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COOKBOOK REVIEW

So You Think You Know From Jewish Food?

March 19, 1997|ANNE MENDELSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

THE BOOK OF JEWISH FOOD: An Odyssey From Samarkand to New York By Claudia Roden (Alfred A. Knopf: $35; 668 pp.)

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Can anyone imagine a more confusing moment at which to compile a panoramic survey of Jewish food? In America, the old outlines of Jewish cooking were weirdly redrawn when schmaltz-and-chopped-liver cuisine fell into dietary disrepute and a large, sublimely ignorant non-Jewish audience discovered miracles like blueberry-pecan bagels.

Forty or 50 years ago, most people in this country would have defined Jewish cooking as the food of the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazic Jews whose families came here from northern and eastern Europe between about 1880 and 1920.

Not that this cuisine appeared all of a piece to those reared on it. It represented many pockets of tradition from Cologne to Kiev.

As they put down roots, the immigrants tended to suspect not just the food of non-Jews but that of other Jews. Even those who didn't keep kosher homes were quick to close ranks against outsiders. A telling passage of Mimi Sheraton's "In My Mother's Kitchen" mentions the Seder food of one relative by marriage:

Wilma was Hungarian, and I would hear my mother say "they" did such terrible things as putting ground almonds in the gefullte fish, which made it heavy, and grated carrots, which made it sweet.

For a long time, the major Jewish communities of the big Northern cities were intensely parochial. They generally ignored the presence of non-Ashkenazic Jews and often found it hard to imagine that Jews existed in strange places such as the American South.

Then came eye-opening changes. First was the example of Israel, where a stirring and inharmonious reunion of many peoples scattered by the Jewish Diaspora began nearly half a century ago. Waves of American immigration from unfamiliar sources dealt further shocks to their notion of Jewishness.

Suddenly the descendants of the already miscellaneous Ashkenazic Jewish community faced multiple invasions from the former orbit of the Sephardim. These were the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who found refuge from the Inquisition in North Africa and the Middle East and eventually traveled as far east as India.

It has not been easy for those who hark back to visions of borscht-circuit blowouts and people just off the plane from Iraq, Iran, North Africa, Syria or Uzbekistan to recognize each other's cooking as "Jewish."

The person who could do justice to all this would have to be quite a researcher--and something more. The unique difficulty and joy of the subject lie in the way Jews have belonged yet not belonged to every land ever affected by the Diaspora. The writer able to bring these complexities to life has to be not just a traveler but a true exile.

I would not slight various authors who have produced recent international Jewish recipe collections of merit. But in all honesty, none remotely approaches the qualifications of Claudia Roden, a Sephardic Jew who was driven out of Egypt not several millenniums ago but as a very young woman during the 1956 Suez crisis. Her parents fled to England, and eventually she married into an Ashkenazic family from Russia. She writes that her father's family viewed this sort of intermarriage as "a mesalliance and a major catastrophe" and that her new mother-in-law "announced at once that she was sorry but she would not eat my fancy food."

"The Book of Jewish Food" is thus the work of a quintessential outside-insider, someone who has seen parochial (and great) worlds collide. More than 16 years in the making, it has much to say to American Jews precisely because Roden devotes most of her attention to other traditions. People who go looking for their own special corner of this immense historical mural may not see just what they expect, but that's the point.

The recipes are divided into two large groupings, each introduced by a lucid and thought-provoking historical essay. The second section, "The Sephardic World," contains about three times as many dishes as "The Ashkenazi World." This in itself will startle many American purchasers. More surprises are in store as they page through the Ashkenazic section and discover what is and isn't included.

Borscht and schav (sorrel soup) are disposed of with one recipe apiece and little talk of their niceties or many variants. Forget about sablefish, whitefish salad, onion rolls, Linzer cookies or sour cream coffee cake.

Many of the Ashkenazic recipes are from France, England or elsewhere, e.g., oignons aux marrons, poule-au-bouillon, fried gefilte fish (found only in Britain) and a version of teiglach (hard pastry nuggets coated with honey syrup) attributed to Lithuanian Jews in South Africa. Familiar American Jewish dishes become unfamiliar in Roden's handling: Her rye and pumpernickel breads have little in common with our favorite bakery versions, and touches like putting fast-acting yeast into bagel dough may draw indignant complaints.

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