It’s time for another edition of From The Jewish Food Bookshelf. This time around, I’m featuring a highly recommended classic.
Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know that I like to cite my sources, and there are three in particular that I quote most frequently. I consider them the best three Jewish Food books overall. Luckily for me (and for these posts), they are each rather different from the other two, offering different types of resources. So I can visit each of them in a post, in time. Today, I’m focusing on one of my early favorites, and the one most widely quoted in articles everywhere about Jewish Food.
If you really want a great starting point for learning about the history or culture connected with this topic, you must get a copy of Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. Yes, it is a somewhat older text (as will be many of the books I review here), but I suspect that many of you don’t own a copy. And since Gil was one of my early inspirations in starting my journey into Jewish Food History, and was always encouraging and quick to respond to a question, I figure his is the best of the three to start with.
A Walking Encyclopedia
I had the honor and privilege to know Gil while he was still alive (he passed away, too young, a few years ago). You could ask him anything about Jewish Food, and he usually had a good answer, or could at least give you some enlightening insight. My mom always tells the story that she once told him that her mother (my maternal grandmother) used to make potatonik, a cross between a potato kugel and a bread. Unfortunately my mom lost the recipe and my grandmother had already died. Gil asked my mom where my grandmother came from, went to his computer and came back a few minutes later with some printed pages. “Here’s three recipes,” he said. “You want the third one.” My mom looked it over, and he was absolutely right.
Anyone who knew him knew that he was truly a walking encyclopedia. This is why so many encouraged him to write an actual encyclopedia, an effort that is largely different from most of his other books. They fall more in the realm of cookbooks-plus-research.
The Encyclopedia, as it should, addresses Jewish foods from many different Jewish communities, including the lesser-known and smaller ones. Not every entry, but many are accompanied by recipes and/or enlightening charts and pictures. Typically, it is the first source I check when I begin researching any specific Jewish Food. The scope is massive, though one of my few minor complaints about the book is when I find something missing. Of course, this would always be the case — nothing can be 100% comprehensive. I just had such respect for Gil that I assumed he’d have everything!
A Slight Criticism
No book, nor author, is perfect. There is one issue I have with this otherwise awesome Jewish Food book. The book is not footnoted at all, which means that it is hard to dig deeper when doing research, using Encyclopedia as a starting point. Occasionally, I feel that Gil might have overstated a point, or even made a mistake here and there. And I can’t go and check his sources, any more than I can ask him how he learned the point.
I fully understand why this was likely the case. Gil had been gathering knowledge and information for decades. And while he did have extensive files, as I said, he was really a walking encyclopedia — lots of the information was just in his brain. I’m sure that when he started researching and collecting information, he never expected to become the expert that he became, or to need the sources of what he learned. The knowledge just accumulated. But when the time came for him to write his resource book on Jewish Food, he didn’t want to leave out important or juicy information, and it would simply take too long or be too difficult to track down all of the original references.
Frustrating for me, but fully understandable. And not enough of a reason to not get the book! I should also add, by the way, that he was not the first to compile a book of this nature. Over the years, I came across a 1979 book called A Lexicon of Jewish Cooking: A Collection of Folklore, Foodlore, History, Customs, and Recipes by Patti Shosteck. A similar idea to this one, I can’t say it is quite as comprehensive, but a worthy bonus to look at as well!
Add this book to your Jewish Food Bookshelf and you’ll have hours of entertaining and enlightening reference reading.
UPDATE: After I posted this, it occurred to me that I should have noted that the book is currently out of print. I hope someone brings it back to print, but beyond that, you might find it at a used-book store, and/or in a digital version, or at the library!