When my mother and stepfather first began the process of downsizing, my mother asked if I wanted any of her cookbooks. She hadn’t used most of them in ages, though this is not to say she hadn’t cooked.
Rather, most of her go-to recipes were among the newspaper clippings and recipe cards she corralled into a large, zippered portfolio. When we needed a recipe, we dumped the contents onto the kitchen table and searched through the piles until we found what we were looking for. Practical it wasn’t. But practical isn’t everything and that portfolio is what she brought to their new home.
By then, I’d decided to tame the chaos of my own recipes in a three-ring binder and had amassed a sizable collection of Jewish cookbooks to which I added a few of my mother’s worn, well-loved classics when she offered them to me. I couldn’t help noticing that in her collection were also a number of shul and sisterhood cookbooks — most of them gifts she received decades earlier — that appeared as if they’d hardly been used at all.
Teeming with their members’ signature dishes, these volumes were simpler versions of the modern, professional-looking cookbooks produced as fundraisers that fill my shelves today. No images of fancy tablescapes or suggested Israeli wine pairings. Just the recipes, including then-in-vogue dishes like kosher gelatin molds and sides made with canned peas.
I loved their vintage vibe, but there was something curious on those pages. My mother always annotated her cookbooks, a habit I adopted. Yet instead of jotting down “Was a hit!” or “Use less salt,” she had crossed out entire recipes or written “Don’t make again.” Of course, she hadn’t tried them all, but there were enough Xs to explain why the books had fallen into disuse and remained in pristine condition.
We speculated that the recipe contributors had cooked like my great-grandmother once did, eyeballing quantities or using a yahrtzeit glass as a measuring cup. When they had to write the recipes down to submit them, it was likely the first time they had done so, accuracy a casualty of transmission.
I felt obliged to take those unused titles anyway, and maintained an inexplicable, outsized attachment to them for years. It was only when a friend expressed interest in them, and I envisioned the possibilities for the space on my kitchen shelf, that I let them go with a twinge of guilt. Meanwhile, their modern-day counterparts — likewise produced in support of sisterhoods, shuls, yeshivas, and other Jewish institutions — seemed to multiply in the vacancy.
There are several generations bookended by those two sets of fundraising cookbooks, the erstwhile ones my mother gave me and the ones I’ve acquired on my own. It’s a span in which we’ve come a long way from kosher gelatin molds to today’s architectural appetizers. At their core, though, they are the same — a collective effort reflecting a Jewish community at a moment and place in time. As such, their value exceeds the sum of their ingredients lists, differentiating them from the Jewish cookbooks authored by professional chefs that also take up room in my kitchen.
Filled with stunning photographs, they include Jewish classics and trendy cuisine. In addition, they offer us a sense of belonging — to our shared Jewish history, to our holidays and our Sabbath and our diverse culinary heritage. And they signify our mutual investment in our Jewish communities and traditions.
They are entwined with the daily unfolding of our private lives, too, so much of which takes place at the table. The Talmud teaches that the table is an altar reminiscent of the one in the Holy Temple that once stood in Jerusalem. Around it we imbue nourishment with sanctity, bringing echoes of our ancient past into our present-day kitchens by elevating a basic human act to the level of ritual.
As the mother of teenagers, I see how our meals define a moment and place in our family timelines as well. I no longer prepare kiddie foods, like the mini-carrot muffins that were once a staple of our Shabbos menu, a recipe I annotated with “The boys loved them!” in the margin. I’m finding that fact especially poignant as our middle son prepares to leave the nest for a gap year in Israel. I know I’ll miss him, but I’ll also miss preparing his favorite dishes while he is away.
There is indeed holiness at the table, especially on those rare occasions when everyone is home and we are all seated together. It makes me believe that our repertoire of recipes and the cookbooks we get them from are a kind of liturgy — a prayer of gratitude and a song of love, but also a reminder that eating with our families is a recipe for a meaningful life
Merri Ukraincik, a resident of Edison, N.J., is a regular contributor to this space and a columnist for the New Jersey Jewish News. Follow her at merriukraincik.com.