Mrs. Pach’s Controversial Turkey, A Thanksgiving Day Message
Wednesday, November 23, 2022
I have a curious historical artifact to share. In the 1860s, Jewish newspapers in New York and Pennsylvania published notices from a “Mrs. Pach” of 112 Vine Street in Philadelphia. She billed herself as a “competent person to cook,” a strictly kosher caterer for “Weddings, Births, or Special Parties.” A German immigrant, Mrs. Pach was particularly well known for her “boned turkey” and “French fricassee.”
The short advertisement appeared at least a dozen times in the pages of Isaac Leeser’s monthly newspaper, The Occident. Many times, these ran in the autumn.
Mrs. Pach’s turkey, by then the popular food item of Thanksgiving, was a controversial food item, as not every kosher-abiding Jew in the United States at that time accepted that turkey was permissible to eat. The custom among Ashkenazim – that is, Jews derived from German and French stock – was that Jews can only consume fowls for which there was a longstanding tradition. Turkey was indigenous to North America, and not everyone who clung to Old World sensibilities accepted that this bird “grandfathered” into the Ashkenazic custom on the grounds that it closely resembled a chicken.
Jewish communities In Charleston, Cincinnati, and New Orleans feuded over this issue – and rabbis in these locales lost their jobs because they were on the “wrong” side of the argument. At the core of the matter was a debate on how to properly align (seemingly) competing values. These fights, then, represented the challenges of living in multiple worlds.
But Mrs. Pach had courage. To back up her menu, Mrs. Pach referred interested parties to Rabbi Samuel Myer Isaacs of New York, as he would vouch for the caterer’s punctilious observance of Jewish law and the kosher dietary bona fides of the American turkey.
Mrs. Pach has something important to teach us about how we synergize and compartmentalize our various identities. Perceiving themselves as “outsiders,” Jews have worked hard to coalesce the “American” and “religious” parts of their lives. The urge to herald the contributions of Haym Salomon, Emma Lazarus, Sandy Koufax, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an example of this “synthesis” effort.
Yet, the cultural alchemy is not always so seamless. Sometimes our visions and conceptions of ourselves – whether “American,” “Jewish,” or otherwise – do not fit neatly together. This is no doubt exacerbated in our current political moment. In these instances, perhaps the best course of action is to put it all out there, as Mrs. Pach did time and again in the Jewish circulars. Not everyone agreed with her. Yet, Mrs. Pach prepared her famous boned turkeys, talked aloud about her rabbinic certification, and – at least I would like to imagine it this way – got herself ready for a Thanksgiving feast, accompanied by a menu and a set of traditions that she wholeheartedly believed in.
This, then, is an apt message for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. Let’s be thankful to encounter the hard stuff, of living in a complicated world.
Zev Eleff, Gratz President