About all those “Sephardic” cookbooks out there…

Any serious writer will tell you:  the first rule of good writing is to write about what you know.  Well.  In my experience and in the experience of several of my readers, for all the Sephardic cookbooks that are out there, it’s hard to find one with recipes that are both good AND authentic.  The same can be said for much of the historical and cultural commentary in many of these same books, most of which were not written by Sephardim and whose authors have relied on secondary and tertiary sources for their “authoritative” information.  Or they’ve just made assumptions and offered those up as fact.  In a world that is well populated by Sephardim – who are easy to find, generally eager to share their knowledge and experience (not just their recipes) and to learn the same from one another – I find this at best a little misguided, at worst, offensive.

Of the many Sephardic cookbooks I’ve read to date, there are few I can recommend (that’s really why I began this project in the first place).  Here’s a little sampling of what’s out there:   For starters, one author cooks meat with butter.  Another admits to knowing nothing about cooking – let alone Sephardic cooking – and invents recipes that do a fine job of demonstrating his ignorance.  Another, clearly impatient and bored with her subject matter, dismisses just about every recipe in her book and doctors some with touches that would make a Sefardi gag.   Another over-explains Sephardic humor (excruciatingly), over-elaborates recipes (incorrectly), and makes woefully inaccurate blanket assertions about “all” Sephardic Jews (arrogantly).  And each of these authors writes of the Sephardim as if we were all dead and gone. 

If you’re not already dumbstruck, two of these examples come from award-winning books.

It is this very lack – of intimate knowledge of the Sephardic experience,  of an interest in meaningful contact with the Sephardic community,  of mindful curiosity and a geuine desire to tell an honest story – that leaves these (I would like to think) well-intentioned writers unprepared or unwilling or unable to ask the right questions or offer up the real McCoy.  So, either their research falls short, or their “traditional” recipes are nothing of the kind, or their interpretation of Sephardic culture is abominable.

That said, there are dozens of books I have yet to read, many of which I hope will be good and others that I’m certain are great.  Time, lousy eyesight and a woefully inadequate local post office make it very slow going.  Soon I’ll write here about a few books I already know and find exemplary for one reason or another.  I will add more as time and good taste permit.

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10 Comments

Filed under Other Reading

10 responses to “About all those “Sephardic” cookbooks out there…

  1. Healthgal

    Dear Janet,
    You do indeed speak the truth. I own a couple of those books that aren’t worth much to any Sephardic person who is interested in historical accuracy, traditions of their region and the proper preparation of their foods.
    I am so proud of my heritage and want to learn all I can from one who is dedicated to providing accurate information.
    And so I thank you and shall look forward with eager anticipation to the reading list.

    Healthgal

  2. Hi, Janet. My particular pet peeve has to do with so-called Seph cookbook writers who write about Persian foods and cannot get the spelling straight or the recipes. I have a shelf of these cookbooks and laugh when I read the Persian sections. Names of foods are wrong, ingredients are wrong, amounts are wrong. I wonder all the time who they spoke to for each recipe?

    Second peeve has to do with authors who interview experts on a particular cuisine and use their individually created recipes while claiming them for their own with no attribution. There is one author who did that to me and although she thanked me in the intro, she spelled my name wrong! This was after I told her numerous times that the recipe was something I had adjusted and that no one made it that way unless they learned it from me.

    oh well.

    Schelly

    • Janet Amateau

      Your peeve about authors not giving adequate or appropriate credit is right on target. It’s unprofessional, especially if a contribution offers something unique or otherwise noteworthy (like, it’s delicious). One of the beautiful things about Ana Bensadon’s book is that she credits every single recipe to its rightful author. The message is clear: “There may be a thousand versions of this recipie, but this one belongs to so-and-so; she worked hard to perfect it and deserves proper credit.” End of story. As for the rest of your comments about differences in names, spelling and ingredients, these are such critical topics for me – and so broad in scope – that I can’t possibly answer you in the comments! I’ll have to answer you in a separate post – or three… – Janet

    • Janet Amateau

      To all readers – Schelly Talalay Dardashti writes an excellent blog about tracing Jewish genealogy. You can find it right here or by clicking the link “Tracing the Tribe” that is now on my blogroll. — JA

  3. Janet, three answers are welcome! I remember one recipe for Persian chelo (steamed white basmati rice) where the author said to cook 4 cups of rice in 4 cups of water. Oy vey, as we say in French. 4 cups of rice needs an entire whole pot of boiling water in which to swim and expand properly – minimum 6 quart pot! I cannot imagine what those poor people were left with when they followed the recipe. I guess if they had a fondness for glue or book paste, then it was perfect. We must keep up a good sense of humor!

    And many thanks for the Tracing the Tribe shout-out!

  4. Glenn J. Hill

    Hi there!

    I was looking for good information on which Sephardic cookbooks might be good and accurate?

    Are there ones that you would recomend ? Thanks!

    • Janet Amateau

      Glenn, check the ‘Reading List’ section under Categories. There are a couple of reviews and some other books mentioned in the posts in this section. As for blogs with good, traditional Ottoman-Sephardic recipes, look at “savores de siempre” (if you can read Ladino) or The Boreka Diary (all kinds of food here, but mixed in are many good Sephardic ones).

  5. Hi. Uhh.. I think I missed something because you said you wanted to recommend some books but I can’t find the name of any. Thanks for blogging!

    • Janet

      All good things come to those who wait. I’m hoping you’ve long since found the “Books” page.

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