🖊 Kosher kitchen comfort
Adrienne Katz-Kennedy on the classic Jewish dish egg and onion, and why it just doesn’t taste the same outside the home.
Reubens restaurant smells of salt beef and dill pickles from the moment you walk in the shiny glass doors. Located on busy Baker Street, a street bustling with so many American Banker ‘Bros’ I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve recognised the accent and the distinctive way in which it carries.
As I am here for research purposes, I order the egg and onion sandwich, just ‘to see’. It comes on soft, sliced rye studded with caraway seeds and, as requested, with thick slices of tomato and a generous amount of egg salad mixed with spring onions; the filling is at least triple the thickness of the bread. Its look and taste meet all of my expectations, though, I regret my short-sightedness not to have asked for a pickle to cut through the soft creamy textures and mild flavours.
The font, the menu, the wedge-like sandwiches, the décor – it’s familiar and on paper, should ring of all things ‘back home’ – home being the large and largely Ashkenazic Jewish community nestled in and amongst others in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio since the mid-1800s.
Reubens has been here in the West End of London for the last 46+ years, closing once in 2018 due to family bereavement, then brought back to life shortly thereafter alongside several other kosher restaurants across London, thanks to investor Lee Landau. I had visited Reubens many years prior, before its slick refurbishment, in search of a salt beef sandwich and a bowl of kneidlach or matzoh ball soup – a decidedly less cool task before ‘New York style deli's’ began trending here. It is clear the remodelling, though beautiful, was inspired by this trend, creating a shiny brasserie-like feel rather than the darker, wooden booth-lined version I recall of the original.
I had turned up about 15 minutes after opening time at 11:45 on a Monday morning, though, in between bites of soft creamy egg and onion, I get the distinct sense something is missing. It isn’t just the pickle. It’s the people. I am alone in the restaurant, save for two Jewish American men doing the equivalent of bicep curls in an attempt to eat their salt beef sandwiches and their sides of potato latke. (Yes, you read that right, a SIDE of potato latke!) What is a Jewish deli without older generations of bubbes and zaydes, or their cultural equivalents, gathered around the table to argue, complain and eat their 11:30 am lunch? The mothers treating both their toddlers and their own mothers to lunch before getting everyone home for an afternoon nap. The tables (rather than just one) heaving with men attempting to wedge as much smoked meat into their mouths as humanly possible like some sort of strong man contest at the carnival.
After Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), as Yom Kippur (day of attornment) approached, my mother would prepare by making a big glass jar of beet pickled eggs and onions, just as her mother did.
Other than a kosher or ‘kosher style’ kitchen, fundamentally Jewish delicatessens are a community meeting spot. It’s what gives them their spark, and it is what has made them an institution throughout Eastern Europe and then New York, especially when Jews weren’t warmly welcomed in other public places without risk of antisemitism. Jewish delis largely draw from Ashkenazic, or Eastern European traditions. I am also reminded in my research, though sentiments have faded or softened, it was still once, and for over 300 years, illegal to be Jewish in England. Reubens, though proudly the only kosher kitchen remaining in the West End, consequently, seems to be isolated from the community that built it, at least on that morning I visited. I make a mental note to return another time, later in the afternoon to see how the environment has changed.
“It’s not about going out, it’s about home cooking” someone remarks on Twitter when I ask for recommendations on where to go for ‘Jewish’ food (Ashkenazic or Sephardic or otherwise) in London. Another confides that they’ve never actually eat Ashkenazi food out, except for the occasional bagel. A third separately notes they only eat Jewish food in peoples’ homes for shiva and brises. Where these foods are eaten, and what foods are for public and what are for home is interesting in its specificity. Egg and onion (egg salad), I should note, has several different iterations to this filling – sometimes sauteing the onions in oil or schmaltz (chicken fat) before stirring into the boiled or scrambled egg mixture. Other times keeping the onion or spring onion completely raw. To me, egg and onion feels like an ‘at home’ item. Or at least not an ‘at the deli’ food, though most Ashkenazic delis will offer some version of it. I understand this the moment I bite into the sandwich.
It tastes like it belongs on a milchig (dairy) deli tray at a casual synagogue luncheon after a bat mitzvah service or in someone’s home while they sit shivah. I ordered it out only to be reminded that the thing that was missing, was the people and the circumstances surrounding the sandwich itself.
Growing up, my family always celebrated the high holidays with a trip to the synagogue, and a few holiday-specific foods. After Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), as Yom Kippur (day of attornment) approached, my mother would prepare by making a big glass jar of beet pickled eggs and onions, just as her mother did. Beautiful deeply purpled inky jewels whose juices would sink into the bouncy whites of the hard-boiled eggs, co-mingling in the same jar alongside purple onion, vinegar, dill, salt and sugar. Eggs or egg salad sandwiches is a common Ashkenazic item served to break the sunset-to-sunset fast on Yom Kippur, alongside lox, kugel, pickled herring and other milchig or pareve (meaning non-milk and non-meat therefore safe in both settings) items – rather than the heavier meatier fare. My mom’s beet pickled eggs were always a little over the top, making for the perfect showstopping tray – an assortment of purple disks with magically bright yellowed centres, served alongside the pickled purple onions and a selection of other pickled vegetables including the sweet, soft beets. The sharp bite of the onion, sweetness of the beet and soft creamy centre of the egg was a slice of heaven, especially after a day of fasting and atoning (or sitting hungrily while others around you atoned).
The same was cooked and displayed 6 months later during Passover celebrations, as the harsh relentless Cleveland winter slowly slid into spring. Sliced and layered or smashed onto matzoh, sometimes with morror (bitter herbs) and shoved into mouths after patiently sitting through the telling of the Passover story while sat around the dinner table. I would eagerly anticipate certain points in the ritual when the ceremonial eating would relieve some of the hunger, a build-up to when the performative eating was finished and an array of once-a-year dishes would stream out from the kitchen.
Twice a year, every year, these foods became an anchoring for me, indicating a celebration was soon approaching as the house began to smell like warmed vinegar.
It was only months ago, as I began preparations for my own version of a Passover sedar, I discovered this family tradition of beet-pickled egg and onion was not strictly from Ashkenazic culinary history, but more an amalgamation of my family’s Eastern European palate and familiarity with beetroot, aligned with practices of the Pennsylvania Dutch, coinciding during the Great Depression. As far as I can tell, this is where our blending of cultures and flavours began.
Like the Amish, the Pennsylvania Dutch, a community formed by German immigrants in the 1700s, highly value handicraft and labour, some eschewing technology within the home. If you have ever driven through Ohio or Pennsylvania, you may have noticed certain pockets where horse-drawn buggies become frequent on roads, simultaneously an increase in roadside fruit stands, and restaurants serving artisan products made by these communities: breads, cheeses, butter, roasted chicken, alongside, homemade jams, maple syrups. Pickling and preserving is not only a tradition within these communities, but a necessity for year-round living.
Food, like people, migrate and adapt – often as fast as is possible - to their surrounding circumstances. This is the premise behind the argument against a static definition of ‘authentic’
My great grandparents settled within proximity to this community. Great Grandpa Joe (Joseph) worked in the produce yards of Pittsburgh, driving horse and buggy to deliver the fresh fruits and vegetables to stores and businesses. Though his labourer’s wage was small, he was allowed to take any excess produce, whether unused or on the edge of spoiling, home to his family. It was how he and his wife, my great grandmother, Bess, survived The Great Depression and managed to feed their three children – one being my grandmother. Best I can decipher, my family’s adoption of beet-pickled eggs began around this time. Joe would have had more access to beets than most, pickling eggs alongside the root vegetable to help stretch the longevity of the fresh produce and waste nothing.
Food, like people, migrate and adapt – often as fast as is possible - to their surrounding circumstances. This is the premise behind the argument against a static definition of ‘authentic’. We attempt to document the journeys and life choices of our grandparents, creating our own interpretations of their timelines in order to understand, not only how iterations morph and change based upon the food and fashion of their time and place, but how we can still connect the dots, even once they’ve been scattered. I do it so I can say with certainty as I put some ‘weird’ or ‘acquired-tasting’ dish on the table, the roots from whence and whom it came. Not just where it was from but why I will continue to make this dish, even if it has been separated or severed from its origins.
This food-based line of questioning is now what forms the base of my relationship to my own Jewish heritage. For me, is no longer about questioning the religious aspects of it. Mine has become a relationship built on the foundations of questioning the foods and digging for the stories they tell. I’d like to think our family rabbi would appreciate this approach, even if I have left much of the religious aspects behind. That it is still, in fact, a Jewish approach.
Further reading: Claudia Roden has recipes for both versions (chopped and scrambled) of Eggs and Onion in her 25th-anniversary edition of The Book of Jewish Food; An Odyssey from Samarkand and Vilna to the Present Day. I am certain there are others too, both recipes and food historians, but this particular book is an impressive recording and chronicling of many global Jewish diasporas. Claudia continues in her quest to leave no stone unturned…
Mom’s Beet Pickled Eggs
Over the years I’ve tweaked and changed this recipe, often using fresh and roasted beetroot instead of tinned as it’s generally deemed ‘better’ in the food world. It’s probably how my great-grandmother made it. But, reading through it now, I appreciate the reasons behind the tinned beets – a combination of a tight budget, little time and the ways in which food trends changed and how canned, frozen and convenience items were marketed to female American consumers as fashionable and modern. With fresh eyes, I can see my mom and grandma in this detail. We don’t always have to rewrite history.
¼ cup/60ml water
1/3 cup/ 80ml cider vinegar
¼ cup/50g sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups/300g cooked beets, sliced (b/w 1-2 tins)
4 eggs, hard-boiled and peeled
1 bunch dill
1 red onion, thinly sliced
Boil, cool and peel your eggs.
Add the brine ingredients into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Then add the tin of sliced cooked beets with their liquid, cover with a lid and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat to cool slightly.
In a large glass jar add boiled eggs, thinly sliced onion and dill to the bottom. Once the pickling brine has cooled, pour over eggs and onions to cover. Top up with a tiny bit of water if it doesn’t cover the eggs completely. Let it cool completely before lidding and refrigerating overnight or more. Depending on how long you’re pickling for, turn the eggs over every so often for a more even purple colouring.
Adrienne is a former dance anthropologist, now a food and culture writer, living in London. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter
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