SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. (JTA) — Jewish food is in a constant state of evolution. And in this moment of a global pandemic, quarantine is changing the way we do business, provide education, connect with loved ones and, yes, even eat. Jewish food is far from immune to the tumult we are all experiencing.
Americans live in a time of great food abundance and choices: Just survey the chip aisle the next time you are lucky enough (or bold enough) to be in a grocery store. My European au pairs are continually shocked and delighted by the varied choices of potato chips, pretzels and snacks that American living affords.
So it is quite a shock to the system when suddenly easy-to-come-by ingredients like eggs, yeast, flour or onions are suddenly a challenge to procure. Instant gratification has become part and parcel of the American shopping experience. Need groceries? Whole Foods delivery can be there in two hours. Have a hankering for sushi? Delivered to your door in 30 minutes. Need to get your hands on that pastrami sandwich from Katz’s Deli in New York City? Goldbelly will deliver directly to you.
But all this has now changed seemingly in an instant, pushing people back into their kitchens, forcing us all to cook, shop and act with considerably more thought, creativity and resourcefulness. We are used to looking up a recipe and then going out to shop for the ingredients, not the other way around.
A renewed interest in sourdough baking has been on the rise over the past two years. But since March, sourdough baking is the project of choice, exploding all over the internet. It’s an incredible contrast to Americans’ usual “fast easy one bowl” sort of baking and cooking approach. Sourdough requires at least three days to make correctly, along with precision, thoughtfulness and a whole lot of practice — not just a whim and a Pinterest search.
Similarly, challah baking has exploded. With so many people newly home on Fridays (and, well, every day), many new bakers are prioritizing fresh challah and Shabbat food in ways they never have before. Among my Jewish friends (and many non-Jews, too!), I’ve personally seen a huge uptick in the number of requests for help with their dough, or braiding, or whether they have let the challah rise enough to be baked. I’ve never had so many people asking me challah baking questions or posting photos of my cookbook recipes each and every week. Heck, I’m not complaining (at least about this)!
Nevertheless, Jews historically have had to be frugal and resourceful about food. The availability of ingredients dictated what was on the menu. That’s how so many dishes from our culture have come into existence: cholent, ptcha, dafina, gefilte fish, aquapazza and even shakshuka.
We have more time on our hands and less access to our usual shopping experiences, and we are also craving comfort in this moment — which I think explains all the influx of bread baking. But it also speaks to the foods we are clinging to right now. In a conversation I had recently with Jewish deli owner Ziggy Gruber of Kenny & Ziggy’s in Houston, he shared with me, “I’ve never had so many people ordering kishke before. It’s clear people are craving some good Yiddishe comfort food right now.”
One of the questions we are all asking is: What will happen when this is all over? Will our renewed interest in challah and Shabbat dinner last? Will regrowing scallions and being more mindful of how we use food become again become a wider part of our culture? Or will we revert to just throwing out things without a second thought?
I pray the economy bounces back quickly, and that food insecurity issues that predated the pandemic and worsened during it are resolved. But I hope that even as it again becomes relatively easy to buy a loaf of challah, more of us will continue to make it — and sustain a spiritual connection to our culinary traditions that has stood the test of time.
This piece is a part of our series of Visions for the Post-Pandemic Jewish Future — click here to read the other stories in this series. Use #JewishFuture to share your own ideas on social media. If you’d like to submit an essay for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org with “Visions Project Submission” in the subject line.
Shannon Sarna is editor of “The Nosher” for MyJewishLearning and author of the cookbook “The Modern Jewish Baker.”