The Kugel Conundrum

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Herring with cream sauce

I'm not sure how to say this without offending anybody. So I'm going to just blurt it out. Jewish food is awful. I say this with all respect. I'm Jewish myself — Joel Stein is practically a WASP next to me. But the fact has to be faced. And the question asked, isn't there a way out of our culinary wandering in the desert?

I'm not talking about Kosher food, which is a special department of its own. Nor am I speaking of what Jews eat in Spain, Israel, or Argentina—rich, dynamic food cultures that have entranced the world. I'm speaking of the familiar Eastern European Jewish food that most American Jews of my generation grew up eating: dry and flavorless brisket, cooked in a salty fluid of Campbell's beef broth and Lipton onion soup mix. I'm talking about tasteless matzoh balls and aggressively bland "farmer's cheese"; pasty, cold chopped liver with inexplicable pieces of hard boiled egg implanted in it; dense lokshon kugels, sweet noodle casseroles as unappetizing as a Christmas fruitcake; and of course, the always terrifying herring in cream sauces, a food so vile in appearance that it could turn a glutton anorexic overnight.

These and other, worse, foods are all part of the Jewish-American food canon. I have thought long and hard about why they are almost all so bad. I don't want to overgeneralize, but Jews are obsessed with food. We talk about it, we think about it, we compare notes about it; sometimes we even dream about it. You put two Jews together anywhere in American and five minutes later they're talking about chicken. So why is our own tradition so bleak and desolate? Other than deli sandwiches, which are never made at home, there's not much to love. Nobody is giving Jewish food the Torrisi treatment, raising up to a world-class level and celebrating its flavor profiles.

Fresh off another unbearable Passover seder, I turned to some other experts for possible explanations. Arthur Schwartz, in his Jewish Home Cooking, speculates that the reason we don't enjoy old-time Jewish food is because it's fattening and unhealthy, that it "come(s) from a time when few people related what they ate to their health and well-being." Joan Nathan, probably the leading authority on Jewish food in America, suggests that these ancestral dishes "traveled so far that they lost much of their flavor." Alan Richman, who has written more evocatively about Jewish food than anyone I know, has his own theory: "Most ethnic cuisines come from a place, and everybody knew what it tasted like back in that place. The Jews never had a place. Mostly, they were chased from places." Therefore, Richman says, nobody knows what these foods are supposed to be like. "Every Jewish family and every Jewish restaurant is a distinct culinary place. A few people who eat the food will think it's wonderful and all the rest will think it's a disgrace. All are correct."

I'm not sure I agree with any of these assessments. The fact that a food is unhealthy doesn't make it bad; the opposite is more likely to be true. And I've eaten Eastern European Jewish food cooked by recent immigrants in their homes, and it's just as bad as what we ate growing up. As for Richman's theory, it's based on the idea that every Jewish home cooks brisket differently, when in fact every Jewish home cooks brisket — and chicken soup, and everything else — in exactly the same way.

I know that a lot of American Jews have traveled to Israel and become highly attached to the foodways of their Sephardic cousins, whose love of spices and vivid flavors is in such marked contrast to our own bubbes and zaydes. That's fine. But Israeli food has absolutely nothing to do with Jewish-American food, at least not in its 20th-century form. My wife, who was raised by Israelis and who has dual citizenship, grew up around vivid sumac and zaatar, and hummus laced with rich sesame tahini. (She doesn't even like Chinese food! Can you imagine?) And of course, her attitude toward chicken fat, either in its liquid or solid form, can be said to lack enthusiasm too.

I don't claim to have an answer for this problem, which is one of the most baffling in all of American culinary history. Most people who grow up eating bland or poorly-cooked food tend to be indifferent to their meals later in life. Or, alternately, they realize all at once what they've been missing, and become intrepid and passionate foodies. But an ethnicity in which we all eat bad, bland, heavy food and then leave it forever, except for an occasional ceremonial appearance, as at Passover? For the sake of nostalgia, or at most a loyalty to the past, we pretend that Jewish food is good, at least once or twice a year. But it isn't. Why? Perhaps the answer is in the Talmud, the Gemara, or the mystic literature of the Kabbalah. I know you won't find it at the bottom of a bowl of kasha varnishkes. There is nothing there but despair.

Ozersky is a James Beard Award–winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. You can listen to his weekly show at the Heritage Radio Network and read his column on home cooking on Rachael Ray's website. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.