The cover of a 1 933 cookbook, Crisco Recipe for the Jewish Housewife produced by Crisco's parent company Procter &…
from the New York Public Library (public domain)
Sunday is the first night of Hanukkah, meaning that Jews around the country will stir up potatoes late and celebrate the ancient miracle of the fire that burned for eight nights.
In many ways this beautiful oily treat has not changed so much over time. Draw a recipe from 80 years ago, and you’ll find quite the same ingredients – grated potatoes with sprinkling of flour or matzo meal, maybe a little onion for taste and egg to bind, fried in fat until it’s fine brown. But there is one thing you can find in an early 20th century book that would surprise the late Latvian makers: Crisco. Yes, to Crisco.
To be clear, Crisco is not the fat choice of antique makkabeer. And Eastern European Jews, who did not have much access to oil, would have fried in Schmaltz-made poultry fat (usually chicken, although goose was a holiday favorite if you had funds). But in the new world it changed.
Kerri Steinberg wrote about the story of advertising and graphic design in his book Jewish Mad Men. And she grew up with her mother’s late fried in Crisco. Steinberg says that the hydrogenated cottonseed oil in his mother’s froze was probably there thanks to Joseph Jacobs. He was an advertiser who formed an agency on the Lower East Side almost 100 years ago, which still remains today.
from the New York Public Library domain)
“He specialized in mixed marriage,” Steinberg joke. “That is, he introduced American traditional manufacturers and products in the Jewish market.”
With the wave of European Jewish immigration in the early 20th century, this was a significant market, and the companies from Procter & Gamble (P & G) to General Foods hired Jacobs to learn about these potential customers. And this interest went in both directions, as new immigrants were keen to American.
“When Jews live in a nation of nationals, they try to figure out how to be German and Jewish, or French and Jewish [Here,] they try to figure out how to be American and Jewish,” explains Rachel Gross, a deputy Professor of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University.
One of Jacob’s greatest successes with the American jutters market was Maxwell House Haggadah and created a standardized semester text as a way to ensure that religious Jews continued to drink coffee during Easter.
And because of the dietary restrictions to keep kosher, which conversation for the separation of meat and dairy, Jacobs realized that Jews were a natural market for a pareve (neither milk nor meat) vegetable base product like Crisco. And in 1933, he immediately appealed to the Jewish-American identity, religious dietary restrictions and interest in the latest “clean” and healthy food science by developing a cookbook called Crisco Recipe for the Jewish Housewife . In both Yiddish and English, the new American households showed how to use Crisco in everything from poppy cakes to stuffed cabbage to Chicken – Southern Style. And of course, fried potatoes are late.
It was a perfect entree in the Jewish American home of the time, which often included several generations. “The Yiddish-speaking mother will probably give knowledge and knowledge of traditional Ashkenazi pastries. And the English-speaking daughter is probably Procter & Gamble-Hope, who will want to use modern products like Crisco,” says Gross.
Crisco even made a radio ad aimed at the Jewish market, originally released under the radio program “Hebrew songs in Palestine”. The tape is courtesy of Max and Frieda Weinstein Archive at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research:
And then Crisco became part of Hanukkah at least once.  With the growing availability of various vegetable oils and increasing concern for trans fats, Crisco gradually fell from favor in Jewish cuisine. These days, instead of reaching their grandparents Crisco, late freezers can be more likely to experiment with schmaltz – now back to the tastes of their grandparents grandparents.
Professor Rachel Gross says when the holiday comes, we think of the family and what it means to be part of a particular story. And if these stories are shaped by food, immigration, and even product placement, it’s okay. That’s what Hanukkah is, says Gross – “Not a biblical story or the rabbinical stories that later come about miracles and oil. But to meet and eat late with your family or with your friends.”
And it can make a meaningful holiday no matter what kind of fat that happens to be in the freezer.