An Intense Week of Jewish Food Culture

by Andrea Lubrano

Alumna Andrea Lubrano describes her exploits during the week-long Tent: Food NYC, exploring Jewish food culture in New York City from October 19th through the 26th, 2014. 

group picNew York City, a land made up of culinary diversity, was host to twenty remarkable individuals this past October during the first Tent: Food NYC, a program of the Yiddish Book Center. Hosted by The Center for Jewish History and led by Lara Rabinovitch, the Food Editor of Good Magazine and the “Queen of Pastrami,” this week-long intensive seminar had the best itinerary this gastronome could hope for. Plus, I got to share my most profound interests with likeminded individuals, who in one way or another understand the significance of food as a tool to preserve and enrich our cultural heritage and that of others.

Although this week, as one would imagine, explored specifically Jewish food culture in New York, it did so strictly under the parameters that Jewish food culture, like that of the Irish or Italians, is of equal significance to the fabric of the city, so there was little to no religious undertone.

chineseTo give you a re-cap of my week, every morning, more or less, we began our day defining the diversity of Jewishness in the realm of food traditions. We reviewed historic Jewish cookbooks and recipes held in the special collections library at the Center for Jewish History and also got a private showing of the menu and cookbook collection held at the New York Public Library.

We had a challah and babka workshop at Breads Bakery, went on a Lower East Side food crawl that included all the greats like Katz’s Deli, Russ and Daughters, Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes, The Pickle Guys, and Kossar’s Bialys, to name a few. We met Lior Lev Sercarz of La Boîte NYC, a master in spices and the senses.

challahWe had a cooking demonstration with Eli Sussman, the head chef at Mile End Deli. We learned some pitching tips from a lecture with Gabriella Gershenson, the Food Features Editor at Every Day with Rachel Ray. We also went on a tour of Little Odessa and Brighton Beach with Knish expert Laura Silver, learned about MAZON, a national non-profit organization that works on ending hunger, and had a lecture with Mitchell Davis, Executive Vice-President of the James Beard Foundation, about the future of our food and the importance of intertwining flavor and health into the larger conversation.

I’m most definitely forgetting some other wonderful and informative events, probably because the week was so engaging and full of enriching experiences.

criscoAs if the daytime schedule wasn’t eventful enough, all the participants were required to dine together every night of the week. And further encouraged to talk to a different participant as a way to keep the group dynamics flowing. A memorable dinner, aside from the tasting at Bar Bolonat and the meal at La Vara, was probably our Shabbat dinner, where all twenty of us shopped, cooked and cleaned for a home-cooked-family-meal.

All in all, this experience has truly given me a whole new perspective on the revival of Jewish food in the U.S., which being a non-Jew I initially thought only encompassed matzo ball soup and pastrami sandwiches. Thanks to Tent, today I know that Moroccan tagines, Iraqi qatayef, borscht, mamaliga and kvass have more than one culture associated with them. At the heart of the Jewish diaspora live the roots of their culinary diversity, making Jewish food as geographically specific as that of any immigrant American. If you haven’t already looked up this wonderful program in the hopes of joining their next seminar, I’m sure the fact the program is completely free of charge will encourage you to do so. There are also fashion, creative writing, museums, journalism, pop music and comedy workshops under the Tent umbrella (www.tentsite.org/).

Bagging a Pheasant for Class

by Keith Duhamel

Student Keith Duhamel shares his experience in hunting and preparing a pheasant, 16th century style, for the Food History course as part of the MLA in Gastronomy core curriculum.

IMG_1601Autumn in New England evokes images of trees ablaze. Reds, oranges and yellows seem to light the horizon against a clear blue sky; crisp cool air in the morning balanced with warm gentle breezes as the day progresses; heading to the apple orchard, though the orchards of yesteryear are replaced today with neat ,orderly rows, manicured and pristine, like soldiers awaiting inspection; and heading to the pumpkin patch for that perfect orange sphere to carve out your jack-o-lantern.

Autumn also means, to many a native New Englander, the start of hunting season. For me, donning the orange (so that I’m recognizable to other hunters) and loading the century old double barrel shotgun once used by my grandmother on her honeymoon (no, not that type of shotgun wedding) means the hope of getting a pheasant or two.

IMG_1746This year, in particular, hunting season coincided with our Food History class studying the medieval period, and my desire to “bag” a pheasant was only magnified. Dr. Ken Albala’s class has taken us on a journey through time and this period in food evolution intrigued me the most thus far. The ostentatious displays of food by the wealthy of the late 15th and early 16th century certainly lend one to imagine dishes in excess.

My first endeavor out into the fields, however, resulted in nil, unless we count the ticks. Luckily, on my second trip I bagged me-self a beautiful rooster, the name for a male pheasant. The iridescent coloring of his plumage sparkled in the sunshine, and I knew this guy would make a meal fit for the King.

IMG_1749In respect of the period, preparation and accompaniments were lavish. After dismemberment, the breast was roasted briefly over a wood fire. As this was occurring, I prepared a stuffing of short grain rice seasoned with dates, homemade almond milk, cinnamon, ginger, garlic and a splash of verjus. I stuffed the breast, wrapped it in bacon and swaddled the entirety in a simple pastry of flour and water. Once baked, the head, wings, tail and feet were re-attached, if you will, and served on a bed of autumn leaves and a sprig of bittersweet (a modern touch).

My guests that night were indulged in a meal that was nothing short of spectacular, if I do say so myself. In true fashion of Medieval times, and at the recommendation of Dr. Albala, I stuffed his beak with a cotton ball soaked in alcohol and lit him ablaze. Autumn’s breath of fire collided in all aspects of this dish. Phineas, as we named him, was succulent and moist, tasting of smoky bacon balanced with the spiced sweetness of the stuffing. Autumn is a time of preparation, a time to reflect and prepare for the winter ahead. Phineas graciously gave of himself, so that I, and my guests may do just that.

Dr. Ken Albala will be teaching the Food History class again for the Spring 2015 semester.

Cover photo credit: innyangling.net