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Wednesday, November 7, 2018

LET'S EAT (CAREFULLY)



I don’t agree with all of the characterizations, but my mouth was watering at the pictures and memories they evoked.  There wasn’t one food I don’t love!!

And my non-Jewish friends, now you know how the Jewish people have survived for so many centuries!! When I saw this compilation that was sent to me by an old friend, I knew I had to pass it on.  Thank you, Shirley!!

My Definitive And Absolutely Correct Ranking Of 40 Jewish Foods:

A confession:  I’ve always had mixed feelings about the food of my tribe.  As a child, I watched my Italian friends dine on deep dishes of all the things I deemed essential to a well-lived life:  pasta, cheese, cured meats, and drool-inducing combinations of all three. As for me, I suffered through Jewish holiday meals filled with a mix of foods that could be best described as “interesting”.  How did my ancestors get it so wrong?

But perhaps my tastes have changed.  Sitting around the Rosh Hashanah dinner table, I realized that I needed to do a reassessment of sorts.   So I sat down to consider all of the foods I deemed a part of a typical modern Jew’s culinary template. Turns out I’ve underestimated our contribution to the epicurean world.  Then again, to be completely honest, some of our food continues to be just plain nasty.
So here goes, my personal ranking of Jewish foods, from worst to first.  Keep in mind two things:
  1. Taste is always subjective, your own experience and palate may be completely different from mine, I’m sure your bubbe (grandmother) made a fantastic version of this, and I completely respect your opinion. 

  1. 2.You’re wrong and I’m right.

40) PICKLED HERRING IN SOUR CREAM

pickledherring
Read those words again, slowly.  Now look at the image. It sounds awful from the get-go and looks even worse.  As for the taste…I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would eat this.  A white, gloopy pile of mush, with the added bonus of a fishy aftertaste that won’t leave your mouth for a week.  Should be served only as a punishment. Just the worst.

39) KISHKE

kishke
What Jews apparently invented when they couldn’t figure out how to make an Italian sausage.  You think it’s meat, but it’s really some kind of weird stuffing soaked in fat and stuffed into an intestine.  Whether it’s called Kishke or Stuffed Derma (we really could use a branding expert with some of our food names), I don’t get it.

38) WHITEFISH / WHITEFISH SALAD

whitefishsalad
My family universally loves this, but I don’t.  Granted, it’s better than the herring (the smoked fish saves it), but the look and smell kept me away for years.  I tried it recently by accident, thinking it was a simple tuna fish. Big mistake. Cream and oil oozing on a cracker.  I know I might be alone on this one, but blech.

37) KASHA VARNISHKES

healthy-kasha-varnishkes
Some kind of buckwheat mixed with bowtie pasta.  Not disgusting, but I don’t understand why these things are meant to go together.  Needs LOTS of onions and fat to make it taste like, well, anything but buckwheat. If this is the Jewish bolognese, we messed up.

36) MANDEL BREAD

mandelbread
Now we’re into a weird section of dry Jewish desserts.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with Mandel Bread, it’s sweet and all and can be perfectly pleasant.  But I have two main issues: 1) I know it’s baked in a loaf, but it’s not bread. It’s a cookie. Stop confusing people.  2) It can be BONE DRY, like a biscotti that you find in the back of your cupboard that’s been left unsealed for a few dozen years.  It’s supposed to be softer, but I’ve broken teeth on these things.  Your dentist loves them.

35) DAY OLD HAMANTASCHEN

apricot-and-raspberry-hamantaschen
Speaking of dry…what happened to these Purim cookies?  They should be delicious, little dough pockets filled with fruit or chocolate.  Just look at that picture!  Seems like a no-brainer. But instead, most are served dry enough to leave you gasping for water.  Fresh ones can be dynamite, but more often they’re like chewing sand with a fruit chaser. Room for improvement here.

34) HALVAH

halvah_loaf_marble
Confession:  I actually kind of love this tahini candy that you find at the counter of any decent Jewish deli.  But everyone else I seem to know truly hates it, and I have to admit that I usually feel a little sick after eating an entire Joyvah Marble bar.  It also continues the tradition of dry, chalky Jewish desserts, which typically continues with…

33) PASSOVER CAKES

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I know, the restrictions are tough to work with.  And many an excellent Jewish baker has their version of the one Passover cake that tastes like, well, good cake,  But I’ve always found them to be shadowy attempts at dessert deception. I always appreciate the effort, but the flourless chocolate cake and the lemony pie thing almost always disappoints, a tease to the original (which you can’t have).  Maybe all the other dry desserts are really meant to prepare us for these 8 days.

32) MACAROONS

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Ditto.  Always seem to look better than they taste.  Jews starved for dessert tend to over-romanticize these little balls of coconut sweets.  But let’s face it, no one really loves them the other 357 days of the year. Acceptable alternative for Jews desperate for a brownie on Passover.

31) CHOCOLATE COINS

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Hooray, a non-dry “dessert”!  These chocolates become highly tradable assets on Hannukah (I ran a virtual blackmarket for them in my family).  They weren’t usually the best chocolate, and almost always ended up melting in my pocket by the third night. Still, chocolate is chocolate, so a higher rating here.

30) MY MOTHER’S ROAST CHICKEN

undercooked-roast-chicken
Perhaps this is blasphemy, but the truth hurts:  my mother (bless her memory) was a terrible, terrible cook.  Roast chicken is a sabbath staple for Jewish families, a fairly simple preparation that required only rudimentary cooking skills.  My mother’s roast chicken (when it wasn’t served to us virtually raw) was as rubbery as an elementary school eraser. Ranked higher on this list only because she was my mom and she deserves better (but, between us, it’s a miracle I survived childhood with a functioning digestive system).

29) SCHMALTZ

schmaltz
Not really a food, per se, and pretty disgusting at its core:  rendered goose or chicken fat. You don’t want to look at this stuff while your mother is cooking.  But like lard and butter, this stuff makes EVERYTHING taste better.  Try to get over the thought of what it is and just eat it. Your taste buds  thank you (while your arteries will not).

28) MANISCHEWITZ WINE

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I love watching a non-Jew drink this for the first time.  They think they’re getting a slightly sweet dessert wine, and instead get a swig of alcoholic Grape Fanta without the bubbles.  But it’s our wine, we love it for what it is, and you can’t have it back.

27) TZIMMES

tzimmes
Clearly created by the vision of an emboldened 8-year-old:  “You know what would make my vegetables taste better…piles of sugar!”.  All depends on whether you like hot carrots and raisins. Sweet and satisfying, if a little boring.

26) CHOPPED LIVER

liver
Easily the most controversial ranking here.  On first sight, there isn’t a non-Jew under the age of 70 that would touch this stuff without cash payment and a nose clip.  It is, after all, CHOPPED LIVER. And the look of it…I brought a sample to my office once, where a co-worker declared it “a pile of moist shit in a bowl”.  And for most of my years, that’s what I thought of it. But something must happen to Jewish taste buds after they get Bar Mitzvahed. I like this stuff now, almost like a Hebrew foie gras.  Improbably rising here, along with…

25) GEFILTE FISH

gefiltefish
Oh man, did I hate this growing up, a wet fishy hockey puck that sometimes came with a glob of clear jelly that I was convinced was my grandmother’s mucous.  I’m still not sure how to describe it…Wikipedia says that “fish filets are ground with eggs, onion, bread or matzo crumbs, and spices to produce a paste or dough which is then boiled in fish stock.” Wait…what? Who came up with this one? While I typically don’t ask for my fish ground and boiled on a Saturday night, I’ll cop to enjoying this much more as I get older. Without the gross jelly, please, and adding red horseradish is a must (more on that later).  No idea why we add that little carrot slice to this, do you?  Didn’t we cover that with the tzimmes?

24) MATZO

matzo
Kind of the exact middle-ground of Jewish food, like the culinary version of Scarsdale. It’s a crispy unleavened flatbread, like an over-sized Jewish cracker. Actually tastes kind of great with butter and salt (then again, what doesn’t).   Nothing to get too excited about, and nothing offensive. Your stomach may disagree near the end of Passover, however. This stuff is BINDING. The fifth question in a seder should really ask why, on this holiday, does Uncle Ira need to stock up on laxatives.

23) KNISH

knish
Kind of a forgotten urban staple, essentially mashed potatoes wrapped in dough.  Now that I type that, it sounds FANTASTIC, but I’ve always found the average ones kind of meh.  The ones with meat and onions rock though. Extra points for Yankees fans who fondly recall the fairly awful Roy White Knish (no clue what the Yankee left fielder had to do with Jewish snack food).

22) MATZO BREI

MatzoBrei4
A french toast substitute for sure (substituting broken bits of matzo for bread), but a pretty good one.  A kid’s savior for the bagel-and-cereal free days of Passover.  Douse it in maple syrup for sure. Solid, but there’s just a reason we don’t eat this after Passover. Bread is better.

21) MAROR / HORSERADISH

camel 10
Ghost peppers for the mishbucha, this stuff kicks. Most kids test their mettle by trying to bite the raw version of maror straight, and instantly regret it.  I especially dig the beet red version of horseradish, which I douse on any Passover food that I can’t stand, and permanently stain whatever shirt I’m wearing.  But it’s good, just not enough to crack the Top 20.

20) RUGELACH

Raspberry+Chocolate+Rugelach
So here we go, into the indisputably solid foods (surprise: enough of a countdown to make Ryan Seacrest chant in Hebrew).  Probably the best of the dry desserts we seem to favor, rugelach looks like a tiny croissant but is heavier and much sweeter.  Made with sour cream or cream cheese dough and wrapped around your filling of choice (I need chocolate in mine, but whatever floats your boat), these are hard to beat when done right.  Small penalty for the hard “UCH” sound at the end of the word, which sounds like you’re complaining.

19) JELLY DOUGHNUTS

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Hanukkah at its finest.  And they’re doughnuts. Probably should rank higher, but slightly penalized for ubiquity and my embarrassment for liking Dunkin Donuts munchkins a little too much..  In other news, I can no longer button my pants.

18) KOSHER SALAMI

salami
Not as spicy and porky as the best charcuterie I love (grandparents, please forgive me), but it’s still salami and therefore ranks as solid (although not the best of Jewish meats). Must be served in a giant log, which provides hours of amusement watching people trying to cut thin slices and failing (I seem to recall my frustrated grandfather finally picking the whole thing up and gnawing at it like he was eating corn on the cob). In my mind, it falls short of the…

17) HEBREW NATIONAL HOT DOG

hebrewnational
I’ve previously covered how a mini hot dog wrapped in pastry is the absolute highlight of every Bar Mitzvah in history.  And in a bun, it’s got to be Hebrew National, because they just taste better. Add some sauerkraut (mustard encouraged but not required) and we’re in business.  Extra points for including the word Hebrew, which helps me justify eating a hot dog as a religious activity.

16) KREPLACH

Kreplach (Jewish ravioli)
Possibly the most underutilized and underappreciated item on this list.  JEWS HAVE THEIR OWN RAVIOLI!!! Stuffed with meat or potato (like a pierogi) and usually served in chicken soup.  How are these not served at every meal? I’m mad at my family. I’ve been cheated.

15) CHALLAH

best-basic-challah-533x355
I know, it’s only bread.  But when challah is fresh it’s really, really good.  Always implied a good time too (possibly because wine is likely to be involved).  But here’s my beef…does it really need the raisins? Can’t good, eggy bread just be left alone?  I may be alone again on this, but putting raisins in there is forcing me to eat fruit when I just want carbs. By the way, my father used to put enough butter on a slice of challah to kill himself instantly.  He probably still does. #genetics

14) CHAROSET

charoset
Superb enough that I don’t understand why we don’t eat this outside of Passover. Apples, walnuts, cinnamon, red wine…I’d be game for a culture that defines these as main food groups.  Every now and then someone will stuff too many walnuts in here, making it taste like a Planters can covered in sugar, but for the most part charoset is tough to screw up.  The undisputed king of hillel’s sandwich (which shouldn’t really qualify as a sandwich without meat, but we’ll let that slide). Apparently Ben & Jerry’s sells a Charoset Ice Cream in Israel.  Get that over here immediately, please.

13) BRISKET

platter-of-sliced-brisket
Now we’re onto the meat portion of our countdown, some real highlights here.  I rank brisket a bit lower, as it sometimes ends up a little fattier than I like, or dried out.  But when this meat is braised slow, cut and soaked in juices…oh my. I also have no idea how brisket manages to taste better on day 2 or 3 after it’s been cooked.  That doesn’t seem sanitary, but I don’t care.

12) CORNED BEEF

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Before this causes a riot, just let me finish.  I absolutely LOVE corned beef. I once had to be consoled after the spiritual experience of eating a corned beef sandwich at Katz’s Deli. And it’s a safer cold cut bet, tastes just as good cold as hot. But when hitting on all cylinders, corned beef loses out to…

11) PASTRAMI

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Drooling as I type this.  A hot, smoked, properly spiced piece of pastrami sliced thin is about the apex of meat culture for me.  Add some rye bread and spicy brown mustard and I might just orgasm like Meg Ryan. Jewish deli just doesn’t get better.  Side note: I once ate at Carnegie Deli with my wife’s family, where my brother-in-law ordered bologna on white bread with mayonnaise.  The waiter almost punched him in the face.

10) DR. BROWN’S CREAM SODA

drbrownsAnd while we’re at the deli, the sandwich doesn’t work without this soda, served in the can but poured over ice into a tall, oddly brown-colored glass.  I’m not sure I’ve seen this brand outside of a Jewish deli, so it belongs on this list. Diet or regular works, I won’t judge. Some people swear by the Cel-Ray flavor, but those people are idiots.

9) BLINTZES

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One of the great scams of Jewish cuisine is to pass off desserts as side dishes.  I prefer my blintzes stuffed with blueberry compote and some cheese, but really you could jam almost anything into these things and I’d eat them.  Sweet, delicious rolls of happiness. Plus one of the rare foods I enjoy with the letter Z in it (screw you, zucchini).

8) NOODLE KUGEL

kugel_Aaron Rezny
Like the aforementioned blintzes, dessert as a side dish.  Any other tribe would serve this AFTER dinner, but we want our sweet tooth satisfied now and forever.  This is one of those dishes that provokes skepticism in the uninformed, but always surprises when tasted. Sweet pasta?  I’m in (and usually for seconds).  Matzo kugel works over Passover, but the original can’t be beat.

7) BABKA

Choc_Babka_Main_Tile
But when it comes to REAL dessert, nothing in the Jewish canon beats a good babka.  For some reason, babka has mostly escaped the bone-dry climate of other Jewish desserts (seriously, what is that all about?).  Twisted with chocolate and cinnamon, a little bready but so so so good. Why over-complicate things? Stick with this for dessert and everyone’s happy.  Bonus points for it’s supporting role in Seinfeld,  the babka should have won an Emmy.

6) PICKLES

Pickles
Too simple for such a high ranking?  Wrong!! A good pickle just FEELS Jewish.  No, I’m not talking about the out-of-the-jar Vlasic pickle spear that tastes like it’s been soaked in gasoline.  I’m talking PICKLES here, whole and crunchy, fished out of a barrel and either stored in a plastic container or served in a metal bowl at a deli.  And, since Jews love to argue, pickles provide the perfect debate: sour, half-sour, or new. I’m all in for the half-sour, anything else is heresy.  Regardless, pickles rock and deserve their ranking here.

5) CHINESE FOOD ON CHRISTMAS

chinesefood
Admit it, this is Jewish food too, we’ve taken it over every December 25th.  As much cultural importance as synagogue on Yom Kippur or a parental stampede at summer camp.  Always one of the best meals of the year, and all of your Jewish friends will be at Szechuan Empire at the exact same time.  Might as well hold a Hadassah meeting there.

4) APPLES AND HONEY

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I guess I’m rewarding simplicity near the top of this list.  But again, why complicate things? A simple dip of a red apple into a bowl of sweet honey provides the perfect balance between the crisp and sweet.  Should be eaten anytime a Jew is feeling down for instant uplift. Only concern is with rampant double-dipping, ensuring that your nephew’s runny nose will ultimately find its way into your mouth.  But never mind that…this belongs in the Top 5.

3) LATKES / POTATO PANCAKES

latkes
Now things are getting serious.  You can make a strong argument for any of the items in the Top 3, and I’d say that a latke done perfectly should belong at #1.  We’ve absolutely nailed the art of frying potatoes in oil, with the best ones featuring crisp edges while keeping the potato fluffy inside.  You literally can not make too many of these in a Jewish household, they will always be eaten and sooner than you think. Only thing keeping it from the top spot is the potential for under or over cooking, which makes them a bit pedestrian (but still great).  By the way, there is apparently an annual college event called the Latke-Hamantash Debate where intellectuals argue over the merits of these two foods. How that is even a debate is laughable. It’s the Jewish equivalent of Shake Shack vs. White Castle.

2) MATZO BALL SOUP

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Magic in a bowl.  Has been incorporated into the menus of nearly every diner in America, but the homemade versions served in Jewish households continue to deliver the goods.  Rich, salty chicken soup covering soft and fluffy balls of matzo meal and who knows what (seriously, I’ve never made them and I prefer the mystery). Few people know this, but a Torah portion actually requires all Jews to go back to ask for seconds on certain holidays.  Fights have been known to break out among otherwise peace-loving family members when the number of matzo balls are delivered inequitably. The best part of every Jewish holiday…except when it’s time to break fast on Yom Kippur. The soup takes a clear backseat to…

1. BAGEL WITH LOX AND CREAM CHEESE

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I tried not to list this number 1, I really did.  It seems too obvious, too widespread, too commercialized and industrialized.  All that is true. But like watching Tom Brady beat your team for the 131st consecutive time, sometimes you just have to nod your head and recognize the excellence that is right in front of you.  I literally can’t think of a moment of my life over the last few decades when I haven’t wanted to eat one of these. Go ahead, have at it with your choice of bagel (sesame is my staple, with the occasional salt bagel to taunt my blood pressure), choose nova over lox, debate your amount of cream cheese…that’s all fine here.  This is the ultimate contribution of the Jewish people to the epicurean world, and (truth be told) it’s not all that close. And as the size of bagels have increased in unison with the anti-carb-and-gluten forces, it only increases the spectacle of this amazing sandwich. It’s all I can think about on Yom Kippur, and all I want to eat every Sunday morning.  The King of Jewish food!!!!!













Pass the latkes, please----fishducky