When Brent Delman was growing up in Cleveland, his culturally Jewish family, like their Eastern European forebears, ate lots of soft, fresh cheese—cream cheese, sour cream, cottage cheese—without worrying much about whether it was kosher. After all, cheese is just curdled milk, and as long as it’s not eaten with meat, what could be treif about it?
Growing up by the sea in Belle Harbor, New York, five decades ago, I never heard of a Hanukkah doughnut. In my Ashkenazi family, Hanukkah fare was potato latkes, served with sour cream and my mother’s freshly made applesauce, or as an accompaniment to brisket.
Among the trendy ingredients today’s chefs are adding to their repertoires, paprika is the latest darling. Cooks either sprinkle the bright red spice—made of dried and ground red chili peppers—on top of their creations or swirl it with oil to add a crimson hue.
While cheesecake has long been popular among Jews with a sweet tooth, the creamy, rich indulgence is now as American as apple pie, a symbol of how thoroughly Jews have integrated into American life. As cookbook author Joan Nathan says, “Jews like cheesecake because they like to eat good rich dishes, even if they shouldn’t”—but then again, who doesn’t?
For many Jews, slivovitz—the Eastern European plum brandy—is wrapped in nostalgia, evoking memories of irascible relatives downing fiery shots over Yiddish banter, or the mysterious bottle at the back of your grandmother’s pantry, revealed only during Passover seders. Over the years, slivovitz has become a distinctly Jewish beverage, one to rival Manischewitz wine, and a popular social lubricant to celebrate the good times and lament the bad.
Think you know what to eat to stay healthy? That fats are bad for you? That you will never again be able to enjoy the umami taste of schmaltz on a piece of matzoh? Or the crunch of gribenes (chicken-skin cracklings) that brings back the joys of your grandmother’s kitchen?