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Kosher Food From the Heartland

Authors trace Jewish cuisine in the American Midwest

Sep. 1, 2011
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The first Jews to arrive in the Midwest in the 19th century left no record of what they ate, but with no kosher butchers or dairies—or even a synagogue—within hundreds of miles, they presumably made do with whatever was at hand. In their book From the Jewish Heartland: Two Centuries of Midwest Foodways (published by University of Illinois Press), Ellen F. Steinberg and Jack H. Prost trace the development of a distinctly Jewish cuisine in the Midwest. The story is complicated because many Jews who eventually settled in places like Milwaukee didn't strictly keep kosher, German Jews were as fond of sauerkraut and apple kuchen as their Lutheran neighbors and the Middle Eastern dishes of the Sephardic Jews were distinct from the recipes of Eastern European immigrants.

And then there was the culinary melting pot, the countless adaptations of the Old World to the new reality. In the American heartland, bagels might be coated with cornmeal and pumpernickel sprinkled with sunflower seeds. Did gefilte fish made with northern pike taste different than the poached fish balls of the shtetl?

Milwaukee figures several times in From the Jewish Heartland. By the end of the 19th century, the Milwaukee Jewish Mission operated the only kosher cooking school in the Midwest, and before long women of the community published one of the region's earliest Jewish cookbooks. The history is interesting and written with clarity as well as scholarship, but many readers will want to turn the pages in search of the recipes for matzo cake, cheese pie, brandy peaches and gefilte fish. It all looks easy enough to try at home!


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