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Tastes of tradition

"From the Jewish Heartland: Two Centuries of Midwest Foodways," by Ellen F. Steinberg and Jack H. Prost (University of Illinois Press, 207 pages, $32.95 hardcover)

The first wave of Jewish immigrants arrived in the Midwest in the 1800s, bringing along treasured recipes - sometimes recorded in cookbooks, but more often "embedded only in women's memories," Ellen F. Steinberg and Jack H. Prost write in "From the Jewish Heartland." As years passed, the appetite for traditional dishes remained largely unchanged, but the recipes did not.

Though they maintained their "Jewishness," the authors note, many foods associated with Jewish cultural traditions developed a distinctive Midwest flavor. This deeply-researched regional culinary history explores why and how Jewish cooking has evolved in Illinois and elsewhere in Middle America.

Steinberg and Prost, anthropologists who share an interest in food-related customs, draw on vintage and contemporary sources in tracing the rich history of Jewish cuisine in the U.S. heartland. Along the way, they touch on social issues that shaped the immigrant experience and offer insight into how these issues affected Jewish cooking and culture.

Dozens of old recipes offer glimpses into immigrant lives, including homemade health remedies. (A tonic for "tired blood" called for equal parts yellow dock – a weedy plant - and sassafras bark steeped in water.) Many recipes are short on instructions and are chiefly of historical interest. However, the authors have adapted some of them, such as the Irish Potato Cake recipe featured below, for today's cooks.

Not all Jewish immigrants shared the same food traditions. Sephardic Jews, multilingual and multicultural, came from Spain, Portugal, Syria and elsewhere and favored a spicier Middle Eastern diet. Their numbers were relatively small; reportedly fewer than 70,000 of them emigrated to the U.S. Far more numerous were Ashkenazic Jewish immigrants from Germany, Poland and Russia. Many of the latter group settled in Chicago. By 1900, the authors say, the city's Maxwell Street district was home to more than 15,000 Russian Jews.

Healthy trends

As Jewish cuisine - both kosher (prepared in accord with Jewish dietary laws) and non-kosher - has evolved, it often reflected broader trends.

"Authentic, and healthy. Traditional, plus tasty. We heard those phrases over and over when we asked about today's Jewish foods," the authors write.

Since the 1970s, they add, many Jews who keep kosher have been attracted to an "eco-kashrut (dietary laws)" lifestyle - choosing earth-friendly kosher foods that fit in with wider Jewish goals such as "tikkun olam" (repair of the world) and social justice.

However, some efforts to market eco-kosher cuisine to health-conscious consumers proved relatively short-lived.

Chicago's Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, for example, served "fresh, seasonal, creative, and organic" kosher dishes in its café, thanks to an executive chef described as passionate about local, sustainable and fair trade ingredients. The café has since closed due to a budget crunch, the authors report. Another adventurous effort featured in the book (the Morgan Harbor Grill, which boasted a kosher sushi bar and catered to a younger crowd in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood) is now out of business, too.

"Unfortunately, most kosher restaurants in Chicago and the Midwest are gone," Steinberg acknowledged recently. She attributed the closings in part to high costs associated with operating in accord with kosher dietary laws.

Nevertheless, healthy Jewish cooking continues to be embraced by ever-younger generations, according to one Chicago-area cooking instructor interviewed in "From the Jewish Heartland." Says Stacey Schwartz, who organizes kosher and non-kosher cooking classes for children ages 5 to 15: "This generation, maybe not the grandmother generation, but my generation, is much more concerned about health, weight, and heart problems. Jewish cooking has taken a turn toward healthier. There's been a sort of evolution in the menus, with more flavor coming from fresh ingredients and fresh herbs. It's slow, but it's there.

"I've had parents tell me they're surprised that the children will eat things like 'Mock Sloppy Joes' on whole grain buns," Schwartz says. But, she adds, they've been a "huge success."

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