When I was growing up in Montreal, the cake my brothers, cousins, and I ate on our birthdays was known in our family as “Bobbe Masha” cake, so named for our grandmother, who bought it for us. It was a two-layer, mocha-hazelnut-chocolate delight baked by a Holocaust refugee named Mrs. Gaon.
Mrs. Gaon had started baking as a means to put food on her own table. Mr. Gaon was too sick after the war to hold a steady job, so Mrs. Gaon, who had been raised in a wealthy Jewish home in Hungary, turned to the one money-making skill she possessed that allowed her to care for her husband at home: recreating the gorgeous desserts—dobos tortes, apple strudels, and our family’s favorite cake—that she had learned to make as a child, watching the cooks employed by her family.
Last year, for my 40th birthday, I decided I wanted to celebrate with “Bobbe Masha” cake. I asked my mother, who directed me to my aunt, who in turn told me the story of going to see Mrs. Gaon, with her own daughter in tow, to copy down the recipe for the cake and apple strudel. When I bit into “Bobbe Masha” cake at my birthday party, I was immediately transported back more than two decades to countless Friday night dinners at my parents’ home.
Before reading Gil Marks’ new Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, I thought of Mrs. Gaon and her cake as strictly a part of my personal family story. But her tortes and strudels—the origins of which Marks traces back more than a thousand years to Asia—are, it turns out, an integral part of a larger Jewish fabric. Marks—a rabbi, historian, and cookbook author—underscores the fact that food is rarely just about eating.
His encyclopedia is an exhaustively researched, 656-page compendium that spans time and geography—from the capers that flourished in biblical Judea to the colonial American tomatoes that Thomas Jefferson’s Sephardic physician urged him to eat. Marks gives historical resonance to totemic dishes. (“Kugel, this holy national dish, has done more for the preservation of Judaism than all three issues of your magazine,” Marks quotes the poet Heinrich Heine writing to the editor of a German Jewish periodical in 1825.) He offers a window into more obscure foods (such as lagman, a thick Uzbek soup served with hand-pulled noodles that is related to more popular lo mein) and explains why bagels became ubiquitous and bialys did not. He includes maps that chart the migration of cinnamon along the Silk Road and the adoption of dumplings across Europe. (Italy was last with gnocchi.) And, oh yes, he offers more than 300 recipes, too.
Adafina, the Sephardic Sabbath stew, is the encyclopedia’s first entry. Marks relates how this dish of meat, vegetables, and spices was used as evidence to incriminate Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. He quotes a 1570 witness statement, from a former servant named Ana Goncales in the Canary Islands, who told Inquisitors that “when she was in the service of Ana de Belmonte, she saw that her mistress cooked mutton with oil and onions, which she understands is the Jewish dish Adafina.”
In his discussion of charoset, the fruit-nut mixture used at the Passover Seder, Marks describes how charoset is not mandated in the Bible but derived from Greco-Roman practices. “Attendees at the Seder were expected for that evening to emulate the practices of nobility and free people,” he writes. He offers 10 vastly different recipes for charoset—including ones from Curacao (made with cashews and dried plums), Afghanistan (ground ginger and banana), Italy (chestnuts), and Yemen (cardamom)—underscoring the diversity within the Jewish tradition.
Happily, Marks doesn’t limit himself to foods eaten on the Sabbath and holidays. His inclusion of the egg cream, for example, proves that some foods are Jewish by virtue of who created them and who consumed them. Marks traces the history of the drink, first concocted in 1890 on the Lower East Side by Jewish candy store owner Louis Auster, using Fox’s U-bet Syrup (the brainchild of Herman and Ida Fox in Brooklyn), to rocker Lou Reed memorializing the drink in a song.
“By our food, we declare and affirm who we are and who we want to be,” Marks writes. His encyclopedia proves that we are a diverse lot—whether we grew up on “Bobbe Masha” cake or adafina—and the book offers a pathway to connect to the whole of Jewish civilization.
Abby Wisse Schachter is the editor of Capitol Punishment, a New York Post blog.