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Discomfort Food

A popular cookbook, Recipes Remembered, pairs Holocaust survival stories with survivors’ recipes, an awkward pairing of pleasure and horror

Eryn Loeb
October 18, 2011
(Peter Frank/Veer)
(Peter Frank/Veer)

As our culture grows increasingly interested in the secret life of what’s on our plates—where were these beets grown? How was this chicken raised?—it’s become something of a given that food whispers stories in our ears. But that idea took a tricky turn in May, when June Feiss Hersh, in conjunction with the Museum of Jewish Heritage, published Recipes Remembered: A Celebration of Survival, which offers the personal stories of 80 Holocaust survivors alongside the recipes that are most meaningful to them. The book takes for granted that cooking is an emotional experience intimately tied to narrative, and it pushes that idea in a rather sobering direction. It was a hit: The first printing sold out quickly, in just three weeks, and the book is currently on its third. All profits will benefit the museum, which calls itself “a living memorial to the Holocaust,” a description that fits the cookbook, too.

It’s unnerving, on a gut level, the juxtaposition of these accounts of survival (and, inevitably, also some stories of not surviving) with recipes for comfort food. Recipes Remembered includes traditional preparations of foods like kreplach, noodle kugel, and gefilte fish; dishes that were family favorites (Romanian survivor Gita Rothman contributed a sour cream strudel with loukoum filling), and recipes from lost homelands. Some of the foods featured became unforgettable because the people consuming them were starving; others didn’t become staples until long after the war.

From Hersh’s description of Polish survivor Regina Schmidt Finer’s recipe for kluskies, or potato dumplings, as “the little black dress of potato dishes” to former New York City Mayor Ed Koch’s blurb extolling, “All the recipes in this book are wonderful!” Recipes Remembered is characterized by a kind of generic uplift, familiar from other earnest attempts to balance the horrors of history with survivors’ astonishing fortitude and to translate that into hope for the future.

Hersh’s book is not the first to explicitly tie recipes to Holocaust remembrance. In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy From the Women of Terezin, edited by Cara de Silva, came out in 1996, and Holocaust Survivor Cookbook: Collected From Around the World, which Joanne Caras self-published, came in 2007. Both books turn to recipes as authentic artifacts from the same painful chapter, and they champion them as a means of remembrance and testaments to survival. De Silva contributed her own laudatory blurb to Recipes Remembered, while Caras has argued for the superior authenticity of her own book, which she describes as “a world mitzvah project.” (Like with Hersh’s Recipes Remembered the proceeds from Caras’ book went to Jewish charities.)

Hersh’s version certainly has the greatest reach, and its popularity is a sign that, amid no shortage of carefully packaged ways to Never Forget, people are hungry for something that offers tangible insight into the experience of Holocaust survival and fresh ways to consider their own relationship to it. And in some ways Recipes Remembered is a fitting tribute, making the point that memories live on through the senses and imbuing the storied experience of Holocaust survival with relatable specifics: Meeting a future spouse in a displaced persons camp. Being sheltered and ultimately saved by a kind priest. Poppyseed cookies. As Hersh explains in the introduction, putting together the book was a process of discovery. “They became ‘my’ survivors,” she writes, noting that she spoke to every contributor, creating “my connection to the past and my reason to optimistically embrace the future.” She explains that her project was driven by curiosity and a general desire to pay tribute to the survivor community, rather than a specific personal connection to the Holocaust.

There’s no question that there’s awkwardness to a book that celebrates food against the backdrop of a historical trauma in which millions of people were starving. But as I paged through it, I found the specific source of my discomfort harder to pin down. It’s certainly not that I’m worried about ruined appetites. Some of the meals we remember most vividly may not have been remarkable in and of themselves; it’s the experience of them that resonates and turns even basic flavors into the kernels of indelible memories. If anything, struggle sharpens one’s senses, and hardship, or even just stories about it, can actually make certain foods more palatable, deepening our experience of eating. Here, though, it’s hard to pay attention to the recipes in light of the heartbreaking stories being presented with them. In this complicated cookbook, is the food supposed to be beside the point?

Here’s Hersh, introducing a story of survival from Hanna Kleiner Wechsler, a preface to her recipe for strawberry-filled blintzes:

Those willing to share their stories have an amazing spirit, an outlook on life that inspires and a perspective we can all benefit from. Hanna began our conversation by saying, “If you overcome this, you can do anything. There are seven wonders in the world, I consider my survival the eighth.” After speaking with her, and getting to know her well, I would have to agree!

It’s also a little strange to find that the survivors’ stories, as Hersh imparts them, feel like recipes themselves. They follow a formula, each starting by taking stock of where a person has come from, moving on to account for his or her losses, and then concluding with a tally of how many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have resulted from that one survival. “From this sorrow that I went through,” says Polish survivor Sonya Oshman, leading into a recipe for spaghetti with onion and tomato sauce, “God compensated me with two wonderful children and four beautiful grandchildren.” It’s clear from these standard finishes that Hersh asked for that tally, which is poignant by definition, but frustrating in its blanket use as a happy ending to a rather grim equation. The aura of optimism here is genuine, and arguably necessary to make the pairing of stories and recipes at all palatable. But as an editorial voice, the life-affirming tone makes the book feel a little canned—and evasive.

Despite the book’s cheerfulness, it’s clear that the pleasure of its recipes is meant to be derived largely from their difficulty—not the level of skill required to prepare them, but the fraught histories that cling to them. As delicious as these dishes may be, they’re meant to be appreciated because of what the people who prepared them lived through. That readers will synthesize these threads of cooking and remembering is the not-so-subtle hope behind all the warm sentiment.

It’s hard to imagine an uplifting cookbook coming out of other historical traumas, ones perhaps less well digested by the culture at large. I suspect that a “Holocaust cookbook” (as I perhaps inevitably began to refer to Recipes Remembered) is only permissible after enough years have passed and we’ve moved through more straightforward kinds of reckoning and commemoration. But while the format of this act of remembrance is novel, its tone is not. The book’s earnestness makes me want to roll my eyes, not because I think we’re past the point of needing a push to remember the Holocaust but because we still need one badly, and Recipes Remembered seems to promise a kind of complexity that it doesn’t deliver.

Regardless of how carefully we outline the narratives for others, we don’t have full control over the stories and facts that stick to our treasured dishes, or the recollections that surface as we prepare and share and savor them. Though all of us survive in some way because of food, the stories that live on do so because we choose to keep telling them. And unlike the care and precision required to bake a perfect honey cake, those stories tend to hit harder when they don’t follow a recipe.

CORRECTION, October 18: In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy From the Women of Terezin was published in 1996, not 2006. This error has been corrected.

Eryn Loeb, a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine, is a freelance writer and editor in New York.

Eryn Loeb, a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine, is a freelance writer and editor in New York.