Plain Meanings - Complex Texts

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Rabbi Yehiel Poupko is bridging the gap between old Jewish books and contemporary realities.

Plain Meanings - Complex Texts

The Oreo and the Jewish problem

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I'm writing this on Wednesday night, March 7, 2012. The election returns are in from Super Tuesday's Republican Primaries. Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama have just met. And on the CBS evening news, right alongside reports on these major events with implications for the future of the United States, Israel, and the world, is a story on the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Oreo cookie, including an interview with the Turnier family, the children and the grandchildren of the man who did the last design of the Oreo cookie in 1952. This is an event of such significant scholarly proportions that the report presented the actual copy, the bill-of-sale, for the first batch of Oreo cookies back in 1912 to a grocer in Hoboken, NJ.

If ever there was a  text-grounded people, it is the Jewish people. We love first editions. There it was for everyone to behold on national television, the bill-of-sale for the first batch of Oreo cookies. Oreo cookies are that utterly delicious, portable, bite-size cookie icon of 20th century American culture, the cookie of 'milk and cookies.'

After hearing this news, I then remembered that all important question: The Oreo and the Jewish Problem. This is not the beginning of a joke. You surely remember that day when Oreo gained Kosher certification. It was announced Friday, January 16, 1998. Many in the Jewish world were ecstatic. Even those Jews with little concern for Kashrut practices were thrilled. What a marriage! What an embrace! This icon of America, the Oreo cookie, and the 3,000 year-old institution of Kashrut, the Jewish dietary practices! Talk about acceptance of the Jews in America. Kosher comes to Oreo! Does it get any better than this?! This is a Sandy Koufax moment. Who will ever forget the moment when Sandy Koufax said that he wouldn't pitch in Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because October 6, 1965 fell on Yom Kippur. Baseball embraced Yom Kippur. What a moment of Jewish acceptance by all of America. Indeed, as known in that pseudo-sacred authoritative text of Jewish intellectual history, The Big Lebowski, The Dude, turns to Walter Sobchak, and accuses him of "living in the <expletive> past." Walter Sobchak responds, "Three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax . . .You're <expletive> right I'm living in the <expletive> past!" Need more be said?

Why bring this up now? We are headed into the four week period between Purim and Passover. This season is a Jewish 'foodie' high point. We are going to be talking a lot about food. Some Jews are going to call the great-aunt, the last one left in her generation, for their great-grandmother's Passover hazelnut cake or brisket recipe. Brothers and sisters are going to argue over who should maintain possession of mom's cookbooks and hand-written recipes with decades of food stains on them. Some are going to engage in that all important theological encounter between tradition and modernity. Gefilte fish at the Seder? Surely! But none of this old stuff, let me go with Wolfgang Puck's cabbage cosseted gefilte fish, or Mimi Sheraton's tureen interspersed with leek, beet, and carrot, along with halibut and salmon thrown into the mix. All this is to the good. There are five intimate things that people do together: work, play, love, study, and eat. Eating is intimacy. Proust was right about madeleines and Oreos, and old family chicken soup recipes, as well. It is remembrance of things past and more. The enchantment of all those food recipes is more than the remembrance of things past. It is life in the meaningful present.

Now Oreos and Sandy Koufax not playing on Yom Kippur have something in common. In both instances there was a meeting between the values of a minority culture and the embrace by the majority host culture. Sandy Koufax said Yom Kippur is more important than baseball, the all American sport. Baseball did not demand that Sandy Koufax give up Yom Kippur and Oreos came to Kosher.

There is a reverse trend out there taking place in America. It is the entry of Jewish ethnic food into the mainstream of 'foodie' or culinary America. Recently in New York City a restaurant was opened called "Kutsher's Tribeca." Now for those of you from the Midwest Kutsher's Country Club was a legendary, possibly venerable, Catskills mountain resort for New York Jews. Well a scion of that family has just opened up a new restaurant called Kutsher's Tribeca. Here is an excerpt from a review of this restaurant from that great arbiter of highly popular expensive, high-brow and low-brow culture, New York Magazine.

There's a dish called pickled herring "two ways" on the menu, the kasha varnishkes are made with wild mushrooms and quinoa, not kasha, and the house gefilte fish is molded into decorative gourmet pedestals and feathered with micro-greens and a parsley vinaigrette.

"This is not my grandmother's Kutsher's," said one of my guests as the first wave of newfangled, heretical deli creations began arriving at the table . . . but the contents of the excellent house delicatessen plate (which include pink veal tongue and strips of soft, house-cured duck and ­deckle pastrami with pickles, mustard, and a pot of delicious horseradish aïoli) were quickly devoured . . . and to the ingenious aforementioned herring dish, which is also cured in-house and served in two little Alfred Portale-style towers, one of them dressed in the traditional way, with sour cream and pickled onions, the other with wasabi and yuzu.

Kutsher's executive chef, Mark Spangenthal, has worked at top kitchens around the city, and if there's a problem with his radical interpretations of these ancient dishes, it's that some of them are actually too good. At least that was the twisted, Talmudic argument presented by one of the food scholars at my table, who pronounced his matzo-ball soup to be "overstudied." The smooth chopped chicken liver at Kutsher's is folded with unorthodox spoonfuls of gourmet duck liver ("nouvelle chopped liver," one of the scholars called it), and you can get your (slightly sodden) potato latkes topped with three kinds of caviar or a compote made with local Greenmarket apples. The traditionalists at the table were confused by the weirdly elegant shape of the gefilte fish, but the texture and taste, it was generally agreed, were a cut above what they'd been forced to endure over the decades at family holiday feasts.

Now, thanks to this restaurant, and lots of other similar trends, the world of Jewish ethnic food is on the diet and in the menus of America.  However, there is not much attached to it other than good food and the artistry of updating it, deconstructing it, re-imagining it, repositioning it, and all sorts of other pretentious twists and turns and culinary gymnastic artistries, but along with it come no Jewish values, no Jewish history, no food that embodies Jewish experience.

Meals marry the sensual and the life giving to family and community and sacred experience. In the Jewish community, and not only the Jewish community, eating is one of the ways of remembering the past, creating memories in the present, and passing on Jewish experience to the next family in Jewish history. The first Jewish national experience is a family meal in Egypt, the night before liberation from slavery. And because that event was remembered for more than 3,000 years in a family meal we are still here, eating and remembering.

Mazal Tov to Oreo on its 100th birthday! Bless the Oreo that came to Kosher and Sandy Koufax who chose Yom Kippur over the World Series. And so if you have to have nouvelle chopped liver or 'overstudied' Matzo Balls or gefilte fish with horseradish aioli and microgreens sourced from your local sustainable farmer for your Seder that is just great, because unlike Kutsher's it will be served in celebration of the world's most ancient and enduring national religious meal. And who knows but that just a decade or so from now in the week before Pesach a brother will call a sister and ask for Mom's deconstructed gefilte fish recipe.

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