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Roden, with Reservations

This week, after reading through Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food (Alfred Knopf, 2000) I decided it was so good I wanted to go ahead and buy a copy for myself. Another cookbook? These days I start my searches at the library rather than the bookstore, not only to save money but to save space for the ones I really want to use a lot.

Claudia Roden, "The New Book of Middle Eastern Food" at Amazon.com

Claudia Roden, "The New Book of Middle Eastern Food", Alfred Knopf, 2000

The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden (Alfred Knopf, 2000)

Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food was a big hit in 2000, a major revision and expansion of her first cookbook from 1968. She included new instructions for food processors and quicker and lower-fat cooking methods, and reintroduced the original authentic spices and other specialty ingredients for many dishes where she’d had to list Western substitutes 30 years earlier.

So why review it again? Ten years later, I find myself doing a thing I almost never do: reading the introduction. It’s an amazing piece of writing, and a full chapter in length. Roden combines scholarship and a look back at the history of the Middle East–politically and gastronomically–with personal notes about her Jewish family’s life in pre-revolutionary Cairo and their eventual exile to Europe. She also looks back at the younger, exuberantly naïve 20-something self who sought out authentic recipes for the original edition from relatives, restaurant chefs, farmers’ market vendors, street hawkers and private cooks of all kinds. In honor of her younger spirit, she decides to leave some of the earlier, more emotional writing in the revised edition rather than smoothing it all out.

But as a mature scholar, she delves into cooking techniques for the major classes of Arab, Turkish, Persian and North African food, the medieval sources of dishes that haven’t changed very much in centuries, and the trade routes and Crusader voyages that brought so much of Middle Eastern cooking back to Europe to be integrated into what we think of today as French.

The book itself is beautiful, with good photos but not that distracting excess of tabloid-sized food-glam that dominates today’s coffee table cookbooks. This is a working cookbook, sized right for the kitchen counter, with emphasis on the recipes.

Even though the basics are familiar by now, Roden includes enticing variations I haven’t run across elsewhere, and she makes them accessible and reader-friendly. While authentic technique and ingredients matter to her, Roden focuses on what counts most about these dishes to the people who make and eat them, and on the social experience of hosting guests and eating happily.

The recipes are generally simple, without huge laundry lists of ingredients or elaborate descriptions of technique. Roden groups  similar recipes like fillo appetizers or eggplant salads from different countries so you can see how each has migrated, and for dishes with a wide following (fava purée, grilled meat skewers) she provides regional and national variations on flavorings or dressings at the end of each recipe, where they’re most useful. Roden’s writing really comes through here as she explains the differences in a way that makes me want to run, not walk, to my fridge and then to my greengrocer so I can try out something new.

Folk tales, poems and memories of her childhood in Egypt appear between recipes and three insert sections of color photos are supplemented with black-and-white drawings for specific techniques such as folding fillo triangles. Even though I’ve done more than my share of folding fillo and may not be the right person to judge, I think in comparison with what I’ve seen elsewhere the drawings in Roden’s book manage to look very doable and kind of adventurous rather than intimidating for someone new to these techniques. My only complaint, really, is that she doesn’t use a microwave for any of it.

So I was looking forward to seeing the same generosity of spirit and depth of connection in her encyclopedic-rated The Book of Jewish Food, which came out in 1996, four years earlier. Rosh Hashanah is nearly upon us (Wednesday evening already) and I was eager to see what she had made of her ambition to cover Jewish food styles world-wide.

Roden was born into a wealthy Syrian Jewish merchant family in Cairo. They had servants, cooks, and cordial relations with local shopkeepers, spoke French and Italian in preference to Arabic, were “modern” (secular and didn’t keep kosher) and enjoyed a broad and lavish culinary repertoire. It did not all suddenly come to an end when Nasser threw the Jews out of Egypt in the 1950s–the family maintained its ties to other Egyptian and ex-Ottoman Jewish exiles in Paris and London, and they seemed to thrive.

Eventually, Roden shocked her family by marrying an Ashkenazi Jew, because her well-heeled family had always considered Ashkenazim beneath contempt–provincial, downtrodden, poor, too religious, pathetically lousy cooks, with women who were too loose or who–gasp–worked, and otherwise socially inferior. And that’s where things start to unravel in this book.

Not only is she quite explicit about the scorn her family held for Ashkenazim and their food, but she displays it herself repeatedly throughout the section of the book where she’s trying to present the foods of Eastern European and Alsatian Jews.

Roden waxes nostalgic and glories in the broad variety and rich sophistication of what she calls Sephardic cooking, in which she includes everything from North African and Middle Eastern communities to the  Turkish, Persian and Balkan Jews and as far east as the Bene Israel of India. Everything but the Ethiopian and Kaifeng communities, which she says she had no contacts for. And the recipes are exciting to read about and so are the personal stories. A little over-the-top sentimental, but good.

But the first–and much smaller–section of the book is reserved for Ashkenazi cooking, and here she repeatedly shows condescension and a kind of harshly personal disdain that she never quite papers over with long dutiful essays on the migrations and hardships of the Ashkenazim, nor with the mildly complimentary notes that grace a few of the dishes she deems worth putting into the Ashkenazi section of the book. She approaches it with obvious reluctance, as though she’d been forced to do chores.

I wondered, as I read through it, whether the long, somewhat negative profile of Roden by Jan Kramer in a 2006 issue of The New Yorker had exaggerated in its depiction of her as biased. Surely–otherwise, why write about food you don’t like and people you can’t stand? In a cookbook yet? (unless you’re Peg Bracken, of course)…Ridiculous, right? Well…

As I read the book itself, what started to become undeniable was that Roden had a big chip on her shoulder when she wrote this book, whatever the source.

Her stated aim is to demonstrate, first to her British readers and then to the rest of the western world, that Ashkenazi food is far from the only Jewish food, and that the less familiar Sephardi, Persian, North African and Ottoman Empire styles are exciting and have a lot to offer. Fair enough, and I generally agree. But she could have done it without spitting on–or even presenting, if she didn’t want to–Eastern European Jews and their traditional foods.

She separates–I could almost say, segregates–the Ashkenazi from the Sephardi section, and presents them as so radically different that they couldn’t possibly have had anything in common and never, ever met at the well-traveled borders before the moment Israel was declared a state. Her tone becomes increasingly emphatic on the absoluteness of separation. Perhaps she actually believes it, but it’s just not true. For the most obvious thing, if her family had kept kosher, she would have recognized some of the common threads right away, without having to search for medieval references in a university library. She probably also would have felt a little more at home in some of the Ashkenazi kitchens she visited (other, perhaps, than her erstwhile mother-in-law’s–but that’s often a loaded situation anyway.)

For another thing, Jews have always been travelers and maintained networks of contact, for trade or rabbinical advice, throughout the Old World. The western Jewish enclaves residing in Palestine under the Ottomans were supported for centuries by sponsors from their home countries–it was required by law, and the beginnings of the Zionist movement in Eastern Europe built on this existing structure of sponsorships, contacts and representative communities in Jerusalem and Haifa. A lot of families like my grandfather’s sent their older sons from the Ukraine to Palestine to keep them out of the Tsar’s clutches–or the Red Army’s during the Bolshevik Revolution. So there was a fair amount of interaction between Ashkenazim and local Palestine-born Jewish families. They intermarried with less stigma than Roden depicts–my great-grandmother had Abulafia cousins in Haifa–and things like halvah and oranges were not only known but prized back in the Ukraine. Furthermore, you could take the train from Haifa to Damascus for the weekend to go shopping in the furniture and food markets, and lots of people did. Meanwhile, Ashkenazim in pre-Israel Palestine were importing farm and industrial equipment, citrus and other tree saplings, and loads of volunteer “pioneers” willing to do the back-breaking labor of draining the malarial swamps or clearing incredibly stony fields to make them tillable and productive again.

Roden’s familiarity with the food of the Sephardim, North Africa and the Ottoman Empire (both Jewish and Muslim) is a lot stronger and happier than her knowledge of Ashkenazi cooking, and certainly there are more well-defined Jewish culinary styles outside of the Northern European communities. But instead of taking up the challenge of the unknown and really making something worthwhile of it, Roden remains stunningly unbalanced, her prose stilted and her choices limited to a few stereotypical standards everyone already knows from earlier and better books, and even then she does not really put herself out to explore.

It is true that most of the Ashkenazi Jews from the Ukraine and Poland, the lands of the Russian Pale, lived in relative poverty, with long cold winters and not much in the way of vegetables and variety. But not as severely as she depicts them, especially in summer. She misses or skips a number of dishes from the better-off or better-stocked communities–Hungarian, Romanian, Austrian and German. And she pays lip service to the few foods she says she likes, such as challah, but she gets some fundamental things wrong. In her idea of Eastern European chicken soup and pot roast, and mushroom barley soup, and actually a lot of the chicken and beef dishes, the garlic has mysteriously gone missing, and so have most of the common herbs. True, we had few spices, but garlic we definitely had. It almost wasn’t meat without it. Leeks, which weren’t so available, don’t really cut it as a substitute. And what happened to the parsnips? And the longed-for asparagus at Pesach?

Giving credit is another problem. In the Sephardi section, Roden includes numerous dishes obviously influenced by local Arab, Italian, French, Maghrebi and Indian cuisines and presents them without apology as part of the great panoramic richness of Sephardi Jewish cooking. Well, of course they are. But then she turns around and disparages the Ashkenazi dishes for their common European roots and declares them not Jewish, or else as entirely borrowed from–not influenced by–the Sephardi communities that resided for a time in Austro-Hungarian communities and therefore not legitimately Ashkenazi either. Double standard, anyone?

As an example of the delegitimizing, she includes stuffed cabbage, which is sweet and sour, as Ashkenazi, and yet again insists dismissively that it’s a European thing, not particularly Jewish. Ironically, it happens to be nearly identical to a standard Syrian Jewish version of stuffed cabbage (see Jennifer Felicia Abadi’s A Fistful of Lentils), other than the spicing of the meat itself (nearly none in her Ashkenazi version, not even garlic) and the use of vinegar instead of tamarind in the sauce. This would have been an opportunity to draw connections between the two sections of the book and show that some characteristic features of Jewish cooking, like sweet and sour, or stuffed vegetables, predate the split between East and West, or North and South.

Another would have been matzah, the most ancient, most originally, specifically Jewish food ever. She puts it in the Sephardi section but not the Ashkenazi section. It belongs in both. Before the diaspora that split us up into different communities throughout the Old World, we were all Jewish together a long, long time ago in Pharaonic Egypt, not as well-to-do merchants but as slaves. And matzah is the direct expression of our escape to freedom. We all make matzah pretty much the same way. It’s a pretty impressive link after what, 3000-3500 years?

And of course the love of garlic, for which Jews have been caricatured the world over even though almost everyone, even the English nowadays, appreciates the difference it makes to food. But she’s so convinced of the separation that she never even attempts to trace similarities like these.

The most inexplicable, inexcusable thing about this book is the barrage of overt and covert insults. She makes a lot of little digs in the Ashkenazi section that fly just low enough not to have been caught by mostly non-Jewish reviewers at the time (and who probably only skimmed the nearly 700-page book). The tone of these adds up to a very childish “Ashkenazi food stinks.” Sometimes literally. She states as a certainty that since cabbage was one of the few vegetables available in the northern winters, most homes in the shtetlach smelled strongly of boiling cabbage (how exactly did she decide this? didn’t she think we ever opened the windows?)

The Ashkenazi section is also conspicuously peppered with old Yiddish-style jokes–but Yiddish like the cheap end of the Catskills comedy circuit (though some are clearly from the British community where Roden lives). This would be merely tone deaf if it were matched with something equivalent in the Sephardi section. But the Sephardi section contains no jokes at all, just paeans of praise for Roden’s rich family heritage, and exclamations that the Syrian Jews represented “the pearl of Jewish cooking”. So maybe that section doesn’t do her much credit either for objectivity.

Don’t I have a sense of humor? Well, I don’t know at this point. Most of Roden’s choices of “Yiddish humor” are almost bitterly scatological or otherwise crass, and her renderings completely wipe out the warmth and humor of actual Yiddish storytelling, or the importance to us of appreciating and enjoying food. There’s a difference between earthy and boorish, and she’s clearly missed it.

What does it say about an eminent food writer that she presents recipes not only with sneeringly explicit side notes on how many of them are looked down upon or laughed at by Sephardim in Israel (the sweeter version of gefilte fish in particular), but also intersperses them with fart jokes and worse every couple of pages?  The intended message is not clear, or perhaps just not to her, but it’s not a good combination.

Having lived in a mostly Moroccan Jewish town in Israel when I was younger, and having met plenty of non-Ashkenazi Jews out here in Los Angeles, I know they don’t all, or even mostly, feel the way Roden does. I’m not sure they’d like the way she’s represented them any more than I like the way she represented us.

It would have been better, all round, if she’d stuck to what she knew well, was enthusiastic about and most of all, actually liked to eat. I would have enjoyed and appreciated the “Sephardi” section of her book so much if she’d published it on its own and left her grudges and pedantic wallpapering out of it. That stuff just doesn’t belong in a cookbook. And as it is, what a shame. Because in the book I originally started to review, she really shines.

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