There’s a great deal of information about the relationship between food and memory. There’s even evidence-based neuroscience to prove what we all intuitively and experientially know to be true – that the smells and tastes of foods have power to create memories, which forge connections to family, community, landscape and country.
Our compulsion to secure those linkages between food and memory is reflected in the centuries-long habit of recording and sharing recipes, compiled in books and transmitted as oral tradition.
And don’t forget those stacks of handwritten recipe cards stained by coffee and splashed with grease, which not only remind the cook what to do but, intentionally or not, they stitch generations together.
My interest in what goes on in someone else’s kitchen began when I stumbled upon a book, The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, traditional recipes and menus and a memoir of a vanished way of life by Edda Servi Machlin (Everest House, 1981).
I knew nothing about the Tuscan medieval village of Pitigliano, a culturally vibrant Jewish community dating back to the beginning of the fourteenth century. By today’s standards, the book looks rather drab; there aren’t any color photographs of stylized dishes. But the narrative was informative, it had a haimish tone, and it got me ever-curious about what people prepare in their kitchens, and how and why they impress those culinary experiences for posterity.
Curiosity gets personal
That curiosity took on an added dimension when my partner’s mother died.
His mother, Suzanne, was a Holocaust survivor from Hungary.
She was 36 when she arrived in New York with her husband Andor, 43, and their 10-year-old son, Paul. There was very little English between them; very, very little.
As we were deconstructing Suzanne’s apartment after her death, I went to the kitchen and found a well-worn black three-ring binder on a shelf between magazines and local phone directories. It was her recipe collection.
The inside flap of the binder was filled with yellowed pages torn from magazines with advertisements for dishes such as Green Giant Creamy Chicken Primavera and Fluffy Tapioca Parfaits. There was a newspaper article about root vegetables including recipes for Celeriac Galette, Parsnip Gratin and Rutabaga and Pear Soup; Hungarians are big on root vegetables and fruit soups so I can see why rutabaga and pear soup would have captured her attention.
The binder held four plastic sleeves.
The first two sleeves were filled with a chaotic jumble of magazine and newpaper clippings. On some she had circled words next to which she scrawled a translation into Hungarian. On other sheets ripped from a notepad, she had written Hungarian recipes with certain words underlined next to which she wrote the English translation. Certain words were starred, some had double circles. There was a collection of sheets on which she had handwritten in Hungarian lengthy recipes. Clipped to that bunch was an English translation, not in her handwriting. Those translations included a few “?”.
A large diagram from a butcher shop showing different cuts of meat was covered with circled words translated to Hungarian, along with a list of spices with the Hungarian name handwritten next to the English:
Chervil – Turbolya
Dill – Kapor
Basil – Bazsalikom
An envelope from a friend was stuffed with handwritten recipe cards. Each card is named for a Hungarian dish. The recipes are written in a fluid blend of Hungarian and English, readily switching between the two. Though I don’t read Hungarian, scanning the cards was like eavesdropping on a personal conversation.
Nothing is dated, not even the newspaper clippings, so there’s no chronology. But when rifling through the papers you feel Suzanne’s drive to figure out how to shop and cook in a new country, coupled with the desire to provide her family with longed-for flavors and tastes from the country they immigrated from. Such memories run deep.
The third plastic sleeve marked a dramatic transition. Gone was the chaotic blizzard of torn pages with words circled and underlined.
Instead, there’s a set of pristine printouts from the internet. The kinetic flurry of her handwriting, needing to translate what to others would seem mundane, is replaced by the coolness of the digital age. There are emails from friends. There are emails between the two of us. I had forgotten that she frequently asked me for recipes from meals she had at our house. I have to admit, I was a bit wistful that we hadn’t swapped handwritten recipes. After all, there’s a kinship between the analog essence of homemade, made by hand, and handwriting.
The final sleeve had page-long recipes written in Hungarian. No markings. No translations. Some pages are typed but most carry the physicality of her handwriting, transforming the pages into an artifact, motivated by the sensory power of culinary memory, recorded in the language in which they were formed, and now being passed down for the next generation to discover.
Marsha Weiner is new to St. Paul. Her current sport is networking to meet people to discover new opportunities. Please let her know: What’s your favorite cookbook? Which cookbook do you use most often? What was the first cookbook you purchased for yourself? Do you prefer searching for recipes on the web? Or in cookbooks?
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