Commentary Magazine


The Jewish Festival Cookbook, by Fannie Engle and Gertrude Blair; The Jewish Holiday Cook Book, by Leah W. Leonard

Holiday Cook
by Ruth Glazer
The Jewish Festival Cookbook. By Fannie Engle and Gertrude Blair. David McKay Co. 194 pp. $3.50.
The Jewish Holiday Cook Book. By Leah W. Leonard. Crown. 184 pp. $2.50.

Not the least of the places in which the Jewish revival has caused an added bustle is the kitchen. Some of the more enthusiastic popular literature, in fact, would have us believing that the egg beater is today the most effective weapon for propagating the faith; if, at the Seder table, the “Had Gadya” ought to be properly chanted, so ought the charoses be properly mixed. And above and beyond that, what does go to make up a tasty “Passover brunch”?

Two specialized volumes, The Jewish Holiday Cook Book and The Jewish Festival Cookbook, have appeared in the past year to enlighten the novice, and refresh the memories of the more experienced. Right off, let me say that apart from the holiday specialties in both volumes, it is gratifying, at last, to find collected between covers the recipes for those obvious, well-known dishes—such as sweet and sour vinegar cucumbers, chicken fricassee with meat balls, Greek salad, cole slaw made with lemon and oil—that can be ordered in any good Jewish restaurant. I had come to believe some mystery was here. For to try to extract one of these sanctified recipes from any of the ladies-otherwise voluble—who have known them a lifetime, was, most often, to be met with the silence of a secret sorority.

Of the two compendiums, the Jewish Festival Cookbook turns out to be the more programmatic (irritatingly so) and the better work of reference. One must only steel oneself (when not poring over the actual recipes) against the style, a species of baby talk that babbles this kind of innocent sociology: “The father [on the Sabbath] takes a little nap before going to the synagogue—and this is a custom that might be part of the ritual of the Sabbath, so generally has it always been observed. Then he may go to join a study group or to hear a lecture given by a rabbi. Families, dressed in their best, visit friends and relatives. Children visit their grandparents and are indulged with kichlach (cookies) and nuts. And so the day is spent in study, prayer and social life. It is a day of recreation and refreshment. There is no work to occupy any one.” Not omitting the up-to-the-minute, and in the same rhapsodic present tense, the authors speak of Chanukah: “Dreidels,” they declare, “have become so much a part of this holiday that they are now made also of candy and sold as holiday confection gifts. . . . In many homes parents plan to give the children a gift every night during this holiday.” The rosiness of the plan has only been dimmed, in the observation of this writer, by a certain self-conscious wryness on the part of the parents carrying it out.

When all this is said, whoever buys the Jewish Festival Cookbook, for what it ought to be bought for, its recipes, will have done well. Its great merit is that it brings together all the highly specialized Jewish dishes and presents them without destructive American “adaptations.” If the meat has to be cooked to death for a carrot tsimmes, for example, the recipe will so instruct you. Green vegetables go un-mentioned and the only salad referred to is the one made of cucumbers, radishes, scallions, tomatoes, pot cheese, and sour cream. Only, to return to the mysteries of Jewish cooking, the index won’t do for the uninitiated. When I was a child I finally came to know that lukshen meant noodles: except, I wondered, was it really the same? The authors of the Jewish Festival Cookbook evidently couldn’t make up their minds either: they list lukshen as lukshen, and by the time we reach the last zemmel we’d like to cry roll!

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The Leah Leonard volume is divided into nine sections, each introducing sound background material, in straightforward capsule fashion, on the major Jewish holidays. One portion is set aside for the Sabbath, and about fifty pages at the end given to “home celebrations.” Each section contains a number of authentic, old-fashioned recipes (with a little too much, however, of the “mogen dovid luncheon salad” school of cooking).

But from the first page one is bound to question the spirit of the Jewish Holiday Cook Book: is it in keeping with the spirit of the Jewish holidays? That spirit, as everyone knows, requires a frenzy of activity and a prodigality of effort that does not seem consonant with the author’s exhortation, for example, to use bought gefilte fish in jars and save your strength. Our author is altogether a very practical lady. She suggests disguising the over-plentiful holiday boiled chicken with mayonnaise and celery. She also adds peanut butter to chopped liver (variation 2), and in the Chanukah salad makes use of papaya rings (variation 1). But these aren’t the secrets I, for one, bought the book to find.

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