still in print.) The home economists’ approach to food was strictly rational. Food was judged in terms of its nutritional content, cost efficiency and digestibility. Their culinary ideal was New England-based, Yankee cooking with its creamy chowders, baked beans and copious amounts of root vegetables. Simple, honest American fare.
By World War I, home economists held teaching positions in cities and towns across America. Those who worked in predominately Jewish neighborhoods encountered special hurdles. First, were the Jewish dietary laws, which they had to be familiar with or risk alienating their students. Second, before they could teach Jewish girls to cook, they had to re-train their taste buds.
“Jewish Dietary Problems,” a report published in 1919 in the Journal of Home Economics, a publication geared to professionals in the field, told the story in a nutshell. According to the experts, the Jewish diet was “over-rich” and “over-seasoned.” Excessively fond of pungent and aggressive flavors, Jews cooked with too much garlic and onion, were too liberal with the vinegar, and consumed way too many fermented foods. They needed more creamed vegetables, milk-based soups, mayonnaise-based salads, and breakfast cereals, like oatmeal. Cultivating a taste for the “simpler foods” was an uphill climb, but it was deemed worth the effort:
“Modification of the dietary tastes of a people is, of course, a slow and often thankless task, but when one realizes the evils attending the constant irritation which the high seasoning produces, one cannot help the desire to undertake it.”
Over time, Jewish students absorbed their teachers’ culinary point of view, leaving them ambivalent about their mothers’ cooking. “Jewish Cooking on the Wane,” a 1929 Forward article, described the consequences:
In the past decade or so, there has come a great change over Jewish homecooking. Let us ask in chorus: where is the cholent of yesteryear? Where is the old-fashioned tzimmes? Where is the homely boiled chicken? And what happened to the soup? They have gone. Or, better, they have become Americanized…In place of the old fashioned dishes appear creamed vegetables, broiled meats, baked fish, delicately prepared soups, and, above all, the Almighty Salad.
Published in 1946, the “Jewish American Cook Book” was Frishwasser’s attempt to reconnect young Jewish women with their ancestral foods. Not that Frishwasser was averse to American influences. On the contrary, her book contains a host of recipes for dishes like Baked Creamed Cauliflower, Cream of Celery Soup, and Lettuce Salad — though not at the expense of zestier, more traditional dishes. Included in that category is her recipe for Spicy Pot Roast.
Pot roast (gedempte fleisch in Yiddish) is a venerable Ashkenazi dish, its roots stretching back to the Middle Ages. In an early reference to a pot roast-like preparation, Rashi, the11th century French rabbi, described a dish in which meat was cooked in its own juices and fat and seasoned with onions.
A dish so elemental is bound to show up in more than one cuisine. In this country, recipes for pot roast began appearing in cookbooks in the late 19th century. Not all were for beef. For decades, a “pot roast” referred to any piece of meat — it could be veal, pork, lamb or poultry — that was slowly braised in a covered pot. A traditional American pot roast is seared in lard and seasoned only with salt and pepper. Frishwasser’s Spicy Pot Roast, which is seared in chicken fat and cooked in vinegar, is clearly inspired by German sauerbraten. It’s an example of “highly-seasoned” Jewish food at its most satisfying.
The Original Spicy Pot Roast Recipe
Add to 3 pounds stewing beef 2 cups water, 1 cup vinegar, 12 cloves, 4 bay leaves, and 1 tablespoon salt, and keep in refrigerator over night. Dredge the meat in flour, and brown in chicken fat. Add 2 cups vinegar, 2 cups diced carrots, and 2 cups sliced onions. Cover and simmer for about 2 hours. Add 1 tablespoon sugar, and 2 cups diced potatoes, and cook 20 minutes longer.
Liza Makes It Modern
I don’t remember either of my grandmothers cooking anything highly seasoned or vinegary. And while one grew up in Hungary, the other, my Boston-born maternal grandmother, may well have taken the very home economics classes that contributed to the demise of true Ashkenazi-Jewish fare, as lamented in the Forward of 1929. Certainly that “Almighty Salad” — crisp iceberg lettuce, tomato, sliced radish and shredded carrot — always appeared on her dinner table, along with baked fish, broiled meats and a variety of casseroles and jelly molds.
Each grandmother made some type of pot roast or brisket, but there was certainly no sauerbraten, the vinegar-based version from Germany on which Regina Frishwasser’s Spicy Pot Roast is based. Perhaps my mother’s braised beef came closest: For special dinners she often made Julia Child’s Boeuf à la Mode, in which the meat is marinated and cooked slowly in red wine.
Studying the original Spicy Pot Roast recipe from “Jewish American Cook Book,” I cringed at the marinating and cooking liquid being made entirely of vinegar and water. My lips puckered just thinking about it. I researched sauerbraten recipes and found that in many cases, red wine and vinegar are combined, often in equal measure. I decided to work with that idea.
I read that this assertively sour dish is often served with a side of braised red cabbage (in addition to spaetzle, potato dumplings or boiled potatoes). I liked the idea of red cabbage, and decided that I might as well cook it together with the meat, along with a variety of root vegetables including carrots, turnips and parsnips, for a well-rounded, one-pot winter meal. (I ended up leaving out potatoes, which could be used in addition to or instead of the various veggies I added. I think I’ll toss them in next time.)
The recipe I developed (below) is assertively — though pleasantly — pungent. If you think you’d like to reduce the sourness, you can play with the proportions, adding more wine and/or water and reducing the vinegar.
Pot Roast With Vinegar and Root Vegetables
Marinate the meat for at least one day (and up to three) before cooking — and consider cooking it the day before you plan to serve it. The meat is easier to slice cold, and the dish is more delicious after the flavors have had a chance to meld.
A 3-pound chuck roast
2 cups dry red wine, such as Chianti or Côtes du Rhône
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup water
6 bay leaves
6 sprigs fresh thyme
3 garlic cloves, minced
2½ teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
6 shallots, peeled and left whole
1 large turnip, peeled and chopped into 1½-inch pieces
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped into 2-inch rounds
2 parsnips, peeled and chopped into 1½-inch pieces
1 small red cabbage, cut into 6 wedges
1 tablespoon sugar
Fresh dill for garnish
Non-dairy sour cream for serving
- The day before you plan to cook the pot roast (or up to three days before), place beef in a large zipper-top bag and add wine, vinegar, 12 cloves, 3 bay leaves, 3 sprigs of thyme and garlic. Seal the bag, letting out as much air as possible, and place in a bowl that fits the meat snugly, so that the liquid covers the meat. Refrigerate overnight, or up to three days.
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Take meat out of the refrigerator, remove from bag and pat dry with paper towel, reserving the liquid. Combine 1½ teaspoons of the salt, along with the pepper, and sprinkle all over meat, pressing it in as necessary so it sticks.
- Heat a large, heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add oil and brown meat, starting with the fatty side down, about 3 minutes per side. Remove to a plate. Add vegetables — except the cabbage — to the pot, with additional oil if necessary, and cook, stirring, about 2 minutes. Return meat to the pot.
Add marinating liquid, including solids, to the pot. Liquid should come about halfway up the meat. (If it doesn’t, add more wine, vinegar and water until it does.) Add sugar and 1 teaspoon salt.
Cover pot, put in the oven, and cook for 2½ hours. Remove from oven, add cabbage, pressing it down so it is mostly submerged in the liquid, and return to oven for an additional 30–45 minutes.
- Remove pot from the oven, place meat on a cutting board and cut into ½-inch slices. Garnish meat with dill and serve with non-dairy sour cream on the side.