The bacon-wrapped matzo balls at Ilan Hall’s The Gorbals.
Yesterday, Tablet published a very thought provoking essay by writer, cook, and rabbinical student Benjamin Resnick, on why Jewish chefs tossing pork into Jewish dishes just ain’t cool. Here’s just some of what he wrote:
The Jewish culinary tradition is a hot trend in American dining. At Brooklyn’s Mile End Noah Bernamoff and Aaron Israel serve up cholent with veal shortribs and kasha varnishkes with confit gizzards. At the impishly named Traif, also in Brooklyn, Chef Jason Marcus—who describes himself as “Jewish, although obviously not great at it”—focuses on pork and shellfish. At his Los Angeles restaurant The Gorbals, Top Chef winner Ilan Hall gussies up matzo balls by wrapping them in bacon. “Pork fat does something magical to matzah meal,” Hall told the Jewish Journal in November.
Jewish food that actively thumbs its nose at the laws of kashrut clearly holds tremendous social allure for some. As Jeffrey Yoskowitz wrote in the Atlantic, Traif’s Marcus “is counting on other Jews to hear about his restaurant and think, ‘Cool, I’m a non-kosher Jew too.’ ” Indeed, most of the critical praise earned by establishments like Traif and Mile End has highlighted—knowingly or not—the clever disjuncture of embracing Jewishness while simultaneously rebelling against it. Thus when the New York Times fawned over Traif’s “seared foie gras, slumming it with fingerling potatoes, crisp shards of ham, and a fried egg, all dribbled with maple syrup and hot sauce,” the reviewer, Ligaya Mishan, had to add: “Now this is chutzpah.”
Before starting rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2009, I put in time behind the stoves at Telepan on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where I smoked upward of 5,000 trout, and at Restaurant Saul, in Brooklyn, not far from Mile End, where I once cooked by candlelight when the block lost power in the middle of dinner service. At the time I was working in kitchens I was not observant—and I therefore ate just about every abomination in the book. I also learned all the tricks at chefs’ disposals. But now I know some of the rabbis’ tricks, too, and, with this dual knowledge, I can’t help but see the menus offered up by this new generation of trayf-worshippers as lazy—not religiously, necessarily, but culinarily. READ THE REST OF THE ESSAY HERE
As usual with anything kosher related, this set off a firestorm of debate, including a response in the comments by Noah Bernamoff from Mile End:
the notion that I’m being lazy is absurd: Mr. Resnick, clearly, has never visited the restaurant, because had he, he would discover that we cure and smoke all of our meats and fish, bake all of our breads, and pickle all of our vegetables. Show me one Kosher restaurant or delicatessen that is attempting to retain the methods of our Ashkenazi culinary tradition like Mile End, Saul’s, Kenny & Zuke’s and Caplansky’s?
While I have no problem with a restaurant like Mile End serving a breakfast sandwich with bacon in it, I do have some sympathy for Resnick’s point. Tossing bacon into a Jewish dish, like the matzo balls above, or the chopped liver at Joe Doe, sits poorly with me for two reasons. The first is that it really is a slap in the face to the tradition. It doesn’t honor it, or update it. It just takes it away. But the other reason is that it is a missed opportunity. When I was in Hungary last summer, or at Maison David in Paris years before, I tasted dishes that were firmly rooted in the Jewish tradition, and kosher, which held the culinary potential that Jewish cooks in North America have just begun to touch on (Mile End’s cholent is a prime example). Sure, you can wrap a matzo ball in bacon, but to make it out of goose fat, or air dry cured veal, or make salami with duck and hazelnuts…that pushes the culinary envelope out of the comfort zone while staying true to the one thing that made this food Jewish in the first place…that it was based around the rules of kashrut (whether it is certified or not). Chopped liver made with cream and butter isn’t chopped liver, it’s pate. Kreplach sauteed with bacon are just Polish pirogies. They’re not Jewish, they’re just Eastern European.