Fin-de-Siècle Feminist Food Culture

Although I attended Jewish day school, my real religious education took place in the family kitchen. There, in the overheated, vaguely onion-and-paprika-scented nook, my mother handed down—in great Talmudic detail—lessons on the ritual preparation of food. Kashering meat, searching for crumbs before Passover, separating meat from milk, all were explained while she chatted up a storm about the vast extended family with whom in earlier years she had celebrated more holiday mischief than my brothers and I would ever have dared.

It’s only now that what happens in the home (and thus in the kitchen) has come to be recognized as broadly significant, indicative of many cultural and familial nuances, worthy of academic consideration and debate. Only now are historians understanding why food has always loomed large in the imagination of a people for whom, in many eras and many countries, an extra crust could mean the difference between life and death. And only now that women are taking the spotlight as the caretakers of a vital part of Jewish culture.

This was dramatized in last year’s painful but exquisite memoir In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy From the Women of Terezin, edited by Cara De Silva, which recounted how conversation about recipes became the spiritual thread by which so many imprisoned women held onto life.

Given this context, each of our own activities in the kitchen suddenly takes on a political tone. When I became a parent myself I was determined to make my son comfortable chopping, scraping, measuring, mixing, molding and manipulating the ingredients for our own versions of traditional holiday treats. (“This was my best brisket ever!” he declared last Passover at the age of eight.)

My kitchen has also taken on the scents of another cultural and academic trend: the reprioritzing of minority cultures. My son’s Hebrew school actually has incorporated a “Culture Through Cooking” elective, with this special twist; Every week, the students recreate recipes from Jewish communities that have been destroyed, dispersed or greatly diminished in size. As a result, our own kitchen has become as redolent with the aromas of the curried chicken of the Cochin Jews, Jewish Thai fried rice, and the date-and-cinnamon-scented eggs of the Jews of Persia as of the Ashkenazic dishes I grew up with. And, as these Jewish communities adapted their recipes to their circumstances, so too have we adapted all these recipes to our own heart-healthy, no-schmaltz end-of the-century Jewish-American taste.

Just as significantly, perhaps, my son is forming his own recipe for what it means to be a Jew, not just in Hebrew school or in the synagogue, but in the day-to-day details of his life and in the workings of his memory. In earlier generations, this handing down and molding of tradition would have been automatic. But as American Jews have become more assimilated and intermarried, it has become more difficult to identify any common links beyond the aromas from our childhood kitchens.

How else to explain this season’s extraordinary bounty of kosher cookbooks, cooking memoirs, and cook books-cum-cultural-histories? Their popularity comes at a time when for many women sitting down to a home-cooked meal has become something to read about, dream about, or make part of a Rosh Hashanah resolution.

So strong is the connection in Judaism between food and spirituality that in Miriam’s Kitchen: A Memoir, journalist Elizabeth Ehilich charts, in journal form, her odyssey from assimilated secular Jew to observant Jew. Only after marrying a man who had grown up in Israel, the son of Holocaust survivors, and after she had become a mother herself, did Ehrlich realize that if she wished to give her children the secure sense of belonging that her husband and in-laws possessed, she first had to come to grips with her own inchoate Jewish identity. Her mother-in-law—not a rabbi or a Jewish institution—becomes the transmitter of tradition. She writes of the lessons learned in the kitchen, “I daily reaffirm identity, purpose, and rhythm.”

A common theme in many of these books is a rediscovery of Jewish identity through food. James Beard Award-winner Marlene Sorosky came close to refusing to write her latest volume, Fast & Festive Meals for the Jewish Holidays, because of her memories of growing up under the thumb of a “tyrannical, Orthodox father and a mother who bent to his every religious desire.” Yet through her friendship with the two women who help her write this book, Sorosky kindled a warmth for Judaism she had never felt before. Testing these recipes, she writes, “was like celebrating each holiday for the first time.”

Veteran kosher cookbook writer Betty Goldberg suggests a similar spiritual path for the intermarried. She writes on page one of her new book, Traditional Jewish Cooking, that “traditional Jewish cooking provides a delicious pathway for a non-Jewish partner or recent convert to Judaism to understand the connections between Jewish holidays and Jewish foods.”

In contrast to these weighty views comes Nancy Ring’s charming memoir of her life as a pastry chef in the frenetic world of trendy New York restaurants. Walking on Walnuts is as light as the confections—updated from the kitchens of various female relatives—she shares with us. She doesn’t need to think about how her Jewish heritage affects her. She simply knows. She knows that professionally, as well as personally, she is a product of generations of hard-working Jewish women. And she knows that she has found her signature style when she invents her own take on the family rugelach, with figs and sun-dried cranberries.

Finally, when it comes to delineating Jewish culture through our cooking, I have saved the best book for last: Claudia Roden’s exquisitely comprehensive and deliciously presented hybrid, a tantalizing cookbook, cultural history and personal memoir intertwined in The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey From Samarkand to New York. On one level, this is a loving compilation of more than 800 Jewish recipes from all over the world. But as impressive as her research is, Roden’s achievement is in placing the cuisine of each of these communities within the multiple contexts of Jewish history, religious life and immigration patterns, not to mention the social and culinary influences of the countries where Jews have lived. Roden writes that particular dishes form “a link with the past, a celebration of roots, a symbol of continuity. They are that part of an immigrant culture which survives the longest, kept up even when clothing, music, language, and religious observance have been abandoned.”

Roden traces her own Jewish and culinary roots from her home in London back to Cairo, where she grew up, still further back to Aleppo, Syria, where her father and his family originated, and still further back to the Jewish traders from Medieval Venice who carried spices between East and West and the Jews who inhabited Syria in biblical times.

“The dishes of my aunt Latife and her cook Nessim were the traditional ones of Jewish Syria. . . . On Thursday night there was always lentil soup, rishta bi ats (homemade tagliatelle with brown lentils), or rishta wa calsones (tagliatelle and ravioli stuffed with cheese) and fried fish. On Friday night there was chicken or veal sofrito with little fried potatoes cooked in the sauce under the chicken kobeba and rice with pine nuts and pistachios.” She makes clear the connection between cooking and culture when she informs us that today those “dishes are what we get when we visit our families in Los Angeles, Mexico, Colombia, Paris, and Geneva.”  

Diane Cole is the author, most recently, of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.