The roots of Ashkenazic cuisine lie in medieval Germany.
By Claudia Roden
Reprinted with permission from The Book of Jewish
Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, published by Knopf.
In medieval Europe, Jews had congregated in separate
parts of towns for protection and so as to be able to practice their
religion, and Jewish quarters grew up around synagogues. In Germany,
the Judengasse (Jewish quarters) had their own cemeteries, schools,
laundries, public baths, law courts, slaughterhouses, and bakehouses.
Housewives brought their food to be cooked in the communal oven
and did their cooking at the bakehouse. Few had cooking facilities
at home. One part of the bakehouse was reserved for meat, another
for dairy. The oven and cooking utensils, including huge copper
cauldrons used for wedding feasts, were provided free by the congregation.
A shohet, or slaughterer, was available. There were banqueting rooms
and dancing halls for weddings and festivals, and for getting together
on the Sabbath, and there were guest houses for travelers. A community
fund provided those who could not pay with three days’ free
board and lodging.
The religious dietary laws were abided by with
strict tenacity, and this had the effect of involving Jews in food
trades. Because wine manufactured by a gentile could not be consumed
and food cooked by an unsupervised gentile could not be eaten, Jews
were encouraged to produce and sell wine and food themselves. At
one time they controlled the market in wine and grain, dealing in
oil as a side line. In Southern Europe they owned flour mills and
vineyards. Jewish orchards were renowned in France. In France and
in Germany, where Jews had had vineyards along the Rhine as early
as the fourth century, they produced wine. In Germany they reared
geese. Throughout Europe, Jews were much in evidence at city markets
and country fairs, selling pickles, preserves, and pastries. Jewish
bakeries were common.
There was a strong ascetic streak in German Jews,
and their lives were inclined to spirituality rather than sensual
expression. Ethical writings from medieval times are full of encouragement
towards frugality and self-restraint in eating—“the
most animal of instincts.” Rabbis expressed distaste at the
way their French, Italian, and Spanish coreligionists enjoyed their
meals and their glass of wine. In Eat and Be Satisfied, John Cooper
quotes a 13th-century letter reprimanding the French Jews for “studying
the Talmud with their stomachs full of meat, vegetables, and wine”
and another warning that “gross overeating is as dangerous
to the body as a sword, besides that it bars one from occupation
with the law of God and the reverence due to him.” But despite
all the protestations they were hearty eaters like the Germans.
They ate like the Germans—substantial foods, warming soups
thick with oats, barley, groats, and dumplings; heavy rye and dark
breads; pickled and boiled meats and sausages; freshwater fish and
salt herring, cabbage and carrots. They had a penchant for strong
flavors, such as horseradish, sour pickles, and sauerkraut, and
for sweet-and-sour and savory-sweet combinations like cabbage and
apple. And like the Germans, they stuffed goose necks, chopped goose
liver, and chopped and stuffed fish.
But there were also foreign elements in their cooking,
adopted through their contacts with their European coreligionists.
Noodles came from Italy. Pasta had been introduced there by the
Arabs in Sicily when the island had a substantial Jewish community
The Jews called it “grimseli” and “vermisellish,”
after the Italian vermicelli. Their mercantile activities brought
the Jews of Europe into contact with exotic ingredients and Oriental
culinary styles. Since the early Middle Ages, they had been involved
in international trade, trafficking by raft and craft down the valleys
of the Rhone, the Danube, and the Rhine, and going far afield. For
their own ritual requirements, they imported myrtle from France
and citrons from the coasts of the Mediterranean. They dealt in
sugar, spices, dried fruit, and nuts, and all kinds of foodstuffs
from the East. Their role in introducing such comestibles to Northern
Europe produced an enlightened spirit in their own cooking. They
became known for their immoderate use of garlic and onion, and for
their taste for spices, fruits, and nuts (they were famous for using
almond marzipan in their pastries).
By the time Jews became segregated in their ghettos,
by edict, in the 16th century, they had developed a unique and powerful
internal social culture. As the French historian Fernand Braudel
commented, the ghetto became their prison but was also the citadel
into which they withdrew to defend their faith and the continuity
of their culture. It was at that time that ritual took an increasing
hold on Jewish life. A code of kitchen and table manners was formalized,
and particular dishes were adopted to celebrate the Sabbath and
festivals. The men, who often devoted themselves entirely to studying
Jewish Law and left their wives and daughters to earn the family
living, took a particular interest inthe kitchen. They became involved
with the minutiae of the dietary laws and rituals concerning food.
On Thursdays and Fridays they would be seen bargainingfor Sabbath
delicacies at the market, and on Fridays they helped with cleansing
the dishes and saucepans and setting the table.
It is in the cooped-up world within the ghetto
walls, in the tall houses that met at the top and obscured the sunlight
from the narrow streets, that a set of dishes became associated
with holidays and were marked forever with a Jewish stamp. Everyday
food could be desperately poor, but the best German burgher dishes
were reserved for Sabbath and religious festivals. Braided white
challah bread, sweet-and-sour fish, stuffed fish, chopped goose
liver, broth with noodles, meat pies, boiled pickled beef, roast
goose, and kugel—a sweet pudding made with noodles or bread—were
eaten on Friday evening.
Cholent was left to cook overnight in the communal
oven for Saturday. This dish—one of the most representative
of Jewish cooking—in a version cooked today combines different
meats, sometimes including goose and sausage, with barley or buckwheat
and beans, and is cooked slowly in plenty of goose fat. It is believed
to be related to the French cassoulet, and its name to be a combination
of the medieval French words chauld (hot) and lent (slow).This interpretation
is given weight by the fact that Jews in the region of the Languedoc,
where cassoulet originated, were expelled in 1394 and headed for
Germany. In Eat and Be Satisfied, John Cooper notes that the first
reference to cholent was by Rabbi Isaac of Vienna (c. 1180-c. 1250),
who reported that he had seen it in his teacher’s home in
France at the end of the 12th century. White haricot beans, which
came to Europe from the New World, were a late addition to the dish.
They may have arrived through connections with the secret Jews from
Portugal, who were very familiar with the beans and who settled
in cities in southwestern France in the 16th century. In Spain,
today, large white beans are called judias, meaning “Jewish.”
I wonder if there is a link.
Copyright 1996 by Claudia Roden. Claudia Roden
is one of England’s leading food writers; her New Book of
Middle Eastern Food is now regarded as a classic work. The Book
of Jewish Food won both the André Simon and Glenfiddich Awards.