"Chosen Food"

Uncle Max Goldseker's family at Shabbat dinner, 1942, part of the "Chosen Food" exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. (Handout photo courtesy of Audrey Polt / August 29, 2011)

When the staff and contributors at the Jewish Museum of Maryland were putting together the new exhibit "Chosen Food: Cuisine, Culture, and American Jewish Identity," they knew better than to try and tell people what is Jewish food and what is not.

If a matzo ball is pretty clearly Jewish food, does a low-fat version with chives still count? Is falafel Jewish? Is hummus? Can sushi be Jewish if it's served at Jewish weddings? Where does lo mein fit in?

According to curator Karen Falk, questions like those, and the way they are linked to larger conversations about religious, ethical and cultural values, are at the heart of the exhibit, which opens Oct. 23 and runs through September 2012.

"Jewish food is really about what people think about Jewish food," Falk said. "It's how people approach it."

She noted that the idea for the "Chosen Food" exhibit was sparked in 2006 when the former curator noticed how lively staff conversations were on the topic of food, and while talking over food. "She had such a good ear for noticing if we do [something], it must be important," Falk said.

In other exhibits, food-related items have been used to illustrate and honor the past, but in this exhibit, Falk said, "the emphasis is where people are now. … There is a lot of celebration, but a lot of strife and anxiety over food as well. There is a lot of argument about it, which points out that it is important to people."

Once the museum decided to take a broad approach to the topic, the staff had to decide specifically what to put on display.

"There is so much material culture around food that isn't food," Falk said. "How do you pick and choose?"

The exhibit will include objects brought to America by immigrants, such as cooking pots and samovars. It will also incorporate photographs, cookbooks, menus and recipes. One area will be set up like a kitchen to show some of the rules and procedures for keeping a kosher home. A dining table paired with written text and audio recordings will explore how Jewish identity is built around family meals and holiday feasts.

An area representing a banquet hall will look at traditions and innovations in serving food at weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and other large gatherings. Those events, Falk said, can raise some of the most difficult questions, as many people with conflicting concerns about keeping kosher and observing (or trying to break away from) traditions come together.

Dining out, including at delis and Chinese restaurants, is the topic of another area of the exhibit. The final section is dedicated to food ethics, which are reflected in a new Jewish food movement that combines Jewish identity with sustainable eating.

Juliana Ochs Dweck co-edited the exhibit catalog with the museum's executive director, Avi Decter. She said one idea illustrated by the collection is that adapting food to embrace other cultures and influences is thought to be a contemporary phenomenon, but in fact, "Jews have lived in close proximity to non-Jews for thousands of years and borrowed from the cuisines of neighboring cultures."

As the editors point out in the catalog's introduction, Jewish food came to the United States with a wide range of influences, ranging from German to Iranian, and variations continued to emerge. Today, Jews can have imitation tref, or prohibited, foods, such as mock crab cakes and "kosher" nonpork bacon, as well as regional variants on Jewish recipes, such as matzo ball gumbo in the South and salmon gefilte fish in the Northwest.

"Meanwhile," they write, "traditional Jewish foods (or approximations of them) have been widely adopted by Americans of varied backgrounds, reflecting a comodification of ethnic experience through food marketing."

"Tradition and change are not mutually exclusive," Ochs Dweck said. "It is the strength of a tradition that allows people to innovate."

The catalog offers seven essays to expand on the themes of the exhibit, said Ochs Dweck, who was a consultant on the development of "Chosen Food" and is now manager of interpretation at the Princeton University Art Museum. The book also reprints a number of posts from Jewish food blogs to highlight the conversations now being held.

"Food is something being talked about by Jews in everyday life," Ochs Dweck said. The exhibit draws upon "conversations that are incited by eating and by cooking and by sitting around a table."

"We use food all the time as a language," Falk said. "We use it locate ourselves within the community, to describe our values."

Falk said her hope is that "anybody could walk through this and at the end say, 'I've developed a new ear for hearing the meaning, the language of food.'"