Jews and Food: From yogurt to chile con carne

By LOREN MINSKY/ITRAVELJERUSALEM.COM TEAM
October 25, 2011 13:55

International chef and food historian Gil Marks shares secrets of delicious dishes and the unsung Jewish heroes of world cuisine.




Jewish food encyclopedia_311

Jewish food encyclopedia_311. (photo credit: Gil Marks)

On Sunday evening, Gil Marks spoke on the topic of “Jews and Food” to a mainly Anglo audience at Tmol Shilshom, a rustic coffee-shop bookstore in Jerusalem. Named one of the 50 most influential American Jews in 2010 in the Forward’s annual “Forward 50”, Marks is the author of the award-winning Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities around the World and more recently, the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.

 “This guy knows everything about anything,” says David Ehrlich, manager of Tmol Shilshom. “He was funny and quick to answer any question.” The talk was filled with surprising anecdotes on how culinary history has been influenced by Jewish traditions and wanderings in the diaspora. 

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Marks was in Israel visiting family over the holidays. Loren Minsky caught up with him.

Q: How did you come to combine your love of food with your love and knowledge of Judaism?

A: My mother takes full credit for my career. She tells everyone that when I was young, I would complain about her food and she would tell me to make my own – and I did. Once you feel comfortable in the kitchen, (overcome the intimidation of the unknown) and have a basic understanding, it is easy to progress.

In my previous incarnation, I ran a guidance department and taught history at a yeshiva high school. I would invite friends and guests over for Shabbat and they would ooh and ah about the food. Each time, I would try to outdo myself. I am a self-taught chef. I have never taken a cooking class in my life.


Things are different now. An increasing number of middle class Jews go to cooking schools. It has become an acceptable profession. At a certain point, I told myself that life is too short and what I like is writing and cooking, so in 1986 I started Kosher Gourmet magazine, to reflect that kosher food could be quality fare. We lasted for seven years until Papa Bush’s ‘non-recession’ eliminated advertising and I segued to books.

Q: How do you differ to other Jewish cookbook authors?

A:  I believe that I emphasize the historical and cultural aspects of Jewish food (where it came from, how it got there, and where it might be going) more than other Jewish cookbook authors.

Q: Are you vegetarian? Is vegetarian Jewish food your speciality?

A: I am not a vegetarian, but most of the time I eat vegetarian. If done right, vegetarian food can be incredibly flavorful and exciting. My previous book, Olive Trees and Honey, about traditional Jewish vegetarian fare, sells very well among non-Jews who are looking for those types of dishes. Jewish vegetarian food, as part of the wider umbrella of Jewish food, is one of my specialties.

Q: Tell me more about the James Beard Foundation award? How was it to be voted one of the most influential Jews in America?

A: I’ve written five books, three of them were nominated for a James Beard Award and Olive Trees & Honey won. It’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment when experts and those outside the Jewish community acknowledge the value of my work. I think my parents, who live in Israel, were most proud when the Jewish Forward included me in last year’s Forward Fifty.

Q: What is your connection to Israel?

A: I’ve been visiting Israel since my bar mitzvah when I spent the summer in Israel. During and after college, I spent two years studying in yeshivas here. My parents, one of my sisters, six nieces and nephews, and 14 great nieces and nephews live in Israel. I spend most of the holidays here. I usually come for two or three months at a time about twice a year. With an Internet connection, I can work from anywhere. A good part of Encyclopedia of Jewish Food was written in Israel. I wanted the book to also include the Israeli food culture, not just American and European.

Q: What is the best part of being here?

A: My nieces and nephews! I also love to see how Israel has changed over the years and the degree of ethnic diversity. I enjoy seeing the Ethiopians and Asians and many others and thinking, “these are Jews.” I love Mahane Yehuda and other venues where Jewish food from around the world is on display. This is what Klal Yisrael is all about.

Q: What are your thoughts on Israeli raw materials and food?

 A: The raw materials in Israel are tremendous. Israeli fruits and vegetables are generally far superior to American variations, which are grown for shipping and storage purposes and what they look like, not for the innate flavor. Israeli olive oil herbs, cheeses and wines are superb, although people don’t always make the best use of them. That’s been changing lately with more and more Israeli chefs realizing that they don’t have to be an imitation of the French kitchen, but a synthesis of the best, utilizing the local produce. CSAs (Community Sponsored Agriculture) provide incredible organic produce.

Q: How is your new book different to past books?

A: Encyclopedia of Jewish Food is the most comprehensive, accurate, and readable compilation of Jewish food ever with over 655 entries and 300 recipes about Jewish foods from across the globe. Much of what is commonly assumed about food is mistaken or simply wrong. For example, matza was not always hard and cracker-like. The potato latke (and other prominent Ashkenazi potato dishes) only emerged in the mid-19th century. Food carries history and culture and I attempted to show the interconnection to Jews. How did the Jaffa Orange and Gevina Levanah (white cheese) come to Israel? How did Jews impact chocolate, bananas, and yogurt? 

Q: How was the idea born for the book?

A: After the success of Olive Trees and Honey, I was discussing potential future books with my editor at Wiley Publishing, and she said, “You’re a walking encyclopedia of food, so why not write a Jewish encyclopedia of food?” I’ve been trying and collecting recipes and storing them along with food information in my computers for 25 years. It took me nearly five years to pull my research together, to check and double check my information and to make it as readable as possible.

Q: Are you planning on giving any other talks during the remainder of your stay in Israel?

A: I have one more presentation during this trip to Israel, a cooking demonstration for the Senior Citizen group of Gush Etzion and Efrat in Alon Shvut.

November and December are my busy months, so I am returning for a series of presentations there. I fly from Israel to Denver, Colorado for a talk and then spend weeks giving talks and cooking demos. It beats working for a living. Meanwhile, I work on my website (gilmarks.com), blog (gilmarks.com/wordpress) and updating my Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Gil Marks’ books are available on Amazon and other Internet sources.

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