Food Stories

Highlights from the Collection

From the symbolic foods that are placed on the Passover plate to the dishes that are shared at more informal Jewish gatherings, foodways are a central aspect of Jewish culture. In Jewish families around the world, the intergenerational transmission of culinary traditions has offered both physical and spiritual nourishment to each new generation and has played an important role in the preservation and continuation of Jewish cultural heritage. Food brings communities together, stimulates childhood memories, and, even as it changes over time, evokes a sense of continuity from one generation to the next.

Our collection includes a plethora of rich and varied stories about food, from vivid memories of childhood foods to insightful reflections on how traditional Ashkenazi Jewish foods have evolved as they meld with the flavors of other cultures. We hope you enjoy this sampling of food-related highlights from our oral histories.

Mit a gutn apetit! (Enjoy!)

“Gefilte Fish Was Built into My Bones”

In this highlight, art historian and Yiddish speaker Adina Gordon recalls the time she taught the members of her Jewish Community Center’s Women’s Auxiliary how to make gefilte fish. She reminisces about her fear of going to the bathroom when her bobe (grandmother) had a live carp in the bathtub for gefilte fish and describes her bobe’s method for making gefilte fish, as well as other dishes that she prepared.

Learning from Jewish Balebostas

In this clip (in Yiddish with English subtitles), Eve Jochnowitz, scholar of Ashkenazi foodways, talks about learning Jewish cooking from Jewish homemakers. She reflects on the difference between learning how to make a dish from a recipe and learning by observing others prepare it and shares a wonderful example of seeing one woman using her finger to scoop out every last bit of egg white from eggshells.

Watch Eve Jochnowitz's full oral history (in Yiddish, with English-subtitled highlights below)

“I Thought Heartburn Was a Natural Thing to Have”

Here, Brooklyn-born Navy veteran, retired hairdresser, and former Yiddish Book Center docent Arthur Klein, z’’l, reminisces about the foods that his grandmothers used to make. He describes how they would buy and pluck the chickens themselves and all the ways that they used the chickens, from the eyerlekh (small eggs in a chicken) to gribenes (fried chicken skin), which they would smear onto matzah. He recalls fondly the abundance of delicious foods in his childhood, despite his family’s poverty, including tsimes (sweet dish with vegetables or meat, often with dried fruits) and kugl (pudding made of noodles, potatoes, or bread), pickled herring and whitefish, and kneydlekh (dumplings) and chicken soup.

Mole Latkes: A Hybrid of Eastern European and Mexican Cultures

Author and scholar Ilan Stavans describes the way his family’s and community’s fusion of Ashkenazi Jewish and Mexican cultures resulted in the development of unique culinary traditions. He recalls the mixing of Eastern European Jewish foods like herring, gefilte fish, and kreplekh (meat-filled dumplings) with Mexican foods like salsa, chile, and mole in his childhood home. He also reflects on how he has maintained those intercultural culinary combinations in his life today, including serving latkes with mole sauce in addition to the more traditional applesauce and sour cream toppings.

Crisco and Jewish Women: An American Company’s Recipes for Traditional Yiddish Dishes

Washington, D.C. native and social worker Annette Epstein Jolles describes the English and Yiddish Crisco cookbook that the women in her family used, a cookbook now spotted with various kitchen stains from its many years of use. She discusses the way Crisco catered to Jewish homemakers, both with the publication of a bilingual version and with its Eastern European Jewish recipes. Annette ends by remembering the time she cooked kakletn (small hamburgers fried in onions) for her dying aunt, who hadn’t had them since her own mother was alive.

Babushka’s Cooking: Sharing Jewish Food in the Soviet Union

In this interview highlight (in Russian with English subtitles), Alexander Frenkel, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of St. Petersburg, Russia, describes some of the foods that his grandmother prepared, including tsimes, chicken neck, and rugelach. He recalls his pride at serving Jewish delicacies like gefilte fish at his childhood birthday party and how he had to find creative ways to explain the origin of these foods to his non-Jewish friends, as it was then taboo to proudly use the term “Jew” in the Soviet Union.

The Relationship Between Romanian and Eastern European Jewish Food

In this clip, Minna Barrett, psychology professor and granddaughter of Yiddish actor David Baratz, reflects on how food evolves as it travels between cultures. She describes some of the dishes her grandmother used to prepare and shares the story of the time she and her husband traveled to Hungary and Romania and came across the same foods that her grandmother made, including sour milk and petsha (dish made from jellied calves’ feet).

Photograph at the top: The front cover of 46 oyfanim far besere Peyseh maykholim (46 ways to better Passover meals)