The average supermarket today offers a section dedicated to Jewish food items, as is the case with a local Kroger visited. I had no difficulty finding the foods; an entire aisle is set aside for “international cuisine,” and the Jewish section represents a small part of this. I was aware that a number of Jewish foods cannot be stored at room temperature, so I was not surprised to see a limited variety of items. One section of the top shelf was lined with canisters of Kosher salt. Below this, there was a range of brands of matzoh, and in different forms. Packages of matzoh meal were set aside boxes of matzoh flat crackers. Jars of gefilte fish and pickled herring were also available, stocked below the matzoh, and there was a row of large jars of borscht, or beet soup. Additionally, there were packages of prepared challah and rye breads here, and all were identified as Kosher, which I gathered was why they were not in the general bread section. Given my knowledge that such foods may be sold elsewhere in the store, I asked a manager and he was extremely helpful. He informed me that other Jewish foods were available in the deli or freezer sections of the store, such as lox (smoked salmon) and other items needing refrigeration. He mentioned that rugelach, which are small, rolled-dough pastries with preserves or fruit inside, were in the bakery department. Also, he told me, the deli had fresh corned beef and chopped liver, and that brisket was available in the meat department.
Regarding how these items were packaged and marked, and interestingly, the matzoh crackers and meal were marked in a specific way; some labeling read that the food was good any day and helpful in a variety of recipes, which goes to how matzoh is traditionally associated with Passover (Deutsch, Saks 22). This holiday link was expressed on several packages. What immediately caught my attention, however, was how many of the foods were labeled in both Hebrew and English. There was no sign indicating “Jewish food area,” so there was no overt evidence of the foods being marketed to any specific group, Jewish or otherwise. At the same time, the Hebrew labeling and the fact that these foods were set together in one area made it clear that the appeal was for Jewish buyers. Then, most of the items had markings indicating that they were certified as Kosher, meaning that the preparation had been done under a rabbi’s supervision.
All of this gave me the impression that Jewish culture was clearly connected to the foods, but not in any way overtly described, except for the reference to Passover. It seemed as though only a Jewish person would understand just how each item related to the culture, and the manufacturers relied on this knowledge. This was my impression, at least. I also asked the manager if in fact people inquired about the foods, and he said that this was very unusual; the Jewish customers knew exactly what they wanted, as a rule.
Joan Nathan’s article on Jewish food, however, offers insights into the cultural connection not evident in the supermarket and reflected in the packaging, save for the Hebrew labeling. The most interesting information here in fact goes to how many foods identified as “Jewish” are actually items simply taken from other nations. Jewish history greatly reflects immigration and the need to settle in different countries, so Jews adapted local foods to their tastes and religious restrictions. Consequently, the items I saw on the shelves, such as borscht, gefilte fish, and rye bread, are not considered “Jewish” in the countries from which they originated (Nathan 2). It is also interesting to learn how the immense Jewish waves of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries both reinforced cultural rules regarding food and weakened Orthodox restrictions, as Jews were forced to adapt to circumstances not permitting Orthodox cuisine. At one point there were thousands of Kosher butchers in New York City alone (Nathan 6), but Jews moving West had to adapt, and often abandoned strict Kosher observances. As Nathan traces the history, it is remarkable to see how Jewish food manufacturers produced items popular with all cultures, as in the origin of Sara Lee cheesecakes (Nathan 9). Ultimately, then, my experience at the market and Nathan’s article combine to provide a string sense of how Jewish cuisine, while usually still emphasizing Kosher status, has become infused into mainstream American diets.
- Deutsch, Jonathan, & Saks, Rachel D. Jewish American Food Culture. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2008.
- Nathan, Joan. “A Social History of Jewish Food in America.” From Food and Judaism (Studies in Jewish Civilization). Eds. Leonard J. Greenspoon, Ronald A. Simkins, & Gerald Shapiro. Omaha: Creighton University Press, 2004. 1-12.