New to Kosher.com! The Heimishe Collection
Attention, ladies! The Nitra cookbook is alive and well! And it’s coming to your search engine really soon. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Allow me to explain. With the rise of the foodie culture, the obsession with exotic cuisine, and the abundance of glossy cookbooks, we at Family Table couldn’t help but notice a developing countertrend that’s steadily gaining momentum. Call it “back to basics,” “retro,” or even “traditional,” there’s a definite movement towards the simple, the genuine, perhaps even the old-fashioned. This new trend may be old, but it’s on the rise not just in our heimishe community, but in the secular world as well. Heimishe hipsters, anybody?
Mordy Herzog, CEO at Royal Wines, has his finger on the pulse of all trends food related. He says this trend towards the nostalgic is so strong that he’s decided to republish the original Nitra cookbooks online at Kosher.com So I search through my cookbook shelf and find The Haimishe Kitchen, compiled by the Ladies Auxiliary of Nitra, in a hidden corner. It lies there in all its dog-eared, spiral-bound, and back-2-basics typewritten glory. Copyright date? August 1977. I briefly peruse its pages. Included in the collection are recipes for “Quick-as-a-Wink Chocolate Cake,” “Homemade Eggnog,” “Lekach Honey Cake,” and “Vegetable Soup with Einbren.” There’s also an instruction on how to make basic kreplach, esrog marmalade (for Tu Bishvat), and shalom bayis kugel. Wow. I’m overcome with a yearning for days gone by. What was I thinking by letting this sit at the bottom of my pile of cookbooks all these years?
One of Royal Wine’s employees, whose great-aunt helped create that first Nitra cookbook, says it never really went out of style. In fact, it’s been reprinted over and over again, due to popular demand. He adds that the Nitra cookbook was among the first kosher cookbooks sold to the general public. (The Spice and Spirit of Kosher Jewish Cooking was published almost simultaneously.)
“The cookbook,” he says, “was initiated by my Tante Leah a”h whose husband is now the menahel in the Nitra cheder up in Mount Kisco. She came up with the idea as a means to raise money for the yeshivah. Back then, they gathered handwritten recipes from the local ladies. It wasn’t even typed until later.” There are five editions of The Haimishe Kitchen — volumes one and two, the Pesach edition, the simchah edition, as well as the “Best Of” collection.
I speak to the Nitra ladies up in Mount Kisco and they tell me that the cookbook is still a favorite selection of kallos worldwide, despite the fact that there are no glossy photos or clever comments adorning its pages. The most popular edition, I am told, is the simchah edition. “Our community is entertaining and hosting guests now more than ever. Our families are, ke”h, large and growing. Women want to know how to make meat and challah for 60 people, or kishke for a 100. They’re basic recipes, but bigger.” So Herzog, who is the visionary creator of Kosher.com, is taking the cookbook to the next level. He recently purchased the rights to publish all of the favorite Nitra recipes online. It will now be possible to search for a Nitra selection while browsing through the thousands that appear on the site.
Here's a sneak peek just for Kosher.com readers:
Herzog sees this as part of a bigger picture. “I believe,” he observes, “that this trend encompasses more than just the Nitra cookbooks. It’s driven by a consumer who is looking for transparency. There’s a thirst out there for authenticity. It’s all about ‘real.’ People are tired of the over-engineering of food. They want to go back to basics, and there’s nothing more basic and nourishing than the good old-fashioned recipes we grew up on.” He says that the trend actually first appeared in the secular market and is “making its rounds to kosher in a big way.”
Menachem Lubinsky, President and CEO of Lubicom Marketing, produces the annual Kosherfest trade show, which is arguably the largest yearly gathering in the world of kosher. Has he noticed a trend toward basic? “In many respects,” he observes, “it’s been a constant all along. I can’t even think of a Kosherfest where you didn’t see the mix of some retro products with the new foods.” What is new, he adds, is the increased selection within these product lines. “They now offer all kinds of kichel, multiple treatments of herring, and a big variety of kugels and cholents.” Lubinsky says that the older consumer has always been faithful to the traditional fare, but nowadays it’s the young, and especially the secular, who are jumping on board. He distinctly remembers meeting a supermarket buyer from the West Coast during Kosherfest 2014. “He was floored by all the new products,” says Lubinsky. But when he walked past the Meal Mart booth, he suddenly waxed nostalgic. “I loved my grandmother’s kugels,” he said to Lubinsky. “And since she passed away, I really miss those foods.” Moments later, that gentleman was seen “gobbling down some gefilte fish!”
The trend toward the traditional has made its way to the Shabbos kiddush. Chaya of Classic Caterers in Flatbush points out that “there’s no end to the varieties of meats served at a kiddush today, from gala to gribenes to hard salami, chicken livers, and yapchik. You also have your diehard gefilte fish fans.” Most popular of all are the herrings. “Everybody seems to be into it, even the little ones.” To cater to the demand, she offers 15 different varieties of herring.
Even in South Florida, the trend toward traditional is emerging. Residents and tourists may have been surprised to hear that Zak the Baker — owner of the trendy bakery/café — opened a kosher deli this past January. It’s a project he is fully committed to. In an interview with Family First, Zak says the menu is “still evolving. But so far we’ve run tongue, borscht, schmaltz, herring, Yerushalmi kugel, lukshen kugel, and more. We also look forward to making yapchik, p’tcha, gribenes, and cholent for Rosh Chodesh.” Zak is convinced that this is the wave of the future. “Once upon a time,” he tells us, “Miami was a city littered with independent delis. Now they hardly exist anymore, and especially not kosher. I feel a great responsibility to do my part in carrying on the tradition of deli food in America!” The secular press has been all over this story. “I was tired of trendy food like avocado toast,” Zak explained to the New York Times. “This community needs a good kosher deli.” A Miami Herald piece notes that Zak is honoring “his Ashkenazi Eastern European roots” and discovering his history in “thick-cut fall-apart corned beef on kosher corn rye bread,” “pickled cabbage and cucumbers,” and the potato kugels that some customers actually photograph and send out to their families “because it looks just like grandmother’s.” Zak is not surprised. “It’s soul food,” he says. “How could you not enjoy it?” His personal favorite? “Herring and vodka,” he admits. But he’s also “a sucker for cholent and strong whiskey. And chopped liver on anything is a win for me.”
When a trend starts with food, it extends itself to related industries such as packaging and food styling. Renee Muller is a food and lifestyle stylist whose work has been featured in Family First. The trend towards retro, she says, is “everywhere!” and especially pronounced in the general market. “What inspires me most,” she tells me, “is how companies like Crate and Barrel and Anthropologie will come out with new lines that seem old, like imperfect circles, battered textures, and stained surfaces.” Renee is always on the lookout for intriguing props to add to her collection. Only now she’s searching for them in antique shops. “I will browse among hundreds of items,” she says, “until I find something useful like old cutlery, a beautiful teapot, or an old-fashioned ice cream scoop.” Her backdrops are similarly aged. “Nowadays the more weathered a background looks, the better!”
What’s behind the current fascination with the aged, the weathered, and the battered? Says Renee, “I truly believe that we have finally realized that ‘old’ translates into ‘real’ and ‘authentic.’ We used to be obsessed with everything modern and new, but the new modern now is old — with a twist. I love that. We have finally developed an appreciation for quality and uniqueness. Something old is cherished and uniquely yours. You don’t find it anywhere else.” Will the trend last? Who knows. But Renee is clearly enjoying it while it’s here. “I constantly add imperfect, chipped, and seasoned props to my collection. Only five years ago I would have looked at my current collection and wonder what I was thinking! At that time, we were all taken by square, white, and — yes — boring.”
The trend towards retro is anything but boring. Even the packaging industry is paying attention. According to The Dieline, a premiere packaging and design site, there’s more to all this than meets the eye. “The idealization of the past is a longing for simpler times when things were cared for, made by hand, and detail oriented. But these designs are not simply regurgitating old forms and techniques. They are modernizing them and combining them in different ways.” So it’s old, but with a modern twist and an updated flavor.
Which brings us back to our friends at The Haimishe Kitchen. I’m told that yet another edition of the famed cookbook is scheduled to be published very soon. Its theme? “Healthy recipes. There’s been a tremendous demand for this.” So the iconic cookbook will indeed be updated to reflect the needs of the modern home. But it will still preserve its old-world charm and simple wholesome flavor. And while the world awaits this newest publication, I’ll revisit my original 1977 edition. And I just might decide to whip up a batch of Faltche Fish or Pesachdike Helzel for Yom Tov (pages 30 and 31). Because the best things in life are timeless and forever.