Like most Jewish families, everything in my family revolves around food. What do we talk about during lunch? What we’re going to have for dinner, of course! For us, food is a way to get the people we love around one table as well as a way to cherish and hold on to our traditions. Growing up, I learned that food is a tangible way of showing love. My family recipes hold a lens into the past, and unlike photos and stories, they allow me to recreate memories and make them new once again.
Most of my childhood revolved around food or at least being in the kitchen: my mom making sloppy Joe’s whenever we had babysitters, my dad making chopped liver for every holiday (and me thinking it was disgusting until I actually had the guts to try it), Grandma Bertie pulling out half-eaten cakes from her freezer to serve for dessert and the smell of my pajamas after brisket had been cooking in the oven all night long. Food triggers memories of people, places, experiences and, most importantly, tradition.
The idea of creating a family cookbook came as I was looking for a way to consolidate all the recipes that I was constantly emailing my dad and other family members for. Wouldn’t it be nice to have it all in one spot? So, I decided to give this whole cookbook thing a go! Step one of putting it together was having family members send me any recipe they had electronically. I also started gathering physical recipe cards with vague information about how to prepare a dish written in my great-grandmother’s scribble. It was as if you were just supposed to know how many cups of flour went into a challah. Common knowledge!
As I sat on the kitchen floor of my parents’ home surrounded by boxes of photos, recipe cards and a binder full of collected favorites, I began noticing some themes of Jewish American cooking in the 1950s. Onion soup mix, cream of mushroom soup, bottles of dressing—these were essential ingredients in many dishes. Everything seemed to be a shortcut from what I assumed the original recipes once were. Was it the convenience of these products that allowed them to be integrated into an ever-assimilating Jewish American culture?
During the 1950s and 1960s grocery stores were filled with boxes, cans, jars and frozen food—anything to cut your cooking time in half. To make dinner, all you needed was a Radar Range and a can opener! Baby Boomers were diverging from the laborious meal preparation of their parents’ generations. These recipes of convenience provided me with insight into not only my family’s history, but also the history of Jewish immigrants in the United States.
I have been working on a family cookbook for a few months now, and every time I find a new recipe to include, a new story or memory emerges. Every family has their story, and every family has their traditions and unique way of doing things. Recipes hold a glimpse into the past and provide a method of keeping those memories alive through food, giving me an opportunity to take a look back in time.