Readers looking for a typical cookbook may be alarmed when they dig into this gorgeous volume. While the subtitle advertises eighty-three authentic recipes, neither many of the ingredients (goose, carp, giblets, boiled beef) nor the techniques (stuffing goose necks, making pudding from smoked beef) seem particularly accessible. Yet this book is quite irresistible.
In this, his fourth volume on Hungarian Jewish life from the mid-nineteenth century to 1940, András Koerner explores his culture’s history through the lens of food. He begins with kashrut regulations, noting Hungarian traditions like requiring a Jew — even a child — to be present for a cow’s milking, or the way the shochet would send the treyf hindquarters to non-Jewish butchers. He also explains distinctions between Ashkenazi and Sephardic customs. Koerner then looks at recipe collections and cookbooks, acknowledging that they might not reflect what people (mostly women) actually prepared; while elaborate desserts might have required recipes, everyday meals did not. “People,” he reminds us, “eat dishes and not cookbooks.” (Koerner, like his close colleague the late Gil Marks, is endearingly sensible.) But now that the table is laid, so to speak, he discusses holiday fare as well as the necessarily less exciting weekday meals. After covering the what and how of characteristic dishes, he delves into who ate with whom, home versus versus restaurant fare, and the role of institutional and commercially prepared food. Koerner closes by examining some iconic foods — challah, gefilte fish, cholent, kugel — in more detail. He has no problem bringing up unanswerable mysteries — like why kindli cookies, shaped to resemble swaddled babies, were baked for Purim. But what he can explain — why that dumpling in the cholent was called a ganef; it stole flavor from the stew — is unforgettable. So, too, are the many fine illustrations he has lovingly selected, bringing an erased world to our eyes.
None of this would be engaging for the general reader were it not for Koerner’s delightfully omnivorous intellect. For him, all aspects of how Jewish people ate are important — from the ways kashrut was observed to the ways it was violated, from the lavish tables of wealthy homes to the humble offerings of orphanages and soup kitchens. The meals of assimilated Jews are given the same significance as those of the observant. He’s honest about food he personally couldn’t stand, like his mother’s cloying “sweet milk soup,” or dishes he might try but hasn’t yet, like cholent eggs cooked in ashes. There are even a couple pages on bicarbonate of soda, the indispensable antidote to many of these recipes. Koerner also highlights proverbs that relate to food (der kugl ligt im afn ponim, or “He’s got kugel all over his face,” meaning he really looks Jewish), careful to give both the original Yiddish and the translation.
Beyond the honesty and charm, it’s Koerner’s commitment to defying Nazi destruction, to saving Hungarian Jewish culture, that makes this book so compelling. Jewish Cuisine in Hungary is righteous scholarship.
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.