Dear Shaina,

Your Day School Cookbook inspiration made me laugh…and question your revisionist memory. I remember the recipes being preposterous. I actually crawled up into the attic to search for that very first cookbook. Perhaps there were other Mother’s Day cookbooks that contained your stacked tuna wonder, but the one I found from kindergarten, nearly 20 years ago, contained your unique culinary interpretation of Lasagna a la Esther:

Get this certain kind of noodle. Cook it in the microwave for three hours. Then get two cups of cottage cheese and three cups of tomato sauce. Just put it all in the microwave. There’s enough for about 20 people.

At six years old, you got the basics. The noodles were funny looking. Ricotta cheese does look a lot like cottage cheese. I am sure I reheated leftovers in the microwave and it seemed like it took forever. I was most impressed with how early it became obvious to you that your mother cooked large quantities of food…enough for 20!

Cookbooks give you a lot more than just recipes. My collection of cookbooks from cities I have lived in, temples I have belonged to and Jewish organizations I have joined have anchored me in my roots, educated me about my community and exposed me to a range of regional tastes and customs.

When I moved to Birmingham from the northeast 32 years ago, I was lost—surrounded by foreign accents, unrecognizable foods (okra?) and very polite, gracious and well-dressed Jews. How would I ever find my home in this community?

I joined the JCC, the synagogue and Hadassah. I got a job in the Jewish community. I put on my make-up and changed out of my jeans and attended new member events and committee meetings. And I bought the temple cookbook, Cook & Tell. 

Every Jewish cookbook has its briskets and kugels, babkas and blintzes. I relied on Cook & Tell for its southern orientation: corn pudding and sweet potato pies, cheese straws and tomato tarts and barbecued everything—beans, chicken, brisket! When Dad brought home bushels of yellow squash—one of those unrecognizable foods—I went to my Cook & Tell for guidance.

As I got more involved in the community, I started to recognize some of the names next to the recipes. I learned who the good cooks were, and that there was a subset of cooks who didn’t tell. I even managed to get my hands on a few of those recipes. I started to feel at home.

I was helping out at the temple gift shop one Sunday not so long ago, and a box of leftover Cook & Tell cookbooks resurfaced. My copy is pretty worn so I bought another one. This history of recipes is part of my history now. It doesn’t matter that there are three variations of Squash Casserole by three different people. These cooks welcomed me into their kitchens and gave me permission to create my own version of Southern Squash Casserole.

From kindergarten at the Birmingham Jewish Day School to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, your education and your cooking skills are progressing very nicely. You probably already have a good local cookbook to help you feel at home in Israel.