Does Jewish Food Have a Future?

“The son wishes to remember what the father wishes to forget.” This Yiddish proverb has a certain poignancy for those of us whose families arrived in the U.S. within the past three or four generations. I had cause to think of it the other day when reading about a “deli summit” convened by the Canadian-born pastrami activist Noah Bernamoff. Last year, I wrote a column questioning why Jewish food was so stuck in time. But Bernamoff, whom I know and like, has opened two small delis in New York City with his wife Rae, and the two of them have put their hearts and souls into carving out a relevant, nonnostalgic approach to Jewish cooking. “Together, we, you know, kind of represent the future of Jewish food,” he told a Slate reporter in an unguarded moment.

But the “we” isn’t just Bernamoff and his wife; they are part of a network of like-minded allies striving to undo generations of assimilation. It’s not a sentiment unique to Jewish Americans; it’s the same for Asians, Hispanics, Caribbean peoples, and anyone else whose family figuratively hid the tortillas when company came. It may be a sign of fragmentation, Balkanization and the unraveling of American culture. But I think it’s future of American ethnic foodways.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: there was, and still is, a mainstream American food culture. We all know its totems: white bread, hamburgers, fried chicken, various Jell-O desserts and so on. They belong to everyone and no one, and they help to identify Americans to themselves and to each other. I’ve long believed that the citizen exam given to immigrants should require them to identify a hamburger, rather than answer the question “Who is the father of the country?” (George Washington.) It’s occasionally asserted by optimistic observers like myself, steeped in the dream of a more inclusive country, that formerly exotic foods like tacos, sushi, kimchi and the like have now become commonplace — a microcosm of the absorptive powers of the great melting pot. The melting pot is an engine of consensus, dissolving differences.

But once those discordant elements get dissolved, what happens to the traditions they represent? Bernamoff’s deli summit raises the question in a way especially meaningful for me as an American Jew. As an ethnicity, we have a two-generation (at least) head start on some other ethnic groups. Later immigrants had a very different experience in America, as times changed — generally for the better. Asians were excluded by quotas until the 1960s, and have prospered as a broad geographic group; but many of their constituent traditions, like that of the Filipinos, remained culinarily invisible to the American mainstream. Likewise, an immense influx of Puerto Rican citizens left for the U.S. in the years after World War II, and frequently went back again in what is called a circular immigration. And yet, many of the staple items of the Puerto Rican table, from mofongo to pernil, are still to be found largely in places catering to a Puerto Rican clientele. That wasn’t the case for Jews, who in the postwar period carved out their place in American life, at least in urban centers. As a result, a handful of dishes had become staples of American life: pastrami, matzo-ball soup, and one or two others. But many others never made the cut, and were locked away in the attic with the prayer shawls and the Yiddish-language idioms.

So now, a new generation of Jews is rediscovering their roots. But will that be true of other groups? Take Filipino Americans. Their food never even really entered the mainstream, so some young chefs are skipping the rediscovery part, and presenting their food to the country in uncompromised form, at restaurants and catering companies like Rambutan in Chicago, Maharlika in New York City and Tarsier in Washington, D.C. In other cities Filipino Americans are still hiding the pancit.

It’s been said that the 2012 election is the last one in which “white people” will be the dominant factor. Will the coming years be the ones in which ethnic pride in the kitchen will be the exception rather than the rule? The recent history of America points that way. At least, I hope it does.

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