This post has two parts, but both are about resources to help neurodivergent people in the kitchen. One is a very exciting new cookbook coming out, and the other is a list of other beneficial cookbooks.
As a refresher – neurodivergent refers to a series of disabilities that comprise differences in brain structure. Neurodivergent people think and process differently from others. Some types of neurodivergence include autism, ADHD, OCD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, bipolar disorder, intellectual disabilities, and Tourette’s syndrome – among others. (I often use “neurodivergent” or the slang “neurospicy” to describe myself, since “I am autistic and have OCD” is a bit of a mouthful.) Neurodivergence is not always a disability – but it usually is, and like other disabilities, affects cooking.
A Book for Neurodivergent Folks by a Neurodivergent Author!
Good news: there is finally a cookbook coming out by a neurodivergent person, for neurodivergent people! Matthew Broberg-Moffitt is an autistic author who has written Color, Taste, Texture– a cookbook designed for neurodivergent and other cooks with food or texture aversions. These sensitivities are more than a dislike, and few cookbooks for adults effectively address this aspect. The recipes are varied, and meet various common aversions and sensory sensitivities. The book comes out in August; I urge you to pre-order it.
We neurodivergent folks often cook differently, as I have discussed in the past on this site. We experience the senses differently – and aversions and sensitivities often have a greater impact on us. In addition, we often cook with this sensory experience as front-and-center as taste, health, or craving. Yet few books and blogs address this reality – so Broberg-Moffitt’s book is very exciting. It will also be good to see both the way the recipes are presented, and what recipes are in the book. I am looking forward to seeing the book, and I expect to learn myself from this work.
Other Neurodivergent-Friendly Cookbooks
In addition, I wanted to highlight some additional cookbooks that I find to be particularly friendly for neurodivergent folks. Though they are not necessarily designed specifically for someone who is neurodivergent, they do offer things that are helpful – such as substitutions, clear directions, and recipes that do not depend on doing a certain thing a certain way. Note that you will need to read carefully to figure out what things you need for recipes.
Many of the recipes in these books are personal favorites. I hope you enjoy.
Ruby Tandoh’s Cook As You Areis one of the most neurodivergent-friendly cookbooks out there. She includes very detailed, clear directions and offers options if you have trouble with chopping, or standing, or a host of other things. She actively consulted neurodivergent people while creating the book. Her chili-stewed greens with black eyed peas are now a regular thing for me.
Leanne Brown’s Good Enoughis a really good book on imperfect, do what you can cooking with some great ideas and suggestions – including a really great “assembly” bit that guides you through making food out of whatever you find around. I love the “TL;DR” summaries of recipes – but I recommend only using those if you have prior cooking experience.
Gwyn Novak’s How to Cook for Beginnersis an excellent book for those of you just starting out in the kitchen. Even though I’ve been cooking almost my whole life, I myself found the book to have some good recipes.
Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything: The Basicshas lots of really wonderful, direct illustrations and directions and some good recipes as well. This book is a good resource, especially if you eat a lot of vegetables.
Woks of Lifeis a lovely site run by a Chinese-American family that has many delicious recipes, and teaches you the basic “building blocks” of traditional Chinese cooking. If you want detailed instructions on how to prepare a new ingredient, this site is a good place to check.
Just One Cookbook, by Namiko Chen, is an excellent and simple resource for all things Japanese cooking. The directions are straightforward, and she provides excellent advice on techniques – especially for basic things. I use this site all the time.
Jessica in the Kitchen, by Jessica Hylton,is an excellent vegan food blog with excellently explained recipes. This blog has some really wonderful recipes.
My Forking Lifeis an excellent blog with many quick recipes, including those that use air fryers and pressure cookers. Tanya, the author, also includes many of the Jamaican recipes she grew up with.
Laura Mauldin, a professor at the University of Connecticut, has a great website called Disability at Homethat catalogues all sorts of things disabled folks, including neurodivergent people, do to make life more accessible at home. Many of the kitchen things may help you – they have helped me!
One of the great things about Romanian food is that there is something for everyone. Luscious corn porridge, mamaliga, with salty curd cheese, hearty soups, elegant salads, spiced meats, and ethereal fruits. Many communities, including Jews, have lived in Romania and influenced its cuisines – and this shows up in Romanian baking. Germanic, broad-shouldered fruit pies, light shortbreads common across the former Ottoman Empire, and swirled fruit-and-nut breads reminiscent of Eastern Europe all stand side by side. Romania is an underrated baker’s paradise.
Irina Georgescu captures this fantastic diversity in her latest book on baked treats, Tava. This dessert-focused book chronicles both traditional Romanian and Balkan recipes like the plăcintă cu mere – and apple and walnut pie – and gogoşi doughnuts, and newer creations like a crepe recipe with a toffee apple and rosemary sauce. Georgescu writes in a relaxed, yet passionate style, and provides a richly illustrated journey through the diverse regions and culinary traditions of her homeland. This book follows Carpathia, an excellent and not dessert-focused compendium of traditional and modern Romanian cooking.
The recipes in the book are fantastic. One of my personal favorites is the apple and caraway seed loaf cake, which is beautifully simple and very delicious – the juice of the grated apple is what moistens the cake, so it feels luscious and light at the same time. I can also vouch for the malai dulce – sweet cornbread – recipe, and the wonderful pinwheel swirl shortbreads, which were fun to make. Something that I deeply appreciate about the recipes is that the sugar content is much reduced compared to other books, so none of the recipes I have tried are either too sweet or cloying at all. I wonder if this is common across Romanian confectionary, or simply attributable to Georgescu’s (obvious) culinary genius. I’m excited to soon try the courgette (zucchini) fritters and the various pies.
Georgescu openly celebrates the Jewish influence – and other influences – on Romanian cuisine. Some of these are in the recipes that many communities share – for example, noodle puddings or doughnuts. She also adds a well-written and very nice discussion of Jewish baking traditions in Romania at the end of the book, followed by a hamantaschen recipe with plum butter that looks absolutely divine. I appreciated also that hamantaschen were in the section on gifts – after all, they are a traditional part of mishloach manot. Along with the Jewish insert – again, appropriately placed – there are also entries on Hungarian-speaking, German-speaking, and Armenian communities in Romania, with wonderful recipes attached.
Beyond the celebration and the recipes, Georgescu’s book gives one more gift: an excellent antidote to authenticity discussions in food. Georgescu explicitly focuses on the diverse origins of Romanian food, and resists the urge to mush them into a single narrative – in fact, she rejects authenticity! She states,
“I prefer to say ‘this is how we eat in Romania’ – a kaleidoscope of old, traditional and regional recipes, relevant to who we are now.”
I hope many more authors and cookbook creators take this lesson from this excellent book.
DC had its first Capital Jewish Food Festival the day before Sukkot this year. A new museum, the Capital Jewish Museum, is about to open Downtown, and this institution put together and hosted this festival. The goal: celebrate Jewish food loudly, publicly, and in a fun and delicious way in the nation’s capital.
I bought tickets as soon as I heard that this event was happening. After all, how often is there going to be a brand-new Jewish food festival near me – and five blocks from my office, no less? I had a lot of fun, and thought I would write up my experience to share with you. For those of you local to Greater Washington, the festival was held on F Street NW between 3rd and 2nd Streets, right by the Judiciary Square Metro. I got there a bit early – but the crowd really started packing in shortly after I arrived. There were throngs of people!
About fifteen to twenty vendors were present, offering samples for ticket holders and additional delicious things for purchase. Some of my favorites included a fantastic challah apple bread pudding from Bread Furst, Venezuelan flan (very Shavuot-appropriate!) from Immigrant Food, and a fantastic hummus with winter squash from Little Sesame. For those who did not want to limit themselves to samples, there was more to buy. If my pantry had not been already packed, I would have absolutely gotten some delicious baked goods from Baked by Yael (what fantastic challah!).
What I loved about the vendors is that they were neither limited to explicitly Jewish vendors, nor to specific interpretations of Jewish tradition. One stall had a delicious Venezuelan-style flan – which some Jews probably eat at Shavuot, but it was not marketed as either Jewish or for Shavuot. It was a delicious flan that you could eat Jewishly! In addition, other community groups were there as well with their wares – including a Chinese-American heritage association with delicious mooncakes. The message seemed to be “these things are part of Jewish tables too.” This mixing also gave rise to some pairings most would not think of – that flan was an excellent counterweight to the bread pudding I just mentioned.
There were keynote speakers too – including the inimitable Joan Nathan and Michael Twitty. Both held book signings after their talks. I was not able to make Twitty’s because of a prior conflict with his speaking time – though I’ve had the fortune to meet him before, in 2016 – but I was able to meet Joan Nathan! As longtime readers know, I have relied quite a bit on her work over the years as I’ve developed my own Jewish culinary practice and knowledge. She, like Twitty, is incredibly sweet in person. If you have a chance to meet Twitty or Nathan, take it! Meeting your heroes is a fabulous opportunity.
The crowd was awesome – and though it got a bit overcrowded, it was wonderful to see people enjoying the joyfulness of Jewish tradition. A lot of Jewish tradition is indeed “Remember that we suffered,” but there is a streak of joy too, and that is what I like to share. Food is a huge part of that, and this festival amplifies that opportunity for joy. It was really awesome to see Jews and their friends just enjoying a very public day out, eating tasty Jewish things. I heard people introducing their friends to Jewish foods, or talking about what they learned or particularly enjoyed. It was also wonderful to hear folks say things like “I’m not Jewish but I love Jewish food.” The joy of Jewish food really should be for everyone, and I appreciate that the Museum consciously pushed back on the often insular and exclusionary approaches to Jewish cultural celebrations. After all, we are never just Jewish either.
I hope the festival continues next year. I am planning to write to the museum for two suggestions: one on space and one for accessibility. The festival was popular – which is good – but the street space was perhaps too small for the number of folks who wanted to attend. Next year, if possible, I would suggest that they spread out along more than one block to accommodate everyone. Related to that, the seating areas were a bit hidden, which made it hard for folks who cannot stand for a while or eat and walk. These areas should be more clearly marked.
I hope to see you at the festival next year!
The Lillian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum will open soon at 575 3rd Street NW in Washington DC, by the Judiciary Square station on Metro’s Red Line.
Several years ago, Michael Twitty came out with The Cooking Gene, which was a fantastic exploration of African-American culinary history. I gave it a rave review on this blog. That book explored the West African roots of both African-American food and Southern food as a whole, with Twitty’s own personal experience intertwined. Twitty has followed this work with another magnificent book: Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African-American Jew. Twitty writes about his own Jewish journey, the experiences of America’s many Black Jews (both African-American and of other backgrounds), and how these play out both in the kitchen and in White Jewish communities.
Koshersoul is memoir, history, food book, and conversation all at once – and Twitty balances these very deftly. Historical explorations, ethnography, and analysis are intertwined with Twitty’s own well-narrated stories. You learn a lot as a reader – but also come to appreciate not only the intersections Twitty experiences every day, but also the way he can connect these to wider ranges. Twitty also is the rare memoirist that does not come off as self-indulgent – and, in fact, he shows a great deal of empathy and care for the many people he chronicles as well.
The book meanders – which I think adds to its excellence. The stories Twitty tells are not chronological, but rather go back and forth across his life and across history. What this structure does is make the book feel more like a story being told in person, rather than a tome. In addition, because it reflects how we tell stories in person, I found that the structure made it easier for me to envision certain things – particularly when it came to the discussions of food, or some of the more intense stories from Twitty’s Hebrew school teaching years.
I think this book is an important one. White Jews like myself would do well to read it. Twitty is not only unflinching about racism and racial dynamics in the Jewish community, but also the impacts of “mainstream” Judaism’s headlong rush to whiteness on their fellow Jews’ very real lives. There is also a very important analysis embedded in the book of Jewish food culture – and how much of the politics around Jewish food comes from a distinctly unsavory tradition.
The food discussions in the latter part of the book are fascinating, and also have a realness to them that I find refreshing. Discussions of Jewish food are oftentimes sappy with nostalgia or a distinct unrealism about the cultural balance Jews – and especially Jews of color – face. Twitty faces these head on, with frank discussions about the role of enslaved Black folks and domestic workers in cooking Jewish cuisine, their influence on Jewish foodways, and also the balancing Jews by birth and choice do between cuisines and kashrut. I think a lot of Jewish food writing could learn from Twitty in this regard.
Twitty ends his book with some fantastic recipes. These recipes combine West African, African-American, and various Jewish traditions. Some are by him, and some are by the many Black Jews who Twitty worked with as he crafted the book. Keep the book because these recipes are ones you will want to come back to again and again. Two personal favorites are the Jollof Rice and the Tahini-Nokos Dressing.
I am far from the first person to believe that the kitchen can change the world. In fact, such a belief motivated the domestic science movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was largely led by women. This push – though not feminist – sought to give honor and credit to women’s work in the kitchen, and to transform how women ate. Laura Shapiro’s 1986 book Perfection Salad narrates the history and impact of this movement – and how the legacy on the kitchen was “devastating” – and how it also, in many ways, strengthened patriarchy rather than lending respect to women.
The book charts the fascinating history of “domestic science,” the ancestor to today’s “home economics.” The movement stemmed from a desire to standardize and give respect to women’s domestic work – and rather than changing gender norms or the distribution of labor, social reformers sought to do so by standardizing and making scientific this labor. Much of the change happened in cuisine – with ideas of foods being controlled, and determined for nutrition or morals alone rather also for nourishment and flavor. (Hence creations like the book’s titular salad.) The book also charts the way women interested in chemistry and economics were shunted off to the gendered world of home economics – and how this whole development tied in with the popularization of industrial foods. The book is fantastic, and I highly recommend it.
One surprise for me, while reading the book, has been the type of presence Christianity has in many of these reformer’s narratives. I am unsurprised by the presence – social reform has always had a strong Christian overtone – but rather the tenor of it. Many of the reformers presented “orderly” households as analogous to Heaven itself – and one even narrated Heaven as such an establishment! Even as scientific methods were incorporated into home economics, the base of the enterprise was still a very patriarchal one of the woman as keeper of the hearth and imparter of Christian morals (with all sorts of rather biased assumptions attached). Shapiro’s depiction of this phenomenon is unflinching but also deeply engaging – she draws the reader into the minds of the authors who she writes about from a century’s distance. As I read, I reflected on similar tendencies in many Jewish social reform cookbooks in the early 20th century – like the famed Settlement Cook Book. Even with their secularizing and assimilationist tendencies, these books still relied also on older, very patriarchal ideas of what the kitchen was spiritually – and what women should be doing there.
Shapiro published this book in 1986, but many of the notes and observations carry over to much of domestic culture today. One is: the constant pushback that people – mostly women – get for following instinct and embodied knowledge rather than something “improved,” “rational,” or “new.” We saw it with domestic science, and now we see it with much of the “health food movement.” Instinct, of course, is not always right – but there is something about knowing what will work when, and the knowledge that comes from things that cannot always be measured or codified, and the action of doing. For this insight alone, Perfection Salad remains as relevant as ever.
Ruby Tandoh is great. Ever since she was catapulted to food fame by her appearance on The Great British Bake-Off, I have been gleefully following her. Her recipes are straightforward and delicious, she is unapologetically queer and nerdy, and she celebrates food for what it is! Reading her writing or hearing her talk feels like one of my friends sitting on my famous metal mesh chair, holding a glass of wine and telling you that yes, fancy hazelnut porridge and Cream of Wheat with Raisinets are both great. (Confession: the second one is something I have eaten more than once.) So I was thrilled to finally read her new book, Eat Up.
It was so good.
Eat Up is a manifesto, but it does not tell you what or how to eat. Instead, it tells you how to live ethically with food. Tandoh walks you through all the ways you relate to food: as sustenance, as a vehicle for emotions, as a vehicle for politics, and as something that engages all the senses. Sometimes, the book is political, arguing against fatphobia, ableism, classism, or racism as made manifest through food. Sometimes, the book is meditative, asking you to savor whatever it is that you are eating. And sometimes, it is a food memoir, and that is where the writing is best. I laughed as I read of Tandoh seeking her Ghanaian great-aunt’s groundnut soup recipe, and grimaced right alongside her as she ate eels by the seashore. Most of all, though, this book is a response to the same authenticity-obsessed, elitist, snotty food world that irritates me.
Tandoh makes short shrift of the cute world of the food movement, the tyrannical one of the diet industry, and all the ways status is disguised by concern. There are many books that talk about the sugar lobby and the corn lobby. One of Tandoh’s strongest points is when she points out how, contrary to a lot of scientific evidence, a diet lobby also exists. The world of health foods and weight loss plans is not just about fake concern, but a multibillion dollar industry. It just happens to be an industry supported by the elite. Tandoh’s point regarding this is pretty unusual in the food world, and it is welcome. She also skewers the food movement, pointing out how unrealistic the locavore, artisan world it promotes is for so many. Some of this is direct – but some of it is simply honoring the food that the food movement often ignores. Tandoh might sing the praises of home-baked cake, but you will find love for cheap tea, Wotsits, and Burger King here too. Above all, Tandoh has little patience for the fake concern of much of the food world. People in the food world, she rightly points out, are not actually concerned about your weight or your tastes or your exposure to something. They often just enjoy the power and making fun of you. And Tandoh proposes resisting that temptation – and eating while we do it. After all, we need to eat to be strong.
Like me, Tandoh traces an emotional world through food. Recipes interspersed throughout the book seek to summon up a feeling – of joy, of ease, or of comfort. More than that, she talks about the meanings of food, and how different foods are needed at different times. She also discusses, effortlessly, the distance between what is socially “acceptable” to eat and what we actually crave – and how the latter is sometimes more helpful than the former. Many food books tell you not to eat Kit-Kats. Tandoh reminds you that, of course, it is okay to have one – and that your attachment to them is not a bad thing. This is the book’s strongest point: that food and emotion does not always go in a specific marketable, status-oriented direction.
The book can get repetitive at points, and sometimes a bit wordy. Tandoh herself jokes about this as a former philosophy student. I also think the recipes may be a bit hard for some people to follow, since they are written in a highly narrative style. That said, the book is still incredible as a resource and as a way to think about food. Tandoh is young, and Tandoh is bursting with ideas, and I think this is going to be the first of many incredible books about food. You should absolutely read Eat Up, so that you can join me in eagerly waiting for more.
I wrote back in December about how excited I was for this book to come out, and the final product proved my excitement worthwhile. The German-Jewish Cookbook, by the mother and daughter Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman and Sonya Gropman, was released last month. It is the first English-language cookbook of German Jewish cooking since World War II! For those of you who are unfamiliar, German Jewish cooking is a delicious and very separate school of cooking from the more-commonly known Eastern European traditions of Ashkenazi cooking. The book not only documents the cuisine, but is also beautifully written and wonderfully illustrated. I have been re-reading the book quite a bit as I eat my breakfast, and I always leave the table hungrier than when I started!
The book is part memoir, part history, and part cookbook. There are of course the memories: not just of the culinary tradition that the authors grew up with, but also of the German Jewish community of Washington Heights and their food. Interspersed with the memory is history, both German Jewish and of how the culinary traditions came to evolve. It is not a history of independence and nationalism, but rather of traded traditions and influences from everywhere! And then, of course, there are the recipes – for classics like Berches, the potato-based challah of German Jewry, carp in aspic, roast goose, and delicious marble cake. I have tried several of the recipes, and recommend them all.
German Jewish cuisine is unique, delicious, and oft forgotten. The ingredients are often similar to the Eastern European Jewish food that gets all the press – you have your potatoes, herring, schmaltz, and matzah. But many of the ingredients are very much German from assimilation – smoked meats, Bundt cakes, and aspics galore. And then there are all the influences of increased wealth and access to food in the late 19th and early 20th century – and hence you have citrus flavors, wine sauces, and cakes that mark German Jewish cuisine as something all its own. It is not a sexy story of authenticity – which, by the way, does not exist – nor is it one of Jewish separation alone. And unfortunately, the German Jewish community is smaller than the wider Ashkenazi community – and in the assimilation of Jews into North American society, much of the German heritage was simply lost – though it was very much kept alive by those who fled the Nazis and their descendants. This book is a wonderful step towards preserving this tradition.
For me, receiving this book was a meaningful way to connect with a past my own family was a part of. My late grandfather was born to German Jewish immigrants in South Africa, and though five thousand miles from home, grew up with the German Jewish cuisine and food culture of his parents. Many of the classic dishes in this book were things he ate growing up, and told me about in his old age. And when he waxed poetic about his visit to Germany in 1928, it was the food that often triggered his memory. My grandfather missed this food, but never gained a true love for the Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine from Eastern Europe more common in South Africa. Though he is no longer alive to share in the joy of this book, I know that he would have approved.
I’ve been excited about Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene for over a year now: I’ve made squealing tweets, excitedly brought it up at opportune moments, and may or may not have had a countdown for the book’s release. Twitty himself is one of the best young Jewish food writers out there, and his blog Afroculinaria is beyond fabulous. His work to document the contribution of black people to American kitchens – and how it was really African-American folks who made American cuisine as we know it – is controversial and extraordinary. So, when I finally got the book courtesy of Amazon Prime, I was quite excited.
And what’s even better? The book lives up to the hype.
The Cooking Gene chronicles the contribution of black people to American cooking – and the way that enslaved people built American cuisine, willingly and unwillingly. Twitty uses his own family history, both documented and found through genetic testing, to document the rise of soul food and Southern food (which are in many ways one and the same). In a beautifully woven narrative, Twitty charts the influence of African methods of cooking, native and African vegetables, methods to ensure food security, and others. At the same time, Twitty pulls no punches in describing the horrors of slavery and the intense oppressions visited upon enslaved black people and their descendants: the imprisonments, rapes, abuse, racism, and erasure are all described without the equivocation found with many white authors. Twitty, who is a Jew by Choice, also weaves his own Jewish experiences into the narrative – and also points out the complex role of Jews in regards to both slavery and Southern cuisines.
The book is a strong rebuke to white food writers like myself. Who has made our food? Who is responsible? And can we separate the sins of racism from which we still benefit from the way that we eat and talk about and write about food? Whose authenticity is it anyway?The Cooking Gene is an important intervention in this regard, and is also a wonderfully written book. I strongly urge you to buy it.
Your author has been on holiday for two weeks in South Africa visiting his relatives and taking a break from all the stress and tsurisof New York. While here, I’ve also been brushing up on my much-forgotten Afrikaans, and delighting in all the delicious food of the Afrikaans-speaking cultures: the peppery and sumptuous Cape Malay cuisine, the hearty Afrikaner cuisine, and the many delicious things Cape Town has to offer. Anyway, while brushing through Afrikaans cookbooks I’ve also spotted a few parallels with Jewish foods that I’ve felt compelled to share.
“Welna se saadbeskuit” – Sonskynkafee, Mariëtte Crafford
“Coffee in our world is not “coffee” unless there is a biscuit that goes with”
The recipe: a more refined take on the traditional South African rusk, with lots of seeds. South African rusks (“beskuit” in Afrikaans) are somewhat plainer, although still absolutely delicious. Crafford’s version contains sesame, rapeseed, sunflower seeds, poppy seeds, and linseed alongside coconut and bran – and the final version is probably quite nutty, though still sweet.
The Jewishness: I’ve often opined that the rusk/“beskuit” is different from the Ashkenazi “Mandelbrot” – the former is chunky and rich and very rustic, the latter is refined and nutty and terribly elegant. But this recipe reminds us: authenticity is bullshit. This is an Afrikaans rusk with many elegant seeds, this is a delightfully chunky Mandelbrot with buttermilk. Buttermilk! Our ancestors in Eastern Europe would have certainly approved – especially of the poppy seeds.
“Tamatiebredie” – Kook saam Kaaps, Koelsoem Kamalie and Flori Schrikker
“If you are not satisfied, you will not be very happy either.”
The recipe: a Cape Malay classic, the tamatiebredie, a luscious meat stew cooked in a surprisingly sweet tomato sauce. Sometimes it is cooked with beef, but more often – and here too – it is cooked with mutton The dish is a blend of the flavors brought by Malay slaves taken to South Africa during Dutch colonial rule, Dutch cooking methods, African meat, tomatoes from the New World, and a stewing method common to many cultures. (This admixture – contrary to apartheid and white nationalist lore – is also what produced the Afrikaans language, with its melodic rhythms and endless diminutives.) The recipe here is deceptively simple and utterly delicious.
The Jewishness: similar sweet meat dishes with a tomato sauce are common across Europe and North Africa – it is a formula for many recipes that Jewish traders brought with them from their own participation in early transatlantic trade. Sometimes it is cooked with okra, sometimes it is cooked with beans, and sometimes other ingredients are added. Of course, it is also sometimes very simply stewed meat with tomatoes – like the tabikha of Algerian Jews. This recipe may have been introduced to Dutch Jews, and then the Dutch, from the Ottomans or the Venetians – where Jews first encountered the tomato in the 16th century. Nowadays, tamatiebredie itself has been adopted by many South African Jews: I remember eating my grandmother’s slightly piquant take on it as a child.
“Eierbootjies” – Uitgerys, by Mareli Visser
“I like a runny egg, because egg yolk is, for me, the tastiest sauce in the world.”
The recipe: a lovely, puffy bread filled with cheese with a cracked egg on top, based on “several versions found on the internet.” The name is literally “little egg boats.” It’s hardly a traditional South African recipe, but uses the bread and eggs in such a familiar way. Like other places, South Africa too has had quite an “internationalization” of food in recent years. This recipe is presented as somewhat Italian – what with the mozzarella cheese and everything.
The Jewishness: this is basically a khachapuri – a delightful Georgian Jewish cheese boat often served with a fried egg on top. Differently, the cheese used is a slightly saltier and lighter sulgumi. But essentially, the recipe is the same. And wherever it is from, this is a delicious concept.
Bonus: another recipe in this book, for the South African doughnut skuinskoek, is essentially a classic recipe for the Yiddish pontshikwith the delightful additions of anise and butter. I am absolutely making these for Hanukkah this year!
Your humble author has been on a bit of a “spice binge” over the past month – in that he has been steadily gobbling up books about the history of spice and sugar cultivation. And so much of this literature is on the medieval spice trade – one that spawned colonialism, far-flung trade, and globalization as we know it. Medieval Europeans, Arabs, North Africans, and Middle Easterners loved their spices, and couldn’t get enough of valuable aromatics traded through complex networks from halfway across the world. And from the spices, I have been learning about the deeply different – and yet eerily familiar – cuisine of Europe in the High Middle Ages.
Many traditional Jewish dishes are holdovers from medieval recipes. Ashkenazi recipes such as kugel and forshmak grew out of late medieval German-Jewish cooking, and many Sephardi recipes grew from the pre-expulsion late medieval food of Spain. (Spanish travelers were shocked to find Sephardim eating quince jam in the 19th century, just like Spaniards in the motherland.) Some Iranian Jewish recipes date back over a millennium. When I have told friends, in conversation, about the age of many Jewish dishes, they seem surprised. “Wasn’t medieval food…bad?” Well, not always.
We believe a lot of myths about medieval European and Arab cooking. Some of these myths have a kernel of truth to them – and, of course, the food consumed in 1200 was very different to that consumed today. We know this from manuscripts, archaeology, and surrounding history. But many of these myths are the exact opposite of what actually happened – both in Jewish food and more generally in the food of the old world. Many Jewish recipes offer counterpoints to these myths, and serve as an example of what happened to food more generally in European and Middle Eastern history. So, here I will briefly discuss the five myths I’ve heard most frequently – with the Jewish foods and books that offer lessons in the other direction.
Medieval Europeans did not eat things from outside their area – and hence their food was bland. Food trade is as old as civilization itself: imported spices were found in archaeological digs at Sumer. Medieval people were no different – and there was plenty of movement of people and goods in medieval times that also brought different foods and different methods of preparing food throughout medieval realms. Exotic spices and foods were much-prized, and many crops were introduced by new rulers, such as citrus in Spain by Arab rulers. This did not make a bland cuisine – and besides, people in all civilizations had been seasoning their food with local goods for millennia.
Jewish food: P’tcha. This calf’s foot aspic is famous for turning heads and stomachs, but many Ashkenazi Jews – including myself – find it quite delicious. In my experience, it is often trotted out by nationalists as an example of “declining” Jewish culture – because people “do not eat it anymore” – and by others as an example of “weird” or “lost” Jewish food. In the 18th and 19th century, p’tcha was a delicacy that was saved for special occasions, for it took a long time to make. Now, it’s still common enough in Haredi communities and making a hipster comeback. This dish, however, is not really Jewish in origin – but Tatar. Turkic tribes, ancestors of today’s Tatars, introduced soups made of cow or sheep feet to Eastern Europe in the 13th century during Mongol rule. Hence the name p’tcha – and the similar Serbian pihtije – comes from the Turkic word for “leg” (paça in Modern Turkish). And while Sephardim eat calf’s foot soup hot, Ashkenazim and other Eastern European peoples developed an aspic out of it. Heads up: p’tcha is an upcoming blog recipe.
Book recommendation: A Taste for Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice,by Michael Krondl. This book is a wonderful biography of the spice trade in Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam, and how each of these cities was really made important initially by their trade in spices. He also takes copious notes in Venice of the city’s medieval cooking – and how much of Italian food today is from the late 19th century. He also does excellent due diligence in noting the Indonesian influences on Dutch culture that go back centuries.
Medieval people used spices to hide the taste of meat or fish that had gone off. This myth is based on the assumption that because medieval people did not have refrigeration, they were constantly dealing with food that was rotten, so pickling and spicing developed to hide the rotten taste. In fact, the opposite is true in some part: pickling and spicing preserved foods that were liable to go off quickly. Many spices were used with salt to preserve meat, and many foods were pickled and thus able to “keep” for longer. Such is the origins of today’s salted meats, sausages, herrings, lox, and other goodies. In any case, those who could afford spices generally could afford the freshest meat. Here, too, spices came to play other roles: they were seen as correcting “harmful” qualities of a fresh food, thus bringing their “humors” into balance. Spices were as essential to the medieval Galenic medical system as they were to cuisine – and humors were discussed as nutrients are today. Those most likely to deal with rotting food – the poor and peasants – generally did not have spices either.
Medieval peasants and medieval kings ate mostly the same food. I’ve heard this myth peddled by a few starry-eyed leftists who believe that everything “pre-capitalist” was good. (This is also a terrible reading of Marx.) But in medieval times, the starkest inequality was in food. Nobility, the wealthy, and those of other privileged classes generally enjoyed a much higher standard of nutrition – and a much more varied and secure diet – than their less fortunate counterparts. For the majority, poor and peasants, food was much more monotonous, much less secure, and of lower quality across the board. Even if famine was rare, diseases related to malnutrition such as pellagra were not. In fact, the lot of the rural poor would not significantly improve in many parts of Europe and the Middle East until the twentieth century – and despite problems, food is far more equally distributed now than in the Middle Ages. In the cultural realm, divisions of food by class were cemented by ideologies that someone naturally “born” into a station should not eat food of other stations. According to this narrative, nobility would be sick if they ate gruel, and a peasant would be sick if they ate white bread. Inequality in food was not only a fact of life, it was taken as the order of the world.
Jewish food: Rye and wheat bread. Bread was the truly the medieval staff of life – and bread and gruels often accounted for 80-90% of a peasant’s calorie intake. Across much of Central and Eastern Europe, the “base grain” for such bread was rye. Though we often think of dark rye breads as a somewhat upscale “ethnic” food, rye was often specifically not a luxurious or even slightly special food for most medieval Europeans. Rather, it was a base grain for an often impure bread filled with other additives – seeds, nuts, and so on – that wrecked digestive systems. Poorer folks often relied on grain that had gone off, leading to ergot poisoning. The wealthy, however, tended to eat higher-quality bread – rye breads, mixed breads, and above all white breads – for whiter flour was far more expensive. The breads tended also to have fewer additions, and were generally better proportioned with the rest of the diet. No wonder then that in the 19th century, when mass-produced white bread first became available to the working class, it was incredibly popular – it was far less dangerous and seen as healthier.
Book recommendation: Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine and Empire is magnificent, and very informative to this particular discussion. Laudan is very firm about the fact that food for the hoi polloi until very recently, by and large, was monotonous and not always secure, whilst the food of nobility, kings, and the wealthy was far better.
There were no noodles in Italy or the Mediterranean before Marco Polo brought them in the late 13th century. One of the most commonly attributed traits to Marco Polo is “the man who gave Italians pasta” – but by this time, Italians had been eating pasta for centuries. Noodles spread from China through the Silk Road to Persia during the fifth century, and are first mentioned outside China by the Jerusalem Talmud as itriyot, and later in the Babylonian Talmud as rihata – both words of Persian origin. Pastas such as rishta, lissan, and couscous were common in the medieval Arab world, from which they were introduced to Sicily, Spain, and Southern Italy by the tenth century. Pastas became popular in Sicilian and Sephardic Jewish cooking. Meanwhile, lokshen – the Ashkenazi noodle – reached Eastern Europe both from Central Asia and Provence via Germany by the fourteenth century. The Yiddish lokshen derives from the Persian word lakhsha, or “to slide.” In any case, by the time Marco Polo came back from China in the 1290s, Jews and non-Jews alike in Italy were chowing down on all sorts of pastas and noodles – though the explorer may have introduced new varieties of noodle to Venice, from which recipes spread throughout Europe. Arab Jews continued to eat their own ever-evolving noodles.
Jewish food: Jerusalem Kugel – a noodle kugel made with a tantalizing caramel with a heavy dose of ground black pepper. Though the recipe only dates to the early 19th century, Jerusalem kugel has a most medieval spice combination of black pepper and sugar – one that would not have been out of place for the many sweet-spicy pasta recipes of Medieval Italy. In some ways, the Chasidic families who invented it travelled back in time. I recommend this recipe by Giora Shimoni.
Book recommendation: Oddly enough, Claudia Roden’s A Book of Jewish Foodhas many recipes for noodles that are somewhat similar to the noodle dishes consumed by Arab Jews in the medieval world.
What constitutes national culinary traditions now is directly descended from what people ate in these places in the Middle Ages. One of the more outrageous claims of nationalism and the cult-like worship of “authenticity” is an idea that the “national” culinary traditions of today have a history that stretches back to the medieval. This is quite far from the truth. The ingredients, prevailing norms, and social context of food in the Middle Ages, across the Christian and Islamic worlds in which Jews lived, were very different from today. The boundaries of dishes and foods were different. Communities were identified differently. And how people related to the food on their plate was very different. National culinary traditions – including the “French” and “Italian” traditions we often think of as seminal and timeless – were largely invented in the 19th century, products of increased wealth, nationalism, and romantic and ahistorical ideas of country life. Widespread education spread these dishes, because they were “taught.” And though many of the recipes themselves reach back to the medieval era, it is likely that a Venetian or Parisian from the 15th century dropped into Venice or Paris today would not only not recognize the “national cuisine” of her home city, but would find that their tastes hewed much closer to North African or Turkish food today.
Jewish food: Spinach with raisins and pine nuts. This was a recipe that was indeed eaten in the Middle Ages, and all these ingredients were popular at the time as well. The preparation itself came with Jews from Catalonia to Italy through trade. However, the sweet-savory combination in Italy later lost favor, and the dish became a largely Jewish recipe that only gained widespread popularity after World War II. Italian cuisine, meanwhile, moved from a sweet-sour complex to an herbal one, and began to limit sweet foods to dessert in imitation of the French from the 18th century. So now, this spinach dish, Jewish in origin, is “Jewish” once again – though it was very popular in Northern Italy during the late Middle Ages.
Book recommendation: Sidney Mintz’s classic Sweetness and Poweris important for two reasons: one, it clearly outlines how sugar played an integral part in colonialism and the slave trade; two, it shows how the European diet was fundamentally altered by a regular sugar supply for the poor and the introduction of tea and coffee, both of which often “needed” sugar. The entry of sugar, just like changing performances of class and adjustments in the commonality of spices, radically rejigged European cuisine, and as a result what was common in 1700 was very different from what was common in 1800. Jam, for one.