Amiee Kushner and Gordon Gladstone describe themselves as "real live Jews who share a fondness for cooking and eating" in their blog Jewish Food in the Hands of Heathens. They've been known to observe the Jewish practice of kosher eating, but also don't mind the odd piece of pork. Here they chat to SBS about Jewish cuisine, nostalgia and their secret food indulgences.
When did you realise you were interested in Jewish food?
Amiee: When I went away to university, I lived in a large house in Berkeley [California] with 50 women and was the only Jewish girl. When the holidays rolled around I realised the only way I was going to get Jewish food was if I made it myself. I made a point to start learning recipes and cooking them for my friends and housemates and used it as a way to share my culture with them.
Gordon: At birth. Actually when I was 10 or 11 my father took me to Katz's deli in New York City (a very famous deli that has been featured in many films set in New York City). It was love at first bite.
What was your motivation behind starting a Jewish food blog?
G: A combination of surplus time brought about by Amiee and I being unemployed at the same time and of course a shared love of cooking. We also felt that most Jewish cooking sites are oriented towards kosher cooking. Most American Jews don't keep kosher. We wanted to create a blog that would reflect a modern take on classic Jewish cooking, focused on flavour and presentation and not bogged down in the minutia of the rules of kashrut.
A: I would add that we were spending a lot of time cooking and sharing recipes and we thought a blog would be a good way to give some structure to our hobby. Given our shared background in Judaism and Jewish education, the theme was a given.
How much of your life is taken up by cooking, eating and blogging about Jewish food?
A: I try to cook for the blog about once a week and then spend a few hours researching, writing and editing the photography for each post.
G: This is a hobby for me, so I might spend 2-3 hours for each post I write unless it's something complicated like liver sausage.
Describe the practice 'kosher’.
A: I'm going to let Gordonopedia take this one. He's a walking encyclopedia.
G: Kosher literally means "fit to eat", and indicates that food is in compliance with the many rules that have evolved from the commandments in the Bible (i.e. not to boil a kid in its mother's milk, etc). As with many practices in Judaism there are many levels of observance that range from people who avoid certain foods (pigs, lobster) to people who will not eat anything not prepared under the supervision of an equally observant Jew.
Do you feel it is important to maintain a kosher lifestyle? Why, why not?
A: I come from a long line of Jewish pork eaters, so it is not something I personally embrace. I love trying new foods so I would never take on a eating regimen that would prevent me from doing that. For example, if I maintained a kosher diet I would not have gotten to enjoy the kangaroo steak I tried on a trip to Australia. I love the cultural aspects of Jewish cuisine and in particular sharing it with my non-Jewish friends. Additionally, kosher eating is a much higher level of religious observance than I practice in my daily life.
G: Yes, and no. I am not currently keeping kosher, but I have in the past and do so in my home. I agree with Amiee and Anthony Bourdain that it is important to be open to new experiences and be able to learn a culture through its food. On the other hand, keeping kosher is a powerful way of reinforcing a personal identity, as food is something that most people deal with at least three times a day.
Who is your favourite kosher chef?
G: There really aren't any well-known Kosher chefs on the west coast of the US. If there is one who becomes an Iron Chef I will be sure to buy their cookbook.
A: Eli Landau ... I'm kidding, he is a chef in Israel who has recently caused controversy by publishing a pork cookbook. My current favourite local chef is Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats who works out of the San Francisco Ferry Building. He taught Gordon and I in a butcher class, and makes amazing sausage and chicarronnes.
Describe Jewish cuisine.
A: It's whatever your Jewish bubbe (grandmother) cooked.
What is the most important ingredient in Jewish cuisine?
G: Love, followed by copious amounts of animal fat.
A: I think Gordon may have nailed this one.
What is the most underrated dish in Jewish cuisine?
A: There are a number of dishes like gefilte fish, borscht and macaroons that have been industrialised and over-processed, and come Passover everyone complains about them. But when you make these dishes from scratch they are actually quite delicious.
G: I agree with Amiee that industrial foods taste like crap. I also think there are a number of things like schmaltz and chopped chicken liver that were considered too fatty or unhealthy but are so good as to be nearly addictive when prepared well.
What are your earliest memories of Jewish food?
A: Making challah with my great-grandmother around age three or four. It is one of the few memories I have of her but I take great pride in sharing her technique with others. I also have memories going back as far as I can remember of my dad getting up early on Sundays to go get bagels for breakfast. When I was little I loved the cinnamon raisin ones but I'll never forget when I finally tried a bialy (onion and poppy seed). A warm bialy is like heaven.
G: When you grow up Jewish, it's just food. I have memories of being with my extended family for Passover as a small child. I can't remember what we ate, aside from a turkey- which isn't really Jewish. I can also remember eating bagels and lox on Sunday mornings after going to Sunday school at the synagogue.
What does Jewish food say about Jewish people?
A: That we were really poor and usually immigrants who did our best to incorporate our traditions into cheap locally available food. We also use food as a way of connecting with family and community. It kind of a inside joke that there has never been a meeting of two or more Jews without food being served.
G: I agree that we were poor and therefore Jewish cooking often values fat and protein to a degree that caused us all some heart problems once we were able to afford better food. Jewish cooking also places a great deal of emphasis on family celebrations and being mindful of the source of the food that we have.
What is your secret food shame?
A: Every time I go to a Jewish event or conference with a kosher menu, I make it a point to sneak out for bacon cheeseburgers and attempt to recruit others to join me.
G: Anything fried or even poached in animal fat (don't get me started on duck fat french fries), the shame or rather guilt is knowing how many generations of my family have cholesterol issues.
What is your favourite recipe?
G: Mashed potatoes, made with garlic, rosemary and lots of butter.
A: Gordon's mashed potatoes are pretty high up there, but my favourite to make is my challah. I could eat challah for every meal and snacks in between.
A: Brisket and potatoes gratin. A large piece of meat, with creamy potatoes on the side never fails to make people happy.
G: Leg of lamb, I like to do it over coals with mint, garlic, cracked black pepper and plenty of kosher salt.
A: Matzo ball soup. It was my first response when a friend told me she had cancer, but I'll also make it for the sniffles.
G: Pickled beef tongue. It takes a week to make, but the flavour is so strongly associated with my childhood it always brings a smile to my face.
For an easy weeknight dinner?
What is your favourite Jewish food occasion? Why?
A: Passover. The only requirement for this holiday is to partake in the Seder meal. You don't have to go to synagogue, you just eat at a table with your friends or family and engage in a ritual around a meal that our ancestors have been doing for thousands of years. While certain elements like drinking wine, eating matzah or asking the four questions are virtually universal, every family creates their own unique traditions. Whether it's the dinner menu, what goes in the charoset or grandpa chugging a whole glass of wine on behalf of Elijah.
G: Channukah, since everything is fried in oil (I have a problem, I admit it). I have taken to playing with different potato varieties to put a new twist on the traditional potato pancake or latke. The explosion of heirloom varieties in the local market has made that easier and more fun.
What is new on the Jewish food scene?
A: A couple of years ago there emerged a pretty large scandal regarding the practices of some of the big companies in the kosher meat industry in the United States. Up until that point kosher meat was often seen by Jews and non-Jews alike as a more ethical or healthy meat choice, but the expose of the abuses on both human workers and the animals showed otherwise.
The revelations made observant Jews really question what kosher standards for meat should entail. There has been a great deal of education on the issue and the concept that truly sustainable, organic and ethical animal farming, as well as fair labor practices are equally as important as kosher slaughter, is really beginning to take hold.
G: I agree that the added focus on the intersection between Kosher and ethical is a welcome development. Another thing that is interesting for me is how the snout to tail movement has prompted some of us to go back and try to rediscover the range of charcuterie that existed in Jewish cuisine before the advent of store bought meat. I am proud to say that we are the top ranked search result for the term "Jewish liverwurst".