Posted by: A Part of the Solution | March 21, 2010

I’ve Been Unpacking My Cookbooks

I spent a couple hours in our workshop this morning. It’s currently a storage area and in a state of chaos on par with post-earthquake zones. I haven’t found them all yet. I know this because I am still several versions short of The Joy of Cooking (I own one of each, as there are valuable variations in each edition). And I haven’t seen Baking with Julia either. The food processor version of Danish in that one is amazing.

But I am a lot closer to having access to most of my collection. I have in excess of one hundred books more I will be throwing onto the shelves in the kitchen. I had forgotten how many cookbooks, books about food, and books about people who care about food I own. They’ve been in storage since July 2008, so I hope I can be forgiven for not having the exact extent of the catalog in my head.

Now I can make the lovely lemon tart from the Lutece cookbook. That one really gets my culinary historian juices flowing. The recipe was acquired by the Alsatian chef at the NYC landmark restaurant from a regular customer of Swiss origin.

What the chef didn’t say, but was clear from the recipe, was that his elderly customer was Jewish. And his people had fled Spain in that fatal year of 1492 (one of the most extensive and painful diasporic events in the history of Judaism–as they lost everything so that Queen Isabella could fund an expedition proposed by that famous adventurer Cristoforo Colombo).

How can I tell this from a recipe? Well, the elderly Swiss gentleman asked the chef to make a dessert traditional to his family, but which he had never seen elsewhere. It had been in his family for ‘hundreds of years’.

Now, where on earth would persons in a landlocked, alpine nation get the taste for (let alone a recipe specifically to use in quantity) lemons more than two hundred years ago? In these modern days, we forget how different transportation paradigms were. We forget that people were locavores by necessity not choice back in the day. And lemons, which are plentiful in Spain, are rare as leopards in Switzerland.

Then there’s the matter of the tart’s other ingredients. It uses only two tablespoons of flour. That’s a ridiculously small amount of flour. It’s hardly worth putting into a recipe at all. Desserts with flour in them generally have lots more of the stuff than that.

However, if you look in Jewish cookbooks, you’ll find many Passover recipes calling for a small amount of Matzo meal (one to four tablespoons is about average). Suddenly, the recipe makes sense. Switzerland, after all, was one of the European nations which accepted those Sephardic refugees.

And that’s just one recipe from one cookbook. I’ll bake the tart (hey Passover’s coming right up on the calendar, for all I’m Episcopalian by birth and Syncretic by choice) and think about all the other recipes I have to rediscover and reconnect with.

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