Cookbooks: Jewish Do-It-Yourself Manuals

November 10, 2010 at 3:32 pm Leave a comment

I got married in 1977. Those were the days of the Jewish Catalog (four volumes of D-I-Y Judaism perfect for the Aquarians whose Hebrew school education had failed) and a back-to-our-roots itch that just had to be scratched. My groom and I had decided we would be keeping kosher, and when our families on both sides finished freaking out, they gifted us a small pile of kosher cookbooks.  New ones. As far as I know, there were no family heirloom kosher cookbooks in the kitchens of our parents or grandparents.

We received Jennie Grossinger’s The Art of Jewish Cooking, published in 1958 but still a standard in 1977, and The Complete American-Jewish Cookbook by Anne London and Bertha Kahn Bishov, a 1971 edition of a book first published in 1952. I still have these books. The Grossinger is a bit mildewed and the dust jacket of the American-Jewish Cookbook is battered, but I rarely opened either one. Flipping through them now, not a water spot or food stain can be found.

We were also given a three-volume set of Ruth and Bob Grossman’s French-Kosher Cookbook, a Chinese-Kosher Cookbook, and Italian-Kosher Cookbook (first published around 1963-64). I no longer have these books; I gave them away long ago to make room on my cookbook shelf for something else. But I’m sure I never used these either. I disdained their cute  recipe titles like “Tuna Luck Shen Gro Sing Guhs” or “Foh Nee Shrimp Puffs” (Chinese), “Chicken Oregante con Hutzpah” (Italian), and “Alte Coq Au Vin” or “Knish Lorraine” (French) that disappointingly hid the same dishes found in other kosher cookbooks. This was the late 70s, we were baalei teshuvah, and our attraction to Jewish practice had nothing to do with the Yinglish of our grandparents.

Mostly, however, these cookbooks went unopened because they represented the way our parents cooked. Just as we Jewish Catalog-inspired Jews wanted to reinvent Jewish observances, our generation also wanted to reinvent Jewish meals.

Reinvention was in the air. In 1978 we bought the brand new book, Not Chopped Liver! The Kosher Way to Cook Gourmet. This all-fleishig (and pareve) book made lavish use of then-novel non-dairy creamer and pareve sour cream for recipes such as bifteck au poivre, beef stroganoff, and moussaka. That made us feel sophisticated for a while, but we knew this “chemical” stuff really wasn’t good for us. In 1984, we discovered Helen Nash’s Kosher Cuisine:: Over 250 Gourmet Recipes for the Modern Kosher Home.  Nash groups many traditional Ashkenzi favorites such as gefilte fish, potato kugel, chicken soup and cholent in a back section on holiday cooking, and sprinkles a few others throughout, but the book also includes instructions for kosher versions of bouillabaisse, risotto, “Beef in Red Wine with Shallots and Mushrooms,” stir-fried vegetables, and a host of other international recipes that can be made by kosher cooks. Finally, here was a Julia Child for the kosher kitchen.

Kosher cooking has changed a great deal in the last thirty years. We watch our cholesterol, reducing the delicious fat content from Ashkenazi favorites.  We “kosherize” almost any recipe with pareve chicken-flavored bullion, TVP versions of “ground beef,” “sausages,” and other meat look-alikes, soy or rice milk or the old non-dairy creamers. We’ve all discovered exotic cookbooks that teach us about Indian, Thai, Middle Eastern and other cuisines that depend heavily on vegetables.

And we now have fabulous kosher cookbooks available to us. With breath-taking reach, Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkind to New York (Random House, 1996)  introduces us to dishes from Jewish communities throughout the world. Moreover, I have found that Roden’s recipes are written in such a way as to make them very easy to follow.

I have not cooked from Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America (Random House 1998), but I love reading it. Her mix of historical and personal anecdotes make this a very entertaining cookbook. Likewise, I have not yet tried the recipes in Jayne Cohen’s Gefilte Variations (Scribner 2000), but I’m intrigued by the way she has updated traditional favorites in the style of California nouvelle. Susie Fishbein’s concern for elegant presentation—in such books as Kosher By Design: Picture Perfect Food for the Holidays and Every Day (Artscroll 2003), Kosher by Design Entertains (2005), and more (there are now seven volumes in the series)—recalls the sensibilities of Gilded Age German-Jewish cookbooks, but these are fully modern and fully kosher recipes enhanced with eye-popping food photography.

This little review of my personal cookbook shelves comes as I’ve been learning about the history of Jewish cookbooks for our Chosen Food exhibition. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, in , “Kitchen Judaism” (1990), her seminal essay on Jewish cookbooks of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries and Laurence Roth (“Toward a Kashrut Nation in American Jewish Cookbooks, 1990-2000”, Shofar, 2010) have pointed out the ways in which cookbooks reflect the interests and anxieties of their time. Scholars agree that the cooking of a community reveals so much more than a collective decision on taste.

The books I’ve described above, and so many others, with their admonishments about proper nutrition, suggestions for sophisticated hospitality, and interest in the cuisines of far-flung communities trace changes in American eating patterns that have also affected Jews. They reflect the increasing seriousness with which we take our meals, and hint at the meanings that we invest in food. Indeed, cookbooks that preserve traditions while integrating the newest tastes offer a kind of do-it-yourself manual for being Jewish in today’s America, an updated Jewish Catalog.

My own list of cookbook titles is paltry in comparison to those of you who are passionate collectors of cookbooks. We’d like to hear about your cookbook collectioin. What do you collect? Why do you find cookbooks so interesting? How does your collection of cookbooks fit into your life? Send us a picture (kfalk@jewishmuseummd.org) of yourself surrounded by your collection and we may post it on the Chosen Food website (coming soon) or include it in our exhibition!

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Over at the JMM blog we talk about: Lunch! Cookbooks: An Addendum

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