Once upon a time to a transfixed nation, trans fats were not the troublesome substance we now view them as but were the very symbol of scientific progress.
If the FDA has their way about it, bad-for-you- hydrogenated oils, i.e. trans fats, will soon be banned from the American diet.
Hard to Swallow
It may be hard to digest but there was a time when vegetable shortening made from hydrogenated oil like Crisco was a smart, wholesome choice. Labor saving and economical this cooking fat was a wonder for the harried, health conscious housewife.
Nowhere was the transformative power of trans fats felt more than in the Jewish household.
Miracle in the Kitchen
The introduction in 1911 of Crisco-the king of hydrogenated oils- was a life altering game changer for kosher housewives, for whom strict dietary laws forbade the mixture of dairy and meat at the same meal.
All vegetable shortening Crisco proudly promoted itself as a Kosher food, one that behaved like creamy butter but could be used freely with meat.
As if it were the appearance of the messiah, Crisco boldly announced “it was the miracle for which the Jews have waited 4,000 years for.”
Crisco’s entry into Kosher Kitchen culture would make kosher cooking easier for generations
For observant Jewish immigrants like my Great Grandmother, it was nothing short of a miracle.
She along with millions would be transfixed by trans fats.
At the beginning of the last century, my Great Grandmother Rebekah like most folks at the time believed certain foods were good and others dangerous but there was no proven scientific basis to it.
There was no concern about high protein, low carb foods because food itself hadn’t even been classified as such.
You knew you had a healthy child if she was chubby, pink and fleshy.
By the time of the Great War, food was entering a modern scientific age and with it developed new products new attitudes and new rules towards eating, and cooking.
But in an Orthodox Jewish household like my Great Grandmothers, the only important rule- one that was non negotiable was the time-honored rule of Kashruth, keeping kosher.
We Answer to a Higher Authority
Returning home from school late one cold winter afternoon in 1917, my then teenage grandmother Sadie found her mother standing at the coal cook stove in the spotless, onion scented kitchen, rendering chicken fat (schmaltz) in the “fleyshik” (meat) frying pan, and frying cheese blintzes in the milkhik (dairy) pan, never ever confusing one cast iron pan for the other.
The heat of the kitchen warmed Sadie’s chilled bones as she peeled off layer after woolen layer of winter clothing.
The rambling house in Williamsburg Brooklyn was alive with the odors of burning carrots, frying onions, cooking cabbage and fermenting sauerkraut. Without even looking up from the stove, Rebekah handed Sadie a piece of challah, schmeered with schmaltz, – a nosh before dinner.
Food is Love
“Love and bread make the cheeks red,” Rebekah would often say.
Her hand would touch her heart to indicate the source of the food- herself. Food really was love in Great Grandma’s home, a bestowal of the purest affection.
Hungrily biting into the fresh bread, Sadie was bursting at the seams to tell her mother what she had learned in her Home Economics class.
A true American girl of tomorrow, 18-year-old Sadie was among the first girls in her school to take a class in the new field of Home Economics.
In 1918, it was the ambition of every Brooklyn girl after graduating from public school to attend the prestigious Girls High School, the very model of a 20th century school building, where she could enjoy the advantages of advanced education.
And no subject was as cutting edge as Domestic Science.
The no-nonsense class was run with the efficiency expected of a future household engineer. Donning her crisp, sanitary white apron and starched white cap, Sadie quickly absorbed the most current information explaining the new and efficient ways to think about diet, digestion and hygiene.
Her Home Economics teacher, Miss Hattie Patton was a stern looking woman, with salt and pepper hair pulled tightly in a bun, her features as sharp and angular as the wooden ruler she wielded.
Wearing pince nez and an immaculate white smock, the domestic dominatrix, would explain to the class how men of science had devised rules of nutrition which would not only prevent illness but encourage a long life.
“Girls today,” she emphasized, “are taking hold of the feeding job with intelligence.”
Cooking, like mothering, could no longer depend on instinct, but on scientifically determined exact formulas.
Sadie learned that although it was a German Scientist who had come up with the new idea of classifying foods into proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and water, the “new nutrients,” it was, naturally, American know-how and industry that was putting it to good use.
Science to the Rescue
“You don’t have to trust guesswork anymore. Science has selected for you,” her teacher informed them proudly. And you didn’t have to take just anyone’s say so. The sanitary testing kitchens of both manufacturers and government were all working overtime to put their knowledge at m’lady’s disposal.
“Who could provide more authoritative judgment about a food product than the esteemed directors of Home economics in the many corporate manufacturers of fine food?”
Science was constantly coming up with new and better products for the American dinner table; new ways to lighten the load of the housewife.
And so it was that one day Miss Patton explained a recent scientific discovery the miracle of Crisco.
Progressive housewives Miss Patton explained were ridding their kitchens of old-fashioned lard and expensive butter for new wholesome factory fresh Crisco. Which would also be the only fat used in the schools cooking class. Many HS having Domestic Science departments use Crisco
“It seems strange to many that there can be anything better than butter or cooking or of greater use than lard,” she continued, and “the advent of Crisco has been a shock to the older generation born in an age less progressive era than our own.”
Crisco was clean pure and wholesome. Nothing artificial about it, it was concocted in a lab by trained scientists.
“There is nothing more important to the American housewife than the preparation of wholesome delicate and dainty foods for her family,” Miss Patton stated firmly.
“Indeed the purity and wholesomeness of foods have become subjects of national interest. More and more people now realize that by intelligent eating not only can they avoid such common ailments as headache and indigestion but can do much to make good health their normal condition ( A future of Type II diabetes and clogged arteries would come decades later )
Fully endorsed by doctors and renowned dietitians Crisco was a product that would make for more digestible food.
Crisco she further explained, had taken the place of butter and lard in a number of hospitals where purity and digestibility are of vital importance.
Crisco is being used in an increasing number of better class hotels, clubs restaurants dining cars and ocean liners.
A Country at War
Not only was it economical and digestible it was patriotic.
Now that we were at war patriotic housewives were asked to conserve food. We were admonished to save wheat, use less sugar, and use no butter. Use of Crisco would contribute to the war effort.
All the girls marveled at this new product not only economical it was…Uncle Sam approved!
Crisco is Kosher
Miss Patton held on to the most tantalizing tidbit for last.
Crisco was kosher.
This rich wholesome cream of nutritious food oils was rabbinically certified!
Smiling, Miss Patton read from The Story of Crisco a copy of which was given to each student.
“Rabbi Margolies of N.Y said that the Hebrew race has been waiting 4,000 years for Crisco. Crisco can be used with both milkhik and fleyshik milk and flesh foods. Special Kosher packages bearing the seals of Rabbi Margolies of N.Y. and Rabbi Lifsitz of Cincinnati are sold to the Jews.”
Whether baking challah or pastries Jewish housewives could avail themselves of Crisco
So the modern woman is glad to stop cooking with expensive butter and lard and step up and let science show them how.
Sadie couldn’t wait to share this with her mother.
Kosher Kitchen Kulture
Sitting at the oilcloth covered kitchen table nibbling on the rich, greasy, bread, Sadie excitedly explained to her mother how scientists had devised new rules of nutrition and were now telling folks what was good for them to eat based on the foods recently discover chemical make up. Not only that, she emphasized, it took special products, special equipment, and special knowledge to do the job of feeding a family right.
Gingerly, she pointed out to her mother, that many of her traditional kosher recipes, measured by these modern scientific cooking, fell short.
Sadie read aloud from her schoolbook: “To the modern wide awake twentieth century woman, efficiency in household matters is quite as much a problem as efficiency in business is to captains of industry.”
“The progressive homemaker, my teacher says, walks right up to science and says :”You tell me how.”
Stirring the tzimis, on the stove Rebecca didn’t need this tsoris from her own daughter, no less.
She needed a scientist to tell her about food, like she needed “a hole in the head”.
Rebecca had already walked up to her own higher authority, the laws of Kashruth, the ancient Jewish Dietary laws and asked them to show her how.
Separate But Equal
Kashruth– keeping kosher, was an elaborate system of rules that dictated the kinds of foods that were permissible to eat and even the way the foods are prepared.
Only fish with fins and scales can be eaten and only animals that chew their cud and have cloven hooves are allowed. Animals have to be killed in a certain way, so the blood drains out. Dairy dishes must be kept a respectable distance from meat dishes and never the two can mix.
This was a divine commandment that was given to Jews on Mt Sinai, she reminded Sadie, from learned rabbis, “not from some know-it-all domestic scientist.”
“You expect me to follow these rules!” Great Grandma said increduously. “Hoo- Ha! Proteins shmoteins– the only ‘food groups’ you should care about is whether a food is Milkhik ( dairy), Fleyshik,(meat) Pareve,( neutral) or treif (not permitted).”
“You want order, precision, efficiency, try keeping a kosher home,” she scolded Sadie, “then you’ll see what rules are all about. You cook your meat in a vegetable pot and you can forget about it, the meat becomes practically milkhik!’ … separate dishes, separate pots, utensils. So tell me, who is more efficient than a Jew?”
But Sadie knew one items would interest her mother and saved it for last.
Crisco and the Jewish Housewife
Gently she slid a booklet across the table in her mothers direction. Entitled Crisco Recipes for the Jewish Housewife it was printed in both English and Yiddish.
Crisco was whole new food neither butter or lard it was pure vegetable oil Sadie explained tp her doubtful mother.
Crisco promised there was absolutely no animal matter in it as shown by the fact it is guaranteed under the National Pure Food Law. If it contained fat it would come under the Government Meat Inspection law.
“New preparations of old foods are continually coming before the public but Crisco is an absolutely new heretofore unknown food product,” Sadie read out loud.
“To illustrate its importance the American head of the Jewish religion, after a thorough examination of Crisco, certifies that Crisco is absolutely kosher, that is in keeping with the Mosaic Dietary laws. The most orthodox have adopted it and it is used by Jews who for years have paid forty cents a pound for chicken fat, rather than use products have been considered unclean.”
But a new product would alter that 4,000 year old practice. With Crisco kosher cooking would be made easier.
She continued reading from the Crisco Cookbook, “it conforms to the strict dietary laws of Jews and is what is known in the Hebrew language as a ‘parva’ or neutral food. Crisco could be used with both milk and meat.”
Great Grandma looked up from her cooking, and never looked back!
The mason jar filled with schmatz –pure rendered chicken fat- so long a fixture in the icebox ready to mix into chopped liver or frying or spread hot on bread, would be nudged aside for a can of wholesome, white Crisco.
The familiar blue and white package would have a place of honor for generations.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.