Would it surprise anyone to learn that Marcel Proust's mother was Jewish? Isn't food nostalgia as Jewish as answering a question with a question?
Longing for a madeleine or a knish of years past is a tradition that goes back to the ancient Israelites, who kvetched as they wandered in the desert, recalling the foods they enjoyed in Egypt: "We remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt freely, the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic."
No matter that these delights were served up with a side of slavery, their sweetness tempered by the sweat of forced labor and the harshness of the whip. For to paraphrase the old adage, "there is no sauce like memory."
Sometimes those culinary treasures we remember really were all that. Other recipes pack a powerful resonance with an appeal that is considerably narrower-like the leftover matzoh balls my family gobbled cold on Passover mornings, while waiting for Dad to fry up the matzoh brie.
Or maybe it's just the flood of memories a dish unleashes: a place, a time, a person we adored. I cannot eat a perfect strawberry without thinking of my grandmother, who sliced sweet local berries and arranged them, dusted lightly with sugar, on top of corn-rye bread thickly spread with fresh butter. (Those white-hearted behemoth strawberries, however, don't evoke her at all.)
Trying to re-create foods that are inextricably linked to memories can be difficult. The original recipe may never have been written down; it could be unique to a tiny village long gone or even to a single family. Sometimes our taste memory plays tricks: either it's blurred with the years-or perhaps no food could ever taste as delicious as our memory of it.
But ah! when you get it right or near enough...My ninety-one-year-old neighbor, the late Harold Callen, had not tasted his mother's potato pancakes for decades when he tried mine. I can still recall the dance in his blue eyes as he conjured up his Hanukkah tables of long ago, crunching oniony latkes surrounded by innumerable brothers and sisters.
And so begins our first Centropa column of Lost and Found Recipes. I hope to run the column twice each year, featuring recipes that readers have requested. The recipes won't necessarily appear in the order in which they were sent. I'll post them as I am able to find them, and some may take more research. So if you don't see your recipe posted, it probably means I am still digging.
Please try to include as much information as possible in your request. Details such as where you believe the recipe originated, or where your family lived, may be especially helpful if the recipe is fairly unusual. (Since borders were constantly redrawn in Central and Eastern Europe, try to be as specific as you can-e.g., "from Grodno," instead of simply "Poland.") And readers, if you know a recipe or pertinent data related to it that another reader has requested in our Readers' Forum, please share it with us.
In this column I'll address reader requests for Jewish Apple Cake, Polish Pickle Soup, and Chopped Eggs, Onions, and Potato. The next Lost and Found Recipes Column will probably be in the fall, so please send in your requests so that I can begin searching for them.
But first, here is an answer to Ellen Breslau's question in the Readers' Forum about German references to garlic as "specifically Jewish." According to the Jewish Museum of Berlin, the three most important Jewish communities in the Middle Ages, Speyer, Worms, and Mainz, were known as "Shum" (Hebrew for garlic). A well-known 16th century watercolor depicts a Jew from Worms (identified by the yellow oval badge Jews were required to wear); in his hands he holds a moneybag and a bunch of garlic bulbs. John Cooper notes in his well-researched book on the history of Jewish cuisine, Eat and Be Satisfied (Jason Aronson, 1993), "So entrenched did the use of garlic become in Ashkenazic cooking that a fifteenth-century Karaite scholar in Turkey poured scorn on Ashkenazic students ‘who eat their dishes prepared with garlic which ascends to their brains'; at the beginning of the eighteenth century the publicist Johann G. Schudt in Germany referred to the Jews' immoderate use of garlic." Oded Schwartz, writing about meat in Ashkenazi cuisine in In Search of Plenty: A History of Jewish Food (Kyle Cathie, 1992), says, "Garlic is one of the most esteemed flavourings in Jewish cooking. Together with onion it is the base of almost all pot roasts and stews and it is also included in most pickles. As a result, the Jews used to be scornfully called garlic-eaters by their Christian neighbors."