Food Maven Rethinks Jewish Cuisine
Arthur Schwartz’s main kitchen was packed. It did not seem like an unusual occurrence. On this particular day, a neighbor came over, searching for challah tips, and his housekeeper polished a set of antique brass pans. In the background, his assistant whipped up a prolific number of apple cakes for a lecture taking place the next day.
A former food editor of the New York Daily News and a frequent guest on the Food Network, Schwartz is a foodie by anyone’s standards. The New York Times once profiled not him, but his kitchen. (Or, to be more accurate, his kitchens: There are two in his cluttered apartment in Park Slope.) He’s a loud, charming man, both distinctly Jewish and distinctly Brooklyn.
And, in a way, Schwartz’s latest book is the one he has been waiting his whole life to produce: the gorgeous, lavishly illustrated and exhaustively annotated “Jewish Home Cooking” (Ten Speed Press), an astonishing testament to the early 20th-century evolution of the Ashkenazic Jewish kitchen. The book’s thesis posits that Jewish cuisine can be both gourmet and healthy, and it makes a forceful argument for the inclusion of Jewish food in the higher echelons of haute cuisine.
This is the kind of cookbook that’s going to make more than a few readers curl up their lips and say, “That’s not gourmet” — from the artful first-page photograph that looks like paté but is actually chopped liver, to the culinary discourse on p’tcha, to surprisingly informative bits on Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda and the food of the 1950s radio and television show “The Goldbergs,” to the closing recipes for honey cake and egg creams.
But it’s hard to imagine someone taking a look at a smooth, cold, artfully out-of-focus glass filled with something red and frothy and delectable — opposite the recipe for cold borscht — and not feel at least slightly ravenous. By keeping his recipes simple and true to traditional methods, but emblazoning flourishes when appropriate, Schwartz fuses his heritage — that is, growing up with two grandmothers constantly cooking in his house — with a background in fine cuisine.
Some might take exception to his interpretations. The potato kugel recipe, for instance, calls for three pounds of very dry russets, along with an even dozen eggs. “The eggs make it light and fluffy, the way kugels used to be,” he argued emphatically. “People always think Jewish cooking is heavy. Well, if you make three starches and a brisket and call it a meal, of course you’re going to think it’s heavy!”
Schwartz also stands firm on the issue of Jewish cooking being potentially healthy. He told me about a Boro Park shop owner who refused to carry his book.
“‘People are very particular,’ she told me,” he recalled. “She said, ‘Schmaltz kills!’” (Schmaltz, or chicken fat, is an essential ingredient in many of the recipes in “Jewish Home Cooking.”) Schwartz thought for a moment and rubbed his chin. “I’d hate to know what she thinks of gribenes!”
Gribenes, of course, is deep-fried chicken skin… and that’s just the start of the fun. While the book is split between dairy and meat main courses (there are also sections for soups, breads and appetizers), the greatest rewards, and the most distinctive recipes, lie in the meat section.
“A lot of our dishes, if you just add broccoli, it turns into a contemporary dish,” he said. “Jewish food can also be healthy. Short ribs are very stylish, and what is flanken but short ribs cut in a different direction? Why are we always putting it down?”
The book’s definition of “Jewish food” is sometimes freely interpreted. This might be the only Jewish cookbook to include a recipe for pork — or, officially, Chinese roast meat on garlic bread with duck sauce. (The ingredients specify “1 pound Chinese-style red-roasted pork, or plain roast veal.”) He notes in the book that, among first- and second-generation American Jews in the 1950s, Chinese roast pork on Italian garlic bread became the hallmark of an “urbane and sophisticated” palette.
Paradoxically, other recipes have an authenticity that belies Schwartz’s familiarity with normally insular New York Hasidic communities. When I asked how he managed to get recipes from Boro Park’s Crown Restaurant and Williamsburg’s Gottlieb’s — let alone a photo of a Satmar Hasid posing with a tray of shlishkas (Hungarian potato dumplings)— he shrugged modestly and said, “You shop for the same food, you get to know a lot of people.” Later during our interview, Simcha, the Hasidic model, called to wish him a good Shabbos.
But it’s only a paradox if you let it be. Schwartz, a man who can toss off the most esoteric facts about both cuisine and kashrut, is a proficient cook in every variety of Jewish. It makes perfect sense, therefore, that he should be well versed in every kind of Jew, too.
Matthue Roth is a performance poet and novelist. His newest book, “Candy in Action” (Soft Skull Press), has a free soundtrack at www.candyinaction.com.