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From the Jewish Heartland: Two Centuries of Midwest Foodways

From the Jewish Heartland: Two Centuries of Midwest Foodways

by Ellen F. Steinberg, Jack H. Prost

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From the Jewish Heartland: Two Centuries of Midwest Foodways reveals the distinctive flavor of Jewish foods in the Midwest and tracks regional culinary changes through time. Exploring Jewish culinary innovation in America's heartland from the 1800s to today, Ellen F. Steinberg and Jack H. Prost examine recipes from numerous midwestern sources, both


From the Jewish Heartland: Two Centuries of Midwest Foodways reveals the distinctive flavor of Jewish foods in the Midwest and tracks regional culinary changes through time. Exploring Jewish culinary innovation in America's heartland from the 1800s to today, Ellen F. Steinberg and Jack H. Prost examine recipes from numerous midwestern sources, both kosher and nonkosher, including Jewish homemakers' handwritten manuscripts and notebooks, published journals and newspaper columns, and interviews with Jewish cooks, bakers, and delicatessen owners.
With the influx of hundreds of thousands of Jews during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came new recipes and foodways that transformed the culture of the region. Settling into the cities, towns, and farm communities of Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota, Jewish immigrants incorporated local fruits, vegetables, and other comestibles into traditional recipes. Such incomparable gustatory delights include Tzizel bagels and rye breads coated in midwestern cornmeal, baklava studded with locally grown cranberries, dark pumpernickel bread sprinkled with almonds and crunchy Iowa sunflower seeds, tangy ketchup concocted from wild sour grapes, Sephardic borekas (turnovers) made with sweet cherries from Michigan, rich Chicago cheesecakes, native huckleberry pie from St. Paul, and savory gefilte fish from Minnesota northern pike.
Steinberg and Prost also consider the effect of improved preservation and transportation on rural and urban Jewish foodways, as reported in contemporary newspapers, magazines, and published accounts. They give special attention to the impact on these foodways of large-scale immigration, relocation, and Americanization processes during the nineteenth century and the efforts of social and culinary reformers to modify traditional Jewish food preparation and ingredients.
Including dozens of sample recipes, From the Jewish Heartland: Two Centuries of Midwest Foodways takes readers on a memorable and unique tour of midwestern Jewish cooking and culture.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Steinberg and Prost trace the origins of Jewish cookery in the Midwest, from pioneers to Sephardic and Ashkenazic settlers, and from cities to farmlands. Surveying handwritten personal cookbooks, community archives, anecdotes, The Chicago Tribune and other sources, they reinforce food as ancestral memory and evidence of ingenuity. Extensive comparisons of recipes serve as clues toward generational and cultural shifts as well as adaptations to regional supplies and privations. Noteworthy chapters such as "How to Cook…" reveal some of the nineteenth century's more unusual beliefs, including the theory that spices lead to intemperance, and the formation of public cooking schools designed to guide "foreign" foods toward "American ideals." A specialized resource for scholars of Judaica and food-devotees alike, the book presents classics such as gefilte and matzos alongside lesser-known dishes. It is a sometimes nostalgic look at preserving authenticity while embracing creativity. Here, assimilation becomes a challenge rather than a uniformly negative force. Features ten black-and-white photos, notes, and an appendix of recipes updated with contemporary measurements. (July)
From the Publisher

 "Recipes live lives just like people, with some ending up forgotten while others are lovingly remembered for generations. . . . Luckily, some recipes and their authors get rescued from dusty anonymity by curious cooks, history-loving food writers and culinary anthropologists like Ellen F. Steinberg and Jack H. Prost."—Chicago Tribune

"After delighting in the myriad tastes and traditions of Midwestern Jewry summoned up by this evocative book, readers will be much less likely reflexively to think New York when they encounter the delights of the delicatessen or savor a traditional Sabbath or other Jewish holiday dinner."—The Washington Times


"This is the first book to specifically address the history of Midwest Jewish cooking; it is a must-have for public and academic libraries in this area.  Highly recommended."—Choice
"The history is Interesting and written with clarity. . . . Many readers will want to turn the pages in search of the recipes for matzo cake, cheese pie, brandy peaches and gefilte fish.  It all looks easy enough to try at home!"—Shepherd Express

"A specialized resource for scholars of Judaica and food-devotees alike, the book presents classics such as gefilte and matzos alongside lesser-known dishes. It is a sometimes nostalgic look at preserving authenticity while embracing creativity."—Publishers Weekly

"A fascinating overview of historic Jewish foodways throughout the Midwest, with many examples of recipes brought to the Midwest by Jewish immigrants. I know of no other work on Jewish American food with this concentration and breadth."—Joan Nathan, author of Jewish Cooking in America

Product Details

University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
Heartland Foodways Series
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

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From the Jewish Heartland

Two Centuries of Midwest Foodways


Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03620-0

Chapter One

The Early Jewish Presence in the Middle West

A simple marker, erected by the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan, in Michilimackinac State Park, Mackinaw City, commemorates the first Jewish settler in that state: a German-Jew from Berlin named Ezekiel Solomon who landed at the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula in 1761. The plaque tells little about Solomon except that he survived an Ojibwa massacre at Fort Michilimackinac in 1763, was a fur trader who ran a general store provisioning the British army, and was one of the founders of Canada's first (Sephardic rite) synagogue, Montreal's Shearith Israel.

Information about Solomon is somewhat scanty. It seems he arrived at Fort Michilimackinac via Detroit, through the Straits of Mackinac, the narrow stretch of water connecting Lake Huron to Lake Michigan and separating Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Before the advent of railroads, that waterway served as one of the paths into the Midwest and Great Plains that immigrants followed.

What data are available reveal that he operated the Solomon-Levy Trading House at Fort Michilimackinac during the time it was a British military post. Most likely he exchanged guns, powder, and bullets for fur pelts.

The fort actually resembled a small community more than a military installation. Solomon even built a log house within the confines of the tall stockade fence, which, as it turned out, afforded scant protection during an Indian raid in 1763. He was captured by the Ojibwas, traded to the Ottawas, and then hauled up to Montreal, where he was finally ransomed. However, this traumatic experience did not convince Solomon to take up a safer occupation. In 1779, he and a group of Montreal businessmen, possibly J. Levy, Richard McCarty, and one Mr. Grant, opened a general store at the same fort. One report states there is reason to believe that Solomon also traveled down through Lake Michigan, then along the Illinois River as far south as Cahokia, Illinois, to trade.

Barred since 1763 by Spanish decree from entering or settling in the Louisiana Territory, Jewish traders set up shop on the other side of the Mississippi in the boom-town of Cahokia. Without a doubt, Solomon would have conducted business with one of its most prominent, and infamous, citizens, Isaac Levy. Probably no relation to Solomon's business partner in Canada, Isaac had started out in Virginia, moved to Indiana, then down to Illinois. He became the town doctor, shopkeeper, money-lender, Indian trader, liquor dealer, and army supplier, rolled into one.

When Solomon lived in the territory that eventually became part of the state of Michigan, great glades of majestic hemlocks and pine stands fringed the territory on either side of the narrows. The clear lake waters abounded with fish. Its shoreline teemed with raucous loons, large Canada geese, hundreds of ducks, muskrats, and beavers. Woodpeckers, wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, black bear, raccoons, and porcupines made their homes in the mixed-wood forests. The French, and later, British, soldiers and traders kept a goodly supply of domesticated chickens, cattle, and pigs for food. They constructed outdoor brick and clay ovens for baking bread and other cooking chores. They also dug deep root cellars for provisions, such as corn, beans, squash, meats, and poultry. Wild cherries, grapes, and acorns were there for the harvesting. Solomon would have had little trouble, then, finding something to eat. Certainly his diet would have included fresh-caught lake perch, salmon, trout, and whitefish. He might also have made stews from beans, wild onions, and, perhaps even, beef, kept warm in the dying embers of a brick oven. Occasionally, he may even have whipped up a nutritious and filling egg custard, a favorite German dessert.

History says that Solomon divided his time between the fort, even after its relocation to Mackinac Island in 1781, and Montreal, Canada, where his Catholic wife and children lived. Solomon, one of the first non-French fur traders to penetrate the Upper Great Lakes region, died in 1808 or 1809.

Across the Mississippi River from Cahokia, in a bustling village of 1,500 people called Saint Louis, Joseph Philipson, a German-Jew from Pennsylvania, saw a business opportunity in the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. Explorers, such as William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, travelers, and settlers were arriving in ever increasing numbers via land and river routes. So, in 1807, Philipson opened a general store, selling them provisions such as coffee, almonds, and butter. By 1808, he was advertising in the Missouri Gazette: "seasonal supply of dry goods, a general assortment of groceries, among which are ... fresh teas, coffee, chocolate and sugar, shad, mackeral."

At first, his two brothers, Simon and Jacob, stayed in Philadelphia. However, they visited frequently, probably carting along supplies for Joseph's store. Eventually, though, Jacob also moved to Missouri. He opened his own business, trading manufactured goods for fur pelts and lead ore coming out of the Missouri Territory from a combination mercantile store–residence in nearby Sainte Genevieve. The two brothers partnered in the St. Louis Brewing Association, joining other local beer-makers, such as John Coons and Jacques St. Vrain, in what ultimately became one of St. Louis's largest industries. Simon finally joined his brothers in 1821. He bought a farm, where he raised poultry and sold eggs.

The city of Dubuque, Iowa, sits on a large, flat plain adjacent to the mighty Mississippi River. Still a key spot for traffic along that waterway, Dubuque was founded in 1833, the same year that Alexander Levi, a French-born Jew of Sephardic origin, landed there. Levi had come upriver from New Orleans to make his fortune in what had been part of the Louisiana Purchase.

The lush land on both the Illinois and Iowa sides of the river boasted mighty forests, lakes, brooks, undulating hills, shallow dales, native prairies, and rich seams of lead, called "Galena." Levi, who later became involved in the ore business himself, first opened a grocery and clothing store to serve the miners. The canned goods, sugar, tea, coffee, and other supplies he sold would have arrived by river from New Orleans and St. Louis, or, less frequently, overland from states to the east. Perhaps, like shopkeeper George L. Ward of Alton, Illinois, he, too, traded some of his inventory for "country produce."

In 1847, Levi returned to France, where he married a distant cousin, Minette Levi. They returned to Dubuque, where they eventually had five children. Minette would have brought her French-Jewish recipes with her. More than likely, she made good use of river-caught bass, trout, and buffalo fish, along with fowl, locally raised beef, corn, wheat, vegetables, and potatoes in her savory everyday and holiday cuisine. Undoubtedly, she whisked goose, duck, and chicken eggs into fluffy omelettes. As a Frenchwoman, she would also have seasoned her dishes with kitchen-garden herbs, garnished them with sautéed Iowa-grown mushrooms, and created rich Gallic sauces.

Although we have no hard data about whether the Levis kept kosher, Simon Glazer, in The Jews in Iowa: A Complete History, states that "[Minette] was as faithful a Jewess as [Alexander] was a faithful Jew." We do know, however, that they helped establish Dubuque's first Jewish congregation in 1863, and donated land to the city for use in perpetuity as a cemetery for those of the "Jewish persuasion."

Soon after Levi arrived, German-Jewish peddlers began crisscrossing Iowa with backpacks and wagons stuffed with goods and notions—anything and everything people might need or want. According to the Fort Madison Courier, the first were Nathan Louis and Solomon Fine. When they saw spots they liked, they settled down and opened retail stores: one in Keokuck, and the other in McGregor. Iowa's Jewish population had begun to grow.

By the 1840s, more and more settlers were forging farther westward and northward. Steamboats carried passengers from New Orleans to St. Louis, then from there, farther upriver, with increasing regularity. Two of the passengers who made the trip in 1845 from Prairie du Chien to La Crosse, Wisconsin, were John M. Levy and his wife, Fredericka Augusta, both German-Jews who had met and married in St. Louis.

John harbored a vision of lucrative fur trading with the Winnebago Indians. The Levys traveled with a dog, two cats, one horse, a cow, "a whole family of hogs," a "box of chickens," and their son, Willie. Once settled on the fertile coulees along the tall bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, they built a story-and-a-half log cabin. After they moved in, Fredericka planted her garden. In memoirs translated from German by her ten-year-old grandchild, she recollected, "We raised tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions." She picked wild strawberries, dried native plums and acorns, and, in one instance, served potatoes and pork to the Indians, along with "a great dish-pan full of flour." One time even, the family feasted after hunters brought back a bag of what were probably either passenger pigeons or prairie chickens.

The Levys lost their most lucrative trading partners a scant three years later when the Indians were forcibly removed westward to Long Prairie (Minnesota). However, John continued to sell tobacco, tea, coffee, and whiskey to the lumbermen who rafted down from Black River, contracted to deliver mail to St. Paul, Minnesota, and eventually opened a hotel and a bank. The Levys were soon joined by twenty-two other adventuresome German-Jews fleeing the failed revolution(s) of 1848. Some had traveled to La Crosse "by canal all the way. When the Alleghany Mountains were reached, the canal boats were hauled up over the mountain grade with ropes. The passengers and freight were not transferred, but hauled bodily up and over the grade." These intrepid adventurers went on to establish the first Jewish Reform congregation in that nascent city.

In 1851, the lure of fur trade riches drew Joseph Ullmann, originally from Pfafstadt, Alsace, to St. Paul, in what was then the Minnesota Territory. He traveled upriver from St. Louis on a sternwheeler, the route his wife, Amelia, and their small son would repeat a year later. Amelia's journey was made in May, shortly after winter's icy grip had released the northern waters of the Mississippi River. It brought her to "the end of the world."

The small settlement of 1,200 people rising from the Mississippi flats where Amelia disembarked may have seemed far from everything familiar to such an urbane German-Jewess, yet it was really just a short distance from bustling Fort Snelling. Located at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, this installation received supplies of salt, corn meal, pork, flour, whiskey, beans, peas, vinegar, and candles sent from St. Louis under military escort by water and land conveyance. Beef, on the hoof or in barrels, regularly arrived from Prairie du Chien. Plentiful as those supplies were for the soldiers, apparently they were not distributed to nonmilitary personnel.

Writing forty years after her journey from the river's edge over a "rough, unpaved country road," Amelia recalled that the family's stay in St. Paul's best "frontier hotel" was miserable, primarily because of the food. "The bill of fare of the first day's meals was with little variations that of succeeding days; bacon, potatoes, biscuits, tea for breakfast and supper, soup and a pie made from dried fruits were the additions that distinguished dinner, the midday meal, from the other two. Fresh meat, fruit, vegitables were too great luxuries." She claimed her son was ill most of those first months due to poor nutrition, since fruits and vegetables brought from St. Louis had spoiled by the time they reached Minnesota. Finally, wearied of "bacon, potatoes and tea," she arranged with the owner "of the only cow in town" for weekly deliveries of milk and butter. Once Joseph built a wooden plank kitchen area attached to his fur trading room, life took a new turn for Amelia. She became more content with local conditions.

As vocal as she had been about bad hotel food, Amelia was strangely silent about what she cooked once the family had settled into its real home. She did mention one Mr. Coulter as "killing cattle and packing away the beef in salt and sawdust for consumption during the winter," and later preserving a "quantity of buffalo meat." We can assume her family purchased some of those provisions to tide them over the winter months when ice clogged the Mississippi and even dogsleds had difficulty making it through snowdrifts with supplies. She also noted that steamboats came up the river carrying provisions for the winter, including milled flour from Prairie du Chien, "crackers from St. Louis, bags of potatoes from the south, and butter in earthenware jars from Ohio," and that they had goodly amounts of beer. However, we do not know whether she learned to cook Minnesota wild rice, added locally grown wild huckleberries, currants, or cranberries to any of her traditional German dishes, or prepared fish dishes using the northern pike, sunfish, bluegill, and crappie, caught in the lakes and rivers around St. Paul, which were staples for other settlers.

During the next ten years, the family grew apace with Joseph's fur business. Ultimately, in 1866, in pursuit of better schooling for their children and to further Joseph's career, they moved to Chicago, but not before helping to establish Mount Zion Hebrew Association, Minnesota's first Jewish congregation.

Jews found their way to Ohio around 1803, but their numbers remained small until after the Civil War. In the years following, it was here that more than a few Jews gravitated after leaving the East Coast. Many started as itinerant peddlers, but stayed to open retail shops in some of the state's towns and cities.

Cincinnati eventually became a favored destination for Jewish craftsmen and retailers. English-born Joseph Jonas, the first Jew to settle in Cincinnati, found that its strategic location on the Ohio River afforded numerous local and long-distance commercial opportunities, especially since farmers regularly brought their crops in from the countryside to sell or to ship down to New Orleans. The Jewish merchants' customer bases, then, would have included the local populace—ironworkers, meatpackers, textile factory hands, and artisan woodworkers alike, as well as down-river markets. The city thrived, both as a destination and as a gateway to open western lands. And the Jewish community, which in 1822 had lacked even matzo (unleavened bread used during Passover celebrations), soon boasted Orthodox and Reform synagogues.

Farther west, on the sandy shores of Lake Michigan, at the confluence of the Chicago River, lies the city of Chicago. The first Jew to arrive there in 1838 was also a peddler, one J. Gottlieb. He stayed only long enough to have his presence noted, then pushed on to California. Other Jewish peddlers and businessmen soon followed, but with the intention of putting down roots. By 1845, there were enough Jewish men living in Chicago for a minyan (a quorum of at least ten adult Jewish men). Two years later, the Jewish community was financially strong enough and numerically large enough to consider forming a congregation to serve their religious needs. This congregation became Kehlilath Anshe Ma'ariv (Congregation of People of the West).

Another reason behind the formation of K. A. M., as it became popularly known, was food-related. In 1846, the Bavarian-born Kohn brothers, prosperous owners of a clothing store, welcomed their three brothers, sister, and mother, Dilah, to Chicago. Over the course of the next year, Dilah became frail and sickly, not because of the city's fetid air or from some unnamed, wasting illness, but because she was slowly starving; she refused to touch any non-kosher meat or poultry. Consequently, along with a rabbi to serve their newly established congregation, the men of K. A. M. also hired a shochet (ritual slaughterer) so Dilah could eat.


Excerpted from From the Jewish Heartland by ELLEN F. STEINBERG JACK H. PROST Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ellen F. Steinberg is a writer, researcher, and anthropologist as well as the author of Learning to Cook in 1898: A Chicago Culinary Memoir. Born and raised in Chicago, she currently lives in River Forest, Illinois. Jack H. Prost is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has taught and written on the anthropology of cuisine and food taboos.

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