With this post, I am inaugurating a new series on this blog, called “The Jewish Food Bookshelf.” I love Jewish Food History, and there are so many wonderful sources out there to get educated on the topic. In the past, I have tried to footnote and credit the many amazing books I have used as resources for my posts. And over the years I have come across so many excellent works, from cookbooks to memoirs to historical studies, some of which I have written about in previous posts.
I assume that if you are reading this blog, you also have an interest in the history and culture of Jewish Food, though you might not have been exposed to the books and sources that I have. Thus, I hope to periodically write a short review or description of selected books that I have come across and liked. Hopefully it will spark you to get one or two of them as well.
I will certainly cover many of the classics of Jewish Food studies (as I see them) down the road. But I wanted to start with a new and intriguing book that has just come out this year. In Sephardi: Cooking the History. Recipes of the Jews of Spain and the Diaspora, from the 13th Century to Today, author Hélène Jawhara Piñer has fused many elements into a single informative and practical cookbook. The book’s subtitle may be a bit unwieldy, but it describes in perfect detail what this book encompasses.
Fusing Two Interests
Piñer is both a chef and academic, and her doctorate is both in medieval history and the the history of food. Thus, Sephardi is both a cookbook and a work of writing on food studies. Taking a step beyond what David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson did with their fabulous A Drizzle of Honey, the recipes that Piñer features at times work to recreate medieval dishes based on historical records. (Gitlitz, who passed away this year, was Piñer’s mentor and wrote the foreword for this book.) Where Drizzle was based largely on Inquisition trial records, Piñer more broadly combines that research with numerous other sources (three Iberian cookbooks of the 13th and 14th centuries, medieval Spanish literary sources, medical texts, etc.).
Piñer also extends the scope of her study by looking at the foods that have remained part of the cooking within the widely dispersed Sephardic diaspora community. Rather than watering down her study, this actually gives it depth, showing the enduring vibrancy of a medieval cuisine that has left its imprint on those many cooks who descend from the source culture. Many excellent cookbooks have looked at modern Sephardic cooking, both broadly and within specific sub-cultures. This one places the modern recipes in the context of their medieval Spanish roots. Similarly, by looking both at the foods of the Jews while they were in Spain, and at the gastronomy of crypto-Jews, she presents a more complete portrait of the overall cuisine.
The final aspect that Piñer puts in her book incorporates the other side of her character. As an experienced chef, she ends Sephardi with a number of her own recipes, inspired by or updating classic dishes of the cuisine. This also adds a contemporary feel and a greater degree of practicality that was lacking in a book like Drizzle.
Diverse but Haphazard
This book definitely offers a great combination of many things. Unfortunately, this does make it feel a bit haphazard and unfocused at times. Still, this does not mean it is not a worthwhile cookbook for those interested in the subject. Just that few people will find equal value in all of it. Each can find something of use and interest while skimming over other parts!
In particular, due to the brevity of her headnote explanations, I felt a few of her claims were somewhat dubious. Luckily for me (and hopefully for you), however, this book is one of two that Piñer was working on at the same time, with the second to be published next year. That one is an academic study, rather than a popular cookbook, so I expect to read much more detail and research when that one comes out. Very much looking forward!
A few of the more interesting parts for me personally include an exploration of the connection between Jews and eggplants, recipes for a few specific Shabbat stews (the subject of my book), and the wealth of Sephardic sweets that show the enduring power of this old cuisine. Between these, the eight explicitly “Jewish” recipes found in medieval Arabic sources, Piñer’s own modern creations and the accessible versions of recipes from half a millennium ago, this book offers a lot of intriguing material for you to choose from if you are looking to explore this large branch of Jewish cuisine and Jewish Food History.