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Sunday, October 4, 2015

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Food helps us remember lost communities

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Jean Gerber

Food is our final frontier. Go where no cook has gone before – especially between Purim and Passover, I seem to think of nothing but food.

Our annual Torah reading begins with the most famous fruit tree of all, the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the primordial garden, the supposed cradle of humanity and origin of evil. Sort of a foodie Jewish Pandora’s box.

Eve’s snack, “the fruit of that forbidden tree which brought death into the world and all our woe” (Milton), is the first indication of the importance food will play in our tribal future. Recall the honey that Samson scoops out of the lion as he trots toward his doom at the hands of Delilah. It’s enough to make you go on a diet.

The Land of Israel is pictured as flowing with milk and honey, prolific with the seven species. Liberated Israelites longed for the cucumbers, leeks, melons, garlic and onions they left behind in Egypt. Even then, they were creating a cuisine.

I learned the craft of kosher cooking from books and cooks. A Pennsylvania German background wasn’t useful. I had mentors who set up our kosher kitchen and helped me acquire recipes to guide me. My matzah balls are still lopsided, however.

Claudia Roden’s cookbook The Book of Jewish Food is alive with the history and cultural meaning of her recipes. She points out that the mobility of the disbursed Jewish communities across the globe gave them access to a huge variety of cuisine, which they adapted to their own needs and dietary restrictions. She calls it “a culture within a culture, a nation within a nation.”

Food is “a link with the past, a celebration of roots, a symbol of continuity.”

Yet most of the communities she writes about are now restricted to the few countries – including Israel, of course – where Jews now live. Upheavals of the 20th century forced a rearrangement of these communities. Recipes that evoke, say, her Egyptian roots, now are cooked by families in other lands. They’re family dishes that are a symbol of that homeland, no longer food created in a place where Jews flourish.

A stark example of displacement is found in the recipes in In Memory’s Kitchen, collected in Terezin. As the introduction notes, “cooking, both doing it and talking about it, was central also to the societies from which many of the women of Terezin… came. It was also among the chief activities that defined them as wives and mothers.” The book is not a cookbook that one might turn to in preparing a dish. It is instead a tribute to the courage of the women who created it, determined to retain their dignity in the face of horror.

I said at the beginning that I had to learn to cook for a kosher household. Perhaps my festival dishes represent a mash-up of the people I have met over the years, and the foods they prepared. So at Rosh Hashanah, we read the Iraqi seder before beginning the meal. A family favourite is the verse about leeks – translated as, “With these leeks may your luck never lack.”

For Purim this year, my granddaughter and I made sand tart cookies to go into mishloach manot – sand tarts being a Pennsylvanian Dutch recipe for that winter holiday. We will also add red velvet cupcakes, which I discovered in New York City.

At Pesach, we will savour huevos haminados (recipe from the Sarajevo Hagaddah), potato kugel from my mother-in-law (Poland), a brisket (Russia? Ukraine?), a loaf of carrots, apples, raisins and honey (Nina Rousso), and a chocolate mousse cake that seems to be a local invention. We also use both horseradish and a date mixture on the seder plate, although the latter seems too sweet to bring bitterness to mind.

For the vegetarian meal, a Sephardi Passover pie, eggplant mina. For a breakfast treat, leek-cheese pancakes (Sephardi) and sugared matzah from Morocco.

What we eat can take us, as Roden tells us, on an “odyssey from Samarkand to New York.” It’s a delicious journey, somewhat like Shakespeare’s audience for Henry V, asked to imagine “within the girdle of these walls confined two mighty monarchies.” Rather, all our lost kingdoms are confined within our tables. Thus we reconstitute whole communities, from the farthest east to the farthest west.

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