NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - First-time author June Feiss Hersh likes to say her book is neither a storybook with recipes nor a cookbook with stories.
“Recipes Remembered: A Celebration of Survival,” which unites 80 stories of holocaust survivors to 175 of their cherished family recipes, is her effort to keep both from fading into history.
An avid cook, Hersh interviewed families from Poland, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Russia, Ukraine and Greece for the book, whose proceeds benefit the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.
When food memories failed celebrity chefs Jonathan Waxman and Daniel Boulud and 24 other culinary professionals pitched in by contributing their own recipes.
Hersh, 56, spoke to Reuters about kosher food, family lore, and the challenges of recreating recipes prepared with “shitterlyne,” a Yiddish word, meaning, literally “without a recipe, or idiomatically, “a little of this, a little of that.”
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: “At a time when these Eastern European accents are beginning to fade and we’re losing this generation, I wanted to try to capture their stories in a positive and uplifting way, from a perspective of food and happy childhood memories.”
Q: How did you find these recipes?
A: “The museum provided me with the first group of names. But when you speak to one holocaust survivor, they invariably will give you the name of the next. So my list just kept growing.”
Q: How would you define Jewish cooking?
A: “In writing the book I learned that Jewish cooking is truly food that is prepared by a Jewish person. We’ve been thrown out of all the culinary communities of the world so we bring with us these traditions from Italy, Spain and France and South America and Shanghai, China. You name a place and there’s been a Jewish community there that’s influenced our cooking.”
Q: What surprised you most about the cuisine?
A: “How eclectic it is. How do you define the cooking of a woman who was born in Germany, exiled and found a home in the Dominican Republic, where she cooked plantains and Weiner Schnitzel? Is she a Jewish cook? Is she a German cook? Is she a Dominican cook? I don’t think people expect to pick up a book about holocaust survivors and find a recipe for Arroz con Pollo.
Q: Are the recipes kosher?
A: “The book is strictly kosher.”
Q: How difficult was it to recreate these recipes?
A: “Women would say, ‘You add an eggshell of matzoth meal, and a ‘bisel’ of sugar.’ I would smile through and think, ‘how am I going to ever make this recipe?’ It’s charming, but you can’t replicate it for a cookbook. So through trial and error I’d assign measurements. A ‘bisel’ resolved into a teaspoon.”
Q: What did the celebrity chefs, restaurateurs and cookbook authors contribute?
A: “The professionals rounded out the memories. Sometimes people could recall the experience of preparing a dish with a parent but not the first thing about recreating it. So instead of having to say ‘Inge Auerbacher remembers a wonderful onion tart from her grandmother who lived in the Alsace region, but she doesn’t have a clue how to prepare it, I found that Jonathan Waxman had one that sounded just like it. He contributed the recipe.”
Q: What are some essentials of a Jewish pantry?
A: “A lot of Eastern European cooking relies on that balance between sweet and sour. Sephardic and Greek cooks will use balsamic vinegar in lentil soup. And much as Italians will add basil at the end, Jewish cooks will add dill. They also use ketchup. And I could talk about paprika for an hour.”
Lily Margules’ Chicken with Prunes Tsimmes (four servings)
1 (3 ½ to 4 pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces (skin can be removed)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cups water
½ cup red wine (or broth)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons honey
2 cups pitted prunes
Kosher salt & pepper
2 russet (or sweet) potatoes (about ¾ pound), peeled and cut into large chunks
Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven, and brown the chicken parts on all sides, over medium heat, about 15 minutes. Pour off the fat and add 1 cup of the water, the wine (or broth), brown sugar, honey and prunes.
Season the dish with salt and pepper and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 1 hour, and then add 1 more cup of water and the potatoes, being sure to tuck the potatoes into the sauce.
Season to taste with salt and pepper. Continue cooking for 45 to 60 minutes or until the potatoes are fork tender. If the sauce is too concentrated, add some boiling water, heat through and serve.