Blog Post

The Great Matzoh Ball Debate: Recipes as Information Technology?

Last night, a group of friends from the History Department (and my partner, in English) got together for a Jewish dinner potluck.  Each of the contributors brought dishes they remembered grandmothers or godmothers or mothers cooking when they were children--matzoh ball soup, sweet and sour brisket, latkes, kasha varnishkes, carrot ring, mandelbrot, and so on.  (There was a lot of food for a group of less than ten people.) 

Jewish social and spiritual life is often characterized by a series of rituals based around the twin tasks of worship and eating.  The new year begins with services and a meal, and is followed after ten days by a day of atonement--fasting followed by the equally important breaking of that fast.  In the case of Passover, the meal and the worship are formally and fully intertwined in the seder.  Purim is marked, for many, as much by hamentaschen (cookies in the shape of Hamen's hat) as it is by the recitation of the Book of Esther. 

The dishes my friends and I brought were thus often tied explicitly to particular memories of particular times and particular groups of people--family, religious community, etc.  And that got me thinking about food as a way of building community and managing time.  There is, of course, an extensive body of scholarship about the history and culture of food.  The University of California Press has a whole series on the topic. 

But last night, as we shared food, we also shared both tips for making it--roast the chicken and vegetables first to get a richer stock--and memories about how those tips were learned--several attendees' grandmothers said blood or skin are key ingredients in latkes, since you must grate the potatoes by hand or suffer the pain of soggy potato pancakes. In some ways as important as the food itself were the recipes and the oral traditions surrounding the recipes.  Together, they are passed through families, tying them together through both food and ways of thinking about food (taking sides on the dense vs. fluffy matzoh-ball debate, for example). 

It seems to me, then, that recipes become not just information but a sort of information technology.  Recipes and food-related oral traditions become a way of preserving data (passing it down), restricting access to it (secret ingredients, unspoken rules, and gendered restrictions), networking and circulating it (culinary initiation rituals after marriage), and so on. 

This seems particularly important among Jews, who have a long history of oppression in general and of having information artifacts destroyed, in particular.  Jewish books have a way of ending up burned, but despite the efforts of countless anti-semitic regimes to snuff out Jews entirely, many Jewish oral traditions and foodways have remained largely intact, thanks--it appears to me--to a fascinating combination of decentralized distribution and emotional attachment. 

But it is certainly true in other ways in other communities.  The importance of the casserole to upper-Midwest Protestantism, for example, or the ways that food becomes such an important way for immigrant communities to assert collective, transnational identity in new contexts.  Recipes are just the information but a tool for making that information work in particular ways. 

In the interests of playing around with this idea, and to use newer technologies to open up access to my own family's food traditions, I bring you my godmother's recipe for "carrot ring."  This dish was first made more largely available in a community cookbook produced by a synagogue in Washington State in the mid-twentieth-century, and it is one of my most vivid sense-memoreis from childhood.  It's not too sweet and is, in fact, meant to be served as a part of dinner, not after it.  (See, there's one of those things you wouldn't know unless I explained it.)  Enjoy!


1.5 cups Crisco (you could substitute lard to avoid the trans fats, but that wouldn't exactly be kosher)
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
2.5 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
2 Tbs cold water
3 cups grated (by hand!!!) carrots
juice of 1 lemon

Cream Crisco and brown sugar.  Add all other ingredients.  Pour into well-greased bundt or spring-form pan.  Refrigerate overnight.  Bake for 1 hour at 350 degrees.




Dear Derek,

I'm delighted with your blog article, partly because I come from pretty much the same ethnic/religious background and recognize the truths you are describing. 

(However, we don't have godparents in my family.  But a difference such as that one is fairly standard; Jewish people are used to arguing about differences in belief and practice. Right?)

I'm also delighted by your reflections, because I'm working on a project that is compelling me to think hard about the different types of online information delivery.  Are we structuring the searches to yield up the matzoh balls themselves, directions for obtaining matzoh balls in the marketplace, or best practices in making matzoh balls?  Are we delivering matzoh balls that go to the first searcher, or matzoh balls that can be consumed again and again? 

(Or is it only the burning bush that was not consumed?  I'm getting carried away here.)

At any rate, you're welcome to take a look at my recent blog article on this topic:

Best regards from Deborah



What an interesting point!

In Barton and Hamilton's Local Literacies, they actually use recipes as an example of literacy as a social/technological process. Basically, the recipe (and reading it, using it, sharing it, copying it, etc) becomes a kind of event between people used to facilitate a sense of community -- it becomes an example of living, sense-making archive, because, like you're saying, it links communities through time and place.

I think it's really neat to think about that when reading your godmother's recipe -- while Barton and Hamilton's don't speak to the practice of archiving recipes and passing them along online, I'm thinking about how as a Black Latina from a family of non-cookers, a big part of my connecting to my (fantasized, mythologized) roots has been collecting and practicing with foods from both my American Black heritage and my South American.




Hi Derek,

Thanks for this intriguing post.  You certainly raise an interesing point - so much information is written into our food.  Aside from ethnic and family traditions, the ingredients themselves are often tied to a web of information.  Are the ingredients organic versus non-organic? Are they local, grown in your own backyard, or conventional?  Why are some ingredients absolutely necessary and others can have substitutions?  Answers to all of these questions reveal the poltics and history of food, but more importantly, they extend your insight.  Much can be learned by asking a few simple questions about the recipes one makes and the food one eats!


@Teresa --


A really great resource on how colonial practices get embedded into good is Of Cooks and Conquerors, which talks about the history of food and conquest. 


I'm also thinking of how ingrediants become medicalized and morally valued -- you know, with the caloric count of something like decadent chocolate brownies, accompanied by a page on how long you'd have to work out to burn off those naughty, delicious baked goods. That, at least, is one of the Thanksgiving spreads in this month's Eating Well (don't judge me! It's for research!)


Just think, we have created our own food story/history here by commenting on this post.