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Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, & Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration

In Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, & Jewish Foodvvays in the Age of Migration (Harvard University Press. S39.95). historian Hasia Diner tells how Jewish women’s relationship to food changed as they migrated front the poverty of Eastern Europe to the abundance of America:

[In Europe] poor married women bore the brunt of the food system. They carried the burdens of “keeping kosher” while feeding their husbands and children . . . . Kashrut made cooking difficult, but particularly so for those of limited means. Just as the korohka [kosher food tax] made little impact on the rich who could afford to pay a tax on meat, so too the goose declared unkosher, or the dairy spoon polluted by contact with meat, would have been minor annoyances for someone with wealth. But for the poor these matters loomed large. The goose represented an investment of months of labor and money. The polluted spoon very well may have been the only one. shared by all family members.

To make matters worse, many poor women worked and could not cook for their families as they wanted to, or as society deemed they ought . . . .

Among the many stings of Morris Raphael Cohen’s childhood poverty, lie recalled with bitterness how his mother labored outside the home, so there were no regular meals for the family.

I was walking along with my young sister and we passed a house where people in the front room were having their midday meal, at which I looked longingly I was ashamed to ask for anything, but I turned to my sister and inquired. “Friedke (Florence), are you hungry?” The mother of the family gave us each a piece of bread dipped in soup and launched into a tirade against my mother for leaving us alone all day and not providing us with sufficient food. But the delightful taste of the food prevailed over my indignation at the disrespect to my mother

. . . [In America] daughters of “old mothers” rarely recalled cither learning to cook or being forced to help in the kitchen. They complained mightily about endless hours of cleaning, tending smaller children, doing laundry, working in a family store. But cooking they rarely mentioned. They cooked during crises, but not routinely. Their failure to cite cooking or learning to cook under their mothers” tutelage reflected the realities of the young women’s working lives, their pursuit of education and leisure, and their mothers’ intentions of holding onto power through the kitchen. Mothers also had aspirations for their daughters which did not center on futures in front of the stove.

. . . The distinctiveness of the east European Jewish involvement with food in America also grew out of their passion for food. For a group of people who venerated food and described their hopes, dreams, and deepest memories in terms of food, conflict was unavoidable. Jewish women, those most intimately associated with cooking, bore the brunt of that conflict, which in turn exacerbated gender tensions. A cadre of critics publicly chided Jewish women for their allegedly poor cooking skills, blaming them and their tasteless meals for the disorganization of the Jewish home. Advertisers, nutritionists, .social workers, rabbis, and journalists cajoled and appealed to Jewish women to save their families and their community by serving better food. No wonder that their daughters, with eyes already trained on entering the middle class and the professions, viewed their mothers’ lives in the kitchen as narrow and not worth replicating.