Mistakes Made Jewish Cuisine

My maternal grandmother left a mountain of recipes. I wrote about some of these for Handwritten Magazine before. The recipes are delicious and replete with typos or forgotten ingredients. Mysteriously, 0s are doubled or removed, so the recipe ends up calling for “20 grams flour” rather than 200. Entire ingredients, like flour, are forgotten. So are basic steps, like frying onions. When one cooks from the recipe, it is an experiment of trial and much error. It took nearly twenty attempts to get her pumpkin fritters right.

Fish on ice in a market
Cooking a whole fish for the first time – or after a long time – can result in various mistakes. (Photo mine, December 2017)

So, to this year. My mother and I were tasked with bringing stuffed matzoh balls to a Passover seder. These kneidlach are stuffed with fried onions and garlic and are very, very tasty. We opened the sheaf of my grandmother’s typewritten papers with her recipes to the matzoh ball to find that … mysteriously, she seemed to call for as much margarine as matzoh meal. Being experienced enough to know that this couldn’t be right, we consulted other recipes for a more sensible ratio. We realize now that my grandmother meant 20 grams.

As I reflected on this bizarre typo (and imagining fat globules swimming through my soup), I thought about all the ways Jewish cuisine might have been shaped by mistakes. We often think of cuisine as some sort of unbroken tradition. I have written repeatedly, here and elsewhere, why that is bunk. We also valorize the creativity of our ancestors in using and taking in new ingredients, or making things out of limited ingredients, or having the bravery to try something new. That is somewhat more accurate, but there is still something lacking. And so I would say this:

Mistakes have shaped Jewish cuisine. They may be typos, omissions, spills, accidental omissions, or random accidents. Sometimes they change it for the worse, sometimes for the better, and sometimes we never know. A dish might end up being better with the accidental addition of a spice, or leaving out something else. It might become a longstanding tradition – I suspect that whoever first made the gelled broth of gefilte fish probably left the broth out for too long by mistake. A mistake may also turn into someone’s “secret ingredient.” My formerly-secret ingredient of black pepper in applesauce started as an accident.

Soup with squash, beans, and noodles garnished with sour cream in a bowl
I have not made this soup for a while, and I am liable to make a mistake while making it. (Photo mine, February 2018)

That said, people make mistakes more often than they withhold secrets. When a recipe does not work out, some people’s first instinct is to assume that the cook left out an ingredient to preserve their domination over a dish. The mythical “secret ingredient.” I doubt that this is usually the case, though ardent cooks can be as vain and petty as anyone. Rather, I am more convinced of the fact that cooks forget that they do things in a way, or that they add something in such and such a way, because it is so natural to them. I beat eggs in a certain way, so that the whites get a bit puffier, but I never thought to include that in a recipe, for example. That mistake will change the final product, unless you too beat your eggs in the exact same way. In addition, you can always mess up when cooking from someone else’s recipe. And these mistakes determine, I think, a bit of what gets cooked and what does not. If a mistake makes a dish hard for someone to recreate, then that dish will likely not appear on the table – or appear in altered form. Likewise, if a mistake leaves you with a bad impression of a dish, then you will not be inclined to cook it again. As I write this, I wonder how many creative, tasty, and wondrous dishes have been lost to mistakes by author or cook. My grandmother’s pumpkin fritters very nearly met this fate, because she forgot to mention flour at all.

Things get lost in translation, too. One thing that often never gets really appreciated is how different “eyeball” quantities can be in different languages – ktzat in Hebrew is not necessarily a bit in English, and that is not un poquito in Spanish either. Now, apply that measure to salt, or pepper, or nutmeg (as I have witnessed), and see what results. The same goes for directions: meng in Afrikaans can be expressed by several words, not just mix, in English. And, of course, “to taste” is impossibly personal and extremely cultural. So when parents give their children recipes, or friends give their friends recipes, or someone squints over a newspaper in a language they speak imperfectly (guilty as charged), unintentional mistakes can be made quite easily. And the end product is different. Sometimes the change is not so great, but sometimes it is better or tastier.

Pihtije, a Serbian aspic
Aspics, like the pictured Serbian pihtije or the Ashkenazi p’tcha, were maybe invented out of a mistake. (Photo VI via Wikimedia/CC)

And then there are the dishes you end up forgetting to make for years at a time. I have not made brownies, for example, for about five years. (Shocking, I know.) I know that when I make them the first time, I will probably mess something up. If I make them for someone, they might not like “my brownies” – even if I try to convince them that my brownies are normally delicious. If that person is my boyfriend, I might not end up making them for quite a while, or ever again. Transpose this idea to a rarer dish, or one that might not be easily made. It is quite possible that many things have been given up, because they are too hard to make right, or so hard to recreate that they are easily messed up. Beyond changing ideas of “good” and “bad” and assimilating a cultural aversion to wobbliness, one reason that p’tcha is probably no longer as common, for example, is that it is actually quite easy to mess up. Other dishes or variants of extant ones have probably been lost in the recesses of many memories. Still others are changed by the mistakes that you make in re-creation.

Part of me wants to think only of the happy accidents – after all, which genius realized that gefilte fish is perfectly paired with horseradish? But cooking and cuisine are not only happy or happy accidents. A lot of learning to cook, and researching food history, is not noticing a thing and then making a disaster of your dish. These disasters help us figure out what to cook, how to cook, and how not to cook. And when we learn from others how to eat, what to eat, and how not to eat, these disasters can add up to a cuisine. Mistakes have changed the way Jews talk about, cook, eat, and remember food, and that is something worth noting – just like my grandmother’s missing 0.

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