Is Bubbe's Eastern European Diet "Kosher" for Your Health?

McDonald's, Ramat Gan, Israel

McDonald's, Ramat Gan, Israel

Israelis come from a variety of countries and their diets tend toward the eclectic. My own culinary heritage is staunchly eastern European. But while my mother rendered chicken fat from time to time, she preferred adapting traditional foods to make them lighter.

Alternet‘s Terence McNally  interviewed Michael Pollan, ecological food expert and best-selling author of In Defense of Food,  who expressed concern about the loss of food’s cultural connotations. Marketers and researchers  devalue our intuition, leading us to suspect the foods we were raised on:

Michael Pollan (MP): I remember my mother dutifully giving us all margarine instead of butter. She would say, “Some day they’re going to figure out that butter is actually better for you than margarine,” and we thought she was nuts. In fact, it turned out that margarine was lethal and butter is fine.

Terence McNally (TMN): She was still feeding it to you suspecting that would happen…?

MP: The authority of mothers was essentially destroyed by the food industry. The $32 billion a year in marketing muscle out there has undercut culture’s role in determining what we eat, and culture is a fancy word for your mom.

TMN: Just to emphasize that number, that’s not the food industry, that’s the food marketing industry.

Of course many eastern European staples are healthy. Think of  soups rich with legumes and vegetables, stuffed cabbage and chopped liver that “stretch” meat (even if  the cabbage is overcooked), and lots of fresh vegetables straight from the garden.

I have rejected my own mother’s copious use of Crisco, a tasteless, pareve (meaning meat nor dairy, thus neutral for a kosher kitchen) shortening heavily marketed by corporate giant Procter and Gamble. Instead I bake with whole wheat flour and canola oil, and serve humus and eggplant salad along with potato kugel and matzah balls.

How have you adjusted your culinary traditions to eat more healthily?

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6 thoughts on “Is Bubbe's Eastern European Diet "Kosher" for Your Health?”

  1. ErskineKelvin says:

    Considering that the entire modern world walks toward globalization I am not surprised if cultural eating habits will disappear. Religion is losing it's impact on people and many of these habits were canonical. Everybody is more preoccupied with eating healthy rather than kosher and I can't blame them for that._________________Seattle HCG weight loss consultant

  2. Leora says:

    I don’t think chicken fat is as unhealthy as one would think (not that it’s so great, either). Crisco, margarine, and the antibiotics/hormones that the chicken ate are worse. We do need some fat.

    Somewhere there was a study of people in Holland? Belgium? during World War II. They couldn’t get hold of animal products, and there was less degenerative disease.

    Karin, yes, Bubbe didn’t have a choice! There was no supermarket of processed food.

  3. My father grew up in a shtetl (small, mainly Jewish town) in Poland. They ate garden vegetables, mostly potatoes. My father collected eggs from the local non-Jewish farmers and sold them, but I doubt his family ate many. The way he tells it they were close to starving. When he went away to yeshiva they served cholent every day, without much meat. Well, he is in his 80s.
    I agree that they ate less meat, but relied on large amounts of chicken fat. At least I suspect that was the case in wealthier families.

  4. People everywhere, not just religious or Jewish ones, ate much much less meat than some people eat today. People have taken it for granted due to the cheapness of meat (thanks to new and “advanced” farming methods); I bet Bubbe, even if she didn’t cook meat all that often, made very healthy food.

  5. Leora says:

    One of the problems I find is the move to the right of the Orthodoxy seems to include eating less vegetables, eating less fresh vegetables (you can buy tasteless bodek in a bag, much easier but then vegetables get a bad name), and certainly not organic.

    My paternal grandmother, who was a very frum Orthodox woman, definitely believed in eating vegetables. And a variety, too.

    Another issue is that in Eastern Europe, Jews couldn’t afford much meat. Now the amount of meat they buy (at least in the U.S.) is staggering and represents a break from tradition, even if they don’t see it that way.

    On the topic of food in Israel, visiting establishments like the one you pictured unfortunately was one of the highlights of our recent trip for our kids. Sigh. I ate elsewhere.

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