Some Hanukah traditions better left in the past

December 17, 2011

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I grew up in Washington, D.C. eating Ashkenazi classics like noodle kugel and brisket, but my grandparents’ traditional food always had a distinctly Southern flare: dried gumbo, okra, yams, fried chicken and biscuits.

That’s because my mother’s family is from Natchez, Miss., a town of 16,000, which, like other small towns across the South, once had hundreds of Jewish families living there. 

Here’s a prime example of my grandparents' culinary assimilation: When Natchez staged a “homecoming” for Jews with roots in the town in 1994, my grandmother insisted on serving ham biscuits at the reception. This decision was relayed to me by family friend Marci Ferris, who helped organize the event and who later interviewed my grandmother for her book Matzo Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South. Many, including Ferris, were horrified. But in my grandmother’s eyes, this was how you showed you were a proper southern hostess. Never mind that ham is the ultimate example of treif (non-kosher food). My grandmother saw no conflict between being Southern and being Jewish. And besides, they didn’t keep kosher anyway.

My grandparents’ story is a good reminder that in America, Jewish foodways – their food culture – is like that of any other immigrant group. We kept some traditions alive, left some traditions behind, adopted some new ones as we assimilated, and along the way invented some hybrids.  

Just as Ferris did for the South, Chicago’s Ellen Steinberg and Jack Prost did for the Midwest with their book From the Jewish Heartland: Two Centuries of Midwest Foodways. It explores dishes and food culture unique to Midwestern Jews, like gefilte fish from Minnesota made with local pike, instead of the cod or carp preferred by Jewish cooks on the east coast.

When I encountered Steinberg and Prost’s book I couldn’t help but reflect on my family’s own traditions. And as Hanukah approached I couldn’t help but wonder: Did Midwestern Jews develop any Hanukah foods that are regionally unique?

I reached out to Steinberg, hoping I would hear about some delicious or dignified Midwestern traditions that had disappeared from view. Paw paw or persimmon jelly donuts, maybe, from some Jewish community in Indiana? Or a corn bread kugel from Iowa? Maybe a regional variety of latke using some good old fashioned Idaho potatoes? With luck, I’d even end up with a couple of recipes to try myself.

But no.

When I talked to Steinberg last week she instead introduced me to a few lost food traditions that frankly, deserve to stay lost.

Exhibit A: Smetina. Yes, according to Steinberg, this is a food. No, it does not sound appetizing. In fact, to my ears, it sounds like one or two Yiddish words whose translations are too filthy to publish here.

In reality it is a sour cream-like dressing developed by Raskas, a kosher dairy in St. Louis. A cookbook published by founder Herbert Raskas sometime in the 1940s or ‘50s describes the stuff this way:

SMETINA is a scientifically-ripened pure cultured cream Dressing; it is uniform in body and flavour. Behind its smooth texture there is much nutritive food value, and vitamin D…The tangy flavour of SMETINA adds a delightful taste to all foods; so that the most discriminating gourmetswill feel an added thrill thru the use of it. SMETINA may be used by itself; with Cottage Cheese; Fruit; Vegetables; as a Topping; in Baking, etc.

No thanks.

But it gets better. (Worse?) Steinberg, who I found to be delightfully snarky, had me in stiches as she introduced me to a dish that I think can fairly be described as the wacky holiday dish to end all wacky holiday dishes. It also may just be the most phallic dish ever invented. Its name? Candle salad.

It is exactly what it looks like: a banana stuck end-up in a block of Jell-O, a ring of pineapple, or a bed of lettuce, topped with a maraschino cherry. And if you want it to look especially gross, a dollop of whipped cream or mayonnaise. It’s meant to look like a festive holiday candle, but it looks like…something else.

The dish first appeared in 1916 in an Iowa newspaper article that described ladies serving it at a society luncheon, and did not originally have roots in Jewish culture. But during the Jell-O-mold obsessed 1950s, Steinberg says Midwestern Jews began serving it for Hanukah. I guess because Hanukah is the Festival of Lights? I asked Steinberg if Midwestern Jews ever arranged eight of these bad boys in a row to resemble a menorah.

“I guess you could do eight if you wanted to waste bananas like that,” she said.

And was this really a uniquely Midwestern dish, or was it just evidence that 1950s chefs had bad taste? This was her response:

“I’ve heard of a lot of people in the Midwest making them. I’ve never heard anyone in New York ever making them. Let’s get real.”

Point taken.

I think this year I’ll stick to latkes.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Ellen Steinberg and Jack Prost spoke at an event presented by the Culinary Historians of Chicago in November. Click here to hear the event in its entirety. Dynamic Range is taking a short hiatus, but we’ll be back in 2012.