The Book of Jewish Food
by Claudia Roden
1996. 658 pages, 800 + recipes.
You know that charged-up feeling you get when you learn something exciting, and your impulse is to run to the nearest person and say, "Guess what I just found out?!"? That's the feeling I got time and again when I was reading The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden, a pre-eminent London-based food writer. I never knew Jewish migration extended as far as India and China.(The book has a delicious fish curry from a Jewish community in India). I never knew the word "ghetto" came from the Venetian word for foundry, the name given the original Jewish Quarter in Venice since it was next to an old cannon-making foundry. I never knew.....well, I never knew a lot of things that I do now thanks to The Book of Jewish Food.
This nearly 700-page book represents Roden's fifteen year odyssey that sprang from the question, "Is there such a thing as Jewish food?" Her quest lead her around the world into home kitchens and historical societies. During that time she amassed reams of research notes and old family recipes; she was treated to countless home-cooked meals and heard stories from family, friends and strangers eager to help her. (Some of her more unusual sources were a 13th century Syrian cooking manual and a resident of a Jewish old people's home in Venice.)
The Book of Jewish Food is both scholarly and personal. The first chapter opens with her memories of a warm, secure childhood in Cairo. Uprooted by the1956 Israeli-Egyptian war, the family migrated to the alien culture and dank climate of London. "When you are cut off from your past, that past takes a stronger hold on your emotions," writes Roden. This sentiment is part of Jewish culture and her own life, and echoes throughout the book.
Throughout the two-thousand year Diaspora, Roden writes, the Jews have continually "adapted to and adopted" the cooking styles of where they lived, but "never lost their cultural identity." She concludes that their perapeticic history combined with their adherence to dietary laws of kashrut have been the key influences in Jewish style cooking. (For those of us sketchy about those dietary laws and other Jewish traditions - the Sabbath and holidays- and their culinary influence, Roden offers a two-chapter overview.)
The bulk of the book is divided into two parts, covering the two cultural branches of Judaism: the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi. We Westerners are more familiar with the Ashkenazi whose roots are in Russia, Germany, and Eastern Europe. For many of us the Sephardi are more of a mystery. These are the Jews whose roots are in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Asia.
The recipes Roden includes evoke the different worlds of the Ashkenazi and Sephardi. When I made the Askenazi Chicken Liver with Onions, a dish of good straightforward sustenance, I could imagine a family drawn together on the Sabbath in a Lower East Side tenement or in a hut in a shtetl on the Russian plains. The Poulet aux Dattes (Chicken with Dates), a Sephardic pleasure dome of sweet and spicy, called forth images of family and friends relishing a bountiful spread as a warm jasmine-scented breeze wafts through their inner courtyard. I realize I have characterized Sephardi as the "have's" and the Ashkenazi as the "have not's", and Roden does say the Sephardi were, generally speaking, better off than the Ashkenazi. She also says that historically there was a certain enmity between the two branches: Shephardi considered Askenazi to be unrefined peasants steeped in orthodoxy. Ashkenazi disapproved of what they considered to be the hedonism and assimilation of their southern counterparts.
The text is filled with fascinating old photographs which offer unique
and intimate glimpses into Jewish life of a bygone era. Some are formal
family portraits. Others show scenes from daily life: one photo is of
housewives in Bialystok taking their cholent pots to the bakery, another
shows news-boys in Greece hawking the Jewish newspaper
Roden admits that it was not always easy to discern the thin line between cultural adoption and adaptation in certain dishes. There are some recipes in which I could not detect any nuances that gave them a particularly Jewish character. The Alsatian onion tart didn't seem much different from other recipes I've seen for this Alsatian classic in French cookbooks. (Just because this recipe was obtained from the "best Jewish cook in Alsace" doesn't seem enough to qualify it as Jewish.)
Much to my surprise, The Book of Jewish Food turned out to be a good brush-up course on world events from the distant past. World history and Jewish history are often intertwined. The Enlightenment opened up a closed society and Jews were able to begin the process of integrating socially and economically into the local culture. The Spanish Inquisition destroyed the last vestiges of the "golden age" of Jewish culture in Spain. Roden tells a harrowing story of how Inquisitors routed out Jews by going into neighborhoods on Saturdays, knowing that the only houses without cooking smells would be those of the Jews observing the Sabbath. The consequence was death, often at the stake. (Here was another eye opener for me: the Jews generally fared much better under Muslim rule than Christian rule.)
"Local food becomes Jewish when it travels to new homelands." Roden sets forth a culinary legacy of the Diaspora it appears on the dinner table today. Sour cream and kasha are a legacy from the Jews of Russia and the Ukraine. Stuffed pepper and strudel was probably an adaptation of local foods by Jews in Turkey. Pasta that show up in German Jewish classics like kugel and kreplach was brought from Jewish traders in Venice in the 14th century. And as closely as Roden can figure, that New York classic, pastrami, is a permutation of salted meat dish from ancient Persia.
I've browsed through other Jewish cookbooks before, but this is the first one that made the story of Jewish food come alive for me. "Perhaps one of the greatest pleasures is that of new awareness." (That's a quote from writer Jack Butler.) Those words perfectly articulate my experience with The Book of Jewish Food.