Can German-Jewish food be the next culinary trend?
When you think about the history of the German Jews, the first thing that comes to mind – understandably – isn’t what they ate. But while they’re not trying to avoid mentioning the Holocaust, Sonya Gropman and her mother, Gabrielle (Gaby) Rossmer Gropman, are trying to show the world a different side to the thousand-year Jewish legacy in Germany.
When approaching a culture on a down-to-earth basis, there’s no better place to start than its food. Thus, the duo is trying to shine a light on German-Jewish cuisine, something that’s been largely forgotten even among many Jews of German descent in the U.S., not to mention by the Germans themselves. In 2017, Brandeis University Press will publish a cookbook they’re currently writing, titled simply “German-Jewish Cuisine,” as part of the HBI (Hadassah- Brandeis Institute) Series on Jewish Women. With the exception of a community cookbook, long out of print, produced by a congregation in Manhattan in 1976, they believe it will be the first specifically German-Jewish cookbook published since before World War II, and the first written in English.
Gaby was only a year old in 1939 when her parents fled their home town of Bamberg, in north Bavaria, for New York; her maternal grandparents and other relatives followed shortly. All settled in Washington Heights near the northern tip of Manhattan, which during the ‘40s and ‘50s was home to the largest community of German Jews in the world – some 20,000, according to Gaby. “It was a very concentrated immigrant environment,” she said. “There was a lot of German spoken on the street, a lot of the shops were (owned by) German Jews. They could continue their lives within their communities in many ways, eating what they used to eat.”
Gaby attended Brandeis, where she met her husband, a writer of Russian-Jewish descent (Sonya jokes that her parents had a “mixed marriage”). After living in a number of places, they settled in Brookline, where Sonya grew up; she now lives in New York, while Gaby lives in Medford. Both are visual artists; Gaby is a sculptor and professional mediator, and Sonya is a freelance painter and photographer, a sometime production designer on films, and a card-carrying foodie. Asked who got whom interested in writing about German-Jewish food, “I’d say it was both ways,” said Sonya, “but it goes back, actually, two more generations. I’ve always, since I was a very little kid, had a strong and passionate interest in all things food-related. I’ve always read cookbooks just for the pleasure of reading them. My grandfather was a major influence within our family, both directly to me and to my mother. He had a very strong connection to his home town, and even though he had an extremely bittersweet relationship with Germany because they killed his parents, he had very fond memories of his childhood in Bamberg, which is an idyllic city that’s so beautiful it’s a [UNESCO] World Heritage Site. He would talk about the first strawberries of the season, the black walnuts, all these kind of mythological things. When he retired he started doing a lot of cooking and recreating a lot of recipes from his childhood and researching recipes. That’s my main memory of him in later years.”
German-Jewish food is far from a totally alien cuisine in Jewish terms, but it does have its idiosyncrasies. Sonya defines it as “essentially German food that has been adapted for Jewish law and Jewish custom. Since German cuisine is 98 percent pork, they used lard a lot for cooking, and obviously Jews couldn’t do that, so goose fat and duck fat were a huge thing. Goose and duck were both really big, and the fattening of the goose and the use of goose fat, which was also called schmaltz, was super important.” Schmaltz aside, German-Jewish food also differs significantly from the familiar Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, either original to that region or as adapted in America by the New York/East Coast deli. This certainly holds true for holiday foods. “I don’t remember a whole lot of brisket in my life,” said Gaby. “I think we probably had things like veal roast for a time like Rosh Hashanah.”
“It’s not a gefilte fish culture,” said Sonya. “But on Friday nights they had a fish dish, and it was usually a cold carp served in its aspic, or they had a hot carp dish served with a sweet and sour sauce.”
Aside from family and community recipes they remember, Gaby and Sonya have studied everything from a handwritten cookbook left to Gaby by her grandmother (“I always thought it was a little mythic thing, because for one thing, I couldn’t read it; it’s written in very old script. Both Sonya and I were really intrigued by it, and it also kind of spurred us on”) to several Jewish cookbooks published in Germany from the late 19th century through the 1920s. “There were about five that were important, and that were published in editions over and over again,” said Gaby.
Bread and cakes are common in the cuisine; again, they’re a bit different from those non-German Jews might know. Gaby and Sonya discuss a bread called berches or barches, that looks like a poppy-seed-covered challah but is made with water in the dough instead of egg, and often contains cooked mashed potato (see recipe). “We have found many instances of bakeries in Germany still, today, selling berches and they have no clue of the Jewish origin,” said Sonya.
Asked why so many German Jews who fled to the New World let their culture and cuisine slip away once resettled, Gaby said, “I think there’s a few good reasons. One is that everything German was unattractive in America.”
“Unattractive is putting it very mildly,” said Sonya. “Hated.”
“Nobody wanted to talk about being German,” her mother said. “It didn’t feel right, except in Washington Heights.” As for encounters between German and Eastern European Jews, Gaby adds, “The prejudice or stereotyping that exists on both sides was so apparent in my growing up, and is probably still apparent out there in the world. When I went to visit my husband’s parents, the fact that I was German-Jewish – my father-in-law wasn’t really quite sure I was really Jewish,” she said with a laugh. “That kind of thing. And the prejudice on the German- Jewish side, that the Eastern Europeans were peasants. And so, German Jews kind of integrated into the majority Jewish culture, in addition to assimilating into the majority (American) culture in general. I think it was not something that could hold together, except among very religious people.”
Both travel frequently to Germany for business and other purposes, and last March held a German Jewish cooking class in Berlin with a Passover Seder menu, reintroducing the cuisine in its country of origin. Clearly, this labor of love involves more than just producing a cookbook; it’s something of a reclamation project for a culture, starting with bread and pastries.
Berches makes 2 medium loaves, or 1 extra-large loaf
This recipe is adapted from one by Herta Bloch, an owner of the muchloved German-Jewish specialty meat shop in New York, Bloch & Falk.
• 7 cups (about 2 pounds) allpurpose flour + extra for the breadboard
• ¼ cup + 2 cups warm water, or as needed
• 1 package active dry yeast
• ½ teaspoon sugar
• ¼ cup neutral oil (such as safflower or canola) + extra for greasing bowl
• 1 white potato, boiled, peeled, mashed, and cooled
• 4 teaspoons salt
• 1 egg, lightly beaten
• 1-2 tablespoons poppy seeds
Place flour in a large mixing bowl, and make a well in the center of the flour.
Pour ¼ cup warm water in the well. Add yeast and sugar, and stir gently to dissolve. Let sit 5-10 minutes until it is bubbling.
Add ¼ cup oil, mashed potato, and salt. With a wooden spoon (or by hand), start to mix the flour into the yeast mixture in the well. Gradually add warm water as needed to moisten the flour (being careful not to add too much -- the dough should remain firm and you may not need to use all 2 cups), while continuing to mix.
Remove dough from bowl and put on a floured breadboard (or a clean counter top). Knead by hand (press dough hard with the palm of your hand, fold dough over, repeat) until all the flour is incorporated and the dough is well-blended and smooth.
Wash and dry the mixing bowl and grease lightly with oil. Return dough to bowl, cover with a slightly damp kitchen towel, and place in a warm spot (such as in an oven that has been pre-warmed on low, then turned off ). Let it rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
Punch down the dough in the bowl. Return to the floured breadboard (or countertop) and knead until smooth.
Lightly oil a baking sheet.
For one extra-large loaf: Cut dough into three equal parts and roll each part into a rope of equal length. To braid dough: start with three ropes lined up in a parallel row. Pinch the ends together. Cross the left-hand rope over the middle rope (the left-hand rope now moves to the middle position). Cross the right-hand rope over the middle rope. Continue crossing left- and right-hand ropes until you reach the end of the ropes. Pinch the ends together and tuck under. Place on baking sheet. (For two medium loaves: Cut dough in half, and then braid each.)
Cover the loaves with the damp kitchen towel. Return to warm spot and let rise until doubled in size, about 1-1½ hours.
Preheat oven to 350° F. Brush the top of the loaf/loaves with the beaten egg, and sprinkle generously with the poppy seeds. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until golden brown and tapping it on the bottom makes a hollow sound.
Place on a wire rack to cool.
Recipe © 2015 Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman & Sonya Gropman
Sonya and Gaby’s blog is at germanjewishcuisine.com.