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A new exhibition looks to recipes to highlight shifting traditions.

“People look at these and say, ‘That looks like something my grandmother bought at the synagogue bake sale. Why would you put it in an exhibit? It’s not important.’” Melanie Meyers looks down at a spiral bound cookbook from the ‘70s, pointing out a recipe for almond cookies. “I think they’re fantastic.”

Meyers is the curator of “Nourishing Tradition: Jewish Cookbooks and the Stories they Tell,” an exhibition running this summer at New York’s Center for Jewish History. Highlighting almost 200 years of Jewish cookbooks from five partner organizations’ vast archival collections, the exhibit explores the role of food in religion, diaspora, culture, and memory.

For the curators, cookbooks are more than just a grandmother’s scribbled recipes: they’re rich historical documents, providing a novel way to teach social history. Their pages represent the experience of common people. And the history of cooking and eating is particularly poignant among communities of the Jewish diaspora.

Anyone who has studied Jewish history knows that there are Jewish enclaves throughout the world—and where people go, food follows, sometimes to surprising places. Books like Cuisine of the Jews of Izmir or A Russian Jew Cooks in Peru, both on view in the exhibition, illustrate the magnitude of the movement of people (and their foodways) across time and space.

“Nourishing Tradition” notes that cooking and eating, with their special place in the Jewish religion and culture, were integral to both assimilation and self-preservation.

In the United States, assimilation often meant participation in the American marketplace. One sign of Americanization within Jewish communities was mass-market companies trying to court their business. In the early 20th century, promotional cookbooks from Jewish-oriented food brands like Manischewitz and Wolff’s competed with similar efforts from giant corporations like Procter & Gamble.

One such cookbook touts the applications of Crisco in kosher cooking. Says Meyers, “At some point somebody said, ‘You know, Crisco is kosher. Why didn’t we think to market this to all these waves of new immigrants?’ The idea was that you could substitute it for things like schmaltz, and it would be cheap and shelf-stable.”

Recipes were published in two languages so that a Yiddish-speaking mother and an English-speaking daughter could work together in the kitchen—a conscious nod to the “Americanization” of this large new immigrant group. In this way, cookbooks reflect the immigrant experience: the Jewish community moved from niche market status to become a truly influential constituency.

A recipe for dill pickles from a fusion cookbook. (Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society, the American Sephardi Federation, and the Center for Jewish History)

But the history of Jewish food is as much about preservation as it is about assimilation. According to Miriam Haier, director of public programs at the Center, “It’s also about keeping the community boundaries. It’s about not making your kids tempted to go out and try pork and shellfish.” Many of the cookbooks on display featured “kosherized” recipes or fusion foods, part of a long tradition of adapting Jewish foodways to the land, society, and economic situation of the community.

This balancing act—culinary compromise without cultural sacrifice—produced new recipes with varying levels of success. One cookbook, which came out of a Jewish community in Latin America, contains a recipe for pickles (pictured above) with a local variety of pepper. A few pages later, though, comes a head-scratching recipe for making gefilte fish out of chicken. “It seems like the fish they were used to using wasn’t locally available, but they wanted to mimic the texture,” says Meyers. Jewish foods were often rooted in a sense of place, but were also subject to the limitations of new landscapes and ecosystems.

Jewish writers and cooks also assimilated outside trends into the Jewish community. Cultural touchstones like etiquette books, inspired by the Victorian Book of Household Management, were produced by Jewish publishers to address Jewish household norms and food customs. The turn-of-the-century fixation on sanitation and nutrition saw the publication of an Eastern European vegetarian cookbook in Yiddish. Meyers attributes these to increasing cultural capital in the Jewish community: “They were saying, ‘Why can’t we have that? We want that for us.’

A vegetarian cookbook written by a Lithuanian restaurant owner. (Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the Center for Jewish History)

Cookbooks mirror Jewish history by cataloguing constant adaptation and change over time and place. But these historical documents also show the more intangible—and often spiritual—role of Jewish food in people’s lives. According to Meyers, “food is memory, and food is survival.” Food helped people nourish their faith during the Spanish Inquisition, so much so that family cooks were often interrogated about a household’s eating habits in an attempt to uncover crypto-Jews. Handwritten cookbooks, given as wedding presents, exhibit food as a conduit for family traditions and social relationships.

One document in the exhibition, recovered from the Theresienstadt concentration camp, shows how food and cooking were integral to the physical and emotional survival of a community of prisoners. Elsa Oestreicher, a cooking instructor before WWII, was deported to the camp and worked as a cook and teacher for hundreds of inmates. A fellow prisoner wrote a poem in her honor, describing in detail how Oestreicher’s food—and even the act of talking about food—sustained them:

“It was not pleasant in Theresienstadt, it gave us only one ray of light...There was the beloved warm kitchen with pleasant smells of peas and steam from potatoes, of field herbs and artificial coffee, of sauerkraut and small noodles.”

Today, as ever, Jewish cooking continues to be integral to the community’s identity—while also responding to new trends and demands. More recent titles like The Organic Yenta and Shalom on the Range demonstrate the ongoing adaptation of Jewish food to the environment and attitudes of the people who cook it.

Food history, as Meyers is quick to note, is not just about the recipes. Food is social history, women’s history, working-class history—and, for Jewish cooks, it’s rooted in a sense of place and time, but also transient and malleable. In a community that is sometimes defined by movement and adaptation, Meyers says, “food is a device that transmits memory, and helps transcend.”

“Nourishing Tradition” is on view at the Center for Jewish History in New York City through September 9.

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