A new guard of Jewish American eateries is playing with pay-it-forward loaves, Key lime pie hamantaschen, and lots of babka.

By Aliza Abarbanel
July 21, 2021
Advertisement

Imagine sliding into a comfortable, cracked red booth with a steaming bowl of matzo ball soup. There's a tray of black-and-white cookies just out of reach, alongside mounds of pleasingly dense rugelach, and, if it's Shabbat, a sculpture garden of challah. Where else could you be but the iconic Jewish American deli and bakery—that temple of nostalgia, comfort food, and chopped liver? 

Meshugganah Desserts
Credit: Peter Taylor Photography

These institutions are known as mainstays of overstuffed Reubens and lacey latkes. But Judaism isn't a monolith, and neither are today's Jewish American bakeries and delis. We live in a world where Chicagoans can feast on cinnamon-scented churro babka from Jewish-Mexican bakery Masa Madre, and it's a delicious place to be. A new wave of chefs and bakers are creating nostalgic foods with a focus on using local ingredients, beloved regional flavors, and progressive labor practices.

Last year, Motzi Bread began making waves in Baltimore with their Benne Rye loaves and sturdy babka rippled with preserved local fruit and single-origin, bean-to-bar Askinosie chocolate. Owners Russell Trimmer and Maya Muñoz chose the name as a nod to the Hamotzi, the traditional Hebrew blessing over bread. They mill their own flour from whole grains grown throughout the Chesapeake Bay region, aiming to support local farmers while demonstrating the deliciousness of lesser-known grains. There's a steady stream of fluffy challah on Fridays and einkorn matzah for Passover ("an ancient grain for an ancient bread"). 

chocolate babka at Motzi
Credit: Nathan Mitchell Photography

Muñoz says that while she wouldn't necessarily consider Motzi Bread to be a Jewish bakery, largely because they aren't kosher, Jewish values are baked into their business model. The bakery operates a "pay-what-you-can" model, where customers can name their own price as higher or lower than the listed price, depending on their needs. Motzi also offers a "pay it forward" loaf program, where customers can donate $5 to fund a sandwich loaf for mutual aid and food distribution groups like Bmore Community Food. On average, they donate 50 loaves per week. 

"My interest in social justice and food justice really comes from my Jewish background," Muñoz says. "[The pricing] stems from thinking about being named Motzi and taking to heart the interpretation of the Hamotzi being a vision of a world in which there is food for all. One thing we can do in the meantime while we're working towards that world is to have more equitable pricing." 

Muñoz says Motzi Bread didn't pursue kosher certification to prioritize working with local producers who may not have the funds or bandwidth to also do so. They're not alone: a similar ethos is guiding Meshugganah, a new kosher-style deli and bakery down in Charlotte, North Carolina. Owner and "head mensch" Rob Clement may have taken a bagel research trip to New York City, but when the doors open this fall, customers can expect an exploration of the intersections of Jewish and Southern cuisine.

pastrami sandwich at Meshugganah
Credit: Peter Taylor Photography

"We want to bring the flavors and nostalgia of these old-school Jewish American institutions into today's context, from the diversity within Jewish food to seasonality and regonality," says Clement. "Being in the South, we want to use what's around us." In addition to paying homage to Jewish cuisine across the diaspora, like the Ethiopian Jewish Shabbat stew sanbat wat, there will be plenty of Southern-Jewish hybrids like pimento cheese knishes, matzo ball gumbo, and beet-cured smoked trout.

"We can't get salmon locally, but trout is huge in the Carolinas, so we're working with a local sustainable trout farm called Sunburst Farms and beets from the farm down the street," says Clement. "It's an iconically Jewish thing, made in our way in our home state." The same approach will be on display with Meshugganah's pastrami. No, it won't be a Reuben. Instead, the sandwich will be made entirely from local ingredients like Shipley Farms brisket, Lusty Monk mustard, and sourdough rye from Verdant Bread, and only available in limited quantities.  

"We know if we use a bigger beef production company we could produce hundreds of sandwiches a day and make more money, but it's not the best thing for our community to send money out of town to get big batch beef," says Clement.

Some modern Jewish institutions aren't shying away from kosher restrictions. In Miami, the city's orthodox and secular communities come together over Zak the Baker's sourdough rye bread, guava pastelitos, and key lime pie hamantaschen. Zak Stern created the kosher-certified bakery and café in 2015 after several years of baking wholesale artisan sourdough around the city (including out of a buddy's garage). Stern grew up in a secular home, and says he didn't intend to open a Jewish bakery at first. "I made the bakery kosher so my wife who keeps kosher could eat there," he says. "I had no idea what I was signing up for." 

Motzi interior
Credit: Nathan Mitchell Photography

Operating a kosher food establishment comes with many restrictions. For starters, the bakery is closed on Saturdays for Shabbat—typically one of the highest revenue days of the week—plus the full week of Passover and many other Jewish holidays throughout the year. The laws of kashrut forbid the mixing of milk and meat, so the café is entirely vegan to avoid conflict with the dairy bakery. This constraint leads to creative riffs on the classics, like a croissant with smoked nova "salmon bacon" and cheese instead of ham. Every piece of lettuce is washed and inspected for bugs by the on-staff mashgiach, a kosher supervisor who also ensures every dish and ingredient from suppliers is acceptable and that no outside food is brought onto the premises. By now, Stern says that kashrut feels like just another form of compliance, like food safety or OSHA.

"Zak the Baker is a kosher establishment run by a non-kosher person who is committed to keeping it kosher because I like how it binds us together and makes us more inclusive," he says. "The bakery provides a neutral zone where everyone can be Jewish together. Whether you're orthodox or secular, you feel at home."

In addition to making dulce du leche sufganiyot for Hanukkah and burnished Basque cheesecake for Shavuot (a holiday where dairy is traditionally consumed), the bakery makes towering candied citrus panettone and king cake for Christmas.

"We're keeping the traditions of the entire year alive and we happen to be really representing the kosher calendar strong but our customers are all across the board and that's intentional, we want it to be inclusive," he says. "I think bakeries have a real opportunity to preserve tradition in joyful, unintimidating, inclusive ways."