When Bracha Weingrod and her family moved to Israel in 1974, a professor friend gave them a Yiddish cookbook, Dos Familien Kokh Bookh, published in 1914, as a housewarming gift. Weingrod had been a Yiddish teacher in Winnipeg and Chicago.
Then, while she and her husband were on sabbatical in New York in 1982, a woman who was taping interviews from Jewish women asked her to translate. That sparked her interest in having someone bring her the Yiddish cookbook she had been given eight years before, and she decided to read it.
While living in Jerusalem, Weingrod had founded and run the Israel Dyslexia Association and the Kohl Teachers’ Center and taught at the David Yellin Teachers’ College. After she retired from teaching at the College, she began to translate the cookbook.
The result was The Yiddish Family Cookbook, edited and translated by Weingrod (self-published, Amazon Createspace, paperback, 2010).
What we have now is a charming “documentation of a slice of history,” edited and translated with deep love by a woman with a special love of Yiddish.
Hasia Diner, an American Jewish history professor and author, has written the introduction in which she explains that this cookbook, published in 1914 (and reprinted in 1915, 1922 and 1928), was written to show how to negotiate the American kitchen and American way of life through Yiddish.
The author “claimed to teach immigrant Jewish women how to perpetuate Jewish culture and advance integration into American life through cooking.”
Who was the author? That’s uncertain. The English text in the book was written by lexicographer and writer Alexander Harkavy, and by David Moses Hermalin, a Yiddish author, but there is no proof that either of them wrote the actual cookbook, and research has not uncovered the origin of H. Braun, who was listed as the author of the book.
In the first chapter, H. Braun writes: “Even in the land of plenty – America – one must ‘tease’ the appetite.” So he or she introduces appetizers (forshpeizen) and talks about appetizers, gives a recipe and offers practical and sound advice.
Soups (zupen) yields 25 recipes and advice such as: “The best soup in the world is turtle soup. Turtle is a porpoise, and since this is treif, we Jews make a mock turtle soup, that is, a soup that tastes almost the same.”
The chapter on fish has 11 recipes plus great comments. For example: “The popular fish of our old world was the carp. An American would never eat carp, even if you paid him!”
Meat (fleisch) contains 23 recipes and the author writes: “The English and the Americans are the greatest fressers of meat… Meat for proper cooking should be at least three days old from the time it’s slaughtered.”
About sauces for meat, the author writes that “it is the sauce that plays a great role in giving many foods their taste, but if not prepared correctly the stomach will protest.”
A few Passover recipes are inserted next.
A section on “caring for a sick one” warns us that “people who don’t know how to cook for a sick one can very easily make them even sicker.”
This then runs into salads and sandwiches. And there are a few recipes for pasta, rice and eggs. “A good housewife must always be sure to buy first-class rice and not bargains.”
In the chapter on breads and cakes, with 17 recipes, the author discusses flour and yeast. “Seasoned balebostes [housewives] are able to tell if the dough is ready by sticking a hand in up to the knuckles and pulling it out – if the dough springs back, it is ready to be put aside to rise.”
“The art of making good pastry is very difficult to master,” we are told as we read 17 pastry and pudding recipes.
In the chapter on greens, we learn that “the housewife must know that often a meal without greens does not have much worth.”
Other marks of wisdom include: “There is no better digestive aid than a fruit dessert, if it is made properly.”
Custards, preserves, jams, jellies (“Many good housewives do not know that the best fruit jellies can be made from the peel or rind of fruit.”), pickles, tea, coffee (“Americans make coffee from fine grounds and cook them up and serve the coffee with milk. If the coffee is freshly roasted and freshly ground, it is very good. But since this is rarely prepared this way, it is far from a bargain.”) Final chapters cover tea, ice cream and candies. All in all, there are about 200 recipes.
At the end are excerpts from Harkavy’s English supplement.
“This book is definitely geared to those who love history as much as cooking,” Weingrod, who lives in Jerusalem, says. “It is a picture of a time during the ‘Great Immigration’ when Jewish women were anxious to become Americans or Canadians, when they wanted to imitate their neighbours, speak like them, understand them, buy like them and COOK like them.”
Among the things Weingrod found amusing were descriptions of how to test the heat of an oven, what times of the year are best for herring and other fish, what is harmful for the stomach, how to prevent store owners from cheating unsuspecting women, how to test whether a fish is fresh and how to test if a chicken is young or old.
One must mention the cover illustration from YIVO (the Institute for Jewish Research) and the inside illustrations from the Museum of New York, the Tenement Museum, HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and old post cards. All add to the authenticity of the book.
This is definitely a book for those who cannot resist nostalgia, who love old memories of a time gone by and who have some roots in the immigrant generation of that period.