Navigate to Food section

Bread and Salt

Homemade pretzels as housewarming gifts, and other topics in modern Jewish eating

Mimi Sheraton
June 11, 2009
(Suitable for Children? by Jo Peattie; some rights)
(Suitable for Children? by Jo Peattie; some rights)

Whenever I need a housewarming gift, I go to my local farmer’s market for two dozen crackling, salt-encrusted, handmade pretzels. It is my riff on a medieval custom still observed by Russians, Eastern Europeans, some Middle Easterners, and the Jews whose ancestors lived among them: bread and salt comprise the proper gift for anyone in a new home, and so, fittingly, the subject for a first column on a new website. (Pretzels seem like more fun to me and are a form of bread, their name derived from the German brezel, meaning a small bread or a hard brittle biscuit.) My grandmother also considered a candle to be a necessary part of the gift package because, she explained, that assured having bread to sustain the body, salt to preserve, purify, and keep life interesting, and a candle to “let there be light.” For some, wine replaces the candle to enhance dreaming and spirituality.

Here, food as metaphor deals with bread, literally and figuratively the staff of life, and salt, a real and philosophical purifier. Bread and salt represent the practical and the spiritual and, together, are part of a common Sabbath meal ritual of pouring salt on a piece of challah after saying the Motzi but before it is eaten, following the admonition of Leviticus 2:13: “Never shall you suspend the salt covenant with your God. With all your offerings you shall offer salt.” That, more or less, will be the scope of this monthly column: food as it affects and touches various aspects of our lives. Our choices and preferences can reflect our aspirations or prejudices; changing attitudes and styles redesign the meals we read about and then hunger for.

On the practical side I will bring news of delicious things to eat, where to find them or, occasionally, how to prepare them. Some columns will relate to time-honored Jewish traditions concerning food and the changing world of kashrut.

On the philosophical side, there will be descriptions and explanations of food and how it figures into lifecycle celebrations primarily in cultures where wheat or rice are the sustaining grains, from the blessings over challah and matzo to the Christian Eucharist to the wedding cake that evolved as a sweet form of bread or oat cake that was to be broken over the heads of the bride and groom in 17th and 18th century Britain. In some Slavic countries a round, flattish loaf is topped with various toys indicating professions to be placed within reach of a toddler. The first toy he or she picks up is considered a forecast of the profession that will provide money for bread in the future.

Salt figures similarly in life and lore. In Japan handfuls are strewn across the mat as a sanctifier before every sumo wrestling match. Knock a salt cellar over at the table and you will have an argument with a loved one or even worse luck unless you toss some over your shoulder to ward off the evil spirits you have angered. Salt in the wound? Bad as far as pain goes, good as far as killing bacteria. For that is the property–the ability to kill living things, by dehydrating them–that makes salt an effective preservative and explains why nothing lives in the Dead Sea and why animal foods are koshered with a salting down. In ancient Rome, salt was so precious that workers were paid with it, or with coins entitling them to a ration of it, thereby giving us our word salary although hardly anyone would accept it as payment today, unless perhaps it was an exotic black, orange, pink, or green coarse sea salt for which tastings are held in cutting-edge restaurants and, by the way, how do such salts really differ in flavor?

For gourmands, salt is essential to flavor, and no less a respected chef than André Soltner, former chef-owner of the late-lamented Lutèce, once advised that salt must be in every single dish one prepares, even sweet confections and cakes. I forgot to ask him about coffee and tea.

What would we do without it? Or, as expressed in the New Testament, Luke 14:34, “But if the salt shall lose its savour wherewith should it be seasoned?” And do without it we apparently are expected to as control-freak chefs banish salt from the table, implying they know our palates better than we do. Perhaps they are unaware of the sensory science related to salt and how no two of us experience levels of it alike, something that will be a future subject here.

Though bread and salt undoubtedly will remain staples of Jewish cuisine, that cuisine is also changing rapidly. Centuries-old and honored observances such as kosher laws are being updated and modernized in many interesting ways. How and why such things occur–sadly or happily–and what they lead to is another subject for exploration.

Thirty years ago I would never have believed that kosher dairy restaurants would virtually disappear from New York and other large cities to be replaced by Israeli-Sephardic “dairy” restaurants. These serve light and enticing falafel and hummus, pita and baba gannouj, pizza and tabbouleh, instead of heavy and enticing cheese blintzes with sour cream, scorching hot mushroom–barley or cabbage soup, eggs scrambled with lox and onions, and baskets bursting with cascades of breads and rolls, fragrant with onions and veneered with sesame or poppy seeds. A younger generation intent on keeping kosher but looking for more spicy, diverting, healthful, and fashionable dishes are flocking to Indian vegetarian restaurants in urban areas. They are de facto kosher for their Hindu customers who do not eat fish, meat, fowl, eggs, or cheeses set with rennin, the acidic enzyme in rennet that begins coagulation of milk and is produced in a cow’s stomach.

Recognizing this growing market, many of those Indian restaurateurs now go the extra mile by employing a mashgiach and having separate hand sinks in the dining room to be used before saying blessings over the food. But how a novice navigates one of those menus will be the subject of a future column as will a few of the kosher Indian vegetarian restaurants around the country.

In a way, Jews might well have been the unwitting pioneers in what is currently celebrated as fusion cooking. Now, perhaps, a new worldwide Jewish cuisine is being born that, like the old Ashkenazic and Sephardic cookery, borrows from other cultures, fusing to modern tastes while still honoring their beliefs. But as butter and schmaltz give way to olive oil, no-fat sour cream stands in for the luscious high fat original, and croutons replace gribbenes, we are left with one important question: if heartburn becomes extinct, who will buy Nexium?

Mimi Sheraton is a former restaurant critic for The New York Times and the author of several books including The Bialy Eaters.

Mimi Sheraton is a former restaurant critic for The New York Times and the author of several books including The Bialy Eaters.