Early-American Jews brought elements of Mediterranean diet

Olive oil was one of the Mediterranean ingredients introduced to early-American cuisine by Iberian Jews. / Photo via Wikicommons

Olive oil was one of the Mediterranean ingredients introduced to early-American cuisine by Iberian Jews. / Photo via Wikicommons

When I was in graduate school researching newspapers from the 1780s and ’90s, I was surprised to find Philadelphia merchants advertising olive oil, capers and anchovies. Who ate these foods, I wondered, and what did they make with them? These and other Mediterranean foods, I learned, were Jewish contributions to American cuisine.

The earliest Jews in North America had Iberian roots – their ancestors had either been expelled from Iberia (Spain or Portugal) or had formally converted to Christianity and practiced Judaism secretly. Jewish cuisine in Britain and its North American colonies reflected this Iberian heritage and was familiar enough that one of the leading 18th-century British cookbooks includes several recipes for dishes “Jews way.'”

Hannah Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy,” first published in England in 1747,  was the most popular cookbook in both 18th-century Britain and America. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned copies, and Benjamin Franklin liked the book’s recipes enough to translate some into French, perhaps to make sure that while he was on his diplomatic trips to Paris in the 1760s and ’70s, someone would know how to cook properly.

Glasse’s extensive cookbook includes recipes for roasting pig, lamb, geese, rabbits, tongue, udder and more. She offers sauces for turkey, ducks, larks and venison. She tells readers how to “dress” cauliflower, French beans, artichokes and “brockala.” And those are just a very few recipes from the first page and a half of an 18-page table of contents. There are recipes for regional English specialties, such as Devonshire squab pie and for foreign dishes such as “beans the German way” and “haddocks the Spanish way.”

“The Art of Cookery” also recognized a distinct Jewish culinary influence. The 1760 edition includes six recipes for dishes prepared in a Jewish style: “haddocks the Jews way,” “The Jews way of preserving salmon, and all sorts of fish,” “marmalade of eggs the Jews way,” “To stew green peas the Jews way,” “English Jews puddings; an excellent dish for six or seven people, for the expense of six pence” and “The Jews way to pickle beef, which will go good to the West Indies, and keep a year good in the pickle, and with care will go to the East Indies.”

"The Art of Cookery" was the most popular blah blah

“The Art of Cookery” was the most popular cookbook in 18th-century America. / Photo via Wikicommons 

Although some of these dishes share much with Spanish cuisine – which was much influenced by Arab culinary traditions – Glasse distinguished between Spanish and Jewish dishes. Her Spanish-style haddock recipes calls for the fish to be broiled, then seasoned with mace, cloves, nutmeg, garlic and tomatoes, and then stewed. The Jewish-style haddock is seasoned with mace, no cloves or nutmeg, and calls for onion, not garlic. The fish is poached lightly and then finished with an egg-lemon sauce. The recipes differ, but the distinction between Spanish and Jewish cuisines also reflects the era’s common view that Jews were a distinct nation.

“The Art of Cookery”’s recipes for “English Jews pudding” and for Jewish-style pickled beef offer contrasting perceptions of Jewish life. The pudding, made with offal seasoned with onion, spices, lemon zest and parsley, is an economy dish. Although Glasse comments that it “is a very good dish,” she implies that those with a choice might pick other food when she notes this dish is “a fine thing for poor people.”

If the pudding recipe suggests Jews knew want, the pickled beef highlights a view of Jews as a trading people. Indeed, Jews – like other marginal people, such as Quakers and Scots, in the British world – were able to use their communal ties around the Atlantic to build trading networks. The late 1600s to mid-1700s saw marked hostility to Anglo-American Jewish merchants, who English merchants saw as competitors.

Glasse’s recipe for pickled beef does not reveal any animosity to Jews as traders. On the contrary, it suggests Jews had useful knowledge others might benefit from. It would be going too far to say that “pickled beef the Jews way” tells a story of British acceptance of Jews, but “The Art of Cookery” does reveal that Jewish cuisine was more widely familiar than I, for one, would have guessed.

Amanda Moniz teaches a class in Mediterranean Cooking in Early America Sept. 14, 2014, at Hill Center, in Washington, D.C.

 

Makes 3 to 4 servings

Jewish-Style Haddock

In "The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy," author Hannah Glass includes this recipe "to dress haddocks the Jews way." The recipe:
"Wash two large fine haddocks very clean, cut them in slices about three inches thick, and dry them in a cloth; take a gill either of oil or butter in a stew-pan, a middling sized onion cut small, a handful of parsley washed and cut small; let it just boil up in either butter or oil, then put in the fish; season it with beaten mace, pepper and salt, half a pint of soft water; let it stew softly, till it is thoroughly done; then beat up the yolks of two eggs, with the juice of a lemon, and just as it is done enough, throw it over and sent it to the table.”

Food historian Amanda Moniz has adapted the recipe for contemporary cooks. She couldn't find haddock, so used hake. She cut the recipe in half and standardized the directions but otherwise followed Glasse's instructions. She says she likes the dish so much, it will become part of her regular repertoire.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Small onion, chopped fine
  • 2-3 tablespoons parsley, chopped fine
  • ¾ to 1 pound hake or similar fish
  • ¾ teaspoon mace
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • ½ cup water
  • Yolk of 1 egg
  • Juice of half a lemon

Instructions

In a large saute pan, warm oil over medium heat.

Add the onion and parsley and saute until the onion is translucent. Add the fish (a whole fillet is fine or in 3-inch pieces) and season with the mace, salt and pepper. Add the water and cook over medium heat, turning after several minutes, until the fish is cooked through.

While the fish is cooking, beat the egg yolk and lemon juice. Beat in a few tablespoons of the cooking water (just scoop it out as the fish is cooking).

Remove the fish to a serving plate and cover with the sauce. Serve immediately.

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One Response to Early-American Jews brought elements of Mediterranean diet

  1. nossi September 9, 2014 at 8:29 am #

    From what I understand the Jewish people were in Spain starting around the 3rd Century and had such an influence on the port cities that even up until the 20th century the Port of Cadiz was closed on Saturday for the Jewish Sabbath