Culture Features

November 5, 2014 at 8:00 am

Honey + Schmaltz Shows the Non-Latke Side of Jewish Cuisine

“People don’t think, ‘Oh my god, that incredible Jewish food restaurant.’” Sari Kamin says. “It’s not a revered cuisine. It’s not French cuisine. It’s not Italian cuisine.” Despite all this and partially because of it, Kamin started Honey + Schmaltz, a project to collect Jewish recipes and the stories behind them.

Sari Kamin, creator of Honey + Schmaltz Credit: Jackie Friscia

Sari Kamin, creator of Honey + Schmaltz
Credit: Jackie Friscia

It all started in the final year of a Master’s program in food studies. Kamin had to develop a project – a thesis of sorts – in order to graduate. She had been working at Heritage Radio Network, a food-centric broadcast based in Brooklyn, for a year and knew she wanted to do something that involved interviewing. “I fell in love with interviewing because it gave me the chance to dig beneath the surface and have a connection with people and really know their story,” Kamin says. She soon realized that it made sense to start with her own heritage. Though she’s the daughter of a Rabbi, Kamin had never felt particularly connected with her ancestry until a trip to Rome and a chance encounter with a dish of fried artichokes. “There was this visceral connection to my heritage in that food,” she remembers. “It made me feel much more connected to something bigger than myself.” Food could operate like a time machine overlaying the flavors of the past onto the present day.

Jewish food may not have had the gastronomic appeal of the world’s great cuisines but it has strong ties to the past. And what better place to find Jewish people who had a particular love for food than in New York City?

Today Honey + Schmaltz is a website that features thirty-nine different stories and recipes from NYC’s large pool of Jews. Though Kamin’s goal was to simply find a diverse group of ages and cultures, she ended up interviewing a lot of people who worked in food. It wasn’t intentional but she soon found that it was easier to speak with people who already had a working vocabulary to talk about taste, memory, and culinary traditions. Often Kamin’s subjects noticed links between their childhood experiences of food—often the recipe they shared on Honey + Schmaltz—and the fact that they ended up as food writers.

Credit: Sari Kamin

Credit: Sari Kamin

Among the interviews, you can find Adam Rapoport, Editor-in-Chief of Bon Appétit Magazine sharing a latke recipe that his grandmother brought with her from Poland. There’s cookbook author and The Food Maven Arthur Schwartz sharing memories of helping his grandmother, who was not an excellent cook, make walnut sponge cake. You can even listen to Bonnie Slotnick, owner of a famed Greenwich Village cookbook shop, reminisce about making her grandmother’s recipe for mohn cookies as a seven-year-old. Somewhere in this description, you may have noticed that there are an awful lot of grandmothers being talked about. This is not the case for all of Kamin’s subjects. However, it would be hard to deny the role grandparents often play in any family’s food traditions. As Kamin discovered, “The cuisine is so much more associated with culture and heritage and traditions.”

The recipes on Honey + Schmaltz aren’t meant to evoke the best of Jewish food, they champion treasured food memories. Arthur Schwartz’ grandmother’s cakes, as you’d hear in his interview, always fell. She blamed it on her grandchildren and told them off for stomping on the floors. Kamin retold that story to her own mother who had the same memories of her own childhood. “It wasn’t that these grandmothers and grandfathers were such amazing cooks,” Kamin says. “It was because we all share these same memories of what it’s like to grow up being Jewish.”

Credit: Sari Kamin

Credit: Sari Kamin

The foods themselves don’t always have that much in common. When most people think of Jewish food, they’re really thinking of the Eastern European food of Ashkanazi Jews. “But there are so many Jews that come from other countries like Turkey and Morocco,” Kamin says. They bring with them an entirely different type of cuisine. Cookbook author and chef Lévana Kirschenbaum is one of the non-Eastern European Jews whose recipe is shared on Honey + Schmaltz. Her fishballs in lemon sauce are colorful and bright—a far cry from matzoh balls and stuffed cabbage.

Jewish food is as tied to geography as any other cuisine. The food of European Jews is different from that of Middle Eastern Jews. This seemingly obvious (but often ignored) fact means that an approach like Kamin’s might be the best way to get at the heart of the true flavor of this cuisine—memory. “It’s not like Italian food where there’s this national identity associated with a cuisine,” Kamin adds. “Other than Israel, the Jews have always been very spread out and you can’t say there’s one kind of Jewish food.”

After all this, did Kamin think there was one food Jews could lay claim to? After a moment of reflection, she cited New York City’s deli movement, saying, “You’ll always have bagels and lox and corned beef.”

-Tove K. Danovich