I come from a mixed marriage, a mishmash. Dad was Jewish, oy vey was he Jewish, but he fell in love with my mom, 30 years his junior, a Catholic au pair from the French speaking part of Switzerland, and who’s gonna deny love, right? My dad’s very large family, for starters, and although he remained the loyal son until both his parents died several years into their 100’s, visiting them every Sabbath in their nursing home, suffice it to say his religious practices became very private and personal. Every morning, rubbing my sleepy eyes on the way to the bathroom or breakfast table, I passed the solitary sight of my father standing in the living room davening, rocking back and forth while praying. He never went to temple.
A compromise was struck, presumably, when my parents decided to have children, or perhaps never explicitly, since I came from a family that is gifted in the ways of denial: Rather than choose one faith over the other, my sister and I would have no religious upbringing of any kind, unless you call weirdness an education—secret baptisms and an arkload of other shenanigans. As an adult, my younger (but much wiser) sister, Audrey, headed the spiritual call of her heart by “converting” to Judaism, joining a Temple and being Bas Mitzvah’d, even studying Hebrew. Although my father is no longer with us, he would have been very proud of my sister, whose religious practices are, like his were, deeply personal and heartfelt, perhaps because of the unorthodox journey that connected them to their God.
My own personal connection to Judaism and my father’s heritage is more cultural than religious, and like my sister, I find those parts of myself flourishing in later life. I have undertaken a study of Jewish food, and am particularly interested in how its various traditions, brought by waves of immigrants, have been assimilated into the American food culture. My husband (who was raised Mormon but whom my dad would have deemed an honorary Jew) and I, though our spiritual beliefs tend toward Buddhist, have taken to incorporating Yiddish into our vernacular, and are considering taking classes in this disappearing language because it’s so vunderlekh!
So, without further ado, here is part two of my holiday list, this one focused on the wealth of new Jewish cookbooks and food-related books that would make wonderful gifts.
Encyclopedia of Jewish Food is an A to Z compendium gathered by chef, writer, and rabbi Gil Marks covering 3000 years of global Jewish culinary history. It’s right up my alley, obviously, but honestly this book is hard to put down because it’s so fun to read and not in the least dry or pedantic. Includes over 300 recipes from North African, European, Persian, Russian and even Indian traditions. Know somebody who would be interested in the provenance of latkes (from Italian ricotta pancakes) and the formation of the first International Bagel Bakers Union? How restaurateur Arnold Reuben, not only created the famous sandwich, but also what has come to be known as New York style cheesecake? This is the gift for them.
The Kosher Baker Paula Shoyer brings her knowledge of French pastry (she trained at Escoffier in Paris) to bear on the challenges presented by dairy-free Kosher baking, turning out delicious solutions ranging from the quick and simple to elegant, multi-stepped showstoppers. Sure there’s Chocolate Babka here, but also Cinnamon Palmiers, French Macarons (not to be confused with Macaroons), and even Crème Brûlée! Vegans, and those with dairy allergies will love this book, too.
Save the Deli In his ode to the traditional Jewish deli, journalist and author David Sax profiles authentic purveyors of corned beef, chopped liver and matzoh ball soup well beyond the usual New York haunts, singing the praises of delicious schmaltz in Colorado and amazing deli style cured meats in Montreal, and anywhere that old school delis are keeping tasty traditions alive. A fun read, but fair warning--serious cravings will ensue. Gifting idea: wrap it in white waxed paper tied in butcher string with a side jar of pickles.
Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous Foodies will know Joan Nathan from her award-winning cookbooks and PBS series “Jewish Cooking in America,” and now Nathan has turned her sites on the largely unexamined treasures of Jewish cooking in France. Nathan traces 2,000 years of Jewish history en France, discovering how regional French cuisine has intermingled with traditional Jewish cooking and North African flavors brought by the influx of immigrants from Algeria and Morocco. Still, she achieves a tone that is personal, anecdotal, and often moving with portraits of Jewish cooks from every walk of French life.
97 Orchard Is another wonderful study of food and eating among Jewish and other immigrants in early 20th century New York City . Although I already posted about it, I wanted to include this highly recommended book on the list.
What books are you hoping someone will get you for the holidays?
Although Carolyn Grifel has been cooking, baking, and devouring cookbooks since she was old enough to read, it took her four decades to finally devote herself to professional cooking. She received a degree from The French Culinary Institute in 2009, while working at Epicurious.com. Since graduating she’s been a chef for Sweet Deliverance, as well as the executive chef at the historic TA Ranch in Buffalo, Wyoming. She’s currently a private chef for a family of four in NYC, and the enchanted mother of a 10-year-old named Stella.