October 16, 2008

Man, oh Manischewitz!

No matter what I'm doing, I always have a book or two going. Usually one is fiction and the other non-fiction. My interest in product cookbooks and food companies in general have led to some really interesting reading. There are more books about individual food companies than I ever knew.

While out at Round-Top earlier in the month, I naturally carried a book with me. I didn't expect to get much reading done, but as it turned out, I was able to start and finish Manischewitz: The Matzo Family in only a couple of days.

Manischewitz, maker of matzo, wine and other processed kosher food products, is the leading brand of this type of food in the United States. Even if one is non-Jewish and unfamiliar with their products, it would be hard to miss the display of their brightly colored packages in the aisles of grocery stores everywhere.

The author, Laura Manischewitz Alpern, is the great-granddaughter of Dov Behr Manischewitz, the founder of the company. Although he passed away thirty-one years before she was born, she grew up hearing stories about him and has managed to relate his tale, and her family's, in a story that reads as smoothly and entertainingly as fiction.

The beginning of the book contains the Manischewitz family tree. I spent two or three hours contemplating this page alone.

Behr Manischewitz and his wife Nesha Rose had eight children: three daughters and five sons. There were eighteen grandchildren, thirty-one great-grandchildren and thirty-six great-great grandchildren. As of 1999 there were thirteen great-great-great grandchildren.

With this large a family, there was a lot to think about, what with all the names, dates of births and deaths, marriages and divorces, my speculation about in-laws and out-laws, their occupations and so on. I referred back to this family tree many times during my reading.

The company was sold and passed out of family control in 1990. How did a successful, thriving family business come to be sold to an impersonal conglomerate after 103 years? This question, perhaps more than any other, was at the back of my mind the entire time I read the book.

In my last post, I ruminated about not being able to find anything readily available about the early history of the Shefford Cheese Company, which is only one of many such instances I have encountered.

Perhaps that explains why I enjoyed this book so much--the history's all there, contained in a neat and tidy package. Did I mention that the book also has pictures? Not just of the products, but also of the family. I love pictures. They made the story that much more real.

Even if one has no time to read the entire book, the five-page Introduction by Jonathan D. Sarna is worth the time. His summarization of the B. Manischewitz empire is quite interesting in itself.

Besides the regular Manischewitz brand website, there's also an additional site dedicated to the celebration of the company's 120th anniversary. Some of their earlier recipe books are shown in the "Manischewitz Memorabilia" section. Another section, "Your Memories," although not recently updated, is fueled by reader contributions, which also provides us with a nostalgic history of the brand from the consumer viewpoint.

A few days ago I visited my favorite area used bookstore. I've been visting this store since 1985 and never fail to find interesting out of print non-fiction books on a variety of subjects. That day I hit pay dirt in the food company history area. It was obvious that someone with reading tastes similar to mine had turned in a nice batch of books for credit. Lucky me. Among other things, I found:

Candy Freak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America

Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment

Built on Chocolate: The Story of the Hershey Chocolate Company

A Romance with Baking: A Millennium Dedication to the American Flour Milling Industry

And so my reading stack grows even higher and my floor sags a little lower. I look forward to obtaining the answers to many more of my questions.


At 10:45 AM CDT, Blogger ~~louise~~ said...

Wow Kathy you sure are accumulating a treasure trove of food history in those new finds. I've been slacking off on the collecting side these days. Thanks for the inspiration. I haven't been to my favorite used bookstore in way too long...


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