A Southern Jew in Jerusalem: The Hunt for Crisco

In the 2011 film The Help, one of the main characters, a black maid named Minny says “I reckon if there is anything you need to know about cooking it’s this (Crisco), the most important invention since they put mayonnaise in the jar.”  She divulges the many wondrous uses of Crisco including moisturizer for feet, instant gum remover for hair, oil for squeaky door hinges.  It is derived from cottonseed oil and undergoes hydrogenation to turn it from a liquid into a solid.  One of the major positives of Crisco for the Jewish cook is that it is considered parve.

In “The Story of Crisco” a recipe book by Marion Harris Neil he quotes the Rabbi Moses S. Margolies of New York stating “the Hebrew Race had been waiting 4,000 years for Crisco.” When this vegetable shortening first premiered in the early 20th century in addition to becoming a staple in southern cuisine it also revolutionized the American Ashkenazi kitchen. For the first time there was a kosher cooking fat outside of schmaltz or butter available to balabustas that allowed them to create parve dishes to go with meat or milk.  Crisco seemed like an absolute godsend to my family who were nestled in the land of pork fat, a small town called Waynesboro, Virginia.

While in Israel I have become quite accustomed to shifting my food preferences from the Ashkenazi and Southern American foods of my youth to the predominantly Mediterranean food culture of Israel.  However for this Thanksgiving I was determined to create some nostalgia and tried my hand at making pumpkin pie from scratch for the first time, and in the words of my mother “a good crust needs Crisco.”

I thought that surely in the land of kashrut vegetable shortening is king and it would be relatively easy to find Crisco or its equivalent close to my apartment in the Shuk. However the process was far less simple than I initially thought and my search came up with unsatisfying results. So I tapped into the endless knowledge of the Secret Jerusalem Facebook group and received several suggestions for where I may be able to find Crisco. I decided to try out the most frequent recommendation, the Super HaMoshava on Emek Refaim.  Easy enough, right?  Wrong.

The employee despite his best efforts to help me had no idea if they carried Crisco or what is vegetable shortening. Discouraged but still hopeful I continued to take laps around the store and I noticed that I was in good company as there were several Americans on the hunt for pumpkin pie accouterment. One gal was debating whether or not to buy a pre-made graham cracker crust just so she could use the pie pan it came in.

In the isle of aluminum baking items I noticed a man on the floor, an assortment of different sized pie pans lain out before him and on the phone with what could have only been his wife, discussing the pie pan width to depth ratio. We were all in the same Thanksgiving frenzy. “Excuse me sir,” I said, “I couldn’t help but overhear the words pumpkin pie coming from your phone. You haven’t by any chance seen Crisco here?” “Crisco,” he replied in contemplation, “wow I haven’t heard that word in years. I don’t know if they carry Crisco, my wife does the cooking, but I would think so? It’s ideal for kosher cooking, revolutionized the Jewish kitchen.”

We talked about Crisco’s symbolism in our shared Jewish American origins, him hailing from Brooklyn, myself recounting tales from below the Mason-Dixon line. I must have peaked his curiosity because he graciously offered to assist me in my quest.

After several minutes of intense searching and no Crisco we decided to call it quits, I thanked him for his help, and he returned to the pie pans. Discouraged and feeling like I had just wasted a great deal of time I remembered that I needed a bottle of canola oil for my pantry. Then it happened. There resting on the very top shelf next to the coconut oil was Crisco in bulk. I did a little dance, sang a little ditty and rushed to find my friend to show him my discovery at which he replied with a smile, “well I am going home much happier now.” I told him, “Sir, I can say the same.”

It’s been over a year since I have seen my family or visited Virginia. While I have been attempting to let myself become freely absorbed in Israeli culture and society there are some memories I can’t seem to let go; so much so that I hauled all the way to Emek Refaim for a container of vegetable shortening. It makes everything a little easier when you’re not of Israeli culture to be able to find these bits and pieces of yourself within it. Even my compatriot in the grocery store got a little nostalgia buzz off of the very word Crisco. You may need to dig around, try a few different grocery stores, or ask for advice, but the payoff is worth it.

About the Author
Born and raised in Richmond Virginia Leigh Pennington currently attends The Hebrew University of Jerusalem pursuing a Masters degree in Jewish Studies at the Rothberg International School. Prior to moving to Israel Leigh studied Anthropology, Art History, and Religion at Concordia University in Montreal. She has been involved in several cultural preservation and historical institutions and currently interns for The Ethiopian National Project as an oral history consultant for Project Ti'ud.
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