Happy Hanukkah. Love, Crisco : The Salt On Hanukkah, many Jews fry potato pancakes called latkes in oil or maybe schmaltz. But a century ago, one company saw an opportunity to make the Jewish fat of choice truly American: Crisco.

How A Corporation Convinced American Jews To Reach For Crisco

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Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. People will be frying up everything from potato latkes to jelly doughnuts to celebrate the ancient miracle of the oil that burned for eight nights. But in the early 20th century, one company tried to give the holiday a different flavor. From Portland, Ore., Deena Prichep tells the story.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Mackenzie Weintraub is turning five pounds of potatoes into latkes, scooping batter into a sizzling, cast-iron skillet.

MACKENZIE WEINTRAUB: We got potatoes and onions, a little bit of flour and egg and salt and pepper. And they're frying up. And we're using some sunflower oil today.

PRICHEP: Pull up a latke recipe from 80 years ago, and you'll find, more or less, the same thing with one small change.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Crisco is the finest quality shortening money can buy. And don't forget all Crisco has been certified kosher and pareve by Rabbi Israel Rosenberg of Brooklyn.

PRICHEP: To be clear, Crisco is not the fat of choice of the ancient Maccabees. And Eastern European Jews, who didn't have much access to oil, would have fried in rendered chicken or goose fat. But in the new world, that changed.

KERRI STEINBERG: When I used to make latkes with my mother, we always used Crisco - the can of Crisco vegetable shortening.

PRICHEP: Kerri Steinberg wrote about the history of advertising and graphic design in her book "Jewish Mad Men." She says the Crisco in her mother's fry pan is thanks to Joseph Jacobs. He was an ad man who set up an agency on the Lower East Side nearly a hundred years ago.

STEINBERG: He specialized in mixed marriages, which is to say that he introduced American mainstream manufacturers to the Jewish market.

PRICHEP: With the wave of Jewish immigration in the early 20th century, this was a sizable market.

STEINBERG: He created booklets that explained the dietary laws, the rabbinical certification process.

PRICHEP: Companies from Procter & Gamble to General Foods hired Jacobs to learn about these potential customers. And these new immigrants also wanted to learn about them. Rachel Gross teaches Jewish studies at San Francisco State University.

RACHEL GROSS: Once Jews are living in a world of nation states, they're trying to figure out how to be German and Jewish or French and Jewish. They're trying to figure out how to be American and Jewish.

PRICHEP: And in 1933, Joseph Jacobs appealed directly to these multiple identities by developing a cookbook called "Crisco Recipes For The Jewish Housewife." In both Yiddish and English, it showed newly American households how to use Crisco in everything from poppyseed cookies to stuffed cabbage and potato latkes.

GROSS: The Yiddish-speaking mother, presumably, is going to bring a knowledge and a familiarity with traditional Ashkenazi baked goods. And the English-speaking daughter is, presumably - Procter & Gamble hopes - going to bring a willingness to use modern products like Crisco.

PRICHEP: And so Crisco, at least for a time, became part of Hanukkah. Professor Rachel Gross says when holidays come around, we think about family and what it means to be part of a particular story. And if those stories are shaped by food and immigration and even product placement, that's OK. It's what Hanukkah is.

GROSS: Not some biblical story or the rabbinic stories that come later about miracles and oil but getting together and eating latkes with your family or with your friends.

PRICHEP: And that can make for a special holiday no matter what type of fat happens to be in the fry pan. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.


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