At first, it can be puzzling to these “newcomers” as to how these Members of the Tribe have adopted many habits of their Scandinavian neighbors; or how can it be that they claim to be Jews, but are largely ignorant of many of the Jewish foods that help define what it means to be a Jew in other, usually larger, communities?
Immigrant TC Jews seek the means to find their Jewish-food-of-origin through various avenues. They pay the cost of extra checked baggage to visit relatives so that they can sneak foods in cans and jars past TSA checkpoints. On road trips to their birthplaces, they cram the car’s trunk full of large Coleman insulated containers to keep the treasured goodies from spoiling before being rushed to the fridge or freezer upon arriving home. The truly desperate resort to paying extravagant sums for delicacies to be FedEx’d to the anxious exile.
There are Facebook pages for such Jews who form a virtual community of people who share a commonplace of origin and a common yen for the tastes of their childhood. I belong to such a group: “Ever lived in Detroit 21 or 35, Michigan.” It’s composed of people who grew up in what was a large, middle-class ghetto in Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s. Maybe there’s such a group for TC Jews-in-the-Diaspora. I don’t know. Anyone out there? We all went to the same schools. We went to the same synagogues. We spent our summers at the same camps. And we ate the same foods. The nostalgia is at times overwhelming.
Having been a member of this group for at least five years, I’ve been keeping an informal track record of the subjects discussed. It’s clear that regardless of the initial topic, about 40-50 percent of the discussion eventually evolves into nostalgia over foods we can’t get where we live now. Not all of them are strictly Jewish. The topic of our favorite flavors of Faygo pop is one: Rock n’ Rye (a Faygo invention) is high on the list. Faygo’s Red Pop (occasionally found at my local Dollar Tree store in Richfield) is a strong contender for the favorite. And, by the way, Faygo pop was owned for many, many years by its founding family, the Feigensons. I went to Religious School with one of the scions, Benny Feigenson, who made aliyah years ago. We always had Faygo pop at all the synagogue social functions.
What, then are these Jewish foods we crave?
No. 1 is Detroit Jewish rye bread. In a national poll a few years back, Detroit Jewish rye bread came out as the best in the country. I will only mention the argument over is it better with or without caraway seeds. It’s flavorful. It’s dense. And the crust is so crisp that it literally peels off the bread in chips of unspeakable rye perfection. It’s the only thing I bring back with me when I fly back from Detroit, freeze it, and take it out slice by precious slice to smother with real, sweet butter or Philadelphia cream cheese. All these local bakeries that produce “artisanal” rye breads in the Twin Cities don’t hold a candle to this loaf. What’s the secret to creating this Jewish Detroit specialty? Twice baking! Why don’t others do it? Beats me!
A close second is Seven-Layer Cake. It comes in a square loaf: seven amazingly thin layers of yellowish cake. I have never been able to figure out the flavor of the thin layers of icing in between the cake layers; it must be unique to Seven-Layer Cake. The best Seven-Layer-Cake (my memory is of the exquisite product produced by Rainier’s bakery) had a thin layer of dark-chocolate icing that just clung to the surface of the cake. There was always Seven-Layer Cake at Kiddush after Shabbat services, but there were only four layers under the icing, so that little cubes would fit into the tiny paper cups on the platters.
I was in Vienna in 1987, staying at a ritzy hotel near the State Opera, but we’d been advised that the best brunch on Sunday was served at the Imperial Hotel down the street. It was even ritzier than our hotel, but we couldn’t pass up the recommendation that told us it would be a meal to remember. And so it was. The buffet table went on forever. I scoped it out before putting even one item on my plate, to make sure that there wasn’t pork or shellfish in something that looked appetizing. About half-way down the line, I looked up and became dumbstruck: There it was – a round Seven-Layer cake. It wasn’t square like in Detroit, but it was unquestionably the gustatory gem of my childhood. Before I put anything else on my plate, I asked the server for a slice and any doubts I might have had melted away in my mouth.
“What is this called?” I asked the server.
“Imperial Torte,” he responded proudly. “It’s an original recipe of the Imperial Hotel and cannot be found anywhere else.”
I decided not to tell him that some Viennese baker had stolen the recipe and was spreading it far and wide in Detroit and also in New York. (I lived in New York City for ten years and enjoyed very good Seven-Layer cake there at my neighborhood Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, bakery.)
Detroit’s Jewish bakeries still produce things I’ve just never seen here: Hamantashen and Danish (make mine prune!) with yeast doughs; butter horns with sliced almonds on top; mounds of little spritz cookies with multi-colored sprinkles on top; super-crispy, always fresh kichel. The pumpernickel is nearly black and can be had with or without raisins. Gelpe’s tried, but closed up before achieving it.
Congratulations to my friends the Leventhal family in Highland Park. It’s the rare business of any kind that can survive for as many generations as has Cecil’s Deli. When I was considering moving to the Twin Cities from New York, my cousins took me to Cecil’s to show me that, indeed, there was a Jewish deli in this berg. I appreciate Cecil’s. When I finally made the move here, it was the only place in town where I could buy Vernors Ginger Ale (another non-sectarian Detroit invention). But I still couldn’t get smoked sable.
So, there’s nostalgia. But there’s no going home to the old neighborhood. I chose to live in the Twin Cities partly because St. Paul reminded me of it a lot. I like it here, as the sign in the old Metrodome said. Not having favorite Jewish foods from my childhood is a small sacrifice for being able to enjoy the Twin Cities’ storied “quality of life.” I’ll take it over a spritz cookie any day.