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?
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.
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.