Ear­ly Jew­ish Cook­books: Essays on Hun­gar­i­an Jew­ish Gas­tro­nom­i­cal History

  • Review
By – October 16, 2022

Read­ers famil­iar with the work of András Koern­er, whose ency­clo­pe­dic Jew­ish Cui­sine in Hun­gary won the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award in 2019, might won­der if the author has exhaust­ed his top­ic. But with Ear­ly Jew­ish Cook­books, Koern­er proves there’s always room for more. In eight essays he homes in on Jew­ish recipes and cook­books in nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Europe, espe­cial­ly Hun­gary. After all, Hungary’s first Jew­ish cook­book was the third to be pub­lished any­where in the world; and through­out the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, Hun­gary remained a lead­ing pub­lish­er of Jew­ish cook­books. But that first Jew­ish cook­book was actu­al­ly writ­ten by a Catholic chef in 1815. Why did hewrite it? What makes a cook­book Jew­ish if the writer isn’t? Who was the audi­ence for such cook­books and what infor­ma­tion were they seek­ing? Was the pur­pose of a Jew­ish” cook­book to adapt haute cui­sine for the kosher home, or to find recipes for tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish dish­es, like chal­lah or cholent?

Koern­er may have set out to do a well-ordered his­to­ry (iden­ti­fy­ing pub­lish­ers, book­sellers and, of course, authors of key cook­books), but real­i­ty, he writes, set in quick­ly. Many cook­books were pub­lished with­out any author attri­bu­tion or under a pseu­do­nym. Then the author ques­tion” became over­shad­owed by the pla­gia­rism prob­lem; recipes were rou­tine­ly recy­cled from one cook­book to anoth­er. For­tu­nate­ly, Koern­er knows his ter­ri­to­ry, so he makes use­ful obser­va­tions. Jew­ish cook­books of this peri­od, for exam­ple, were more like­ly to have female authors, while non-Jew­ish cook­books were usu­al­ly writ­ten by men. The ear­li­est Jew­ish cook­books didn’t both­er explain­ing how to set up a kosher kitchen, pre­sum­ably because girls still learned from their moth­ers, where­as lat­er books gave explic­it direc­tions. These par­tic­u­lar insights offer a rare glimpse into the mind­set of the cook­book buyer/​user — which would make a great next project for Koerner.

Koern­er fol­lows each essay with a sam­pling of recipes from the cook­books he’s high­light­ed, giv­ing read­ers a chance to make their own dis­cov­er­ies. We might notice, for exam­ple, that cooks had to smash their own sug­ar — it wasn’t yet sold gran­u­lat­ed. Some recipes men­tion unex­pect­ed ingre­di­ents, like anise, or parme­san and Swiss cheeses. Bread could be store-bought or home­made, but noo­dles and strudel dough were made at home. At times, Koern­er iden­ti­fies recipes as treyf because they min­gle meat and fish (anchovies with chick­en, for exam­ple), which might sur­prise some readers.

Bet­ter than the recipes, though, are Koerner’s sto­ries. Con­sid­er his great-grandmother’s com­ment about the dubi­ous kashrut of the food her daugh­ter was mak­ing for her. What­ev­er you give me is kosher,” she said. I will not ask and you should not tell.” András Koern­er may have come late to his call­ing as a culi­nary his­to­ri­an, but now he’s leav­ing us hun­gry for more.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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