Jewish Summer Food: There’s No Such Thing


Traditional Jewish food is comfort food – hot, heavy food. Fork-tender brisket with gravy. Glistening chicken soup with dense, sodden matzah balls floating around. Crispy, greasy fried latkes, steaming on the plate.

So what do Jews eat when it’s 98 degrees outside, like it’s been for more than a week? When it’s so hot, who feels like eating anyway? Well, we usually do.

We have childhood memories of summer dinners of tuna salad or egg salad. Our friend Stephanie recalls her mom serving it on a bed of iceberg lettuce (what else?) with sliced tomatoes and sliced cucumbers. (Like us, she couldn’t recall any other summer dinner menus.)

Before the dawn of the microwave oven and central air conditioning, before the proliferation of takeout options, mothers searched for any “protein” they could serve for dinner that did not involve heating up the oven and the house. Cooking on the stovetop was an option; some of us remember eating buttered Creamettes along with those salads. Salmon croquettes sometimes made an appearance, too. Who didn’t have a can of Chicken of the Sea pink salmon in the pantry, along with Green Giant Corn Niblets and Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup?

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Borscht, that cold, magenta-colored beet soup, would make an appearance on Ellen’s father’s dinner plate in the summertime. He would swirl a dollop of sour cream into the pink soup, and the kids would cringe in horror as he slurped down the brightly colored liquid.

Today, with the bounty of summer gardens, Jews have been known substitute gazpacho for borsht. But in the shtetl, tomatoes and cucumbers were not available. Like the ubiquitous potato, beets were plentiful: hence, borscht. But there was one leafy green to be had – sorrel – and it was the main ingredient for borscht’s strange, cold green cousin – shav. These days, it’s common to combine spinach with sorrel to make shav, but we don’t know anyone who actually eats it.

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We got to wondering: Why is it that vichyssoise is goyish, while its counterpart, shav or borscht, is clearly Jewish? The same goes for deviled eggs (goyish) and egg salad (Jewish), mayonnaise (goyish) and mustard (Jewish), and pâté (goyish) and chopped liver (Jewish). If you’re going to a party, you might be treated to a summer clambake (goyish) or kosher hot dogs on the grill (Jewish).

Israel is a country that enjoys summerlike weather most of the year, yet its national menu is a strange combination of Eastern European (strudel, goulash, schnitzel, etc.) and Middle Eastern foods. Arabic/Semitic foods like hummus, shawarma and falafel are seen everywhere, from fine restaurants to food carts on the beach. Schnitzel is ubiquitous, too. Good schnitzel resembles Chicken Piccata and is served in fine restaurants. Bad schnitzel, similar to the Chicken Parm you might get from a pizza joint, is served in kibbutz cafeterias all over the country. And why do modern Israelis persist in calling what is basically an oversized chicken nugget by such an old-fashioned, Austrian name?

Modern Israeli cooking revolves around the vegetables grown in the country, standards like cucumber tomato salad (which is called “Israeli salad” on allrecipes.com), stuffed eggplant and roasted zucchini.

In the dog days of summer, we still yearn for a quick, cold option for dinner. Sometimes we opt for bagels and lox, the traditional, cold brunch that can easily stand in anytime. Or takeout sushi. Or the Seinfeld big salad – with olives, cheese, almonds and whatever else is in the pantry. The only good thing about this heat wave is that is gives us an excuse to not cook a full-fledged dinner.

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7 Responses to Jewish Summer Food: There’s No Such Thing

  1. Steph says:

    Borscht!!! Thanks for that yummy reminder. Nice and cold with little cut up canned potatoes in it. There WAS a second meal besides that tuna or egg salad. Love this, ladies.

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  2. talila says:

    schnitzel is nothing like an “oversized nugget”. A real shnitzel is very thin, the thinner the better and is made out of a single piece of meat. So it is more like breaded chicken strips but the breading is not as thick as it is here.Also, Schnitzel is all-year food.

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    • Hi Talila-
      you are right, “good” schnitzel should be pounded thin, more like chicken piccata . I guess I just had in my head, my teenage son’s phone call from Israel (he’s there on a teen trip) that he is sooo very tired of eating schnitzel in all it’s forms that he never wants to see another breaded chicken cutlet/nugget again…
      PS
      do you know that autocorrect changes your name to “tallis?” must be bashert…

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  3. We live in Israel and we do borscht. We highly advise doing your own from scratch. Experiment with your favorite seasonings, do not use canned potatoes or beets or certainly not yucky sweet-and-sour Manischevitz or other brand (kosh, kosher or koshest) out of a jar. Cook up the beets with whatever other veggies you like (examples: carrots, sweet potatoes, zucchini, onions of course, celery, greens such as dill or parseley etc.). If you like the potatoes to be white in the borscht, cook them separately and serve them with the borscht. The calorie conscious will use yogourt instead of sour cream. Enjoy, enjoy.

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  4. Another thing you left out is avocado/guacamole. In Israel it is in season in the winter but in the US you get it from Florida or California in the summer and it is an alternative spread to the hummus, tehina and eggplant-based salads which go on your pita.

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  5. Hi Yehoshua-
    Thanks for reading! Your description of homemade Israeli borshct sounds amazing! Of course, that’s completely different from our supermarket jars…and in the US we would never think of guacamole as a “Jewish” food. We eat it with spicy salsa and chips. We depend on the Jews in Israel to grow avacados! But I did forget that we eat hummus almost every night and I do make my own home-made baba ganoosh –and those are summer foods we share with you!
    Shana Tova!
    Ellen

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