The Sisterhood of Jewish Cooking

On my Grandma Cookie and other matriarchs

A special treat today: the following personal essay is one I wrote for an upcoming issue of The Pandemic Post, which will be available in print later this month, and available for pre-order here. Unlike what follows this piece in print benefits from Pandemic Post’s incredibly beautiful design! Part 2 coming next week.

To hear my grandmother tell it, “my life growing up was really fucking weird. I was passed around, one to the other….” Grandma Cookie’s darling mother died when she was 3 years old. They told Cookie her mother had, simply, gone away to Maine. Her well-meaning enough, though hapless, father Barney proceeded to engage a string of girlfriends and wives, “one worse than the next.” Needless to say, it wasn’t happy.

What Cookie did have, in abundance, was women. She was the fourth of four sisters, along a spread of 17 years—she followed Rae, Helen, and Ruthie, who loved their baby sister and mothered her as best they could, motherless though they were too. And her mother had sisters, who all “did whatever they could” to take care of Cookie: Molly, Dora, Mae, Sophie, Sylvia. They all lived in Chelsea, Massachusetts, first generation Americans from Minsk—Cookie’s mother, the eldest, arrived to the US in utero—and everyone knew and loved them for their generosity. Despite having very little, they made sure everyone in the community had enough to eat. This is who raised Cookie, and who fed Cookie.

Without a doubt, in her tumultuous childhood, food could, had to, stand in for love. Her wicked stepmothers were bereft of cooking talent, or even basic inclination. By contrast, her aunts—and her mother before them—cooked and fed without match. I don’t know a lot about them, but I do know that Cookie has a picture of Aunt Molly kneading dough, and that she made cakes without needing to measure. Aunt Dora’s specialty was chopped herring (even Cookie didn’t eat it); Aunt Mae was pretty lousy, cooking hamburgers as hard as softballs; Aunt Sophie did whatever Aunt Mae said; Aunt Sylvia was a world-class, elegant cook, and the only one who could drive. The aunts were in constant motion, and service; they would never sit down to eat with the kids. “You ate hearty, not fancy,” says Cookie: flanken, stuffed cabbage, chicken soup. No recipes, just intuition and improvisation. Food and its constant preparation was a preoccupation, though they worked outside the home, too, as secretaries for featherers and shoemakers. (Aunt Mae was the big shot: the municipal “supervisor of Americanization,” teaching brand new immigrants in the ways of American life, preparing their paths to citizenship.) 

Later, as a wife, mother, and grandmother, Cookie performed food-as-love with virtuosity. She was a superior cook and baker, as well as a consummate hostess—beginning preparations a week in advance for Jewish holidays. Her specialties ranged from leg of lamb with a mustard glaze to watermelon ice cream jello mold. Among her sisters and a large group of female friends, she participated in a near-constant exchange of recipes and ideas, jotting them down on notecards and slips of paper. Her beloved sister Rae made the best blintzes, and a stuffed veal roast basted in ginger ale. She and her best friend, Doris, spoke in shorthand on the phone—they never said hello or goodbye, only a drawled “Yeah?”—even wordlessly intuiting when the other’s husband arrived home and it was time to go. Cookie didn’t like green peppers, but for the best Chicken Paprikash, Doris insisted: you have to use it while it cooks, but then you can take it out. 

To this day, as her short-term memory falters, Cookie’s handle on not only the prowess of her friends, but that of their mothers, is near-complete. Doris’s mother-in-law, Omi, had terrific recipes. Audrey Bower had an excellent dish that her mother had taught her. Anita really couldn’t cook, but her mother could. And Aunt Rae’s mother-in-law, Fanny—oh, did she make life a living hell—but she could cook anything. Even if the relationship was spoiled or absent, the food, and talking about it, remained. For Jewish women, cooking was more than a habit or skill, it was a running dialogue, gossip fodder, social currency, reprieve, education, artistry, community—a heritage.

This is nowhere better reflected than in a little-known but robust sub-genre of crowd-sourced cookbooks, published by sisterhood groups at local synagogues. A small committee would solicit and compile hundreds of everyday recipes in hand-bound booklets, inexpensive to produce and sold to fundraise for the synagogue. This, along with putting on shows, was “the only thing they let women do,” according to Cookie. She maintains a collection of about ten or so collections from the 1960s and 70s, from, for example, Temple Beth Avodah Sisterhood in Newton Centre, Massachusetts; Sisterhood Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill; Sisterhood Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights; Sisterhood of the Barrington Jewish Center in Rhode Island; and the Sisterhood of East End Temple in Manhattan, to name a few. These are her only cookbooks, to this day, besides two tattered, tiny volumes: “Mama’s Meichulim” and “From My Mother’s Kitchen.” They were earlier relics, from her eldest sister, offering solace and knowing even through other people’s mothers.

I am endlessly fascinated by these sisterhood cookbooks. Each follows an identical format, with recipes presented in unfussy list format and straightforward prose. They are often divided into sections for starters, soups and salads, meats, desserts, et cetera. Sometimes the covers or the section starters have a design flourish, but mostly they are unadorned. Some have spunky titles, like “Black Tie & Apron Strings,” or “Butterfingers.” Some have a special holiday cooking section, like for Passover, or, in the back, tips and tricks for setting a table or entertaining. None restrict themselves to kosher recipes.

Indeed, somewhat counterintuitively, the first thing to understand about these cookbooks is that they are not very Jewish. Surely, they contain recipes for kugel, tzimmes, challah, schmaltz, and borscht. But these are not documents of the old country. They are far more powerfully a record of suburban assimilation and aspiration, of mid-century middle-class normative gender roles, and of an increasing homogenization of American food. As often as you see tzimmes, you see the American melting pot at work: Beef Sukiyaki, Duck à l’Orange, Chicken Mexicana, Beulah’s Baked Beans, Zucchini Parmesan. With or without international flair, the vast majority of recipes belong to the jiggling, processed tragedies of mid-century American cuisine. Molded banana salad, coleslaw souffle, pineapple cheese ball…you get the unappetizing idea. 

What the recipes do share is simplicity and expediency. When I asked Cookie what she liked so much about these cookbooks, and why she collected them, she said that the recipes were easy. They were developed for busy mothers with little time, and they often suggest substitutions or shortcuts. They make ecstatic use of ubiquitous shelf staples, like Ritz crackers, Lipton onion soup mix, canned fruit, frozen veggies, margarine and mayonnaise (so much mayonnaise). To wit, Cookie’s all-time classic dish, what she would submit to the anthology, is holiday pot roast: chuck roast, Lipton onion soup mix, Campbell’s golden mushroom soup, a bottle of ketchup, and chili sauce. (Only later in life did she start to add baby carrots, potatoes, and mushrooms, and maybe some red wine.) 

Of course, there’s much more at play than efficient recipes. Take one subsection on canned tuna, whose recipes include: “Tuna Fantasy for a Crowd,” “Hot Tuna Curry,” “Tuna Lasagna Florentine,” and “Slim-Waist Tuna-Cheese Pie.” When I first came across these, reading them aloud to my mom and grandma, we howled with laughter. So did my instagram followers. The recipes are truly repugnant, and so unselfconsciously of their time. But it strikes me that these recipes constitute a perfect summation of the goals of these cookbooks. For one, tunafish has become a classic Jewish-American food. Here, however, most of the tuna recipes contain dairy, and are thus treif (non-kosher). The oldest pillar of Jewish social existence throughout world history is the impossible negotiation of national, cultural, and religious identity. Risking marginalization and much worse, it has been essential to project, at once, sufficient national loyalty and social acceptability, while retaining and proffering Jewish tradition. Historically, and still today in orthodox communities, while men studied Torah, it fell to women to bridge the divide between two worlds. Tuna Lasagna Florentine tells me a lot about that process. 

What’s more, the humble can of tuna overperforms—it can dazzle your guests, take on worldly airs, help you watch your figure. It’s tuna, and it’s the exhausting expectations of suburban housewifery. It’s a demand to be endlessly inventive and make it look easy, with a big smile and a trim waist. Setting my own feminist panic aside, female hyper-competence was an essential part of these cookbooks. Cookie stressed that part of their appeal was how inherently trustworthy the recipes were. You didn’t have to worry because, in a pinch, you knew you could count on something time-tested; as if your sister or aunt had just called you up directly. 

To this point, the best part about reading the recipes is to see the author’s name alongside it. I imagine her excitement seeing her name in print and the satisfaction of sharing her specialty with her community. I think of the gustatory delight of her own family, for whom she has perfected the recipe. These were real women with no agenda but community uplift, and the books celebrate the homespun in form and content. There might be multiple recipes for rugelach and hamantaschen, and each with a slightly different spelling (transliteration is personal, after all). And the names themselves! Muriel Linsky, Helene Hoffmann, Lillian Golan, Cheryl Cohen, Margie Jacobs, Phyllis Lovitts, Barbara Kohl. It’s all the beauty and banality, the prideful roll call, of the great Jewish diaspora in the United States. 

I know and I don’t know all these women. The food is a little foreign, but it all feels kind of like home. Everyone is somebody’s Grandma Cookie. And while their cookbooks distill a moment in time few modern women may care to return to, this moment crystallized Jewish-American belonging in the United States in ways that mean everything for my life today. Indeed, though I readily identify as Jewish, Jewishness has been a recurring source of uneasiness throughout my life. I am still, always, working through the alternating pride, shame, and misunderstanding of thoroughly assimilated Jewish belonging. 

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