How Crisco Ruined Jewish Cooking

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Triple delight soup – kreplach, matzo, and noodles – made with schmatlz.

 

Schmaltz is rendered chicken or goose fat.  It’s the staple of traditional Jewish cooking, and is a MUST in making a good chicken noodle or matzo ball soup.   It’s a delicious, divine secret weapon for cooks prohibited by religion in using bacon fat.

 

Those that have cooked or eaten with schmaltz know there’s no comparison.      Potatoes cooked with schmaltz take on a crispness and satisfying flavor that vegetable oil just can’t duplicate. Meats and starches have a depth and complexity that set them apart from the same dishes prepared with olive oil or butter.      If you had gone to any of Cincinnati’s Jewish delis of the 1910s, like Bilker’s on Central, or Izzy Cadet’s on Elm, the kugel, kishke, and kreplach you’d find were made with sumptuous schmaltz.

 

What’s more, schmaltz provides a unique tie to the past that must be preserved. Schmaltz is like a thread that runs through a great cultural tapestry.   It’s a secret handshake among Jews and those in the know who love to cook and eat.

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But while Jewish housewives were using schmaltz for their cooking, Gentile housewives in America were using pork based lard, especially in Porkopolis Cincinnati.

 

 

Here’s where P & G comes in.  The company that gaveth to Cincinnati, also tooketh, with one of its early food inventions.   In 1907, German chemist, E.C. Kayser, turned up at Procter & Gamble Ivorydale offices with a fabulous food find.  It was a ball of fat.  But it wasn’t just any ball of fat.   It looked and cooked like lard. But no pigs were harmed in its production. It was something called hydrogenated cottonseed oil, and it could be produced in the lab a lot cheaper than both lard and schmaltz.

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It was called Krispo, and later Crisco, (shortened form of crystallized cottonseed oil) a vegetable shortening with one evil purpose: to replace lard.

Cincinnati already had a fairly large cottonseed oil market.   The Longworth Wine House had been converted after the Civil War into a Cottonseed oil plant by his grandson, William Pope Anderson.

Americans were already uneasy about the meat industry after Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, but Procter & Gamble had their work cut out for them.   Unlike lard, Crisco was made in a lab by scientists.   Lab made products were not necessarily an appetizing idea back then.

Procter & Gamble twisted the lab-made moniker and Sinclair’s meat industry expose to their advantage.    Launching a Trump-like ad campaign, the company instilled fear in people about adulterated lard. The ads bragged how pure and wholesome Crisco was. The company packaged the product in pure white and claimed “the stomach welcomes Crisco.”

Procter & Gamble became the marketing powerhouse they’re known for today with the Crisco brand. It sent out cookbooks touting how good Crisco made you feel. It shipped samples to hospitals and schools, then bragged about how those institutions trusted Crisco. It rushed onto the newly invented radio waves in 1923, sponsoring cooking programs that featured, Crisco.

One would have thought that Jewish cookery would have been immune to the Crisco Revolution.     But, P&G also had the brilliant idea of presenting Crisco to the Jewish housewife as a kosher food, one that behaved like butter but could be used with meats. In 1933, it released a kosher cookbook in both Yiddish and English.

In addition to being kosher, Crisco was also pareve and could be used to cook either dairy or meat dishes.

A pareve fat for cooking, baking, and frying was truly an innovation to the kosher household. A kosher housewife couldn’t serve fluden (a dairy or fruit pastry) made with butter after a meat meal, because it broke the cardinal rule of kosher – mixing meat and dairy.    Most Jewish food preparation utilized either butter or schmaltz. Each substance had its pros and cons for cooking and for the kosher kitchen in particular. The best grade of butter was expensive.   Cheaper butter was often adulterated with other undesirable substances. Schmaltz could be made at home but it was a very labor-intensive process, producing only a small quantity of fat.

Crisco offered many benefits. It was a vegetable product, it met the terms of the Pure Food Law, it was inexpensive, easy to obtain, easy to digest, didn’t create unpleasant cooking odors, and could be heated to higher temperatures than animal based fats. Traditional Jewish foods would be enhanced with the use of Crisco, P & G claimed. Latkes fried with butter come out soggy and greasy; latkes fried in Crisco would cook quickly and brown evenly. Even the shiksa housewife could make crisp, crunchy, latkes, provided they were fried with Crisco.

Because it made kosher cooking easier, Jewish women adopted Crisco and margarine—imitation lard and imitation butter—more quickly than other groups.   But unfortunately, the flavor and depth of their cooking was severely compromised.  No longer did they have to render down chicken skins with onions to make schmaltz.     But they lost the secret to their ‘Jewish penicillin.’   And apparently not too many Schlomos or Maurys complained when the change was made, seeing the benefits in household food savings with Crisco.

Procter & Gamble was proud that Crisco was kosher and advertised heavily in the Jewish press, causing a whole generation of Jewish housewives and Jewish deli cooks to convert to vegetable fat, and lose the secret ingredient that made their dishes so delicious.

 

 

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