Gil Marks, Jewish Food Historian

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I adore this man! This past Tuesday night I went to the 92nd Street Y to hear Gil Marks talk about the history of Jewish Food. He took us on a journey over thousands of years and across the world to trace its history and evolution.

Gil Marks is a chef, food writer, social worker—and rabbi! He was interviewed by Leah Koenog, an accomplished food writer herself. She had to keep her wits about her because Marks is a true fountain of knowledge, and he is so passionate about his subject that once he starts illustrating a point it’s hard for him to stop talking. I drank in every word, although I had to struggle to hear him at times because the two ladies next to us thought it was a call and response gathering, chanting:

“Blech,” “Ew,” “That’s disgusting,” and “I’m going to throw up!” every time Marks mentioned any quirky Jewish food like kishka, gefilte fish, or schmaltz.

I managed to learn a lot regardless. Marks’s main point was that the role of Jews in the history of food is transformation and transmission. Because Jews have traveled so much throughout history, often getting booted out of a country when antisemitism set in, they were continuously adapting local foods to Jewish taste, like adding lots of garlic, or making food conform to kosher laws. This phenomenon is illustrated by the “classic” combo of bagels, lox, and cream cheese. In the 1930’s in America, the stylish Sunday breakfast was Eggs Benedict with Hollandaise sauce, a dish any kosher Jew couldn’t eat because of the pork, as well as the dairy and meat together. Jews adapted it by substituting Polish bagels for the English muffins, German lox for the ham, and American cream cheese for the fussy Hollandaise.Thus was Eggs Benedict transformed.

As for transmission, Jews have played a major role in bringing the food of one geographic area to another. A case in point is the falafel sandwich. Falafel is not a Jewish invention. It’s a food that has been prepared by Arabs for centuries, traditionally served on a mezze platter along with hummus and baba ganoush. But Yemenite Jews who immigrated to Israel invented the falafel sandwich. They turned this ancient dish into fast food by sticking it in pita and topping it with Israeli salad, and the national snack food of Israel was born.

Besides his amazing store of knowledge, Marks endeared himself to me with his very open, very Jewish personality:

” ‘Bananas’ is the name of a Woody Allen movie—from back when he was still funny.” (I couldn’t agree more!)

He stopped midway through a remembrance about the bagels he used to buy from a Polish neighbor as a child to give a prolonged, sorrowful sigh for the demise of bagels today:

“Like a roll with a hole in the middle.”

Finally at the end of his talk, when the ladies next to us had forgotten all about the featured speaker and had launched into a loud conversation between themselves, Marks chirped at them from the stage,

“Hold on, I’m not done yet.”

When I told him that I’m writing a cookbook about Persian food, he smiled excitedly and told me about family dinners where he’d eaten “chelo and polo” (rice). I’m now the proud owner of a signed copy of a book that I’ve been admiring online for the last couple of years, Marks’s Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. It has already helped me with factoids of Persian food history as I finish up the first draft of my cookbook. Marks is also the author of the James Beard award-winning Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World, and other books on Jewish cooking traditions. You can learn more about Marks and read a lot of information about Jewish food at his website.

I’m so glad I tore myself away from writing for an evening to see this man, a living New York treasure.

5 thoughts on “Gil Marks, Jewish Food Historian

  1. Really interesting stuff, and yes, his Encyclopedia is a tremendous resource. And what’s wrong with a little schmaltz. . . ?

  2. Very interesting event! I attended and loved the array of info that Gil had to impart to the crowd Truly a treasure! Louisa, I can’t wait to see the Jewish persian recipes that you are going to include in your cookbook!

  3. My kid brother studied to be a chef at Johnson and Wales in Rhode Island. He did his grad thesis on the Jewish influence on Mexican cuisine. it seems that many of Christopher Columbus’ sailors were jews trying to escape the inquisition. many styed behind in the New World and the influence of their cooking made its way to Mexico and was adopted by the natives there. Who knew?

    1. Hi Stephan, Wow, I didn’t know J&W made students do a grad thesis. Cool! I love little-known food facts like that which explain so much about life and culture. I wonder what dishes the Jews brought? Your work displayed over at the Art Deco Society is fabulous!

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