From yogurt to bagels

On the eve of Passover, a look at foods made popular by Jewish Americans

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March 28, 2014 | 1:00 pm

Eastern Iowa doughnut lovers had recent cause to celebrate when Dunkin’ Donuts announced plans to open stores in Cedar Rapids and Coralville.

Did you know, though, that the company owes its signature menu item — the doughnut — to the son of Jewish immigrants?

The concept for mass-produced doughnuts, too, can be traced to a Jewish refugee from Russia. Adolph Levitt invented the first automated doughnut machine in 1920 and doughnuts were served as the “Hit Food of the Century of Progress” at the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair.

“Before that, the doughnut was considered a rare food,” says Gil Marks, a food historian and author of “The World of Jewish Cooking.”

He shared this and several other examples of how the Jewish culture is responsible for many American food favorites in a lecture — “From Shmear to Eternity: The Mainstreaming of Jewish Food in America” — at Shulman Hillel on the University of Iowa campus in January.

The story of the doughnut, Marks says, is one of dozens that showcase the Jewish influence on mainstream foods.

“The Jews are often the ones who will take a product, transform it to fit their cultural tastes, and then transmit it,” Marks says. “It’s not so much innovation, but transformation.”

It was a decade after Levitt introduced the doughnut-making machine that William Rosenberg noticed that doughnuts and coffee accounted for 40 percent of the sales at his snack truck.

“Long before Starbucks, he knew he could make a fortune selling coffee and doughnuts,” Marks says.

Rosenberg opened a doughnut shop called the Open Kettle in Quincy, Mass., in 1948. Two years later, he changed the store’s name to Dunkin’ Donuts.

We can thank Jewish ingenuity for yogurt too, Marks says.

Dr. Isaac Carasso was a Spanish doctor with several clients who complained of stomach problems. Inspired by the work of Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov, who had popularized sour milk as a health food, and recalling that similar ailments were treated with yogurt in the Balkans, Carasso started his own yogurt factory in Barcelona, selling bottled yogurt as a digestive aid.

He named his factory Groupe Danone, after his son, Daniel Carasso. The name was changed to Dannon in the United States.

“By the beginning of the 1970s, 90 percent of Americans were eating yogurt daily,” Marks says. “Before the 1960s, it was mostly consumed by the Greeks and Turks.”

Jews also helped feed pioneers during westward expansion. Matzo, the unleavened bread traditionally eaten by Jews during Passover, kept longer than regular bread and was easier to store in covered wagons than flour.

“Transforming and transmitting,” Marks says. “This is a role the Jews play repeatedly throughout history.”

SEPHARDIC SPINACH PATTIES

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 to 4 cloves garlic, minced (optional)
  • 2 pounds fresh spinach, stemmed, cooked, chopped, and squeezed dry, or 20 ounces thawed frozen chopped spinach, squeezed dry
  • About 1 cup matza meal or fine dried bread crumbs
  • About 3/4 teaspoon table salt or 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • Ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne (optional)
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • Lemon wedges for serving

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and, if using, the garlic and sauté until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the spinach, matza meal, salt, pepper, and, if using, the nutmeg. Stir in the eggs. If the mixture is too loose, add a little more matza meal. The mixture can be stored in the refrigerator for a day.

Shape the spinach mixture into patties 3 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide, with tapered ends. In a large skillet, heat a thin layer of oil over medium heat. In batches, fry the patties, turning, until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels. Serve warm, accompanied with lemon wedges.

Variations:

Sephardic Spinach Patties with Cheese:

Add 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Muenster, Swiss, Gouda, or Cheddar cheese; or 1/4 cup grated kefalotyri or Parmesan cheese.

Sephardic Spinach Patties with Walnuts:

Substitute 1/2 to 1 cup finely chopped walnuts for the matza meal.

Italian Spinach Patties:

Add 3/4 cup raisins soaked in white wine for 30 minutes, then drained, and 3/4 cup toasted pine nuts.

Note: To reheat the spinach patties, place in a large skillet, add 1 1/2 cups vegetable stock, and simmer over low heat for about 5 minutes.

Source: Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World by Gil Marks (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Nov. 16, 2004)

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