Egg Cream, and a Side of Sushi

As a lifelong New Yorker and former chef and caterer who now directs the Graduate Program for Food Studies and Food Management at NYU, Professor Jennifer Berg knows her way around Big Apple cuisine. Leah Koenig caught up with Berg about Jewish food’s glory days, and why sushi might be the new knish.

Your dissertation was titled From Pushcarts Peddlers to Gourmet Take-Out: New York City’s Iconic Foods of Jewish Origin, 1920 to 2005. How did you end up with this subject?

I wanted to focus on how people use food as a marker of identity, and began to think about the aspects of my identity that are most central to my life. I am a woman, I am a Jew and I am a New Yorker. Guilty as charged. I tend to assume that life revolves around New York.

This project started with the question, “What foods do people most associate with New York City? For a year or two, the same answers kept coming up: bagels, knishes, egg creams, deli, cheesecake and pizza. Aside from pizza, they were all “Jewish foods.”.”

Why does Jewish food signify “New York”? Or vice versa?

New York is this epicenter of grand cuisine, so I tried to figure out why it would define itself with pedestrian foods like the egg cream or knish. I spent an entire summer looking in cultural publications from the 1920s to the 70s — like the Forward and The Brooklyn Eagle. Aside from ads for catering halls, the only mention of food was things like, “Ira and Hettie Katz hosted a fundraising event. The food was abundant.” It was all about quantity and never about specifics.

Meanwhile, I was interviewing all of these 85-year-old men about their recollections of growing up in New York. They talked incessantly about food, like it was the only thing in life that mattered. They had countless nostalgic stories from the 1930s and 40s about drinking egg creams after school, or on dates. Then there was this odd dearth of Jewish food memories for a while. They began talking about eating these foods again later in life — having bagels and lox with their grandkids. I realized that their food patterns mirrored the acculturation pattern of the time.

I broke it up into three eras: Genesis: Life on the Lower East Side, Exodus: Mass Suburban Migration and Aliyah: The Cultural Return. In the first era, they ate foods that were inexpensive and easy to acquire, but I do not think they had any symbolic value yet. The egg cream replicated the thick, American chocolate malted they could not afford, so drinking egg creams probably made them feel more American, not Jewish.

In the second era, which coincided with white flight to the suburbs, people stopped consuming the traditional Jewish food. Why eat bagels and smelly fish when you can have Wonder Bread like your Presbyterian neighbors?

In the third phase, as Jews found their way up the socio-economic ladder, it was suddenly chic to slum it again with super-ethnic foods. Their nostalgia, which is essentially memories without anything negative attached, kicked in. Egg creams did not represent a time when they were poor. Instead, they represented the memories of a close-knit community. They were able to embrace the past at a comfortable distance.

If Jewish food’s iconic status is fading in New York, what will the next foods be?

A great question. We’re in a cataclysmic change right now in terms of immigration. There was enormous change in the 1880s and 1920s, but essentially only three groups came over: the Irish, Italians, and Jews. Now, there is no majority immigrant group, just a plethora of minority groups moving here. I don’t know what the next iconic food is going to be. I sort of think it might be sushi.

Which is funny, because sushi is itself becoming something of a “Jewish food.” You now find it on the menu at every kosher restaurant, from a pizza shop to a steakhouse.

That’s significant. There’s something exotic about sushi, and Jews have always embraced the exotic, the worldly and the cosmopolitan. I remember being blown away the first time I saw sushi at a bar mitzvah. These days, it is absolutely commonplace.