Category Archives: History

Chocolate counts.

I can’t think of a single holiday when chocolate confections weren’t served in our home. It was the Sephardic relatives, not the Ashkenazim, to whom it mattered most. It had to be on the dessert table, or some kind of self-imposed shame would befall the hostess.  Not in the recipes, mind you. On the side. Boxed chocolates, and the fancier the better.

I’ve only occasionally dwelled on that distinction between the two groups of relatives, probably precisely because we don’t incorporate chocolate into very many of our traditional recipes.  But when you stop to think that Spanish & Portuguese Jews and conversos were among the earliest (and most active) traders during the Age of Discovery, a strong historical link between Sephardim and chocolate seems fairly obvious. Continue reading


Filed under History, Other Reading, Recipes

Tales from the dark side

Tough topic today. A history lesson, not about food, but it is about language (and a bit of perversity) pertaining to the Judeo-Spanish experience, so I’ve included it here.

Dear Janet,
I have a bit of a question for you about Sephardic history/culture. I know that the yellow ritual garment worn by the accused “heretics” (especially marranos) during the Inquisition was/is called a sanbenito or sambenito in Spanish. What does this mean? Some translate it as “blessed sack”. People have linked it to Saint Benedict… I assume it refers to Saint Benedict of Monte Cassino, the founder of Catholic monasticism, since the persecution of Jews and heretics was so often linked to the monastic orders, particularly Dominicans and Franciscans. But could it also be derived from the Ladino name for G-d? In a Ladino version of Chad Gadya, I heard G-d referred to as “Santo-Bendicho-El”, i.e. the Holy Blessed One (ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu). I know it’s a strange linkage to make but could it be plausible? – Mark L.

Yikes! No way, Mark. In the 1500’s, New Christians and Old spoke the same Spanish. This one belongs strictly to the Spanish Inquisition, though the convicted heretics (i.e. Jews) condemned to wearing one did coin an enduring expression around the word, which I’ll explain at the end of this post.

Without going into great detail about the various designs (there were several), the ‘saco bendito’ – or sambenito, as it came to be known – as such was an invention of the Spanish Inquisition. The former name does mean ‘blessed sack’ and the latter is a contraction of San Benito, i.e. Saint Benedict.

Anyone found guilty of heresy was required to wear a saco bendito as part of their punishment, either when being led to be burned at the stake, or, if one was not condemned to die, then at all times when appearing in public, for the duration of their punishment. Imagine having to walk around dressed like this for the rest of your life:

As a written word, ‘sambenito’ is first known to have appeared in the notes of a Jesuit missionary Continue reading


Filed under History

Some great news about Ladino

This has never been a “recipe” blog, and I know that frustrates some of the people who come across it, but my aim here is to keep Sephardic cuisine alive by giving it meaningful context. So much context is conveyed through the names of our foods, which come of course from the Sephardic language, Ladino. Today I’m apologizing for my slow output (I’ve gotta make a living, too), but there are some fun and interesting posts on the horizon, and maybe some snark. Frankly, sometimes I unearth historical information that makes my hair stand on end. I hope to publish some of that here before too long.

In the meantime, I’ve just finished reading an article in The Forward about the linguistic cultural work of Rachel Amado Bortnick, a Sephardic woman born in Izmir who lives in the States. This dedicated woman is achieving for the Ladino language what I set out to do for Sephardic food: to keep it alive by giving it meaningful context. Continue reading


Filed under History, Other Reading

Three names for but a single recipe…

What do your heirloom recipes tell you about your family history? Take a look at these two comments I received in response to my post about spinach cuajado:

“This is so very similar to Peeta de Espinaca, made by my Nauna and my mother (and now me) especially at Passover, but whenever the spirit moves.”  – Jackie

“My mother used to fry the mixture and then bake it. She called it sfungato de spinaca. That’s exactly what I’m making for dinner!” – Diane

These two women, like me, are Ottoman Sephardim, and one thing’s clear: we all equate what I call spinach cuajado with Passover and Shabbat (Diane left her comment on a Friday and in that context), but not exclusively; unlike recipes that are set aside strictly for specific holidays, cuajado is so fundamental, we make it “whenever the spirit moves.” So, that’s the Sephardic experience with cuajado. Or peeta (pita). Or was it sfungato? Continue reading


Filed under History