Jewish Home Cooking by Arthur Schwartz,Ten Speed Press, $35
Jewish Holiday Cooking by Jayne Cohen, John Wiley and Sons, $32.50
By Marc Yaffe
BETHESDA, Maryland–The two Jewish cookbooks that are being reviewed here were both runners-up for the 2009 James Beard Awards in their individual categories. Clearly I am guilty of a certain hubris for selecting volumes that have already been declared among the best of the best, but I defend myself on the basis that my reviewing criteria are probably not among those applied by the selectors of the James Beard Foundation.
It is almost 40 years since I read –and saved for future reference– an article in the Arts Section of the Sunday New York Times by the noted music critic and essayist, Nat Hentoff. In his article Mr. Hentoff wrote of his interview of Al Cohn, a noted jazz saxophonist of the day. He quoted Mr. Cohn as saying: “It’s what you listen to when you’re growing up that you always come back to.” Hentoff then added: “. . . Cohn’s Law is essentially valid in that we do not forget what brought us the most pleasure when we were younger and what most won our respect.” It is no great stretch to apply Cohn’s Law to the foods that gave us most pleasure as children, and even today evoke the same pleasurable memories of our youth.
So when I pick up a Jewish cookbook the first thing I do is search out the recipes that my Grandmother, who emigrated from Kovna, a small village near Vilna, made regularly, especially those that graced our Passover table. One of the first recipes I look for in the Index is Brisket. Of course, my Grandmother used Nyafat for frying the onions and braising the brisket, and, to be sure, she salted and soaked the meat. I can’t criticize Mr. Schwartz for employing Canola Oil, but I cannot excuse him for baking his brisket after having braised it, and not adding a small amount of water to kick-start the gravy-making process. About midway through the cooking my Grandmother would add some par-boiled potatoes and cut up carrots. What a joy: Tender, juicy meat with gravy infused potatoes and carrots.
What it all boils down to (pardon the pun) is Mr. Schwartz’s heritage: Galitzianer or Litvak? Clearly, when he refers to the recipes he inherited from his Mother he is a Litvak. And while his Mother is to be excused for not coming from the same stetl as my Grandmother, her recipes, as interpreted by her son, do evoke many mouth-watering recollections. But where is her recipe for Taiglech? To my mind, a very serious omission.
Unlike Mr. Schwartz’s work, Jayne Cohen’s 575-page collection of recipes draws from every corner of the diaspora. If you are ever inclined to introduce new items into your traditional holiday menu, this is the source book for you. While it must be quite evident how much I relish my Grandmother’s pot roast, I confess to a strong curiosity to try Ms. Cohen’s Aromatic Marinated Brisket with Chestnuts. Her Syrian Stuffed Zucchini in Tomato-Apricot Sauce, a dish for Sukkot, is suitable for any occasion. As is her recipe for Iranian Grilled Chicken Thighs.
What Ms. Cohen offers is choices, a multitude of choices. Are you thinking about making latkes? She gives you not one recipe, but eleven. There are ten recipes for matzo brei, and a like quantity for kugel. And so on. For most of her dishes she does have basic recipes, introducing variations subsequently. Ms. Cohen’s work is a rich compendium of holiday fare, which, if you are inventive, can lead you to producing your own variations.
But as abundant is her collection of recipes, she, too, has omitted one for taiglech!
Kidding aside, it must be said that there is an important difference between these two volumes. The first, Mr. Schwartz’s tome, is truly a cookbook. It has a point of view and it tells its own story; about the foods that his family holds dear, and that he is drawn to as we are drawn to the music we heard as children. Ms. Cohen’s work is simply a compendium of recipes. That they are tied together by the thread of their Jewish origins there is little doubt. I do believe, however, that her work would have been considerably more meaningful had she sought to trace the evolution of all those recipes as they made their way into the diaspora.
Yaffe, based in Bethesda, Maryland, travels the world in search of culinary creations to compare with his bubbe’s.