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.