The good and the gross Jewish Foods. The debate is on.


Amy Fenster Brown, Special to the Jewish Light

If there is one hotly debated topic just as polarizing as politics, it’s whether gefilte fish is delicious or disgusting. I’m parked firmly in Camp Yuck, but many Jews pitch their tents in Camp Yum.

We are just wrapping up Passover with the final seders with special foods we either dread or delight in. That can be said of many traditional Jewish foods we eat on holidays or any time of the year. I surveyed my tribe to find out some favorites and not-so-favorites.

Not surprisingly the first-place winner is matzah ball soup by a schmaltzy landslide. With its Jewish penicillin chicken soup base, it can cure whatever schmutz is haunting your sinuses. It is the quintessential comfort food, no matter if your bowl has floaters or sinkers. Each cozy spoonful tastes like your late Bubbe loves you, God rest her soul. Every Jewish person thinks their mom or grandma’s matzah ball soup is the very best, and you know what? They’re all correct.

Coming in at number shnayim on the survey is the casserole to end all casseroles, kugel. My mother pronounces it KEE-gul, which is incorrect. It’s KOO-gul and everyone knows it, including her. She just says KEE-gul to annoy us. Kugel and all its lokshen goodness can be sweet or savory, giving it double duty status as a crowd-pleasing side dish for many holiday meals. One friend calls his late grandma a Kugel Ninja, because she slayed those noodles. My mother-in-law puts orange juice in hers and it is chef’s kiss.

A runner up in versatility is the bagel. A surveyed friend says it’s because bagels know no bounds… sweet or savory, eaten plain or slathered in cream cheese, used for sandwiches or bread pudding. Bagels are rather universal, and probably what non-Jews think Jewish food is all about.

My favorite Jewish foods are crafted by my mother… latkes and apple cake. No other latke or apple cake will do. My husband goes wild for his mom’s mandel bread. She could send him home with a dozen or a thousand, and they will be gone in no time flat. No other mandel bread will do.

This takes us into the dessert category, where mandel bread, hamantaschen and Passover brownies were the most common answers. Actually, I was surprised by how many people shared their love of these brownies that only make their appearance when we discuss the bread of affliction. I figured they were more feh than fabulous, like a “best of what we are stuck with” at Passover, but the folks I surveyed actually look forward to them. They make dessert that night different from all other nights. Who knew?

So many honorable mentions include matzah, matzah brei, challah, brisket, knishes, kasha varnishkes and another camp divider — chopped liver. If aliens came to earth asking for a taste of Jewish food, most said they’d suggest a good deli for a hot corned beef on rye. Yum! If the alien needs a date, I nominate myself.

Memories tied to favorite Jewish foods most often include a mother or grandmother doing the cooking and hosting the family (except for one friend who says her mom starts baking too soon in advance, freezes everything, and then it all tastes like the freezer. Ick.). No matter the food, everyone agreed that the key ingredient in all of these Jewish foods is love, typically from a mom or grandma. One friend said “Grandma represented Jewishness to me in so many ways. She cooked out of pure love for her family and commitment to Judaism.”

As for the hotly debated gefilte fish…

Year after year we agree to disagree. Die-hard fans gobble down the delicacy remembering their grandmothers making it from scratch, while haters dry heave from the smell of those chunky pucks swimming in gelatinous goo.

Let us come together and unite in the glory of matzah ball soup and Pesach brownies! And maybe next year in Jerusalem, or St. Louis, we’ll add in the secret ingredient of chocolate Ex-Lax because, well, you know. We all know. Dayenu.

Columnist Amy Fenster Brown is married to Jeff and has two teenage sons, Davis and Leo. She volunteers for several Jewish not-for-profit groups. Fenster Brown is an Emmy Award-winning TV news writer and counts time with family and friends, talking and eating peanut butter among her hobbies.