Wasserman says that the answer to what makes food Jewish is relatively simple.
"There are just two things," said Wasserman by phone from her home. "Observing the laws of keeping kosher and obeying the sabbath."
The religious traditions of the faith and the culinary traditions are intertwined, Wasserman says. The style of cooking was influenced by what ingredients were on hand. Take, for example, popular delicatessen dishes like corned beef and rye bread. The dishes we now associate as "deli" fare came to America with Eastern European immigrants beginning in the late 19th-century. (The word delicatessen comes the German delikatesse -- for delicacy).
"Corned beef," says Wasserman, "is pickled beef. A way that poor Jewish immigrants could preserve beef as well as effectively tenderize inexpensive cuts of beef . By preserving beef, it could prepared in advance so that it could be eaten -- without the need for cooking -- on the Sabbath.
"As for rye bread," said Wasserman, "in Eastern Europe, the cost of buying milled flour was often too expensive for Jewish families, so they turned to less expensive flours, like rye. That's also the flour used in pumpernickle bread, another staple of poor kitchens at the time."
Wasserman says that many of the recipes that Eastern European Jews brought to America with them -- breads, dried fish, noodle pudding, pickles -- not only made observing the Sabbath and kosher laws easier, but the ingredients were often accessible in most communities -- from New York City to Denver. Yes, she agrees, younger eaters percieve those dishes as heavy fare (which may explain the recent demise of delicatessens in urban communities) and they're right.
"But those dishes were supposed to be heavy, stick-to-your rib dishes. When you go to a delicatessen, you don't immediately think, 'I'll order a roast chicken sandwich.' You're there to eat!"
In her master class today, Wasserman will reach much further back in Jewish culinary history, including preparing a roasted eggplant dish that dates back to at least 1492 A.D. when Spain expelled 200,000 Jews from the country. "When the Jews left, they took many of the recipes for Moorish dishes they had learned or adapted with them."
To make a reservation for tonight's lecture -- tickets are $18 -- call Nicole Feldman at the Jewish Federation of Kansas City at 913-827-8111.