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Jewish Cooking, 19th-Century Style

Jewish Cooking, 19th-Century Style

First-ever Jewish cookbook auctioned

So you think your Passover cleaning is tough.

“Before using the kitchen tables, they must undergo a thorough scrubbing, and be rinsed with scalding water. It was customary in England to lay them in fuller’s earth, which is not so well known here; so it would be advisable to have coarse cloths tacked on instead. The cisterns must be cleaned, and a piece of flannel put on the nozzle of the hydrant.”

Such is part of the gospel of Pesach preparation, if you will, according to Esther Levy in America’s first-ever Jewish cookbook, published in Philadelphia in 1871. A rare first edition of the “Jewish Cookery Book” — which offers a window into 19th-century Jewish life and eating habits — fetched nearly $11,000 last week at Swann Auction Galleries here.

And when the Passover cleaning is nearing an end, Levy enthuses, “With what pleasurable emotions a Jewish woman must anticipate the time when she will see everything looking so brilliantly clean, and mostly new.”

As for the seder meal itself, the exacting Levy, of course, has some thoughts, as in her “Matzo Cleis Soup”: “Soak two matzos in cold water, and then fry two or three chopped onions in some suet fat.” After “beating up” the matzahs and onions with three or four eggs and adding spices (including grated nutmeg), “make it into round balls, pretty stiff, and boil for ten minutes, not more, or they will break.”

In the sweetly excessive vernacular of the 19th century, the full title of Levy’s historic book is, the “Jewish Cookery Book on Principles of Economy Adapted for Jewish Housekeepers with Medicinal Recipes and Other Valuable Information Relative to Housekeeping and Domestic Management.” (Levy may be the spiritual ancestor of Jewish food gurus Joan Nathan and Susie Fishbein, but also of Martha Stewart.) Its 200 pages contain everything from tips on the “arrangement of the table” to poultry, soup, bread and pastry recipes. There’s a recipe for “a fine amber pudding” and suggestions on “a good bedbug poison.” There are recipes for “stewed brisket, with string beans,” “tongue, with sauer kraut,” potato souffle, grimslechs (fruit fritters for Passover), gooseberry biscuits and Mulligatawney soup.

“This 1871 first edition of the ‘Jewish Cookery Book’ is rarely seen on the market — only two other copies have been seen at auction in the past decade,” says Rick Stattler, director of printed and manuscript Americana at Swann. “This book offers us a vivid look into the daily lives of the American Jewish community just before the period of its most rapid growth.

“In the recipes, you can see the dynamic between the requirements of keeping kosher, the cultural traditions brought over from Europe, and the American ingredients at hand,” Stattler continues. “But it’s also rich in detail on the day-to-day management of a 19th-century Jewish household. It’s an interesting and important cultural document.”

In addition to the cookbook, Swann auctioned a number of Jewish cultural pieces. (An April 22 auction features “autographs” from from Alfred Dreyfus, Theodor Herzl and other notable Jews.) One, the Liber Psalmorum Hebraice, the first part of the Hebrew Bible printed in America (1809), sold for $9,600.

A collection of personal papers of the family of Rabbi A. M. Hershman, a noted Jewish leader from Detroit, went for $1,440. These included correspondences he held with his two daughters when they were in Israel. Some letters are eerily relevant, such as when he discusses assimilation, and the relationship of Jews with the Holy Land. In 1934, he wrote: “It is easy to be a good Jew or Jewess in Palestine … [but] to live a good Jewish life outside of Palestine means to swim against the current.”

Perhaps. But Levy and her soulful recipes seem right in the Jewish mainstream, right here in America. The right to cook — and clean — from its “moderately worn” pages now belongs to a private collector whose identity the Swann Galleries won’t disclose.

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