“Walking encyclopedia” may have been the idiom that appeared most often in tributes to culinary historian Gil Marks, who died in Jerusalem on December 5, 2014, after a courageous three-year battle with (nonsmoker’s) lung cancer. A memorial gathering of family and friends will be held in Jerusalem on January 5 and will be streamed.
One of my fondest memories of Gil is linked to a phone call I received a little over three years ago, the morning after his cooking demonstration at a benefit evening in Jerusalem for the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews. The chair of the board, who had emigrated from Ethiopia to Israel as a child, asked me for his recipe for Wot, a signature Ethiopian-Jewish stew. “He makes it better than I do.”
Gil couldn’t have been more pleased, and I remember his inimitable cackling laugh when I conveyed the request. It was an affirmation of his culinary ethos, the potential for food to serve as the great equalizer. He was certain that due honor to culinary traditions was a vital pathway to overcome bias and honor communities with origins across the globe.
I was witness to the confirmation of his ethos by the light in the eyes of gourmands from diverse walks of life when he shared his learned riffs on the history and heritage of their kitchen’s specialties. He waxed enthusiastic about delicacies from the Yemenite condiment Hilbeh to the Kurdistani Kubeh soup. In fact, he ranked Kubeh among his favorite comfort foods, unquestionably on par with chicken soup. He bemoaned that so many American Jews of Eastern European origin were not aware of flavorful Jewish cuisines from the far reaches of Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean.
Gil’s insight into the universal value of cultural particularism was rewarded by the honors given to his lovingly researched books. His "Olive Trees and Honey" vegetarian cookbook received the James Beard Foundation Award in 2005. In 2011, his magnum opus, Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, was also nominated for the James Beard Foundation Award for "Reference and Scholarship" and Library Journal cited it as the best reference in their food category.
His literary agent Rita Rosencranz notes that it is extraordinary that an encyclopedia of that depth and scope was written by one individual, rather than a community of contributors. Gil invested the same industrial-strength intellectual curiosity and passion in his final manuscript. A proud past resident of Richmond, Virginia, he focused on combining American history and folklore with sumptuous cake recipes. Excerpts have already been published in the on-line History Kitchen. In collaboration with his agent, Gil’s colleagues are also lending a hand to advancing the publication of his last book. His death was a grievous loss, and they are eager to preserve Gil’s legacy and enable both long-time readers and young foodies to savor their just desserts.
Eva L. Weiss is a writer and editor who lives in Jerusalem.