Shavuot, Cheesecake and the History of Jewish Cuisine
Many Jewish festivals and holidays are associated with particular foods and Shavuot is no exception. For most contemporary Jews, the link between cheesecake and Shavuot is immediate. The consumption of cheesecake at this time is a product of the tradition to eat dairy foods on Shavuot, a tradition that has a plethora of suggested religious and historical sources, a complicated manner in and of itself. A popular idea is that prior to receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people anticipated kosher dietary laws, which would prohibit the consumption of eating many meat products so they ate dairy foods instead, hence the cheesecake.
One might be surprised to know, however, that not a single Jew consumed modern style cheesecake until 1872. This is undeniable as the contemporary cheesecake was only invented in 1872, by William Lawrence of Chester, New York. Indeed, the association of the relatively recently invented American desert of cheesecake with the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, speaks to a larger trend. Jews have always adopted foods from their surrounding cultures and made them their own.
This is the case for almost every single food considered Jewish. This is so much so that some foods adopted by some Jews in certain times and places have been rejected as very unacceptable and not Jewish by others. For many Americans, nothing is as Jewish as bagels with cream cheese and lox (salmon). In addition to the fact that this is again a relatively recent American invention, for many Jews around the world the dish is not even considered Kosher! Indeed, followers of Rabbi Yosef Karo (particularly Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern descent) adhere to his prohibition on the consumption of milk and fish together in the same dish.
The ubiquitous challah bread is another example of a relatively recent adoption by some Jews of a food rejected for its very purpose by others. The bread rich in eggs and sugar is almost certainly a medieval Ashkenazi (Northern European) Jewish adaptation of French brioche, used for Shabbat and festival meals. The word challah itself refers to the Mitzvah (commandment) of separating dough as a tithe for Kohanim (priests). According to Sephardi Jews, however, challah need not be separated from bread containing eggs or sugar. Therefore, Ashkenazi style challah is not used. Today, challah using only water, salt and flour is common for Sephardi Jews, but traditionally (and still the case amongst many communities) pita or other breads were used.
Certainly, some of the most iconic Jewish foods in certain communities, such as Ashkenazi gefilte fish or Yemenite jachnun, are not perceived as Jewish, or even on the radar of other communities.
Even the archetypal Jewish dish of Shabbat lunch, the Ashkenazi cholent or Sephardi chamin, are surprisingly recent in their ‘traditional’ form. Cholent/chamin is a slow cooked stew made of beef or chicken mixed with potatoes, beans, onion, garlic etc. according to custom. However, not a single Jew ever ate a ‘traditional’ cholent before 1493 at the absolute earliest, and probably later than that. The reason for this is very obvious as potato, sweet potato, most beans, avocado, pumpkin, tobacco, corn, capsicum, pineapple, blueberry, most nuts, vanilla, turkey and many other foods only existed in the Americas (where there were no Jews) until Christopher Columbus began the transatlantic trade known as the Columbus Exchange when he first returned from the Americas to Europe in 1493. This applies to many other ‘traditional’ Jewish foods, from Chanukah latkes (often made with potato or corn) to the potato used by some communities on the Passover Seder Plate. Even the chillies and tomatoes so common today in Sephardi Jewish cuisine, were only accessed by Jews when Columbus returned from the Americas.
Furthermore, many stereotypically Israeli foods are very much not Jewish in origin. Felafel was invented by Coptic Christians in Egypt as a replacement for meat during Lent (during which the consumption of meat is forbidden according to many Christians). The popular Shawarma of Israeli street fair has its origins in the Ottoman doner kebab dish.
The schnitzel, perceived by many as sitting at the heart of Jewish and Israeli cuisine, is of course descendent from the Wiener Schnitzel, an Austrian dish that was only ever made out of breaded pan-fried veal. The use of chicken was an Israeli invention made during the 1940’s and 50’s when there were food shortages and veal was almost unattainable.
Soup nuts (known as Mandelach in Yiddish or Shkadei Marak in Hebrew) are also an Israeli invention, as is Israeli couscous, known in Hebrew as Ptitim. Israeli couscous actually contains no couscous but is made of wheat and is also a product of the austerity years of early Israeli history. As the cuisine of Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews contained a lot of rice and it was not widely accessible, in 1953, Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben Gurion himself asked the Osem food company to produce wheat balls in the shape of rice as a substitute, and Israeli couscous was born.
The quintessential Chanukah dish of today is the fried doughnut (sufganyia in Hebrew and ponchke in Yiddish). It has a long history, having been mentioned by Maimonides’s father in the Middle Ages. However, it was never the central Chanukah food. This only changed when the Israeli Trade Union, the Histadrut, wanted to increase the production of doughnuts, as it would provide more work for its members. This campaign was so successful that 2012/2013 polls indicated that more Israelis eat doughnuts on Chanukah then fast on Yom Kippur.
What is of great irony, however, is that many well-known foods that are not considered Jewish at all, actually are of Jewish origin. The traditional English fish and chips, for example, was actually brought to England by Jews. The process of battering and frying food was common in medieval Spain and Portugal. When potatoes became available, they were fried too. Jews in Iberia often fried fish when meat was inaccessible and when Spanish and Portuguese Jews who began fleeing to England in the 16th Century arrived; they brought the dish with them.
Even the hamburger appears to be of Jewish origin. The great immigration of Jews to the United States from the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries almost exclusively travelled through the northern German port of Hamburg. It is there that Jews minced meat, mixed it with flour and salt and formed small patties in order to preserve kosher food for a long and unclear journey. When they arrived in America, Jews continued to call this cheap, easily transportable meat product hamburgers, after the port they made it in.
These are however anomalies, and were not foods that most Jews ate at the time, or were even aware of.
There was, however, an epoch when one could identify a universal Jewish cuisine. The Biblical and Talmudic eras are well researched and evidence exists from the Bible itself, the Mishnah and Talmud as well as archaeological sources, providing a relatively full picture of what ancient Jews ate.
Food was generally eaten fresh and according to the seasons, given the difficulty of preserving food without refrigeration.
Bread was commonly consumed with every meal. Wheat bread was preferred but barley bread was cheaper and more prevalent. Fruit was very commonly consumed, but often treated. This was the case with grapes (mostly as wine) and olives (mostly as oil). When the Bible refers to ‘dvash’ (often translated as honey) this actually does not generally refer to bee honey but boiled fruit paste from figs and dates, which was a major source of calories. Pomegranates were common too. Wheat, barley, grapes, olives, figs, dates and pomegranates have such pride of place that they are referred to as the seven species of the Land of Israel in Jewish literature. When the Torah refers to the Land of Israel as “flowing with milk and honey” this has been interpreted to refer to fig milk and date honey, not the cow and bee varieties.
Legumes such as lentils, chickpeas and fava beans were the main source of protein. Lentil soups and stews were very common, often flavoured with onion and garlic. Vegetables such as lettuce, leeks etc. were eaten but not very often, as were watermelons.
Spring water was consumed, but wine was favoured. Fermented alcoholic fruit juices and beer were also common.
Milk and dairy products existed, but, again as there was no refrigeration, milk either had to be drunk immediately or processed to make sour buttermilk, butter or sour cheese. Goat’s milk was most often used, although sheep’s milk was available to a lesser extent.
Poultry was of limited availability in the early biblical era, although birds such as doves, ducks, geese and pigeons were eaten. Amazingly, another claim that Jews can make as having contributed to global cuisine is the domestic chicken. Whilst chickens have existed for a long time, for most of early human history they were only bred for fighting. It is only in the Land of Israel from the 4th Century BCE that chickens were bred on a significant scale for their eggs and meat. Only after Jews started consuming them did the trend spread to the rest of the world. By the Roman and Talmudic eras, chicken eggs and meat formed a large part of the Jewish diet.
Red meat was very rare, was ordinarily from goats and sheep, and for most people was only consumed during the major festivals, Temple sacrifices and celebrations such as weddings.
Fish was readily available for those living on the coast or near the Sea of Galilee, and was salted and preserved for sale in inland communities, where it was more expensive and occasional.
Whilst there was a typical Jewish cuisine in the Biblical and Talmud eras, by the medieval period, world Jewry was so widely dispersed that local changes and variations made cuisines completely distinct from each other and the notion of a universal Jewish gastronomy ended.
Ultimately, what is clear is that Jewish cuisine has transformed and developed over time, adapting to and adapting the various contexts within which Jews have lived. What is important is not fanatically seeking out historical culinary authenticity, if that is even possible. Jewish cuisine has, and continues to change. What is noteworthy is the ability of Jews to apply symbolic significance and meaning to new foods, which then add depth to the Jewish experience.
150 years ago, no Jew ate cheesecake on Shavuot. Now, however, many do. Cheesecake, along with dozens of other dishes, has been attached to a Jewish holiday and reflects certain values and meaning inherent within the holiday itself. The values inherent within the divine revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
It serves as a fun, enjoyable conduit to understanding and enhancing the religious, cultural and communal experience. What matters is not if the food is new or old, or even really if it is that tasty. What matters is if it adds value to our understanding of the festival as individuals and as a people. If all one does on Shavuot is eat cheesecake (or doughnuts on Chanukah, cholent on Shabbat) it probably means very little. If one enhances the rich meaning of the day with an added culinary dimension, there is nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong at all. Except diabetes.
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