In his Taste of America column in Time magazine, Josh Ozersky, a James Beard award-winning food writer, offered a harsh critique of Eastern European Jewish food. He wrote, “I’m not sure how to say this without offending anybody. So I’m going to just blurt it out. Jewish food is awful. I say this with all respect. I’m Jewish myself, but the fact has to be faced.”
Well, he offended us. And at least 84 other people who uniformly castigated him in the comment section of Time’s website.
“You obviously never tasted my Grandma Gizella’s Hungarian spice-laced Jewish recipes.”
“My guests practically come to blows over the last slices of my brisket.”
“You never ate at my grandmother’s table. Her noodle kugel – baked crisp on the top and almost melting underneath – sweet, but not too sweet – spiced with cinnamon and packed with pieces of fruit – how could anyone not like it?
Many people suggested that his mother must have just been a horrible cook. We agree. That’s why he is scarred for life. Maybe his mother didn’t know that when you dump the gefilte fish out of the jar you have to “doctor it up” before you serve it: throw away the gel, rinse off the fish, arrange it artfully on a piece of lettuce, and top it with a carrot curl.
Ozersky rants about how he “grew up eating dry and flavorless brisket, tasteless matzah balls, pasty chopped liver, and sweet noodle casseroles as unappetizing as a Christmas fruitcake.” He criticizes shortcuts, like using Lipton soup mix to flavor brisket. If you’re a skilled cook – and you mix in some love – it turns out delicious.
He also says we eat these foods once or twice a year on holidays only because we have to. That’s not true. Why do our kids beg us to make our noodle kugels when they want a taste of home? They love our noodle kugels. They’re delicious. Why did Ellen’s husband request kasha varnishkes as a Thanksgiving side dish? Why does Joyce make her aunt’s Jewish apple cake for any party that calls for a good dessert?
When we give our book talk and we get to discussing old-school Jewish food, that’s when the audience members lose control, wave their hands and shout out “Don’t forget stuffed kishka.” “What about cold shav (spinach borscht)?” “Ah, my mother’s gribenes (crisp chicken skin with fried onion) was so good.”
Just because we serve the same traditional foods year after year doesn’t make them bad. Our families request these favorites. And when we discover a new recipe and try something different – like matzah balls with saffron and cilantro – everyone says “dayenu” (enough!)
As part of Ozersky’s food pedigree, he’s authored a book on the hamburger. He’s currently hard at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders. We agree that he’s got fast food covered, but he doesn’t know anything about slow, delicious food. Obviously, he never eaten at our house. And that ongeblozzen (sourpus) never will.