Arts and Culture

First-ever translation of Yiddish cookbook yields Old World treasures, New World Advice

TEL AVIV (JTA) — When a rare volume of a 1914 cookbook written in Yiddish for American Jewish housewives came into the hands of Bracha Weingrod, the once popular but forgotten book began its long journey from dusty oblivion to celebrated translation.

The thick, worn copy of “Dos Familien Kokh-Bookh,” now newly translated by Weingrod as “The Yiddish Family Cookbook,” appears to be the only Yiddish cookbook now on the market.

It came to Weingrod more than 35 years ago, soon after the native Canadian immigrated to Israel. A friend, a forager of old books, had found it on the bottom shelf of a used bookstore in New York and had brought it for her as a housewarming gift in Jerusalem. Wingrod was instantly smitten.

“It was like going back to my roots. I did not have to go Russia to the small village where my mother was from,” Weingrod, a retired teacher, told JTA. “I just opened the book and it was somehow there.”

But it was as much a cookbook with Old World tips, like how to stuff a goose (“place it between your legs and open its mouth, putting in as many dumplings as possible”), as it was a practical guide for Jewish women finding their way in the New World with foods such as cherry pie, ice cream and sandwiches transliterated and thoughtfully decoded by the author, H. Braun.

There is virtually nothing known about Braun aside from the authoritative but neighborly tone she strikes as she sets out to educate a generation of Jewish immigrant women who avidly read her cookbook, sailing it through four printings, the last in 1928.

She tried to coax women to liberate themselves from the ways of heavy shtetl cooking and make more careful, considered dishes, introducing them also to French and Italian cuisine modified for a kosher kitchen, like mock turtle soup.

A search by Weingrod about Braun in the U.S. Library of Congress quickly went cold.

But through the translation, Weingrod hopes a new generation will be able to tap into Braun’s knowledge. That includes her boundless advice on nutrition, special focus on digestive issues (“no herring in the summer”) and tips for being a practical, frugal shopper, among them how to select fresh fish.

Included in her suggestions are how to substitute olive oil for schmaltz and lemon juice for salt, marking her as a nutritionist ahead of her time.

“This book is actually a very practical guide for today’s young people, whether they are part of the new expanding religious communities or back-to-basic green or organic health seekers because all they had were basics,” Weingrod said. “This book provides innovative ideas for preserving and creating foods using long-lasting core ingredients often without need for refrigeration.”

Weingrod has translated some 200 of the original 693 recipes in the book. She said she did her best to preserve the cadence of tone of the original Yiddish.

In the Tel Aviv building that is home to the Organization of Yiddish Writers in Israel, several dozen people recently came to hear Weingrod describe the cookbook and the process of translating it. She began the project after retiring, although the idea for a translation had been in her head for years.

“The kitchen was their life,” she said of the immigrant women for whom the book was written.

“That is where they produced, that’s where they created. That is where memory is.”

Joan Nathan, the doyenne of Jewish cooking and a proponent of the new translation, wrote in a blurb, “It is wonderful to have this translation available to those who do not speak Yiddish. ‘Dos Familien Kokh-Bookh’ in English is a fantastic entry to the canon of Jewish cookbooks.”

Hasia Diner, a professor of Jewish history at New York University who has written about the intersection of immigrant women to the United States and food, wrote the translation’s introduction.

“Through the exquisite details included in the recipes, the author introduced Jewish cooks to American standards of nutrition and health,” Diner wrote. “The recipes themselves as well as the commentary introducing each chapter explicitly point out the differences in lifestyle and aspirations between the intended readers’ European past and their American present.”

In their lives in Europe, Braun reminds her readers, food could be scarce, but in America, where food — and food choices — were abundant, she cautions against rich diets and repeatedly returns to the subject of being kind to the “mogen” — the stomach.

Writing about sauces for meat, for example, Braun warns, “It is the sauce that plays a great role in giving many foods their taste, but if not prepared correctly the stomach will protest.” She also mentions coconut butter as a substitute for butter for making such sauces so that kashrut can be maintained.

In a chapter titled “Caring for a Sick One,” she counsels how to best feed the ill, admonishing, “In no part of the kitchen is there as much art and devoted care as in cooking for a sick one.

Everything must be tasty, healthy, and fresh,” she writes. “People who don’t know how to cook for a sick one can very easily make them even sicker.”

Braun suggests serving a variety of food from soups to raw beef sandwiches and always with a white napkin, polished cutlery and “the nicest plates.”

In a chapter on greens, she asserts that no meal is complete without a vegetable, describing how vegetables grown on the ground should be prepared in boiling water but those that grow inside the earth (with the exception of potatoes) should be prepared in cold water.

In her sandwich chapter, Braun describes the “great role” that food plays for Americans where bringing lunch in a pail is not acceptable as it was in the Old Country. She even provides a recipe for making homemade peanut butter, describing it as delicious and cheap.

Among her many recipes are roasted goose, puff pastry, pickled watermelon rind and cornbread.

Of course, there are also Jewish staples like honey cake and lokshen kugel (noodle pudding).

In an introduction for her readers that presages what many in the new food movement are saying today, Braun writes, “It is true: we live not to eat but eat to live. It is therefore also true that the kind of food we eat determines the kind of life we lead.”

A recipe from “The Yiddish Family Cookbook” for Honey Cake: Sieve a quart of honey into a bowl. Here one must note that our Jewish housewives are often cheated in America regarding honey. Instead of honey made by bees, they are given imitation molasses. And so we caution that one must have clean, pure, natural bee’s honey. This can always be found and purchased through better grocery stores.

So, take one quart of clear honey, and add 1/2 pint of sugar and the same amount of melted butter. Dissolve a teaspoon of soda in a 1/2 cup of warm water, grate in half a nutmeg, add a full teaspoon of ginger and sifted flour and mix all together. We do not give the exact measurement of flour because the housewife has to know that this depends on the type of flour. Often the flour is too dry and sometimes it is too fresh. Therefore she must know that just enough flour is needed to make a dough that can be rolled out. The dough should be cut up in thin pieces, like cakes, put on a greased pan, and baked in a hot oven.