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Cookbooks

Thursday, 8 August, 2019 - 8:26 pm

If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then the spyglass of a nation’s soul is their cookbooks. 

Jewish cookbooks have changed. Cholent is no longer “a slow-cooking stew of potatoes, beans and meat”. Cholent has “deep emotional significance, a Sabbath favorite, evocative of childhood memories and communities.” The meat of recently published Jewish cookbooks is neither technique nor presentation. There is a dearth of color pictures in most. Instead, they tell the history of the foods, and the story of the people who developed them. In Alsace Lorraine, where Jews were allowed to farm, their geese produced foie gras and confit d’oie. In Lithuania and the rest of Eastern Europe, the Halachic prohibition of boning fish on Shabbat and the availability of cheaper fillers, onion and matzo meal, converged to produce gefilte fish. In Morocco, the Arab mailmen until today plan their deliveries to Jewish homes to coincide with the Shabbat family meal of sechina: “Ah, Mustapha! Azhi hanna! Come on in.”
 
Through our food, we seek to connect to our past, to our grandparents -- and to what connected them. A few years ago, a friend’s daughter emailed us; she had enrolled in a Manhattan culinary school and needed a challah recipe, “but not one from Barnes and Noble”. You can’t cook in a bookstore. 
 
Through food, we connect with each other. Cooking does not take place in a vacuum and as we seek our culinary past, we reach out to each other for community. It feeds upon itself. In one delightful cookbook, the author tells of coming from a Jewish home with two grandmothers who kept kosher but whose family had lost it after they died. She realized, suddenly, twenty years later, that from all her cousins, none kept kosher. “I have to do something,” she decided. Her mother-in-law is a survivor, and in Poland her family had a Jewish restaurant. Standing in Miriam’s kitchen, observing technique, she absorbed a world of loss and a galaxy of continuity.
 
It is the Nine Days. A period of mourning for the destroyed Bet Hamikdash, the Almighty’s address in Jerusalem. We eat no meat during this time. Except Shabbat, when mourning is not appropriate. Except in Morocco, in the village of Debdou, the Italian Jewish refugees (they arrived over two-hundred years ago) maintain a custom of not eating meat during the Nine Days, even on Shabbat. The Jews left Debdou decades ago, for Casablanca, France and Israel. But in the Chabad overnight camp in Mogador-Essouirra, the cook made two dafinas that Shabbat, one with meat and one parve. You are what you eat. What you refrain from eating defines you.
 
And so this Shabbat of the Nine Days, this Shabbat preceding Tisha B’av, the saddest, most miserable day of our calendar, is called Shabbat Chazon – The Sabbath of Vision. For the visionary – the prophets – are able to see rebuilding when others see destruction. In desolation, they see a bustling metropolis. Thrice yearly have you come up to Jerusalem, the prophet’s voice rings, and thrice yearly will you do so again. Thrice yearly families gathered to eat the Yom Tov meal, each family alone, together in Jerusalem. 
 
This time, maintain the visionaries, will be different.  This time in Jerusalem, families will gather for Yom Tov and the customs and the nuances (you can see why the word ‘recipe’ won’t do) of two thousand years will fill the cooking fires with flavor: robust, and piquant, tart and sweet. For in the pots of a people will be written in food a glorious tale of those who never surrendered their identity and never parted with their mission. That spread through centuries as they were, in host countries that spilled their blood like water and sought to deaden their souls, they came through. And they brought those experiences with them. For the Almighty to forever savor in his home. 
 
The aroma, maintain the visionaries, will be intoxicating.
 
 
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