Great ethnic cookbooks are as much about culture as they are about good recipes. To my mind, the best of them include personal memoirs and family histories, placing authentic recipes and styles of cooking in specific cultural and historical context. Today I offer a prime example.
The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews by Edda Servi Machlin (Dodd Mead, New York 1981/republished by Harper Collins 2005).
A few years ago my then 91-year-old great aunt Esther gave me this book from her collection. “Is it any good?” I asked her. “Eh,” she said, with a dismissive shrug, “I won’t miss it.” Well, no wonder. Aunt Esther is a very competetive cook and this book is fantastic.
Pitigliano is a small, remote village in southern Tuscany, roughly halfway between Rome and Florence. The Jewish community there was as unique in Italy as that of Rhodes was in the Ottoman Empire, with a history dating back to ancient Roman times. Also like the Jewish community of Rhodes, Pitigliano’s, too, was decimated in World War II. To our great good fortune, Mrs. Machlin grew up there and saved what she was able, recording these classic Tuscan- and Roman-Jewish recipes and offering a detailed memoir of life in a close-knit, Italian-Jewish community of the early 20th century. Her recipes are delicious and she writes in loving and authoritative detail.
Remember, this is not a Sephardic cookbook. Judeo-Italian food is Italian food (I’m not complaining!). For those interested, however, here and there it does reflect Sephardic influences that reached Italy both directly from Spain and through contact with the Ottoman Empire. Mrs. Machlin recognizes this influence and acknowledges it.
It would be hard not to appreciate this book. It’s a gem.