Commentary Magazine


Jewish Cookery, by Leah W. Leonard

Cookery Without Frippery
Jewish Cookery.
by Leah W. Leonard.
Crown Publishers. 497 pp. $3.00.

 

After the recent spate of worthless cookbooks—muddle-headed and pretentious, confusing gourmet cooking with an excessive use of truffles, and confounding the user by inept directions—Jewish Cookery is doubly welcome, for its technical excellence as well as for its unusual collection of delectable dishes.

As a kitchen manual it is admirably organized, with complete tables, glossary, etc. The recipes are both accurate and flexible, since Mrs. Leonard allows for imagination on the part of the cook, giving many “basic” recipes with suggested variations, and directions that are clear, concise, and orderly (the rarest virtue in a cookbook). I find that if you but do as she says, and she says it so simply, you cannot make a failure, even the first time, of the most unfamiliar or elaborate dish. There are, for instance, her remarkable pastries—the perennial bugbear of the wary and the downfall of those not gifted with a light hand: the recipes for these defy all laborious conventions (one even calls for hot water) and are given with an astonishing economy of ingredients as well as of effort, and yet they result in the richest and the most airy and delicate pie crusts I have ever tasted. They remain crisp and flaky amid fruit syrup or meat gravy, and each one has a particular flavor and texture to complement its particular kind of filling.

Her pastries are but one example of Mrs. Leonard’s expertness in the matter of formulating workable recipes. She gives all the shortcuts that can be taken without sacrifice of quality, yet at the same time she writes for honest cooks, however inexperienced, not for can openers, and for enjoyable cooking, not for kitchen slavery.

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While Jewish Cookery comprises several types of dishes, it is of course the traditional ones of Jewish cooking in many lands that give the book its special interest and character. Here, collected for the first time in English, are recipes for which there has long been an unfulfilled demand by all lovers of good food. And the food itself is good, as food. Rich, succulent, and varied, but also sound eating and economical—though not exactly slimming. For anyone who has not been brought up in familiarity with this food, the book opens up a whole new wonderland of cookery to explore, and to those who have, I am sure it will offer new and improved recipes—as it does for the group of standard American dishes (strawberry shortcake, spoon bread, etc.) that come within its scope.

It is a pity that, along with those standard American dishes, the author has made some unfortunate excursions into the Jello Belt. The inclusion of “candle” salads and their frippery kin may have been intended to increase the sale of the book in Suburbia, but that demand seems to me abundantly supplied by the manufacturers of patent foods (in Glorious Technicolor) and by the women’s magazines. This commercial trash, though it may come within the Jewish dietary laws, seems particularly out of place in a book like Mrs. Leonard’s. There seems to me no excuse for associating these nasty concoctions with Jewish food, and they cheapen regrettably what would otherwise be a wholly distinguished compendium.

Mrs. Leonard’s exposition of the Dietary Laws, of the Fast Days and the Feast Days, with preparation of the special foods for each, makes this a book of religious and historical as well as practical interest. She details the Jewish concept of food hygiene and of sound nutrition as it was worked out long ago, and it is fascinating to see how modern laboratory achieved knowledge of food properties and needs confirms the ancient prescriptions and proscriptions, even when modern methods of food handling invalidate the hygienic need for many of them.

All in all, Jewish Cookery is a book Brillat-Savarin would not have scorned.

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