When Jews call themselves the People of the Book, we generally mean the Bible, but the cookbook runs a close second. There is nothing that can unite us like describing the smells and tastes of our childhood kitchens, or divide us like an argument over the right way to make latkes. As much as the actual food, we’re after the stories that the food evokes: the fricassee recipe passed down to signal that our grandmother finally considered her new daughter-in-law to be part of the family. The long-time customer who was so dismayed at the closing of his favorite bagel shop that he took over the business. The conversos whose trials before the Inquisition included as evidence of their Jewish identity the traditional eggplant stews they couldn’t bring themselves to abandon.
Storytelling drove Claudia Roden to research recipes in her parents’ London community of Egyptian émigrés: it was a chance to capture a vanished world in vivid detail. Her cookbooks double as ethnographies of food, something she began decades before the current trends towards documenting the history of salt, or the fork. When she began writing in 1970, it was impossible to find Middle Eastern cookbooks on the shelves, and olive oil was only stocked in pharmacies for medicinal purposes. Roden ignited a curiosity in mainstream British and American cooks to broaden their palates, try something new, and welcome the stories and flavors of another culture into their homes. And more subtly and powerfully, she helped those who were “other” feel that they didn’t have to conform to belong, that there was a place for their traditions in the mainstream culture. Thanks in part to Claudia Roden, we would feel shocked (and more than a little cheated) if we walked into a bookstore and didn’t see a rich array of cookbooks with recipes gleaned from tiny villages in South America, Japan, and, of course, the Middle East.
Roden’s books on Jewish food speak volumes about her approach to recipes in general. When describing Jewish food from the Middle East, she points out that there is no such thing as a Sephardic recipe: the rich, meaty flavors loved by Iraqi Jews have little in common with the parsley-laden dishes of Syrian Jewry, even if a recipe may go by the same name in both countries. And for Roden, raised on the heady spices of Cairo’s cuisine, her greatest challenge was researching the meat-and-potato recipes of Eastern European Jews—the cholents and the kugels—trying to tease out what made these blander recipes from colder climates such cultural touchstones. True to form, though, she crossed this cultural divide, found authentic recipes, and went on to make even these foods, so familiar to many in her audience, seem new again.
Deb Perelman started her Smitten Kitchen food blog in 2003, cooking in her own tiny New York galley kitchen at the height of the TV-based celebrity chef craze. Instead of making herself into a brand, Perelman earned credibility as a home cook who wouldn’t try and sell her readers a recipe (or a lifestyle) that she didn’t follow herself. She avoids recipes that rely on expensive or exotic ingredients, she balances indulgent foods for special occasions with more streamlined, healthy, everyday dinners and breakfasts, and she’s honest about recipes that fail to entice her toddler, or recipes that just flat-out fail.
In one post, Perelman will wow the reader with luscious descriptions of the Italian affogato she loves—vanilla gelato drowned in espresso—and the amazing inside-out version she’s created, with frozen espresso layered with homemade whipped cream, until you’re dying to try this confection for yourself. Then, bemoaning her waistline, she’ll describe a crave-worthy roasted vegetable dish or a filling soup. In another post, she jokes about asking her toddler what kind of cake he wants for his birthday (hoping for a fun challenge), only to be told, very firmly, “Tchocolate [sic]. Chocolate with chocolate,” and when she pretends not to understand, hoping he’ll change his mind, he clarifies, “Chocolate. Brown tchocolate, not white tchocolate.” She then describes her quest for the perfect chocolate cake in mouth-watering detail, with photographs that show her readers how to bake and frost a layer cake and win them over to what might otherwise have seemed boring and ordinary.
The stories behind Perelman’s recipes—and the gorgeous photos on her blog and in her book—draw readers in. What makes them stay is the sense that they have a friend in the kitchen, that Perelman’s warm, unfussy style means that their own experiences struggling to put together a work-night dinner in their tiny efficiency kitchen or entice a stubborn toddler don’t put them beyond the pale. Perelman’s stories make readers feel that their stories also count.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Cookbook Authors." (Viewed on March 3, 2021) <https://jwa.org/powercouples/roden-perelman>.