Jewish Life in Food
To my family fortune, recipe boxes remain from my mother and my great-aunts, adored sisters to my grandmother. Kugels, blintzes and gefilte fish are remembered delicacies, dishes that bring nostalgia and love of family to the table.
Keeping kosher was important to my great grandfather, Menachem Mendal, first American patriarch of the Rabkin clan. He maintained a religious lifestyle and often acted as a self-deputized inspector, scrutinizing back rooms of food establishments for kosher purity. A man of colorful idiosyncrasies and a passion for the simple and pure, he often would suck raw eggs from their shells or eat the thick cream from the tops of freshly opened dairy bottles.
My first cousin, now living in Israel, also observes the kosher laws. She religiously continues this family tradition in ways that seem in contrast to my own life here in California, where the connection to my ancient food heritage has thinned over time and distance from Russia. Perhaps this is what draws me to the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley.
Recently, the Magnes Museum, the third largest collection of Jewish art and Judaica in the United States, expanded its investigation of Jewish food culture through a new five-lecture series entitled “Taste Matters.” The series uses a cross-disciplinary lens of art, anthropology, religion and history and was developed by Carin Jacobs, the Magnes Museum’s Curator of Education and a serious food study enthusiast. She procured funding through the University of California Humanities Research Institute to present several UC professors speaking on Jewish food topics.
The series opened with UC Professor Ron Hendel’s discussion of biblical order, showing how food expresses social relationships throughout Jewish times. The second lecture presented author Dylan Schaffer’s reading and discussion from his book, “Life, Death & Bialys: A Father/Son Baking Story,” an account of finding family connection through a baking class at the French Culinary Institute in New York City.
As the series resumes Thursday March 15 at 6:30 p.m., UCLA Professor Eleanor Kaufman looks at western Jewish farming practices in “Keeping Kosher on the Prairie, Keeping Chickens in Petaluma.” May 31, brings Professor Alisa Braun from UC Davis with the topic of contemporary cinema; “Kosher Hollywood: Jews, Food, and Film.” The series concludes August 16 with UC Berkeley Professor Benjamin Wurgaft with “Exotic, Nostalgic, Bizarre: Jewish Food in the Eyes of American and European Food Writers.” His discussion looks at the “complex attitudes towards Jewish difference and the possibilities of maintaining a Jewish identity in the modern world.” All Taste Matters lectures begin at 6:30 p.m. and admission is $8 non-members; $6 members.
Using material culture from the past and present, the lecture series looks at and organizes a new body of Jewish food scholarship in the richly inviting environment of the Judah L. Magnes Museum, 2911 Russell St., Berkeley, CA 94705; (510) 549-6950; www.magnes.org. Regular museum hours are Sun. and Wed., 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Keeping to the goal of promoting food studies, the museum is also host to CHoNC, the Culinary Historians of Northern California, a gathering of authors, academics and food history enthusiasts who meet to explore and discuss their ideas and discoveries. Focused on the role of food and drink in human history, topics have ranged from the thirty-year anniversary of the Judgement of Paris, the taste comparison between French and California wines, to the history of beans. All cultures are represented by this eclectic group. As a participating member, I continually find excitement at looking at food from the historical perspective. CHoNC meetings are generally free and open to the public. www.chonc.com.
A Collection of Cookbooks
On a recent visit to the Magnes, I felt as if I was stepping back into some mysterious corner of my own history as I peered into a box of literary treasures—a carefully tended set of Jewish cookbooks that were stored in the museum’s temperature-controlled rare book room.
Museum materials about food give us “contextual background and information about the people that we are studying and researching,” says Aaron T. Kornblum, archivist for the Western Jewish History Center and acting librarian at the Magnes Museum’s Blumenthal Library. Kornblum tends to these printed culinary heirlooms—preserving, describing, cataloging and indexing so that they might be shared with the public and university community, onsite and eventually on the Internet.
Among the library holdings rests a copy of the first Jewish cookbook printed in the United States, an 1871 hardcover entitled, “The Jewish Cookery Book on Principles of Economy Adapted for Jewish Housekeepers.” Another book is an edition of the first Jewish cookbook printed in English. Published in London, England in 1846, the “Jewish Manual or Practical Information in Jewish and Modern Cookery” is “edited by a lady.” These rare books are in very good condition and form an illustrative history of printed books spanning from 1846 to 1937. “Kockbuck fur die Judische Kuke” (Cookbook for the Jewish Cook), published in Berlin, is perhaps the last such book published in Germany before Kristallnacht, Crystal Night, the Night of Broken Glass, in 1938.
Also in the collection is a 1906 edition of “Aunt Babette’s Cookbook“ by Bertha F. Kramer, originally published in 1889 in Ohio. This instructional guide for young homemakers is a comprehensive and highly detailed compilation of recipes and helpful tips to keep the home operating as efficiently as the man’s business. Intended for Bertha’s daughters and granddaughters, this cookbook contains heirloom information on preparing all meals and running the household.
The wife’s duties are noble. “Health relies on properly selected and prepared food made palatable.” Nothing goes unused in Babette’s kitchen. “Food improperly prepared is a waste.” Aunt Babette’s collection of recipes is wide in scope, yet also includes proper advice on servants, marketing, work, dishwashing, and preserving lunches for travel and picnics. The recipe for cleaning cream is truly an artifact of 1889 as it involves an intricate mixture of ether, alcohol, ammonia, glycerin and white Castile soap, finely chopped and then softened in heated water. A recipe for a lifetime, Babette guarantees, “this will last forever.”
Another homemade remedy is a flaxseed lemonade, offered as an “excellent remedy for coughs.” Made by steeping five tablespoons of whole flaxseed in one quart of warm water and juice of three lemons, it thickens in three hours, after which it is strained, sweetened to taste, and chilled with ice.
One chapter, entitled “Easter,” turns out to contain special recipes and table settings for Pesach, the Passover supper celebrating the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt thousands of years ago. Passover-safe recipes for cakes, puddings and sauces follow the religious laws of Judaism and the time-honored food traditions maintained on this holiday. Exotic and tempting recipes include matzo kugel, mandlebrot, chrimsel fried in goose oil, and an apple Charlotte made with matzo.
As the Judah L. Magnes Museum offers us these opportunities to study the customs of food preparation from the Jewish perspective, we are reminded that our identities and cultural sensibilities are interwoven with our food heritage. This heritage is an imprint in any given society, an interactive pattern that provides both nourishment and a spiritual guide through the ages.
Aunt Babette’s Apple Charlotte
½ lb fine suet
6 apples thinly sliced
Yolks of 7 eggs
Bake one hour.
Note: What Aunt Bebette assumes we would know is that the matzos should be soaked and then squeezed of excess water. The egg yolks should be mixed with the sugar and cinnamon, and then the suet, matzos, raisins, almonds and apples are mixed in. The beaten egg whites would be folded into the mixture before it is placed in a baking dish and baked for 1 hour at 325 degrees
Suet is raw, uncooked, beef or mutton fat, especially the hard fat found around the loins and kidneys. It melts at about 70°F. The primary use of suet is to make tallow in a process called rendering, which involves melting and extended simmering, followed by straining and cooling. You might substitute butter in this recipe, however, the dish would no longer be kosher for Passover.