Any Jew will tell you that it’s hard to be a Jew, and that includes the Jews who arrived in America from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. Yes, they were no longer persecuted or subjected to pogroms. Yes, they had religious freedom in the golden land of opportunity. And yes, they no longer had to subsist on a diet of potatoes. Still, there are always problems, and in the New World they were more existential. In the Old Country, Jews were, for the most part, kept apart from the rest of the population, confined to specific areas, and aside from forced conscription into the tsar’s army, they didn’t identify as citizens of any particular nation. But in the new world, they were Americans, too, and suddenly they had two identities to navigate.
Of course a lot of it came down to food. There was some of the self-consciousness of the new immigrant: did you really want your house to smell like schmaltz, or chicken fat, the preferred fat of Ashkenazi Jewish cooks, which would identify you as a greenhorn? But there were other, more specifically Jewish worries: How did you know the food you were buying and eating was kosher? Not all Jews kept kosher, of course, and not all of them kept kosher in the same way (because then what would they have to argue about?), but still—they wanted to be sure they knew what they were eating.
This was a common concern among many Americans at the time—hence the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and other subsequent legislation to prevent slaughterhouses and factories from mixing in dubious ingredients with actual food. Home economists, meanwhile, were on a mission to make cooking more standardized and scientific, and many of them worked with settlement houses to teach new immigrants how to cook like “Americans.”
It must have been very confusing for Jewish cooks freshly arrived in new cities full of strangers with only a dubious command of English. Fortunately, corporate America and Madison Avenue had a solution: Crisco! (Truly, how many problems cannot be solved with fat and/or sugar?)
Crisco in itself solved an older industrial problem: what to do with the seeds that were the byproduct of cotton production. This preoccupied chemists throughout the last quarter of the 19th century, but by 1911, the Cincinnati company Procter & Gamble had figured out a way to extract cottonseed oil and, through a new process called hydrogenation that combined hydrogen with fats and oils, to mix it with cottonseed stearin into a new kind of solid fat that looked and behaved like lard but was a lot cheaper.
Cottonseed oil had some serious PR problems, though. “A handful of unscrupulous companies were secretly using cheap cottonseed oil to cut costly olive oil, so some consumers thought of it as an adulterant,” writes Helen Zoe Veit, a history professor at Michigan State University. “Others associated cottonseed oil with soap or with its emerging industrial uses in dyes, roofing tar and explosives. Still others read alarming headlines about how cottonseed meal contained a toxic compound, even though cottonseed oil itself contained none of it.”
And so P&G hired the New York ad firm J. Walter Thompson to sell the hell out of Crisco. Stanley Resor and Helen Lansdowne, the copywriters on the account, decided to sell Crisco as a “pure vegetable oil,” tying into the general concern over food additives. But Resor—a recent transplant from the Cincinnati office—was also starting to take an interest in marketing to specific segments of the population with specific needs. Jews, with their special dietary restrictions and their desire to adapt to America, were such a population. Traditionally, they had relied on schmaltz and butter as their two main fats, but since schmaltz was meat and butter was dairy and according to Jewish law, never the twain should meet, you couldn’t have a buttery cake after a meaty meal or have a nice schmear of schmaltz on a slice of bread made with butter. Crisco, however, was vegetable-based and therefore pareve, neither milk nor meat. At last Jews could eat latkes and sour cream together!
As Rachel B. Gross, a professor of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University, chronicles in her article “Jews, Schmaltz and Crisco” (included in the book Feasting And Fasting: The History Of Ethics In Jewish Food), P&G hired a pair of rabbis to inspect the Crisco factory and have Crisco “chemically analyzed” to insure that it met both Jewish and scientific standards. (Gross doubts that there was an actual lab involved, but it made for good copy.) In a promotional Crisco cookbook published in 1913, the author, Marion Harris Neil, wrote, “Rabbi Margolies of New York, said that the Hebrew Race had been waiting 4,000 years for Crisco.”
In the ensuing months, Jewish newspapers across the country were plastered with ads that, in Yiddish, extolled the many virtues of Crisco. Gross summarizes one such ad:
Crisco, the ad explains in detail, is better than both butter and schmaltz for cooking “a latke, blintz, or simply a herring.” According to the ad, Crisco is elegant and practical because it will leave a house odor-free; the smell of frying with butter or schmaltz is a hallmark of the old-fashioned. “It is especially unpleasant when there are guests visiting, because it gives the impression that the whole house is a kitchen.” The ad explicitly describes Crisco as clean because it is derived from vegetable oil. “The Jewish law and the Pure Food Law guarantee that,” the ad assures consumers, aligning modern refinement, kashrut, and the American legal system.
“Crisco and P&G were onto something,” she tells me. “Jews are a group that explicitly connects to their community through food.”
Not everyone embraced Crisco, of course. The Forward, the major Jewish newspaper in New York, published several editorials about how newfangled American customs, like healthy eating and pie, were eroding traditional Jewish cooking. “As if it were not enough that the good old hunk of gefilte fish has been emasculated!” one writer lamented in 1929. “As if [Father] doesn’t suffer enough pain from missing the good old aroma of goose-fat, now that Mother uses Crisco! But if he asks for some herring, he’ll get anchovies. And anything, oh anything, for some kasha varnishkes! But no—the calories forbid it.”
In 1933, P&G directed another Crisco ad blitz toward the Jews in the form of a cookbook, Crisco Recipes For The Jewish Housewife, which it mailed to Jewish households. The recipes were for “American” foods like Southern fried chicken, fillet of sole, and something called Macaroni Mold, but each one was printed twice, once in Yiddish and once in English, for the Old Country mama and her American daughter.
“It’s such a delight,” Gross tells me. “It was explicitly designed for a mother and daughter to work together. We can infer that the mother is bringing knowledge and familiarity with Ashkenazi cuisine, and the daughter is bringing willingness to work with modern products like Crisco.” And some of those recipes were passed down to granddaughters and great-granddaughters and, in the process, became family heirlooms of sorts.
But here’s a question: did Jews actually like Crisco, or were they just victims of the dark art of advertising? Because I have tasted many of those heirloom Crisco recipes and they are... not good. They are soft, yes, and crumbly (“tzekrochen,” as my Yiddish-speaking great-grandparents would say), but eating them reminds me of eating Elmer’s Glue. You can taste the whiteness. I asked Gross about this. She told me she didn’t know for sure, but she reminded me that people of all eras are swayed by food trends. Hence the current passion for sourdough bread and other natural food preparations—which is why now young Jews are rejecting the Crisco of their parents and grandparents in favor of good, old-fashioned schmaltz.
Anyway, that’s all rather beside the point. Even if nobody actually liked Crisco, consumers were still convinced that it was nutritionally and ritually sound, and they bought tons and tons of it, 60 million cans by 1917. It wasn’t just Jews: J. Walter Thompson organized other direct-marketing campaigns to other groups that might be in need of a good lard substitute, specifically Southerners and people who lived in the country. Food that came in a can from a factory was food that could be trusted. It was science! (Though, as Veit points out, no one ever came right out and said Crisco was made from cottonseed oil. Instead ad copy sometimes used phrases like “vegetable oil,” but more often “Crisco is Crisco and nothing else.” Well then.)
But to Gross, the story of Jews and Crisco is more than a great advertising coup. “It tells us about American Jews’ relationship to corporations, the way manufacturers can become part of our lives and our heritage,” she says. “It’s great to laugh at Crisco, it’s totally ridiculous, but it’s also lovely in a mundane kind of way. There are products by which we build our lives, that become meaningful, that become part of our family stories and part of our communal stories.”
Crisco, in short, was the grease that smoothed the Jews’ arrival into American life.