In honor of Passover, which begins this coming Friday evening, I write today about the Maxwell House Haggadah Project, a project of Nora Feinstein, student at Barnard and JTS, the Jewish Theological Seminary. The haggadah is a short book that retells the story of the exodus from Egypt of the Hebrew people, and from which almost every Jewish family reads aloud at the annual Seder meals during which we celebrate the first (and often second) night(s) of Passover.
The Maxwell House Haggadah remains the longest running commercial promotion in American history. Its story begins in 1923, when a rabbi named Betzalel Rosen declared that coffee was made not from a bean, but rather a berry, which made it acceptable (kosher) for drinking during Passover. Since beans are considered a forbidden food to Eastern European Jews during Passover, this changed everything!
The Maxwell House Coffee company, owned by a small Tennessee company that was hoping to make Maxwell House a national brand, got a fascinating idea. To break into the northeast U.S. market, they hired a man, Joseph Jacobs, who was working as an advertising coordinator for a number of Yiddish newspapers in the NY area.
The new field of niche ethnic marketing was still in its infancy: In 1933, Jacobs crafted ads that ran in the Jewish Daily Forward, a periodical that was so popular that it is still in circulation today. In fact, an article of mine about trans fats in kosher food processing ran in the Forward a couple of years ago.
It was Joseph Jacobs who came up with the idea of providing a FREE haggadah with the purchase of a can of Maxwell House coffee, and the idea caught on like wildfire! In a short time, the new haggadahs could be found in almost every American Jewish home. In fact, according to Feinstein, to this day, eighty years later, Maxwell House continues to be the most popular brand of coffee among American Jews. That’s a pretty successful marketing strategy, especially considering that Folger’s, and not Maxwell House, is the most popular brand in America overall.
Why do I tell this story here? Because whereas coffee appears to have beneficial effects on our mood, our concentration, and even our blood sugars, most products of the American food industry cannot make that claim. Yet niche ethnic marketing became such an extraordinarily successful strategy that it was used to entice and teach entire categories of consumers (including Latinos, African-Americans, non-Jewish Eastern Europeans, Greeks, Italians, and just about any other group you can think of) to purchase and use items that they had never heard of before. These strategies included the underlying, subliminal message that the more new stuff you bought and learned to eat (and feed to your family), the more American you became. And that was an absolutely irresistible message for a nation of immigrants.
That’s why it’s time to take matters into our own hands. Read ingredient lists; avoid refined carbs like white flour and sugar (and its synonyms) as best you can; discard all trans fat-containing items (vegetable shortening, anything partially hydrogenated) today; load your plate with produce; and relearn to cook for yourself if you’ve forgotten or never knew how. Our health is on our plates.
Happy holidays, or gut yuntif, to all!
If you’ve never been on “Your Health is on Your Plate” before, and you’re not sure where to start, visit Lets Start at the Very Beginning to get a jumpstart on preventing diabetes and obesity in yourself and the ones you love!!
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