The ProsenPeople

From Scratch

Friday, December 30, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Stanley Ginsberg wrote about the meaning of a Jewish bakery and the sweet and sour sides of life for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

One of my pet peeves is the veritable deluge of prepared foods and "meal assembly" emporia that has overtaken America and seem to be spreading like a stain across the rest of the world. Walk into any store selling food, and there they sit – ready-to-heat main courses and side of every imaginable ethnicity and ingredient, indistinguishable, or so the labels claim, from home-cooked (and, of course, priced at a hefty premium over the cost of the ingredients themselves). Nor is it only the mains and sides: to see how pervasive the ready-tos have become, take a walk down the aisles of any supermarket and keep mental notes of all the things you can eat right out of the container, or that pre-mix key ingredients (think cake mixes).

Even as recently as 20 years ago or so, an industrial food takeover on this scale was inconceivable, yet very much in the cards. I forget the context, but remember well reading an article in the '90s that spoke about seasoning mixes that would enable butchers to reap higher profits from value-added, ready-to-cook steaks, roasts, and poultry. At around that same time, during my stint on Wall Street, I worked with the CEO of a company, now defunct, that pioneered treatments for cut fruits and vegetables that all but eliminated discoloration. One has only to look at the proliferation of pre-bagged cut produce to see how visionary the idea was.

What's behind it? Obviously, from the food processors' perspective, it's about profits. Anything you do to an ingredient changes it from commodity to unique product, and in so doing, lowers its vulnerability to the pure-price nature of the commodity markets, taking it instead to a higher realm, where branding and marketing operate to keep prices and profits high. Never mind that the bulk of industrial food processing is based on water and sugar (including fructose sweeteners), the cheapest of additives that also offer processors the advantage of a cheap way to increase weight – both the product's and the consumer's (hah!).

There's a second important financial consideration for the producers as well: labor. From-scratch food preparation requires skilled workers who can command premium wages. The workers needed to cook from mixes and industrial ready-to-heats can be had for minimum wage. Even better, machines don't get sick or have hangovers, and a retailer can always be certain of having enough product because his distributors will have warehouses full. Once again, technology and industrial production trump competence and experience.

From the consumer's point of view, those dishes represent savings of time and energy, but at the very dear cost of control and competence. The time issues are understandable. When I was growing up in the '50s, moms and grandmas stayed at home and had time to shop and cook; today's economically stressed world puts far more pressure on everyone to go out and find ways to earn money. The simple act of preparing and serving a meal has gone from pleasure to chore, and my grandmother's pride in feeding her family as given way to a sigh of relief at not having to cook, without the guilt of having failed at this most basic of family responsibilities.

That guilt also is the driving rationale behind the "meal assembly" stores, where people can go to assemble a week's worth of their own ready-to-heat dinners. Everything is there, pre-cooked and portion-controlled, ready to mix and match  into microwaveable containers. It's exactly the same mindset that built the cake-mix business and propelled bread machines into the appliance mainstream: here's a way to produce a Rembrandt – or at least an acceptable reproduction – without having to learn how to paint, let alone draw.

At what cost? Monetary, certainly: the ready-tos are substantially more expensive than the sum cost of their ingredients. But more troubling, in my view, is the personal cost. I want to be able to control what goes into the things my family and friends eat. I don't want chemical life-extenders, mold inhibitors or potentially hazardous additives (think potassium bromate) in my food. I want to decide how my food tastes, not some food chemist who's motivated by corporate profitability targets and focus-group driven consensus. I want to know how to make the things that please my senses and those of the people I care about, so that I can encourage others to value their own competence.

My wife and I often engage in a revealing dialogue when we go food shopping together. She'll see a ready-to that she finds appealing and say, "Ooh, let's try that." I'll look at it and say, "Why? I can make it better and cheaper at home." Sometimes we buy it, sometimes we don't, and more often than not, when we do, it's either too sweet, too salty, or both for our tastes (mine, certainly, since she has a far bigger sweet tooth than I). But at least we have the ability to make that choice and still have what we want.

Stanley Ginsberg is the author of Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories from the Golden Age of Jewish Baking. Visit his official website here.

Sweet and Sour

Wednesday, December 28, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Stanley Ginsberg talked about the meaning of a Jewish bakery. He will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

In my grandparents' homes, as in the shtetlach from whence they came, the food was sweet and sour – just as life itself was sweet and sour. For me, a grandchild of immigrants growing up between two worlds in 1950's America, sweet and sour came to symbolize both the contrasts and convergences of my multifaceted existence.

Sour was during the week. It was school and afternoon cheder for me, jobs that took my father and grandfather away from before I woke up until after I had my supper; and for my mother and grandmothers, shopping, cleaning, child-rearing and all the other things stay-at-home wives did back then.

Sour was a pickle or sour tomato for a snack, a piece of sour rye bread slathered with schmaltz and topped with a slice of onion, a lunch of sour cream, farmer cheese and chopped radish, scallion and cucumber; or maybe a glass of ruby red borscht and sour cream, or shchav (sorrel soup) with a raw egg stirred in and chopped scallions on top. Sour was Grandma Annie stirring a spoonful of sour cream into a pot of warm milk, then pouring it into a tray full of patterned yortzeit glasses and leaving it to sour over the pilot light on her white enamel stove.

Sour was the taste of the shtetl, where a piece of sour black rye bread, a bowl of the fermented beet water called rosl and perhaps a dollop of sour cream was a day's nourishment.  After all, what could be cheaper, easier and more provident for the inevitable times of scarcity than a crock filled with sliced beets, left to ferment by the wild yeasts that fill the air? Sour was the sum of their existence.

Weekends were sweet, and so were our holidays. Sweet was the saucer of honey, the sweet-sticky teyglach and cloves-fragrant carrot tsimmes at Rosh Hashanah, and the sweet gefilte fish and oloptzes (stuffed cabbage), for Shabbes. The challah was sweet and pale yellow, with a shiny brown crust that crackled when Grandpa cut it; the prune and apricot compote was sweet (but with a touch of lemon, to remind us of the week past and the week yet to come).  Sour held no place of honor at my grandma's Shabbes table.

Sweet was spending Saturday and Sunday with my parents and extended family, cookies and rugelach from Grandma and Bubbie, cracking pecans and hazelnuts with my cousins after a big holiday meal, visits to the bakery with my father and bringing home cookies and pastries in white cardboard boxes tied with string striped like a barber pole. Sweet was going to the Saturday matinee (20 cents for a double feature, serial, newsreel and 5 color cartoons 5) with my best friend Richie and eating Black Crows, Jujubes and Sugar Daddy bars. Sweet was being allowed to stay up late so my brother and I could sit in front of the TV with our parents, watching Uncle Miltie, Sid Caesar, Groucho Marx and Dragnet.

As I grew older, my life grew sweeter, more American. Instead of a giant sour pickle bought for a nickel out of a barrel of brine, my afternoon snack morphed into a stack of cookies and a glass of milk. Living in the suburbs, away from my grandmothers, we succumbed to the enticements of the mainstream and there we chose to spend our lives, eating sweet and eschewing sour, except as an occasional culinary grace note. Weeks and weekends merged into unremitting sweetness.

Now, in my 60s, I've come back to sour with a deeper appreciation of both its taste and meaning. Still, there is one dish, one taste memory, that haunts me: my bubbie's marnat – chilled sweet and sour whitefish, simmered slow and long with slices of carrot and onion in a peppery-vinegary-sugary marinade that congealed into an aspic and overwhelmed my taste buds even as the fish dissolved in my mouth.  Whenever I went to see her in her Brooklyn brownstone, that was the dish I always asked her to make.  And to this day, try as I might, I've never come close to duplicating it, perhaps because I will never truly know, as all my grandparents knew, the sorrows and joys of sweet-and sour. 

Stanley Ginsberg's Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories from the Golden Age of Jewish Baking is now available.

Book Cover of the Week: Hot Pink

Tuesday, December 27, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Adam Levin's second book, Hot Pink, will be available in March 2012

What Is a "Jewish Bakery"?

Monday, December 26, 2011 | Permalink

Stanley Ginsberg, a native of Brooklyn, grew up in a close-knit neighborhood where generations lived side by side. He learned to cook and bake from his grandmother, who lived just upstairs in the same apartment building, and has continued cooking and baking ever since. His book, Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories from the Golden Age of Jewish Baking, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Not too long ago, during a radio interview centered on Inside the Jewish Bakery, the host asked me, "What is a Jewish bakery?" I have to confess, I was stunned: no one had ever asked me that question, nor, indeed, had I ever asked it of myself. In my world, everyone knows what a Jewish bakery is – a bakery that sells Jewish baked goods.

But here's where it gets complicated. What exactly are "Jewish baked goods?" The ones that come first to mind – bagels, rugelach, onion rolls, challah – appear to be no-brainers, but in fact all can be traced back through their Yiddish forebears to the gentile Central and Eastern European societies in which the Jews found themselves living at various times.

Take bagels, for instance.  In America, we think of them as a Jewish food that made good, rising to the pinnacle of the American mainstream and assimilating away their "Jewishness." But boiled/baked ring breads made of double-helix dough strands, called obwarzanki, are the signature street food of Kraków, Poland, and have been for centuries.  And lest anyone argue that "Jewish" bagels don’t feature that ropelike twist, I would point out that a 1936 photo in the collection of the New York Public Library shows a Jewish New York City bagel peddler selling what clearly are twisted obwarzanki. At the same time, a 1938 photo in the YIVO collection shows a bagel seller in Lithuania selling the untwisted bagels we're all familiar with. Go figure.

So how about challah? Nothing more Jewish than that, right? Well, although the term "challah" is derived from the Torah, the bread itself was a loan from 14th and 15th century German Christians, who honored their Sabbath with braided loaves, according to Jewish foodways historian John Cooper. On top of that (and on top of the loaves), the custom of decorating breads with symbols of faith such as birds, hands, keys and ladders – also often thought of as uniquely Jewish – also can be traced back to the Christians of Central Europe. Even the term "koyletch," an alternative name for challah throughout Yiddish Europe, is of Slavic origin. And to bring things full circle, a braided, egg-glazed sweet bread called chałka is a staple offering in the bakeries of today's Poland.

The same is true of knishes, babkas, rolls (bulkes), rye breads – you name it and the gentile host cultures had it before the Jews. Even most modern favorites come from someplace else, most obviously rainbow cookies, whose horizontal layers of red, yellow and green reprise the Italian flag and trumpet their origin.

So if everything in the Jewish bakery came from someplace else, what, after all is a "Jewish bakery?"

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

In my view, nothing less than the history of a people's wanderings from place to place – from Eretz Yisrael to the Roman Empire, from Rome northward into the Rhine Valley, then west into France and England and east into Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Lithuania, Poland and Russia. At every stop, the Jews found the foods of their gentile neighbors and adapted them to the laws of Kashrut. And when it came time to move again, they took those foods with them and added to their repertoire the foods of their next home, again adapted to Kashrut.

And so the Jewish bakery is really a time capsule, a distillation of a thousand years of Diaspora, come to rest in a row of glass-fronted display cases and shelves full of bread and rolls behind the counter. Every bread and roll, every pastry, cake and cookie, reflects a specific time and place in our communal history and connects us tangibly (and edibly) to our shared experience. And you thought it was only a bakery!

Today, the world's food culture is rapidly homogenizing. You can find U.S. fast-food franchises in Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow;  Japanese ramen-chain outlets in New York, Los Angeles and London. And bagels are everywhere. TV food porn, as my daughter likes to call it, has universalized once-obscure ingredients and globalized technique and plating to the point where cooking has morphed from the deepest, most visceral (pun intended) expression of a culture rooted in time and place to a media-driven vehicle for individual creativity.  

And while I do appreciate the pure sensual pleasures of sculpturally composed, artfully conceived and executed coups de table, I'm also very much aware that even the best of them lack the authentic Yiddish tam of my grandmother's kroyt borscht, a long-simmered soup – a stew, really – made from beef flanken and an abundance of winter vegetables – cabbage, beets, turnips, carrots, potatoes and onions.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the mass-market processed food industry is wreaking its own Holocaust on family-run, made-from-scratch restaurants and bakeries, and in the process, severing the connection between people and their personal and communal histories. And sadly, as those restaurants and bakeries die, so too, dies a piece of our cultural history that most of us barely recognize, let alone miss, until it's gone. 

Stanley Ginsberg will be blogging here all week for the JBC and MJL. Visit his official website here.

Adventures in the Cartoon Trade: Israel, US, and Everywhere Else

Friday, December 23, 2011 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Richard Codor wrote about his cartoon education and how he came to write Too Many Latkes! He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When I walked down the airplane gangplank for the first time in Ben Gurion airport, I immediately noticed the baggage handlers unloading our plane. I was told they were “gruzinim”, or Georgian Jews. I had thought Israel would be filled with people who looked like my neighbors, my temple congregation, or even me. But they were totally different. I didn’t realize what an amazing variety of Jews and cultures had come from every corner of the world to make up the population of Israel.

I lived in Jerusalem and worked for the Israeli Broadcasting Authority doing illustrating and drawing animation for children’s programming. If I needed models for my work, all I had to do was to step out into the street and walk in any direction.

In the alley in Nachalot, where I lived, in a 17th century Turkish domed apartment, I befriended a Yemenite scribe, Ovadia, who had a tiny one room studio, just off the local well. There he copied the torah on vellum with quill pen and India ink. At times he would be dressed in black pants and white shirt and at other times in a flowing robe and pants. He had different hats, headdresses and turbans that he would change several times a day. It seemed to depend on who was visiting him. He made the best coffee in a small finjan on an electric grill next to his drawing table.

There were others who lived in the neighborhood from Morocco, Bukhara, India, Persia, Turkey and every European country. I’m always trying to fit them into my work. Here is a good example of the Jewish cultural types from my book, The Joyous Haggadah. Ovadia is first on the left.


This is a composite from kibbutz families I’ve known.




Richard Codor is the author of Too Many Latkes! co-author and illustrator of All You Want To Know About Sabbath Services, The Joyous Haggadah, and Babushkin’s Catalogue of Jewish Inventions. You can see more of his cartoons at http://littleblogofjewishhumor.com/.

JBC Bookshelf: Musings on Jewish Identity

Thursday, December 22, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

A few weeks ago, Miri Pomerantz Dauber and I had a great conversation with Michelle Haimoff, whose debut novel, These Days Are Ours, will be published in February. We continued the ongoing conversation about what it means to be a "Jewish" author and the difference between a Jewish book and a book that happens to be written by a Jewish author (with Jewish cultural references as the "Jewish" component). The conversation got me thinking back to my very first blog post for JBC, which took a look at Joanna Smith Rakoff's A Fortunate Age and Keith Gessen's All the Sad Young Literary Men, particularly:

For several of Rakoff’s characters, their Jewish heritage becomes a part of the backdrop–their Judaism is not front and center–but it’s a part of their foundation, making brief appearances throughout the book. None of the characters are particularly religious (although one does end up exploring Israel out of the boundaries of the narrative), and none comment on their Judaism as a negative factor within their life (or particularly positive)–it’s just a fact. They don’t wear it on their sleeve, but it’s there on the first page of the book, and it seeps back in throughout the course of the narrative. 

In 2007, we spent a lot of time thinking about questions surrounding Jewish identity and contemporary Jewish literature and even hosted a panel at the Strand as a part of the oy!hoo festival called You Can Write, But You Can't Hide: The Subtle Ubiquity of Jewish Identity:

Even if you haven't noticed it, it's there in every sentence you write. It's there to make you feel guilty, there to make you feel proud, there to make you remember who and why you are. It's your Jewish identity, and it's as big as the entire world, injecting itself into everything. But just what is Jewish identity? And how does it affect Jewish writers? And what's to become of it in an exceedingly secular world? Join an intrepid group of authors as they grapple with these questions while still trying to make their mothers proud.

These are the questions that particularly drive me, as a secular Jew living in New York City who is in the business of Jewish literature (and ideas, history, culture, etc.). With each new book that tackles the subject, I revisit the ideas I considered in that first blog post and the questions we sought to address at the oy!hoo and consider my own life choices and where I want to go from here.  I eagerly anticipate the 2012 crop of books that are concerned with similar questions.  

With that out of my system...your final JBC Bookshelf before I pack up and head to Ireland for a week! See you in January...

Breaking and Entering: A Novel, Eileen Pollack (January 2012, Four Way Books)
Read an excerpt here

Flatscreen: A Novel, Adam Wilson (February 2012, Harper Perennial)
Check out The Faster Times, Adam is a founding editor

New American Haggadah, Jonathan Safran Foer, ed.; Nathan Englander, new trans. (March 2012, Little, Brown and Company)
Read reviews of Safran Foer's Eating Animals, Everything is Illuminated, and Incredibly Loud and Incredibly Close on the JBC website
Read an excerpt here


JLit Links

Thursday, December 22, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Too Many Latkes!: Twenty Years in the Making

Wednesday, December 21, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Richard Codor wrote about his cartoon education. Check back on Friday for his final post.

The idea for Too Many Latkes! came from one of my fondest childhood memories. My mother was the office manager of our synagogue and in charge of organizing the annual “Latke Fundraiser." She would always say, “This year we're going to make a mountain of latkes!” Every year, all the latke cooks would gather at the temple on Hanukkah and fried huge amounts of latkes. They never quite made enough latkes for a mountain but the image stuck in my head. 

When I had my own kids and we began a tradition of making elaborate holiday parties with ceremonies, music and song. I looked around for something entertaining that I could do. The first thing that came to mind was that latke mountain. Taking bits and pieces from the many stories I illustrated and animated for children?s programming in Israel and the US, I came up with the outline of Too Many Latkes! At the time I was a storyboard artist for Doug, the animated TV show and daily I would make little Post-It flip books to work out scripted action. It seemed natural to make Latkes into a big newsprint flip book that I could act out in front my guests, the way I would a storyboard pitch. 

It became a big hit at Hanukkah and every year inevitably some body would ask when is it going to be a book. By the time I got around to seriously making it into book form, the nature of publishing and even drawing had changed. I no longer worked on paper. My drawings were done with a stylus in programs on computer screen. To keep the feeling of the large original black and white marker drawings on newsprint, I had to reduce, scan, color and touch up the drawings in PhotoShop. A lengthy process but well worth it since, the digital images loose little when published in paper or Ibook form. 

Now I can do book readings using a computer slideshow, drawing tablet, speakers, projector and HD screen. However, there are places that are just too intimate for all those gadgets. So from the digital files, I've printed out again black and white images and made a new flipbook. 

Some things never change.

Richard Codor's work is featured in the books The Big Book of Jewish Humor (Collins), All You Want To Know About Sabbath Service (Behrman House), and in Israel, the social satire classic, Zoo Eretz Zoo (E.L.S. Editions.). His storyboards are used in numerous multiethnic, politically correct and incorrect movies, TV and Internet media such as “Doug”, “Lizzie McGuire”, “Robots” and “Queer Duck”. He is a recipient of multiple Jewish Press Association/Rockower Awards for Cartooning and the first Charles Schulz Prize.

Book Cover of the Week: Meat Heart

Tuesday, December 20, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Melissa Broder's second book of poems, Meat Heart, will be available on March 6, 2012

A Cartoon Education

Monday, December 19, 2011 | Permalink
Richard Codor's most recent book, Too Many Latkes! (Behrman House), is now available. He will be blogging here all week for JBC and MJL.

The memory of my cousin handing me my first copy of MAD Magazine when I was 12 is still fresh in my mind. I can feel my hands tremble as I looked down at the cover painting of Alfred E. Neuman as a scarecrow. My cousin said this magazine was going to change my life and he was right. From that moment on I was hooked. I was a cartoonist. As I turned the pages I knew all I wanted to do was to make drawings that everybody would laugh at, just like that group of talented idiots.

This was also the time when I was obsessed with the Marx Brothers movies. There was no Netflix, Internet, VCRs, or 24/7 TV. There were just three channels on our black and white set and they usually went off the air before midnight. I’d scour the TV listings for weeks looking for one of their films. If one did appear it was usually scheduled beyond my bedtime. That night, when everyone was asleep, I’d sneak downstairs, turn on the TV with the volume just above a whisper and watch, my eyes as big as saucers, the incredible comic anarchy of the Marxes. The next morning, I’d trudge to school where I’d spend the better part of homeroom, Latin, and Geometry classes filling the margins of my notebooks with super heroes, goofy weirdoes and slimy monsters, inspired by my real mentors.

My first brush with notoriety came about from one of those doodles in Hebrew school. Sitting in the back of class, as the teacher pounded away at the blackboard on the pronunciation of Hebrew verbs, I drew a small little sketch of her dancing a hora, naked. Under it, I wrote “Mrs. K…. Blows!” I passed it to the kid next to me. He stifled a delighted guffaw. I thought he would pass it back but instead I saw it make its way around the class with the sound of suppressed giggles.  The teacher, sensing something was up, grabbed the offending scrap. She went on a tirade, which consisted of what an offensive drawing it was and wanting to know what she had to “blow” about since she felt she was a very modest person. The poor lady didn’t get it.

My popularity went way up. From being just a face in the crowd, I was established as The Cartoonist for the rest of my school career. However, the teacher got her revenge when years later I lived and worked in Israel and sorely missed not having a better grasp of the pronunciation of those Hebrew verbs.     

My obsession with cartoon drawing has enabled me to make a living from illustrations, editorial cartooning, storyboarding for commercials, TV animation and feature films. Now, with the publication of my own books, like Too Many Latkes!, I’ve returned to the seat at the back of the class.  I still want to make people laugh when I draw.  

Check back on Wednesday for Richard Codor's next post for the Visiting Scribe.