The Grandmother Is Gone: Janna Gur's 'Jewish Soul Food'

With Jewish Soul Food Israeli Food Writer Janna Gur tries to create a "greatest hits from our Jewish Grandmothers." Only the grandmothers aren't around to help.

Jewish Soul Food: From Minsk to Marrakesh, More Than 100 Unforgettable Dishes Updated for Today's Kitchen

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Length: 240 pages
Author: Janna Gur
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-10

With Jewish Soul Food, Israeli food editor and cookbook author Janna Gur hoped to create “a kind of greatest hits from our Jewish grandmothers.” Yet a book about Jewish soul food was problematic, for the very people who produced these iconic dishes—the bubbes (plural Yiddish for grandmother) were no longer available for consultation. Theirs was a generation that cooked by hand and eye, writing nothing down. Their grandchildren, now adults, want to recreate the meals of their childhoods but cannot. Nobody knows how. The recipes, sadly, died with the grandmothers.

Gur’s exact words are: “the grandmother is gone.” In the case of Jewish Soul Food, this is a mixed blessing. Good because no Ashkenazi grandmothers are around to shri (shriek) at the liberties Gur takes with classic recipes. Bad because they aren’t around to set her straight.

Before continuing, it's helpful to distinguish between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. Here is the doyenne of Jewish cooking, Claudia Roden, in her seminal The Book of Jewish Food:

In the strictest sense, the term "Sephardi" designates only those Jews whose ancestors lived in the Iberian peninsula. But in the broad sense which it is used today, it signifies those Jews whose roots are around the Mediterranean, in the Middle East, and in Asia. These days, in Israel, all Jews who are not Ashkenazi are classed as Sephardi.

As for Ashkenazi Jews, Roden writes: "The Ashkenazim are the Jews whose origin lies in Western and Eastern Europe and Russia."

When one considers the Eastern European and Mediterranean climates, it is easy to understand why Ashkenazi and Sephardi cuisines are vastly different. Compounding these differences, each cuisine reflects a multitude of societal factors, not to mention variances in interpretations of Kosher dietary law.

Broadly speaking, Sephardi food, including Israeli food, is far more diverse than Ashkenazi fare. The warmer Mediterranean climate means a broader palette of fruits, vegetables, and legumes that until recently were both unavailable and unknown to Ashkenazis. The frankly maligned Ashkenazi diet relied on cold weather fare: poultry, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, beets, and dairy.

Jewish Soul Food was occasioned after a dinner with Canadian food journalists. Questioned about the dearth of Ashkenazi food in Israel, Gur explained it was too heavy, too unhealthy. A guest spoke up. But what about the memories? Gur was stumped. Until that moment, she had focused exclusively on Israeli food—that is, Sephardi food.

Motivated by that dinner, Gur decided to find approximately 100 dishes from a variety of Jewish communities, searching for the dishes that endured, dishes with “soul”. She “tried to crack the code of a winning dish” to determine, albeit informally, why chicken soup remains popular while ptcha (jellied calf’s foot) has vanished.

Although the Russian-born Gur is herself Ashkenazi, she emigrated to Israel in her teens. There she eagerly embraced her role as a Sabra, or young Israeli. She readily adopted the new Israeli cuisine; it has in fact become her passionate profession. Only now, with Jewish Soul Food, has Gur made a partial return to the foods her Russian grandmothers prepared. But Gur is an adult whose cooking life has been spent in Israel. She may be Ashkenazi by birth, but her cooking inclinations are entirely Sephardic.

Gur’s endeavor is a tricky one: ethnic groups are fiercely possessive about their recipes. She writes “Most recipes are authentic (often with little tweaks that make life easier) but here and there I was tempted to offer a creative take on a traditional dish.” Those tweaks and creative takes most often appear with the Ashkenazi dishes.

In an interview on The David Blahg with David Leite, Paula Wolfert tackles the notion of authenticity in recipes:

Their way? Your way? What’s authentic? Nothing. I veer away when anyone says the word authentic, because authentic isn’t what I’m interested in. I’m interested in the truth. There’s a difference between the two. The integrity of the dish is important, but I’ll change the recipe to make it work. Integrity is using the ingredients of an area, it’s using what people recognize as what comprises the dish, but there’s not just one way to make something. Even Bordelaise sauce has seven different ways to make it.

Applying Wolfert’s useful baseline, the Ashkenazi recipes in Jewish Soul Food stray far from those ingredients universally recognized as comprising a dish. Chopped liver: chicken livers, a hard boiled egg, fried onion, as much chicken fat, or schmaltz, as your conscience allows. Hand-chop until insanity sets in. “Erez’s Chopped Liver” calls for mustard seeds and leeks. Gur’s alternative chopped liver recipe, dubbed “classic”, suggests twice the amount of fried onions to livers. Use of the food processor, a modern gesture, should be indicated as such. The chicken fat is reduced to a quarter cup. (Look, you want health food, don’t make this to begin with.)

Chopped hard-boiled egg and onion, a classic Friday night appetizer, calls for mayonnaise. Here is Suzanne Finnamore, in the hilarious roman á clef Otherwise Engaged, writing of her impending marriage the Jewish Michael. She fantasizes about a support group where: “We of the shiksa would touch base with our own kind, eating things with mayonnaise and acting carefree.”

The cheese and raisin pie recipe lists instant vanilla pudding mix, the matzo balls, cilantro. It's difficult to imagine Bubbe, in a Lithuanian shtetl or a Stateside apartment, reaching for either ingredient.

Then there's the brisket.

In the recipe headnote, Gur admits she is perplexed by this beloved Ashkenazi-American staple. So she asks a Canadian. I guess, uh, we share the same landmass? The recipe Bonnie Stern gives Gur is neither American nor Jewish. Titled “Barbecued Brisket: American”, this recipe calls for bottled barbecue sauce, chipotle tabasco puree, Worcestershire sauce, maple syrup or honey, catsup, and cumin.

Please turn the page. See instead David Tanis’s wonderful slow beef in A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes. See Laurie Colwin’s Pot Roast in Home Cooking. Or make this:

Brisket: The best brisket you can afford. Peel and slice as many yellow onions as you like. Ditto, russet potatoes. Set ingredients in a roaster just accommodating your ingredients. Salt lightly. Add water about halfway up the meat; don’t drown it. This is your gravy. Cook at 300 degrees three to five hours. Live on the edge: add a few sliced carrots. Serve with challah.

I am less familiar with Sephardi food, and wondered if Gur had taken similar liberties. I checked the recipes against Claudia Roden’s cookbooks. No tweaks, no creative takes. I decided to focus here, where I had no baggage, no taste memories, no Proustian hopes.

A word to American readers: Gur often lists “stewing beef or brisket” in braising recipes. This is a difference in butchering nomenclature, but a costly one. Brisket is an expensive cut. Save it for special occasions (no honey, no chipotles, no catsup). Beef chuck, flank, shank, and short ribs are all fine stewing cuts. Americans should also take care with oven temperatures, which can seem slightly off—one recipe calls for 430 degrees Fahrenheit. An American recipe would suggest 425 or 450. Use common sense. Consider your oven and the dish.

Happily, redemption was at hand: the Sephardi recipes were superb.

Chicken tagine with artichoke hearts was spicy and deeply savory. Calling for onions, parsley, preserved lemon, artichoke hearts, chickpeas, coriander, cumin, turmeric, and paprika, the dish was a vibrant yellow, zinging with flavor, difficult to stop eating. Only Gur’s instruction to cook the dish as long as possible worried me. Although I used bone-in, skin-on, chicken thighs, after 90 minutes on a very low stovetop, they were perilously close to overcooked. A workaround might be starting everything but the chicken stovetop, developing the flavors, then adding the chicken about an hour before serving. Or allow the dish a shorter cooking time.

Sabzi Polo, Persian rice with lots of herbs, calls for basmati rice, dill, parsley, and cilantro. Gur advises readers not to skip the dill, an admonition worth heeding. The dill rounded and mellowed the cilantro, which can be overwhelming even to lovers of this intense herb. The overall effect was lovely: intensely fragrant, the scents of herbs and basmati commingling. Fried fish, the classic accompaniment, was a marvelous match.

Sfika, or Open-Face Meat Bourekas, were easy to make and easier to eat. American cooks should employ some judicious adjustments to this recipe; Gur calls for ground beef “preferably from short ribs”, a 430 degree oven, and a 20-minute cooking time. I’ve never seen ground beef from short ribs and wouldn’t dream of grinding up this prime cut. I used plain ground beef, a 425-degree oven, and took the “heaping spoonful” of tamarind to mean 1 ½ teaspoons of tamarind concentrate. Plopped on commercial puff pastry, it was velvety, exotic, and cries out to be a holiday appetizer.

Cheese Bourekas were even easier: mash together three cheeses with an egg. Wrap in puff pastry. Bake half an hour at 350 degrees. Try not to disgrace yourself. Wonder where commercial puff pasty has been all your life.

Six million Jews died in the Holocaust. Polish citizens, Roma Gypsies, the disabled, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Resistance fighters also died and must never be forgotten. Nazism is on the rise in Europe. All of this to say, the food, with its direct ties to history, is a critical link to past and future. While tweaks and modern takes are welcome in contemporary Jewish cuisine, we need to honor and respect not only grandmothers, but those we lost. We do that by leaving their recipes alone.

Gur’s intentions are honorable. If the results aren’t quite classic, Jewish Soul Food still warrants a place on your bookshelf, where it serves as a light and easy entrée into a cuisine fraught with memory. Just don’t make the brisket.

Thanks to David Leite for consent to link to his interview with Paula Wolfert.

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