What is a manti?
And just where do the histories of Jews and rye converge?
You can find the answers to these and literally thousands of other questions in Rabbi Gil Marks’ encyclopedia.
Or is it a cookbook?
Or perhaps it’s a textbook of Jewish history and culture seen through the eyes of a foodie?
Whatever it is, Marks’ new “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” is about as comprehensive a Jewish tome as has come out in years — all 636 pages of it — and treats Jewish history, cooking and pop culture with an entirely new perspective.
“That’s precisely what I wanted to do, I wanted to tell the story of the Jewish people for the past couple millennia through their food,” Marks said. “I hoped each entry would tell a little story, but in its totality would tell the story of the Jewish 2,500 years.”
That history, he found, shows Jews were not so much innovators of foods and ways to prepare them, as they were transmitters.
“Jews were often responsible for transmitting food from one culture to another,” he said. “You see this in a number ways.”
One example: yogurt.
Largely unheard of outside the Middle East until the 20th century, a Sephardic Jew named Isaac Karasu, resettled in Spain in 1912 and changed his name to Carasso, according to the encyclopedia. He began giving yogurt to people with stomach problems. Eventually he began making it commercially, naming his company Danone, after his son, Daniel.
And that, dear readers, is how Dannon Yogurt was born and a lot of stomach problems were cured.
Daniel eventually took over the company and responsible for some of its most famous innovations such as the yogurt cups and the fruit on the bottom.
“[He] just passed away this past year at the age of 103,” Marks said, so the yogurt must have worked for him:
At 600 entries and 300 recipes, the encyclopedia took Marks, the founding editor of Kosher Gourmet Magazine, three years to write, but 20 years to compile.
“I started collecting all the information that came my way. If I found an interesting recipe I would experiment with it in the kitchen then it would go into
the computer,” Marks said. “About three years ago, my editor at Wiley food, said, ‘You’re a walking encyclopedia of food, so why don’t you do an encyclopedia,’ and I did.”
At least one of the entries — the history of hummus — contains a critical reference to Pittsburgh. Turns out the The Jewish Criterion was the first newspaper to publish the word, in English, on Dec. 16, 1949, in its “Guide for Tourists.”
According to the Criterion, “the bland and succulence of ‘tehina and chumus’ [is] eaten with hunks of the platter-shaped bread Peeta.” Marks spells Pittsburgh without the h.
“Jewish cooking is an adaptation of local food with sensitivity to Jewish dietary needs,” Marks said. “To me, from a rabbinical perspective, a historic perspective and a foodie’s perspective, it’s fun to try to figure out this history — put the jigsaw puzzles together.”
Think the Maccabees ate potato latkes? It’s “amazing” how many Jews do, Marks said. Actually the Maccabees never saw a latke, let alone a potato.
The Jews get the idea for a pancake on Chanuka from Italy, Marks said. The potato is from South America and the word itself is from Ukraine.
“Much of what we think about food is wrong,” Marks said, “from a historical perspective and cultural perspective.”
That’s one reason why he believes teaching cooking in Jewish day schools is an effective way, perhaps more effective than Hebrew school, to transmit Jewish culture.
“Judaism passes from one generation to the next to the next not through stale learning about something, but thorough life experiences,” he said. “I think Jewish music and food, and actually experiencing it, play is a form of education, or should be. And you can adhere to it more and develop an emotional attachment to it more.”
Will there be a second edition of the encyclopedia? Marks certainly hopes so. He was forced to cut many recipes and entries from this book because there simply wasn’t enough space. He also expects corrections and revisions will be necessary, and some of entries that were supposed to be in, for some reason, were left out.
His favorite example is the hubeza, a grape leaf-like plant that plays a critical role in Israeli history.
“If you walk around Israel you’ll find it growing as weed,” Marks said, “but during the siege of Jerusalem in 1948, one of the many ways people survived was to pick wild hubeza leaves and [cook] them in a variety of ways.”
By the way, Babylonian rabbis used to brew beer to support themselves; manti is an Uzbecki filled dumpling that Bukharan Jews served on Purim; and rye bread became a Jewish staple in Polish bakeries long before the Second Avenue Deli.
“Food carries culture,” Marks said. “To know a community is to know its food. Nothing touches a community’s life more than food, especially if you’re Jewish.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)