Dulce lo vivas – la reposteria sefardi by Ana Bensadón (Ediciones Martinez-Roca, Madrid, 2006)
There are many wonderful Sephardic cookbooks – actually written by Sephardim, for a change – that for whatever reason are not available in English. This is a shame, but I suspect that with the growing mania for all things Sephardic, it won’t be long before a publisher or two snap up some rights and get busy translating. They should.
I came across this book one day in the spring of 2006, in a tea salon in Barcelona’s Barri Gotic (Gothic quarter). Small and unassuming, it caught my eye – a straightforward recipe book with no drawings, very few photographs, and the briefest of introductions. Most of the recipes bore little semblance to the sweets and baked goods I knew from my family’s Ottoman tradition, but there was an approach, a style – delicate, at once elegant and simple – that was undeniably Sephardic. I flipped.
Is it really Sephardic? Is it Sephardic enough?
Ethnic food is born and evolves out of common cultural experience and worldview. There’s no law against creating your own modern Sephardic recipes and no need to think you can’t do a riff on someone else’s version of a traditional one, either. We can be become so obsessed with preserving our culture that we tend to deny ourselves permission to experiment, or to accept someone else’s interpretation of something as valid, even if they’re from within the same culture. This holds true for any people (but probably with a higher level of anxiety when they’re propagandized as being extinct!). But it’s openness and experimentation that keep all cultures alive and interesting, and that can also get things back on track if they’ve lost their connection to a basic principle. If you do lose touch with the fundamentals of your own culinary heritage, if you start using too many shortcuts and too many substitutions, you deviate so far from your roots that you’re left not so much with a pale imitation of the real article as with something virtually unrecognizable. Continue reading
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.
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.