Delve into the fascinating past and present of Jewish food with Midwest bakers and chefs.

Over the door of Cleveland's Larder Delicatessen and Bakery, the word delicatessen stretches in painted block letters. The restaurant occupies an old firehouse in the city's emerging hipster haven of Hingetown, but the stenciled letters echo a sign chef and co-owner Jeremy Umansky discovered in a photo of a mid-19th-century deli in Germany.

"We wanted to re-create that whole delicatessen ideal, where everything was made on premise," Umansky says. "You could walk in. You knew the owner's name. You could see them making things. And there'd be things hanging around, and jars and barrels and just the mystique of that old-world style of food."

Umansky, a James Beard Award nominee, grew up in Cleveland's vibrant Jewish community. With Larder, he claims his piece of a diasporic cuisine stretching back millennia. In 70 C.E., Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Jews fanned out across Europe, North Africa, south and central Asia, and ultimately the Americas—and in each new environment, their cooking evolved.

It's a process that continues to play out, in homes and at restaurants. At Larder, you'll find fermentation experimentation and New York-style black-and-white cookies. In Des Moines, Little Brother leans into comfort-food memories (with a side of latkes). And in Chicago, the online bakery Masa Madre melds Mexican and Jewish flavors. Cherished traditions meet current tastes, expanding the very idea of what Jewish food is or can be.

Jewish Cuisine: More than Bagels

Which raises an interesting question: What is Jewish cuisine? That depends where—and when—you live. As a people defined by movement, Jews have long been culinary transmitters, borrowing from (and giving to) the majority culture. Tomatoes and peppers? During the Renaissance, Sicilian Jews were among the first Italians to adopt those novel New World ingredients. The poached eggs in spicy red sauce at your favorite trendy brunch spot? That's shakshuka, a dish popularized in Israel by North African Jewish immigrants. A sabich is an Iraqi Jewish pita sandwich stuffed with eggplant, eggs, parsley, tahini, hummus and amba—a tangy mango condiment that itself has roots among Indian Jews. Artichokes. Kiwi. Oranges. Pull the thread on so many foods, and you'll find a story that unspools through some Jewish population, somewhere, at some time.

But here in the Midwest, in 2023, these are the dishes you probably know best: Bagels and lox with a schmear of cream cheese. Reubens, with their notably unkosher mix of corned beef (meat) and cheese (dairy). Matzo ball soup. Hanukkah latkes. These foods all have roots in Ashkenazi Jewry. That is, Jews who trace ancestry through Central and Eastern Europe.

Millions of Ashkenazi Jews immigrated to the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries to escape the Russian Empire's anti-Semitic pogroms. A smaller wave came following the Holocaust. Today, Jews make up less than 3 percent of our national population, but most big cities have at least one Jewish deli—and every office kitchen has bagels.

little brother co-owners and children
Little Brother co-owners Joe and Alex Tripp, with their children
| Credit: Byron Jones

Little Brother: Family First

Those Ashkenazi dishes that many people think of as American Jewish food defined chef Joe Tripp's Iowa childhood. He remembers potato latkes, chicken soup and bialys (a bagel-adjacent roll). A few decades and James Beard Award recognitions later, Tripp is a fixture in Des Moines' fine-dining scene. But as his family grew, the chef found himself called to a new project. In 2022, he and his wife, Alex, looked inward and embraced nostalgia with Little Brother, an all-day diner named for their younger son, in the very neighborhood where Tripp grew up—Windsor Heights.

Inside, jukebox oldies bop from the speakers. Family photos spread across the walls, alongside art made of crayons and toys. The vibe is not just a schtick. Family is so valued here, the Tripps decided to close for dinner last June, not out of lack of demand, but to allow staff to spend more time with their kids during summer break. They resumed evening service on the weekends as soon as school started back up in September.

Compared to larger cities, Des Moines has a small Jewish community, so for many people, Little Brother serves as something of a crash course. There's a Reuben on buttery griddled rye bread, with house Russian dressing and crunchy celery seed coleslaw. Biscuits and gravy flavored with schmaltz, the Yiddish word for chicken drippings. Latkes pan-fried in butter on the flat top until they're perfectly golden and crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle. There have even been cocktails slyly flavored with Manischewitz, the notoriously sweet kosher wine.

Perhaps most remarkably, though, this neighborhood restaurant in Iowa is one of the few places in the country where you can still get a knish, a warm pocket of dough bulging with fillings like potatoes and cheese. "There's not a lot of familiarity, and that's exactly why I thought it was important to put it on the menu," says Alex, who makes all of Little Brother's breads and desserts. "I love when people are adventurous and get a knish."

Sour Cream and Onion Knishes
Smoked Whitefish Salad
Left: Sour Cream and Onion Knishes: If dairy and carbs spell happiness to you, read on. At Little Brother in Des Moines, the menu often features a Jewish pastry called knish. (The k is not silent.) This one is filled with scallion-and-cheddar mashed potatoes and topped with sour cream, pickled onions, chives, and a savory crumble of canned fried onions and potato chips (sour cream and onion, naturally). | Credit: Kelsey Hansen
Right: Inspired by the memory of a family-favorite Chicago-area deli, Kaufman's, Joe Tripp smokes the sturgeon himself for the creamy, celery-flecked whitefish salad at Little Brother. (You, of course, can just buy smoked fish at the supermarket.) Scoop the salad on toast or crackers, and if you're feeling extra, add fresh dill, hard-boiled egg yolk and pickled onions. | Credit: Carson Downing
masa madre co-owners
Masa Madre co-owners Elena Vázquez Felgueres and Tamar Fasja Unikel
| Credit: Courtesy of Masa Madre

Masa Madre: Blending Borders

A state away at Masa Madre in Chicago, Tamar Fasja Unikel and Elena Vázquez Felgueres are blazing (baking?) new ground, too, with an amalgam of Mexican, Syrian and Ashkenazi traditions. Unikel brings the Jewish piece, in two ways. Her paternal grandparents were part of a Syrian Jewish community that coalesced at the turn of the century in Mexico City. As a child, Unikel recalls going over to her grandmother's for Syrian mezze (appetizers) with "a lot of spices." Her other grandmother was Ashkenazi. She owned a bakery where she sold guava cake and Jewish staples like rugelach cookies. At home she cooked mostly Mexican food—plus blintzes (buttery cheese-filled crepes) for the dairy-centric Jewish holiday of Shavuot.

Friends and fellow immigrants, Unikel and Felgueres started selling sourdough in 2017. But after Unikel spent a summer in Israel, they focused their business online and turned to babka—a sweet braided bread that originated in Jewish communities in Poland and Ukraine. "We decided it was a great vehicle for us to use as a blank slate and be able to put in our Mexican flavors," she says. Their Cinnamon Churro Babka has a crispy exterior that opens up to swirls of brown sugar and Ceylon cinnamon. Milk-soaked Tres Leches Babka uses cajeta, a Mexican caramel. And Pistachio Cardamom Babka has whispers of the Middle East. They also bake inventive challah. The women aim to transition their online bakery to a brick-and-mortar space this year. "It's been hard to find Jewish Syrian food in Chicago," says Unikel, "and there is a lack of artisanal Jewish bakeries here as well. But it is something that we like to add to the city."

Blintzes with Cheese and Jam
Chicken with Apricots
Left: This recipe traveled with Tamar Fasja Unikel's maternal ancestors from Eastern Europe. Blintzes are thin pancakes folded around sweet cheese, topped with jam or fruit compote. A tart puree of apple and dried hibiscus flowers, created by her friend and partner Elena Vázquez Felgueres, nods to the duo's Latin upbringing. | Credit: Carson Downing
Right: Unikel describes this simple yet homey braise as "a very Syrian dish" that her paternal grandmother, who immigrated to Mexico, made for Jewish holidays like Passover and Rosh Hashanah. The chicken all but falls off the bone, cloaked in a sweet and tangy sauce flavored with tamarind, strawberry jam and dried apricots. | Credit: Carson Downing
larder co-owners with their children
Larder co-owners Jeremy Umansky and Allie La Valle-Umansky, with their children
| Credit: Courtesy of Larder Deli

Larder: Deli, Redefined

Like Unikel, Jeremy Umansky cites his grandmother as an influence. She was a kosher caterer in Cleveland, and by age 11, Umansky was helping her at work. Now he looks across his own kitchen at Larder and sees his wife, Allie, making their mammoth iced cookies.

Umansky, whose family tree has branches in Ukraine, Hungary and Lithuania, felt called to a deli, so he built one on his terms, punched through with the umami flavors of Japanese fermentation, a personal curiosity and passion. He is particularly fond of koji, a fungus used to quickly age and ferment, well, anything. "We use koji to make any ingredient more delicious than it could otherwise be," says Umansky. "We use it in everything from rye bread and pastrami to pickles and apple pie."

Black-and-White Cookies
Asparagus, Morel and Walleye Soup with Rye Croutons
Left: A cakey sugar cookie iced in two colors, the black-and-white has been a standby of New York City's Jewish bakeries and delis since the postwar era. Allie La Valle-Umansky makes hers extra-large, as a wink to hearty Midwest appetites. They're thick, fragrant with vanilla—and less of a fuss to frost than you might think. | Credit: Carson Downing
Right: This light and bright spring soup reflects Jeremy Umansky's loves of seasonal ingredients, East Asian fermentation and Jewish tradition. Key takeaway: Don't underestimate the salty, savory power of rye bread croutons coated in butter and miso. | Credit: Carson Downing

Larder brims with things to look at and smell. Umansky keeps his many pickle jars out in the open, bringing his customers into ancient traditions of food preservation. Sun-kissed Ohio peaches bathe in ruby-color strawberry vinegar. A huge wooden kioke (a Japanese fermentation barrel) holds two-year-old ramp miso. Crack the lid, and ,a wallop of garlic perfumes the air, like on a rainy April tramp in the woods. Whiskey crocks hold Larder's signature Pastrami Essence, a soy sauce-like condiment made from, you guessed it. The aroma is so smoky, it's as if a fire smolders in the jugs.

Umansky's fervor for fermentation is matched only by his principles of seasonality and sustainability. Using what's local and available helps the planet, yes, but it's also deeply, essentially Jewish. For thousands of years, Jews have had to make the most of what they could get their hands on.

At Larder, that translates to fried tomato sandwiches in summer, a steamy bowl of Romanian onion soup in winter, or toast smothered in foraged morel gravy in spring. Umansky sees this commitment as a kind of redefined kosher—the term for traditional religious dietary laws. Some Jews follow these rules strictly, others more loosely. Umansky believes there's room for typically verboten foods like shellfish and pork, as long as they're kind to the environment and the creature."I have this beautiful pasture-raised pig that rooted around in a field, ate acorns off the 200-year-old oak tree it was grazing underneath, got fat on grass and was never penned in its life," he explains. "That is kosher in my mind."

That might upset some people. Others will love it. Either way, Jews will continue adapting and growing the cuisine as they have for millennia. But this time, how it changes is entirely up to the cook.