You don't have to be Jewish to relish this tasty exhibition

Posted: September 27, 2007

Capturing the flavor of Jewish life in America involves more than a taste for pastrami or pickles.

More than a sip of seltzer - the "two-cents plain" carbonated water so popular in the 1920s and '30s, precursor to today's huge soft drink market.

More than a bag of oven-fresh bagels in the morning.

Yet each played its part in weaving Jewish immigrants and their foodways into America's ethnic quilt.

That journey is tracked in "Forshpeis! A Taste of the Peter H. Schweitzer Collection of Jewish Americana," a modest yet telling exhibition at the National Museum of American Jewish History through Oct. 21.

Forshpeis is Yiddish for "appetizer," and the exhibition does whet the appetite by touching on food-related aspects of Jewish daily life from Grandma's pantry and family recipes to food ads and delicatessen signs, from kosher meat preparation to an aged receipt for brisket sold, in 1906, at 10 cents a pound.

Linked to broader themes of identity and cultural expression, such seeming minutiae provide a glimpse of immigrant life and how newcomers became Americans.

About two million Eastern European Jews immigrated to America between 1881 and 1914 and faced the conflicting challenge of retaining their ethnic identity while adapting to American life. The rich food heritage Jews shared at America's table helped resolve the dichotomy.

Some began new lives here as pushcart peddlers. Some opened butcher shops or delis. In true American entrepreneurial spirit, some went on to produce foods under now national brands such as Manischewitz, Hebrew National and Empire Kosher.

Humble delis founded in Jewish communities became staples of American life. With that came ads such as Levy's 1961 campaign featuring an Italian cook, an Afro-American child, an Asian man and others with the slogan "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's real Jewish Rye."

This select sampling of food-related artifacts illustrates how Jewish foods - and the immigrants who introduced, ate, manufactured and marketed them - moved into the American mainstream.

Schweitzer, a New York social worker and rabbi, gathered nearly 10,000 items - posters, advertisements, photos, souvenirs and tchotchkes (Yiddish for bric-a-brac) that most might ignore.

On display are items from home kitchens, family celebrations, kosher butchers and delis, along with a background audio of songs and jingles, items that helped European Jews maintain their ethnic identity in the crush of urban America.

The exhibit tells of Charles and Maximillian Fleischmann, who came here from Austria-Hungary in the 1860s and, with their packaged yeast, changed the way Americans bake.

Daniel Carasso, a Spanish Jew, expanded his family's business (founded in 1919) by setting up Danone in France in 1929. Fleeing France during World War II, he founded Dannon, the first American yogurt company. (Now multinational Groupe Danone is the world's leading producer of fresh dairy products and bottled water.)

Meanwhile, American food manufacturers sought access to the growing Jewish market via kosher certification of products such as Heinz vegetarian beans (1923), Maxwell House coffee (1923), and Coca-Cola (1935). By the 1980s, before organic and all-natural swept onto the food scene, kosher certification had become a standard of food purity for Jews and non-Jews alike.

As Hebrew National ads for kosher meats told America in 1965, "We answer to a higher authority."

Other items highlight the importance of food at holiday and life-cycle events - from Passover seders to the bar and bat mitzvah rites of passage.

A pantry display in the exhibition positions Ma Cohen's Imported Lunch Herring, Edelstein's Tuxedo Brand Home Made Cheese, and Ladies Choice Kosher Pickles side-by-side on shelves with American products like Heinz Oven Baked Beans, Jell-O gelatin, Planters Peanut Oil, and Crisco Vegetable Shortening (all certified kosher) that helped Jewish homemakers cook like Americans.

In time, Jewish delicatessens and bakeries also blended into the American scene. And hot dogs, sausage, corned beef, rye bread, bagels and other Jewish staples moved onto the all-American menu.

Jewish and American cultures came together most easily in the kitchen. And those foods - whether their consumption, sale or production - helped many immigrants claim their share of the American dream.

Cookbooks like Grandma's Kosher Recipes and promotional booklets like What Shall I Serve? Famous Recipes for Jewish Housewives supplied by Rumford baking powder helped immigrant cooks make the transition while recording Old World and Jewish family recipes.

Among several on display is The Molly Goldberg Jewish Cookbook (Doubleday, 1954) by Gertrude Berg and Myra Waldo. Berg was the pioneer actress-writer-producer who won the heart of America portraying a stereotypical Jewish-American mother on radio and television in the series The Goldbergs (1929-54).

Some items from the collection will become part of a permanent exhibition in a new, larger museum building on the southeast corner of Fifth and Market Streets, groundbreaking ceremonies for which will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday. The public is invited to attend.


Potatoes Charlotte

Makes 4 to 6 servings

3 medium carrots, grated

3/4 cup water

5 medium potatoes, peeled, grated and drained

1/4 cup matzo meal

3 medium eggs, separated

1 teaspoon salt

Pepper, to taste

1 teaspoon sugar

3 tablespoons olive oil plus some for the pan

1. In a saucepan, combine the grated carrots and water; bring to a boil and simmer until tender, about 10 minutes. Let cool, but do not drain. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Mix the undrained carrots with the grated potatoes, matzo meal, egg yolks, salt, pepper and oil. Set aside.

3. Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks. Gradually, gently, fold the egg whites into the reserved carrot-potato mixture.

4. Pour the mixture into a lightly oiled 11/2-quart baking dish and bake at 350 until browned and set. (A knife or tester inserted at the center should come out clean.)

- Adapted from The Molly Goldberg Jewish Cookbook (Doubleday).Per serving (based on 6): 318 calories, 10 grams protein, 43 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 106 milligrams cholesterol, 451 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.


Pickle Soup

Makes 4 to 6 servings

5 dried mushrooms (the larger the better), chopped

7 cups water

2 medium onion, peeled and diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 medium carrot, sliced thin

1 bay leaf

3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice

Salt and pepper to taste

2 medium kosher pickles, cut into 1/4-inch dice

2 tablespoons minced parsley

1. Soak mushrooms in water until soft, 20 to 30 minutes.

2. Drain mushrooms and add to saucepan with the 7 cups water, onion, garlic, carrot and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer on low heat for 1 hour. Discard bay leaf.

3. Force the mixture through a fine sieve (or puree in a blender then press through a strainer).

4. Return the strained liquid to the saucepan. Add the potatoes, salt, pepper and pickles. Cook on low heat until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes. (If too thick, add water to taste.) Adjust seasoning. Add parsley and serve.

- Adapted from The Molly Goldberg Jewish Cookbook (Doubleday).Per serving (based on 6): 200 calories, 7 grams protein, 28 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, 13 milligrams cholesterol, 712 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.


Contact food writer Marilynn Marter at 215-854-5743 or mmarter@phillynews.com.

The "Forshpeis" exhibition continues through Oct. 21. Admission is free. The National Museum of American Jewish History is at 55 N. 5th St., off Independence Mall East. Open Sundays noon-5 p.m.; Mondays through Thursdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fridays to 3 p.m. For information, visit www.nmajh.org or call 215-923-3811.

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