Lilith Feature

The Foremothers of Food Memoirs

“I think a big part of the plethora of Jewish women’s food memoirs is simply a function of Jews writing a lot and publishers recognizing that Jews buy books,” explained sociology professor Susan Starr Sered. “I think that Jews in general are drawn to writing about themselves and their culture.” Sered is the author of Women As Ritual Experts: The Religious Lives of Elderly Jewish Women in Jerusalem

Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 12.26.07 PMMemoirist Elissa Altman has another theory: “There are so many food memoir writers who are female and Jewish and of a certain age (I’m in my mid-fifties). I suspect that it is, in part, because we have a distinct and first-hand memory of the foods from the past—foods and practices that were carried over from the Old Country and thus were the last thread of connection to them.” More than 2.5 million Jews immigrated to the U.S. between 1881 and 1924; many may have been the grandparents, or great-grandparents, of the women food writers of Altman’s generation. Altman adds, “The language—Yiddish—was beginning to die out when I was a child growing up in the ’70s. All that was left were the stories and the culinary culture, which often traveled hand in hand.” 

Beyond Brisket 

Food memoirs have such broad appeal because they are “about the association of food with cultural identity, ethnic community, family, and cross-cultural experiences,” Barbara Frey Waxman noted in a 2008 article. These subjects appeal to readers and writers of all backgrounds, including Jewish women whose food cultures are very different from those of Eastern and Central Europe. Susan Barocas has written an award-winning piece for Lilith on the Sephardic food that is so much a part of her family’s heritage, and Ruth Mason has completed a food memoir pegged to her family’s Bukharian foods, prepared in Bukhara, Israel and L.A.

Altman, whose Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing will be published in August 2019, says: “The food memoir impulse is universal. … When I was on tour for Treyf, my audiences and readers came from every conceivable background and culture, which proved to me: our stories are identical, and for many of us, they manifest at the table.” 

Although most of the Jewish women food memoirists I’ve come across do not keep kosher, and only Sheraton’s book includes much mention of “Jewish” foods, perhaps Jewish women’s implicit (in my case, it’s certainly not explicit!) understanding of the ritual and religious importance of food and food preparation makes food memoirs a natural subject? This is something I can relate to: I don’t keep kosher, but I always mark Jewish holidays and events by cooking traditional Jewish dishes. To me, it’s an obligation, and a pleasure. 

Elizabeth Michaelson Monaghan is a former Lilith intern and a native New Yorker. Her work has appeared in City Limits, Paste, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela

In This Feature