Jewish Food Purveyors

Written by:
John Marchese
Summer 2013 | 5773
Part of issue number:
Photography by Naomi Zeveloff/The Forward

Food is tradition on a plate.

Despite the continual push of food industry giants to “new and improved,” humans crave the comfort of the tried and true.

One of the most distinctive current food trends is a return to carefully sourced and artfully produced products—“artisanal” is the byword. A few young purveyors have emerged who bring that ethos to products synonymous with Jewish food traditions. One puts a modern gourmet spin on a much maligned staple: gefilte fish. Another is infusing kosher meat production with the principles of sustainability and free range feeding.

Meanwhile, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the making of simple matzo continues as it has for generations.

The Gefilteria

At first blush, Jeffrey Yoskowitz, the friendly and voluble 28-year-old with a history degree and a strong interest in pickles, doesn’t seem like a radical—the kind of fellow who would fire off an angry manifesto. And yet here it is: the Gefilte Manifesto, printed on a four-by-six card, which he eagerly passes across a small table in a bustling coffee shop near his apartment in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Clinton Hill.

“Under the banner of convenience,” it reads, “the past several decades have seen treasured food traditions stuffed into jars and neglected, gefilte included.

“Gefilte has become synonymous with the outdated,” it continues, “the gray, the antiquated and the Old World. But we need not accept the extinction of this tradition...We know that gefilte—like borscht and kvass and so many Old World foods—is excellent when done right.”

Trying to do it right, Yoskowitz and two partners have created the Gefilteria, a small upstart food company that attempts to marry the youthful and very trendy Brooklyn-centered movement devoted to do-it-yourself artisanal foodmaking with some old-world Ashkenazi dishes, creating a product line centered on what to many Jews might sound like the ultimate culinary oxymoron: gourmet gefilte.

“We wanted to challenge the notion of what gefilte fish is in some ways,” Yoskowitz says. “Just by making it more attractive. First and foremost it’s something that people don’t want to buy because it just looks bad. We wanted to make it look nice and clean. More like a terrine, a nice fresh product, with a taste that is clean and simple and not too fishy.”

Eschewing the cheaper fish like carp and mullet that are common ingredients in mass-manufactured gefilte, the Gefilteria brand uses sustainably sourced whitefish and pike with a pink strip of salmon on top. The common matzo filler is eliminated. The salmon stripe is buttressed by the colorful horseradishes the company produces as accompaniment—deep red beet and bright orange carrot citrus. “You put them together, and in some ways it’s a conceptual thing,” Yoskowitz says. “Youthful and playful.”

But there’s a business behind the play, one that includes Liz Alpern, another foodie who started a challah bakery while still a student at McGill University and later managed a Vietnamese food truck and worked as an assistant for noted Jewish food writer Joan Nathan. The other partner is Yoskowitz’s childhood friend Jackie Lilinshtein, who has a financial background. Though he is reluctant to give exact figures, Yoskowitz says sales increased by a factor of ten from the company’s first busy Passover season to the most recent. Next, the Gefilteria will concentrate on launching a line of flavored beet kvass, a naturally fermented beverage.

As the manifesto shouts, the Gefilteria “is about taking food traditions seriously and reclaiming the glory of Ashkenazic food—what it has been and what it can be.”

“I’m really sad when I meet people who’ve never had gefilte fish outside of the jar,” Yoskowitz says, “the people who say, ‘I hate gefilte fish’ because that was their only association with it—jars. We are not eating the same thing. I’m eating a fresh loaf of gefilte fish.”

And while he is an ardent proselytizer for the re–imagined fish loaf, Yoskowitz admits that gefilte in general is not his ideal Jewish food. “My favorite,” he says, “is blintzes.”


Streit’s Matzo

A visitor trying to find the nearly 90-year-old bakery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that was founded by immigrant Aron Streit is likely to smell the signature product—matzo—before finding the front door.

One day recently, the entrance to the four combined tenement buildings that occupy much of a block of Rivington Street was obscured by a big tractor trailer from Pennsylvania, loaded with sacks of flour that were destined for a fifth-floor storage space. That flour would eventually wind up in one of two stainless steel mixing troughs, to be blended with New York City water. The resulting dough is dropped to a conveyor belt, spread and flattened by rollers, and then layered in overlapping sheets and passed through a 72-foot-long convection oven fired to 850 degrees. The hot matzo that emerges is divided by hand along pre-cut perforations, the cracking of the crisp unleavened bread done by workers who have been on the job for decades. Then the 11 by 13 inch wafers are stacked into triangular baskets hanging from a moving belt that winds through the warren of rooms, swinging through openings in walls and floors and up to a second-floor packaging machine, where the crackers are slipped into boxes, and then the boxes wrapped with the Streit’s brand label. Because there’s not much extra room in the 50,000 square foot facility, the boxed matzo is shipped to a warehouse in New Jersey.

The whole mixing and baking process takes 18 minutes, and the two Streit’s ovens (there is another on the third floor that feeds the finished product downstairs) go through about 2000 pounds of dough every hour and usually operate for 10 hours a day (more when the busy Passover season production begins), five days a week. The whole scene is described by fifth-generation family member, sales and marketing director Aaron Gross, as “Willie Wonka and the Matzo Factory.”

The operation seems to work very well, but Gross readily admits that it is woefully inefficient by modern standards. “If we were in a new facility outside New York, we could manufacture and warehouse in the same place,” he says. “We have to have a rabbinic contingent to oversee production when we’re making it kosher for Passover. In a modern facility we could have one guy. Here we have six. We have forty guys working to run the plant. In a modern facility it would be ten.”

But, Gross adds, “I think we make a very different product because of this facility.” During heated periods in the New York real estate market it has not been uncommon for Streit’s to receive offers nearly daily to sell the property. So far, the 11 family members with interests in Streit’s have held out.

The company sells an expansive line of foods, ranging from soups to chow mein noodles to macaroons, but only matzo products are produced in Manhattan and Gross believes that keeping that tradition is a potent marketing advantage.

“Fifty percent of our sales are for Passover,” he says. “And Passover is a very traditional, family-based holiday. You can have a person who ate Streit’s matzo in the ’50s at their grandparents’ house and they buy it today and it going to taste pretty much the same.

“It’s not because it’s been re-engineered to match the old flavor,” Gross adds. “It’s because it’s coming from the same oven, the same water, the same sheet roller, and made by workers who learned from the guys who were doing it then. That kind of authenticity doesn’t really exist anymore.”