A few years ago, I decided to celebrate a Jewish friend's birthday by cooking a special meal: the whole menu was composed of Italian Jewish recipes. I was just beginning to discover the ethnic and regional varieties of the American food mosaic, but I was already aware that the Jewish specialties of New York City are quite different from the Jewish culinary traditions I know from my native city of Rome. Before moving here, I had never heard of bagels, lox, or knish, let alone gefilte fish. I thought it would be a nice surprise for my friend -- born and raised in Brooklyn -- to be exposed to something totally different.
I made caponata, an eggplant and pepper, sweet-and sour relish that probably originated in Sicily in the Middle ages, when the island was a Muslim province; Mantuan-style squash tortelli with a sage sauce (I must admit I bought those, as I did not have the time to make them from scratch); and baccalà alla livornese, a salt cod stew in tomato sauce from the Tuscan port town of Livorno. No desserts, as I can't bake to save my life.
Although not a Jew -- or a cook -- myself, I was raised in Rome and worked there for a food magazine. It was virtually impossible to overlook the Jewish community's contribution to Roman menus, with dishes such as carciofi alla giudia (artichokes deep-fried in olive oil), anchovies with curly endive, and the fantastic desserts -- above all the ricotta and sour cherry pie -- that I could buy two blocks away from my office in Portico d'Ottavia. This area is the heart of the old Jewish neighborhood, a previous ghetto.
Ghettos -- the first arising in a Jewish neighborhood of Venice in the sixteenth century -- were abolished only after the Italian unification in the 1870, when Jews were given citizenship and civil rights. Until then, each community had developed its own foodways, based on their provenance, their past, and the surroundings in which they lived. As such, Venetian Jews cooked and ate differently from the ones in Turin, in Livorno, and in Rome, each enjoying foods that were the result of centuries of movement, displacement, negotiations, and survival.
The Jewish Sicilian community that had thrived under the Muslims, for instance, was forced to abandon the island in 1492 after it became a Spanish dominion and the kings of Madrid decided to expel all the Jews from their territories. As they took refuge among communities in other Italian states, they quickly spread the techniques and ingredients they had borrowed from the Muslims, including eggplants, spinach, and sugar. It seems that the Jews were also among the first to experiment with new crops coming from the Americas, like squashes and peppers, which the rest of the population considered too lowly or strange.
For many American Jews, both of Ashkenazi and Sephardic descent, the culinary habits of the Italian communities are curious and exotic, even if they adhere to the laws of kashrut, the laws of dietary purity. These differences are an intriguing example of the many dynamics that shape food. Jewish dishes and traditions have been able to evolve over time and space precisely because the communities that created them were able to engage in a resourceful dialogue between the local and the global religious requirements and changing environments, even under duress and in exile. A closer look at the brilliance and complexity that resulted should make us think twice about rigid definitions of "authenticity," one of the buzzwords in today's food world. The discovery of the richness and variety of Jewish cuisines in the U.S. and around the world will be the focus of a panel that will take place at The New School in New York City on April 24. Research on these topics is expanding, also because the subject matter is always changing. The living traditions of Jewish cuisines around the world will continue evolving. Let's hope that legitimate and understandable attempts to protect their past will not limit their future.
For more of Fabio Parasecoli's work, visit The New School food blog The Inquisitive Eater.