Do you ever wish you could look at photos of random things from the past? What if you could take a look inside your grandmother’s refrigerator on an average day, during Passover or before a family party? But these are not the images we tend to capture, the everyday background shots like the kitchen table before it is cleared or the cluttered counter in the midst of food prep.
Since we don’t have many of these types of images, we need to look for clues elsewhere. And that is why I was so thrilled to discover my grandmother’s 1971 Miami neighborhood cookbook, appropriately titled A Memorable Culinary Digest. I am so grateful to my sister for passing it on to me.
The women who put the book together were largely first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe living side by side in cinderblock Miami condos with backyard alligators and perfect orange trees. I used to visit my grandparents there, and I remember their neighbors, many European Jewish immigrants who settled in Miami via New York City.
Passover" width="400" height="275" srcset="http://jewishfoodexperience.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/miami-cookbook-passover.jpg 400w, http://jewishfoodexperience.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/miami-cookbook-passover-300x206.jpg 300w, http://jewishfoodexperience.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/miami-cookbook-passover-127x87.jpg 127w" sizes="(max-width: 400px) 100vw, 400px" />While the book makes no claims to be Jewish, a glance at the names attached to the recipes—Singer, Segal, Rozen and Weiss—tells you that this group was overwhelmingly Jewish. The women who compiled this book clearly did not see it as an intentionally “Jewish” project the way we would today. Surrounded by other Jews, they assimilated into America; they squeezed fresh citrus and learned their way around Chinese menus.
I wonder if these women mostly cooked Eastern European Jewish food at home, but felt the need to submit “fancy” recipes to the cookbook; perhaps they swapped recipes like Lobster Cantonese and Chesapeake Bay Crab Cakes and then snuck inside to make stuffed cabbage or sprinkle sugar on grapefruit halves.
Every time I open the book I am overcome with memories and mixed emotions. I am proud of these women for their fundraising prowess. I am uncomfortable with their apparent desire to assimilate and leave Jewishness and Europe far behind. And I feel privileged to get a sneak peek into their real kitchens, their fantasy kitchens and a moment in time in which being Jewish was really different than it is today.
The cookbook includes recipes that are loudly and proudly unkosher. It is hard not to be shocked by the inclusion of Cheese and Bacon Roll Ups on page 1. There is the heavy flirtation with “Oriental” foods. If you don’t feel like attempting a recipe like the Egg Foo Young Pancakes, you can find the phone number for the “Elegant Dining at the New Hong Kong Restaurant” in the ad space at back of the book. Yes, these smart women didn’t just compile the cookbook and sell it; they also sold ad space.
But dig a little deeper, and you find strong a strong Jewish base for this book. Along with the expected “Meat” and Vegetable Varieties” chapters and an amazing 30 recipes for “Molds” or gelatin dishes, they include Passover and dairy chapters. Sprinkled throughout the book there are plenty of Jewish comfort foods, including competing kugel recipes, kasha varnishkas, blintzes, briskets and a recipe called “Thick Jewish Vegetable Soup.”
The Passover chapter includes a short introduction that covers the Seder plate components and the hilariously understated sentence, “Passover, although only eight days long, somehow creates a problem to most people when it comes to meal planning.” I love that this book comes from a time when the writers could make no effort to create a Jewish cookbook, but were steeped enough in community that a Passover chapter was an assumed and essential piece.
While writing this article, I discovered another important Jewish anchor in this book. I knew that the book was a fundraising effort for a hospital in Denver because it is discussed in the introduction. A little research shows me that the Denver Hospital still exists, but is now called National Jewish Health. The institution has amazingly progressive roots and treated all patients free of charge, including Jewish immigrants with tuberculosis.
The cookbook organizers held the last ad square for themselves. They used the space to report that they had already sold 3,000 cookbooks and sent thousands of dollars to “our hospital” in Denver. I can almost imagine these women going door to door in my grandmother’s condo complex to sell cookbooks to their neighbors. While some of the recipes in the cookbook seem a bit flighty, its creators were on a serious mission: they were helping to provide medical care for all who needed it. And for that I am more than willing to forgive the Cheese Bacon Roll Ups auspiciously positioned on the very first page.