Is pie the paragon of American sloth?
Pie – baseball’s delicious counterpart in American iconography. More than any other dessert, pie feels traditional. Even historic. There’s something about pie that carries the weight not only of its flaky crust and sugary filling but of the symbolism of an ideal, wholesome America. It’s so entrenched in our national culture that it feels almost inevitable. Admit it, even if it’s not your favorite dessert, there will probably be a pie (or two, or three…) on your Thanksgiving table this year.
But was that always the case? What about new immigrants to America who are celebrating their first holidays in a new country? Sure, each family adapts or assimilates in their own ways. Maybe you’ve experienced Thanksgiving turkeys laden with jerk spices in Caribbean families, or a centerpiece lasagna at the holiday table in Italian homes. So forgive us if we imagined that the Jewish immigrants who founded the Eldridge Street Synagogue would have made, say, a babka pie for their Thanksgiving feasts. According to a 1927 Jewish Daily Forward article, Jewish families simply don’t eat it!
The article’s author notes that Jewish immigrants had been quick to adopt many of the most American pastimes – baseball, jazz, the “dancing and party life that’s peculiar to America.” So why not pie? The article chalks it up to a difference in personality. Jewish people, she concludes, pursue activities that take effort. Americans, on the other hand, enjoy making things easy for themselves. So while Jewish bakers stuff their creations with nuts and dried fruit and other add-ins that create crunch and bite, Americans’ baked goods are silky and smooth, edible with very little chewing and effort. It’s quite a theory! The author even recalls the first time she ate a mushy American dessert – “What was it I was eating? Frozen air? It was so slippery for a mouth that was used to work.” Major diss. But perhaps she’s right, that Americans had simply engineered their dessert-eating experiences to be devoid of work. (Personally I don’t find that it takes much effort to eat a ton of rugelach, but maybe that’s just because I’m enjoying myself far too much to consider it work.)
Whether or not Clara Zinovitz was onto something, it appears that 20 years later the story had changed. No longer were the pages of the Forward asking why Jews don’t eat pie – by that point they were trading recipes!
This recipe for “pumpkin chiffon pie” ran in the newspaper in 1947. The recipe is actually a part of an ad for condensed milk. The newspaper’s archivist Chana Pollack translated the ad’s Yiddish: “This pie is a multitasker!” the ad proclaims. It promises that the pie will be a hit “If you like pumpkin spice flavored pie and the refreshing taste of coconut cream pie.” Pumpkin spice, decades before Starbucks made it famous!
It’s ironic that this ad specifically mentions the pie’s “chiffon lightness.” Surely the mere mention of such a texture would have horrified Clara Zinovitz. Is it just a case of differing food preferences? Or is it possible that Jewish families had assimilated that much in two decades? Did they no longer require their desserts to have bite?
One thing we know for sure is that Pet Evaporated Milk was not the only company appealing to the Jewish consumer through recipes. Maxwell House famously courted families with their Haggadah, and Crisco distributed an entire Yiddish-language cookbook extolling the virtues of cooking with their shortening. Manufacturers of all types of goods got into the game. Hanging in the Museum at Eldridge Street’s exhibition gallery is a tin sign advertising Singer sewing machines in a combination of Yiddish and Hebrew.
No matter your personal preference – for “easy, gliding” pie or desserts filled with “solid stuff” – these media mentions are one fascinating way to track the Americanization of the Jewish community. In the late-19th century, American companies would likely have been reluctant to spend marketing dollars on the “foreign” immigrants from Eastern Europe. But by the early decades of the 1900s, Jews had become a vital piece of American culture in its own right. Jewish households, even ones for whom English was a second language, were perceived as a powerful part of the country. Companies could see that these households were socially mobile and earning enough money to spend their disposable income with the companies that best caught their attention.
And in the end, what’s more American than the free market?! When I sit down to my Thanksgiving holiday next week, I’ll say thanks for desserts of all kinds. And I hope Clare Zinovitz would approve of my pumpkin pie. I plan to cover the top with a crunchy pecan crumble – a little bit of bite to toughen up the silky filling. That’s the best of both words, in this writer’s opinion.
Chelsea Dowell is the Museum at Eldridge Street’s Director of Public Engagement.