In 1999, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington asked members to submit recipes of favorite foods with memories of family and holiday celebrations. The following article is a response to Matzah Balls & More, the resulting recipe book.
Expectations run high when it comes to community cookbooks like this one, Matzah Balls & More. Most readers anticipate that they’ll find within its pages a recipe that will jog their memories of home, put them in mind of a beloved holiday celebration or set them to thinking about how the ingredients of certain dishes are handed down, from generation to generation, much like an heirloom.
That was my expectation, too, but things turned out differently. Looking for something familiar and comforting, I came across something novel and strange instead: a recipe for Spinach Rhubarb Soup. In all my years of exploring the culinary history of America’s Jews, I had never, ever encountered this particular combination of ingredients. Nothing even came close.
The recipe had me stumped. It wasn’t just that I had considerable difficulty imagining a congenial relationship between rhubarb and spinach, its two ingredients—one deep green in color, the other bright pink—swimming happily side by side in the pot. A vision of what Spinach Rhubarb Soup might actually taste like also eluded me. To compound matters, the dish blurred the line between hot and cold—it could be served either way—and, in calling for both chicken broth and sour cream, its recipe dissolved the traditional Jewish border between meat and milk products.
At every turn, Spinach Rhubarb Soup gave me pause. In its unruliness, this item seemed to me to be more in keeping with our contemporary penchant for mixing and matching the most unlikely of ingredients—for crossing boundaries, in food, as in life—than a recipe from the good old days.
Speaking of which, Spinach Rhubarb Soup did not come with a back story or even the smallest nugget of historical detail. I would have liked to have been able to place this concoction on a timeline or within a specific geographical context, but I had little to go on.
When was this soup served, I wondered, and where did it come from? Eastern Europe? The Balkans? The American south? Was it a family favorite, the invention, perhaps, of Elinor L. Horwitz and “her buba,” in whose memory it was submitted?
My questions accumulated. Could it be that Spinach Rhubarb Soup represented a creative and artful reworking of two traditional soups of the Jewish kitchen, borscht and sorrel, in which rhubarb was substituted for beets and spinach for sorrel, and then combined? Did Mrs. Horwitz have a surfeit of rhubarb and spinach in her garden, inspiring her to come up with this concoction? Did she even have a garden?
Tantalizingly incomplete, a culinary mystery of the highest order, this particular recipe left me hungering for more.