For many, the thought of the gefilte fish brings with it visions of grayish brown globs in some sort of gelatinous liquid, plated up for the holiday dinners alongside the borscht and the brisket (the brisket was usually more exciting). This oh-so-unappetizing image of gefilte fish is so ingrained that it came to symbolize the Jewish food, especially Ashkenazi cuisine, much of which is rooted in the food traditions of Eastern Europe.
There’s even an old saying about it: “Gefilte without horseradish is punishment enough.” However, the story of gefilte fish — and indeed, the greater story of Jewish cuisine — is much more colorful than that, according to New Jersey-born Jeffrey Yoskowitz, co-author (with Liz Alpern) of The Gefilte Manifesto, the new cookbook that is being hailed as one of the best of 2016.
The title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the philosophy behind The Gefilteria, the artisanal food business that Yoskowitz and his partners, Liz Alpern and Jackie Lilenshtein, founded in 2011. They articulated that philosophy in a so-called manifesto that boils down to a very simple message: Modern convenience foods have alienated thousands from their roots. It’s time to go back to basics, reclaiming traditional foods and cooking from scratch, using fresh ingredients. In these days of increasing concerns about GMOs and sustainable agriculture, the message resonated with thousands, and Yoskowitz and Alpern found themselves in the middle of a bona fide movement. In the weeks following the book’s release in early September, “The Gefilte Manifesto” has garnered praise from a host of news and food media outlets, including NPR, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Epicurious, Jewcy.com, Food Underground, and The Forward. (Want a sample of the book’s recipes? Scroll down for the recipe for Orange-Spiced Rye Honey Cake.)
Nearly halfway through a nationwide book tour to promote The Gefilte Manifesto, I had the chance to chat with Yoskowitz at a café near his current home base in Brooklyn, NY. You could call it a coffee klatch, of course, but here at Best of NJ, we’re calling it an interview.
Best of NJ: So, you’re a Jersey guy, huh? But, you live in Brooklyn.
Yoskowitz: (Laughs.) I was born in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, but went to school in West Orange, New Jersey. I went to Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union (now called Golda Och Academy), and then Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. So yeah, I’m Jersey.
Best of NJ: Did you study food at school?
Yoskowitz: I studied American History with a focus on food.
Best of NJ: How did you get from there into the food business? Were you always into food?
Yoskowitz: Until I became an adult, food was an intellectual curiosity of mine. I’ve always been fascinated by the role that food
plays in culture. As an American history student, that led me to explore the history of tea while studying the American Revolution in college, beyond the [Boston] Tea Party. I found that food is a vehicle for cultural expression, and this is especially true of Jewish food.
When I moved onto an organic pickle farm just after college, I learned to combine my intellectual curiosity with a culinary adventurousness. I began pickling and cooking and farming, and from there, I began writing about food and preparing it. That eventually led me down the path to starting The Gefilteria and writing The Gefilte Manifesto.
Best of NJ: Wait. What pickle farm?
Yoskowitz: After college, I apprenticed as a pickler at Adamah Organic Farm [in Falls Village, Connecticut]. It was amazing. I learned so much.
Best of NJ: “The Gefilte Manifesto “is written as a conversation with you and Liz, and uses both of your voices to talk about Ashkenazi food. How did you and Liz meet? What made you decide to work together?
Yoskowitz: Liz and I met working in the food world. We had mutual friends in Brooklyn and we met at a dinner party, but we got to know each other well when Liz was working for Joan Nathan, [a] cookbook author in [Washington, D.C.]. I began going down there to help out at Sips & Suppers, a major fundraising event that Joan started with Alice Waters and Jose Andres [to help fight homelessness and hunger]. It was there, surrounded by some of the greatest chefs from around the world, that we began talking about our love of Jewish food.
Best of NJ: Can you comment on something you feel like you’re learning on this tour or otherwise through this experience? Has it changed you somehow?
Yoskowitz: I can’t say that the book tour has changed me at all. The whole book writing process has given me so much more respect for authors of all kinds, but especially cookbook authors. So much love and sweat goes into these things, and [the recipes] are all so meaningful, so precious. I still can’t believe that Liz and I put so much of ourselves and our families into it.
Best of NJ: Do you have a favorite recipe? I know that’s like asking you to pick a favorite child, but…
Yoskowitz: In the cookbook, my favorite recipe is Rachel’s Buckwheat Bread (p.103). It’s a recipe I’d been workshopping for a while for my girlfriend Rachel — who’s gluten-free — with lots of her input. I named it after her because it became the recipe that she inspired the most.
Best of NJ: Are you seeing any trends in Jewish cuisine? What about food overall?
Yoskowitz: I’m seeing two disparate trends in Jewish cuisine among many of my peers. I see an embrace of more exotic Jewish foods from Israel, North Africa and the Middle East by American Jews, and I see a simultaneous application of fancy, restaurant-style cooking to more stereotypical Ashkenazi Jewish food, like sous vide brisket and more molecular approaches. Alternatively, I’m heartened by a nerdiness that pervades the Jewish food scene — and the food world as a whole — that excites home cooks about fermentation, home curing of meats, canning, etc. That DIY spirit is at the heart of “The Gefilte Manifesto.”
Best of NJ: So what’s next?
Yoskowitz: Well, we’re going to Houston and LA next week, and then the Midwest. We’ll be back in December though to do some events here at home.
The Gefilte Manifesto is available online and wherever books are sold. Yoskowitz and Alpern will be doing a food demonstration and talk at Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph on December 14. Here are the details:
Date/Time: December 14, 2016 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Location: Gottesman RTW Academy, 146 Dover Chester Rd. Randolph, NJ 07869 United States [map]
ORANGE-SPICED RYE HONEY CAKE
“Honey cake emerges from its hibernation around the High Holidays in the fall, when honey and other sweet foods are eaten to usher in a sweet new year. But as much as this is an early fall cake for the holidays, its warming spices make it a perfect winter cake that works both for dessert and in the morning with a cup of coffee.
The rye adds a rustic feel, a feature of older Jewish and rural French honey cake recipes. Try cutting out the sugar altogether if you prefer a more subtle sweetness. We often bake our honey cake in a loaf pan, but for special occasions, a Bundt pan looks beautiful. If using a standard 10- or 12-cup Bundt pan, you’ll need to double this recipe, and let it cool for an hour before removing it from the pan.” — Jeffrey Yoskowitz
MAKES 1 9 X5-INCH LOAF: SERVES 10 TO 12
1½ cups vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the pan
3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup pure honey
¾ cup lukewarm coffee (brewed and cooled slightly)
1 teaspoon packed orange zest
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup rye flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Generously grease a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan with oil.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the 1½ cups of oil, the eggs, sugar, honey, coffee, and orange zest. In a separate large bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves.
3. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the egg mixture, then stir with a fork or a whisk until the batter is smooth and free of lumps.
4. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50 to 55 minutes, until set in the middle — the cake should hold firm when lightly pressed on top. Be careful not to leave it in the oven for too long or it will dry out.
5. Let the cake cool in the pan for at least 30 minutes (1 hour for a Bundt cake) before very carefully inverting it and removing the pan. Slice and serve with fresh fruit and tea.
Excerpted from the book THE GEFILTE MANIFESTO by Jeffrey Yoskowitz & Liz Alpern. Copyright © 2016 by Gefilte Manifesto LLC. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved. Photography by Lauren Volo.
About the author: Michele Thomas is professionally curious; she likes to learn stuff. A certified sommelier with 15 years of experience writing about food, wine, education and the arts, she chronicles her wine escapades as the Bed–Stuy Sommelier (@BedStuySomm) on Instagram and Twitter.