Cranberries are indigenous to North America—first eaten by Native Americans and now an indispensable fixture of Thanksgiving dinner and American cuisine more broadly. But if my Ashkenazi mother-in-law’s potted meatballs are to be believed, cranberries also have a Jewish soul. For into the pot, along with the ground beef and onions, she adds a full can of cranberry sauce.
It is not only about the meatballs. Cranberry sauce is regularly found in American iterations of stuffed cabbage and braised brisket, too. Served alongside potato kugel on Passover, Rosh Hashanah, or Sukkot (and often at all three), these dishes could not feel or taste more “Jewish.” That said, looking back at the historical Jewish cooking canon, braised-meat dishes exist in droves. Cranberries, not so much. So how did this tart and tiny fruit, which is so deeply tied to American culinary identity, find its way into the heart of Ashkenazi cuisine?
The answer lies, in part, with Jewish cuisines’ longstanding love affair with all things sweet and sour. Syrian Jews turn to tamarind paste to add tang to stuffed vegetables and bulgur salads, while Jews from Iran favor pomegranate molasses and Italian Jews employ vinegar and tomato paste in their many sweet and sour fish and vegetable dishes. Ashkenazi Jews traditionally relied on pantry staples like homemade sauerkraut or fermented beets, and shakers of sour salt (citric acid) to brighten dishes from borscht to brisket.
It makes sense, then, that Jewish immigrants arriving in America would fall for mouth-puckering cranberries. The fruit had a taste at once exotic and familiar—not such a far leap from the fresh currants that grow abundantly in Central and Eastern Europe during the summer. Cranberries also posed no issues with kashrut, which meant they could be served with ease at meat or dairy meals. America’s Jewish immigrants were introduced to cranberries early on and soon began incorporating them into their menus. Recipes for cranberry sauce, cranberry jelly, and a “very nice” cranberry pudding appeared in Aunt Babette’s Cook Book, which, published in 1889, was among the first Jewish American cookbooks. Cranberry preserves were also included in the hugely influential 1903 edition of The Settlement Cook Book.
At first, Jews served and ate cranberries the same ways their neighbors did, but within a few decades, they began experimenting with the fruit’s potential as a flavor enhancer. By the mid-20th century, Jewish-American home cooks were enhancing several of Ashkenazi cuisines most iconic sweet and sour dishes with cranberry. And thanks to the era’s proliferation of commercially processed foodstuffs, adding the desired sweet-tart flavor was as easy as opening a can of jellied cranberry sauce (or chili sauce, or ketchup, for that matter).
“It’s not news that Jews have made use of local ingredients, of course,” said Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis, author of American Judaism: A History. He’s right. The integration of cranberries into Ashkenazi cuisine is just one instance of many where Jewish immigrants have incorporated indigenous and manufactured foods into their culinary repertoire. Take cream cheese. As Old World as it may seem, the spreadable cheese as we know it is actually a 19th-century American invention—one that revolutionized cheesecakes, cheese blintzes, and rugelach recipes.
Meanwhile, consider a noodle kugel sweetened with canned pineapple. Eastern European Jews in the 19th-century could hardly have imagined this tropical delicacy, though chances are they would have enjoyed it. Today, there are also noodle kugels topped with crushed corn flakes, potato kugels that get extra crunch from a layer of potato-chip crumbs, and hamantaschen filled with peanut butter and jelly. The Americanization of traditional Jewish foods was so widespread in the last decades of the 20th century that nobody would have blinked at a recipe in my childhood synagogue’s spiral-bound cookbook (published in the mid-1980s) for “holiday brisket” made with one can each Campbell’s tomato soup and onion soup, and one can of whole cranberries. And in the recipe for “Temple Emanu-El Brisket” in Stephanie Pierson’s The Brisket Book: A Love Story With Recipes, the only “liquid” used comes in the form of jellied cranberry sauce that gets sliced and draped directly over the meat.
“Historically, [Jews] didn’t have much choice in the matter,” Sarna said. “For most of Jewish history, as Jews moved to new places, they had to adapt their cuisines to whatever local ingredients were available.”
In America, the story is a little bit different. In some cases, as with cranberries, an ingredient’s introduction into Jewish cuisine happened organically. But in many others, it was manufactured. “Marketing executives quickly recognized the importance of the ethnic market and created newspaper ads, radio spots, and jingles that brought new American products directly into people’s homes,” said professor Jenna Weissman Joselit of George Washington University, author of The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture 1880-1950.
In one particularly amusing example, an advertorial for Coca-Cola in a 1920 edition of The Jewish Spectator (Memphis and New Orleans’ weekly Jewish journal) favorably compared the drink to black tea. “Coca-Cola may very well be described as ‘a carbonated fruit-flavored counterpart of tea, of approximately one-third the stimulating strength of the average cup of tea,’” the ad said. Is it any wonder that Southern Jewish cooks began adding the decidedly New World cola into their recipes for brisket and honey cake?
Subliminal (and not so subliminal) messaging aside, this generation of Jewish Americans was eager to incorporate foods from their new home into their menus. “The interaction between food ways reflects a larger interaction between the society they wanted to be a part of and apart from,” Sarna said. “They wanted to retain elements that made them different and distinct, and at the same time assimilate and accept new practices.” American Jews were “very aware of what was going on around them,” Weissman Joselit added. “They were eager to prove they could ‘dance at two weddings simultaneously,’” she said, evoking a traditional Yiddish saying.
The influence went in both directions, particularly as the Ashkenazi Jewish community matured into its second and third generations. These days there are “plenty of Jews who serve matzo ball soup on Thanksgiving,” Sarna said. It is hardly a traditional Thanksgiving dish. But they serve it because they enjoy it and, as Sarna put it, “it makes the meal feel significant and Jewish.”
Meanwhile, food ways are constantly changing, and dishes like my mother-in-law’s meatballs are making way for other contemporary culinary expressions. Today, cranberries are likely to show up on Jewish tables—plumped into apple-cranberry crisps served for dessert (and by some families as a sweet kugel-like side dish during the meal) or dried in couscous dishes or rice pilafs. What remains constant is the tremendous capacity within the Jewish community to evolve, while continuing to honor tradition. You might just say it’s as American as cranberry brisket.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.