Jew­ish Cui­sine in Hun­gary: A Cul­tur­al His­to­ry with 83 Authen­tic Recipes

By – July 1, 2020

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.

Discussion Questions

András Koerner’s Jew­ish Cui­sine in Hun­gary paints a vivid por­trait of pre­war Jew­ish Hun­gary through its food, its bak­ers, its home­mak­ers, and more. The focus on Jew­ish house­holds and local busi­ness­es shifts the schol­ar­ly gaze from typ­i­cal his­tor­i­cal sub­jects to the realm of work­ing peo­ple and women — fer­tile ground for mean­ing­ful inquiry. The book quotes exten­sive­ly from mem­oirs, cook­books, and peri­od­i­cals of the time with each rich pas­sage rev­el­ing in the minu­ti­ae of dai­ly life. Koern­er mas­ter­ful­ly weaves togeth­er pho­tos, objects, and eighty-three recipes plucked from rare his­tor­i­cal cook­books to trans­port the read­er to Budapest in the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies, to Hun­gar­i­an-Jew­ish hol­i­day tables and rur­al goose farms. Ulti­mate­ly, Koern­er sheds new light on pre­war Hun­gar­i­an Jew­ish life by explor­ing the role food plays in its cul­ture in such inno­v­a­tive ways, and so too does he help us under­stand the Hun­gar­i­an Jew­ish place in broad­er Jew­ish food cul­ture. Jew­ish Cui­sine in Hun­gary will no doubt serve as an essen­tial his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ence for years to come, while also mod­el­ing what’s pos­si­ble in the field of food scholarship.