Sun. 5/3, 8 p.m.: Crisco kid
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Sun. 5/3, 8 p.m.: Crisco kid

Dr. Rachel B. Gross looks at the secret Jewish history of hydrogenated cottonseed oil

Wilhelm Normann invented hydrogenated fats in 1901 and received a patent for it the following year. The German chemist paved the way for a new world of food — and arguably also for a rise in hardened arteries and heart disease.

But it’s the impact of Dr. Normann’s invention on American Jewry that intrigues Dr. Rachel B. Gross. Dr. Gross holds the John and Marcia Goldman chair in American Jewish studies at San Francisco State University and recently contributed an essay, “Jews, Schmaltz, and Crisco in the Age of Industrial Food,” to a volume on the history and ethics of Jewish food published by New York University Press. On Sunday evening, she will talk about her findings at the behest of the adult education committee of Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck. (See box.)

Schmaltz is the Jewish food of the Old World. It’s chicken fat; Jews used it as their neighbors used lard. Crisco is the original hydrogenated cottonseed oil, introduced by Procter and Gamble in 1911.

Cottonseed oil is parve — neither meat nor dairy — an important consideration for someone cooking in a kosher kitchen.

It did not take long for Procter and Gamble’s marketers to see the potential in America’s growing community of Yiddish-speaking immigrants and their children.

Dr. Gross’s paper is the first sustained research into the relationship between Crisco and the Jews, something that many scholars of American Jewish food have mentioned.

Why explore that topic in depth?

Dr. Rachel B. Gross

“Because I think it’s hilarious,” Dr. Gross said. “Hydrogenated cotton seed oil is inherently funny.”

But seriously: Crisco opened the door to a world of parve baked goods.

“Sephardi Jews around the Mediterranean used olive oil in their baking,” Dr. Gross said. “Ashkenazi Jews tended to use either butter or schmaltz.”

Until, that is, Crisco came along.

“There’s a series of fascinating advertisements in the Yiddish press to convince Jews to use Crisco,” Dr. Gross said. That began immediately after Crisco was invented and lasted until 1913.

A generation later, in the 1930s, the Joseph Jacobs advertising company — the now Teaneck-based firm behind the Maxwell House Haggadah — published a bilingual Yiddish/English booklet called “Crisco Recipes for the Yiddish Housewife.”

“The book was designed to be used by a Yiddish-speaking mother who would bring the knowledge of tradition and cooking and baking, and the English-speaking daughter who is going to bring the openness to changing to modern products like Crisco,” Dr. Gross said.

Dr. Gross is interested in how American commercial culture changes the nature of Jewish authority.

Who is the authority in this imagined mother-daughter cooking tableau, she asks.

“It could be that either one of them is the authority on Jewish cooking,” she said. “It could be the Orthodox rabbis who are certifying Crisco are the authorities on kashrut. It could be Procter and Gamble who are the authority on Jewish food and Jewish cooking.”

A century later, the authenticity wheel has turned. Crisco is seen as unhealthy. Schmaltz makes a comeback as authentic.

“People who are interested in the traditions of Ashkenazic cooking are turning back to schmaltz,” Dr. Gross said. “They might or might not keep kosher, but they are interested in the traditional ways of cooking and baking. For them, that’s the way of connecting to their ancestors and community. It’s a practical and emotional connection to a community and a history — it’s a form of American Jewish religion.”

A form of American Jewish religion?

Yes, says Dr. Gross.

“As a religious studies scholar, I use the word religion to mean things people find very important and meaningful in their lives.”

That’s the focus of her forthcoming book, “Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice.”

“I’m looking at how Jews use nostalgia the same way that religion works,” she said.

“One of the examples I look at is artisanal deli—the same places that are turning back to schmaltz. I’m asking, what’s going on there? I think they’re telling us history, of Ashkenazim immigrating to the United States, in a nostalgic way, in a way that evokes a particular emotion.”

So is this a deli religion without God?

“For many Jews, God is not the only way they think about their Judaism or their Jewishness,” she said. “You can go to a synagogue and go to a deli, and both of those things will be very important to your Jewish practice. You might go to a synagogue, and have whatever connection you have to the divine, and to the synagogue community, and you can go to a deli to feel that connection to your family community and your Ashkenazi ancestors. Religion is a very useful way to articulate what’s going on there.”

Dr. Gross also has co-authored a teaching guide to matzah balls. And there too she found an interplay between American marketing and traditional Jewish cooking.

“Traditionally, matzah balls are a Passover food. They’re not year round. Year round you would eat kreplach. Why would you eat matzah meal year round?”

You wouldn’t — at least not in the Old World.

In America, however, “the Manischewitz company convinces American Jews that matzah balls are a year-round food because they want to sell matzah meal year round.”


Who: Dr. Rachel B. Gross, assistant professor of Jewish studies at
San Francisco State University

What: Will talk about “Jews, Schmaltz, and Crisco in the Age of Industrial Food””

When: On Sunday, May 3, at 8 p.m.

Where: On Zoom. Go to Rinat Yisrael’s page on Facebook for login information, or email adulted@rinat.org.

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