You can learn a lot about a culture by the food it creates.
You hear pizza, you think Italian. Tacos conjure thoughts of Mexico. Apple pie is only fitting for America.
And, this summer, New York’s Center for Jewish History wants you to learn the origins of bublitchki, challah and gefilte fish — all Jewish cuisines that are deeply rooted in the religious group’s culture.
In a new exhibit, the NYCJH presents Jewish cookbooks, which contain recipes that have been passed down through generations, some even from the time of the Holocaust. These foods tend to have deeper messages than just their recipe instructions; they say something about Jewish culture.
“In any culture, food serves as an important touchstone and marker of tradition, and this is certainly true of Jewish culture,” according to the NYCJH. “For the Jews, food serves a religious purpose as well as a cultural one; Jewish food and foodways have adapted with aplomb and resiliency to new countries, regions and cultural norms. But food also conveys tradition and memory; whether it be the ‘sauerkraut and small noodles’ from a poem that comforted Holocaust sufferers during a dark hour, the treasured recipes gathered by a Sephardic sisterhood, or cheerful and colorful cookbooks advertising modern versions of old favorites, food is a potent and dynamic reminder of religion, culture and tradition.”
Most of these cookbooks, according to CityLab, come with stories and experiences of the people who penned them.
“People look at these and say, ‘That looks like something my grandmother bought at the synagogue bake sale. Why would you put it in an exhibit? It’s not important,’” Melanie Meyers, who went to the exhibit, told CityLab.
More so, Jewish culture and cookbooks say something about how the religious culture became a part of American society. Food, after all, is an important part of assimilating into the United States, as it presents an opportunity to join the American marketplace and to invite outsiders to see what your culture is about.
Creators of the cookbooks were aware of this, too. According to CityLab, one family wrote their cooking instructions in Yiddish for the mother and English for the daughter.
“In this way, cookbooks reflect the immigrant experience: the Jewish community moved from niche market status to become a truly influential constituency,” CityLab reported.
It’s not just the Jewish community that’s tried to show its culture through food mastery and cookbooks. As Joshua Keating wrote for Foreign Policy, countries throughout the world have looked to promote their culture and beliefs by offering specific meals that are available in abundance in those countries.
“They say you are what you eat. And that applies to countries and cultures as much as individuals. The food in our mouths defines us in far more fundamental and visceral terms than the gas in our tanks or the lines on a map,” he wrote, according to NPR.
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