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Preserving the Jewish Flavors of Italy

Edda Servi Machlin, author of ‘The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews,’ died this week at 93

Joan Nathan
August 23, 2019
Courtesy Gia Machlin
Courtesy Gia Machlin
Courtesy Gia Machlin
Courtesy Gia Machlin

Edda Servi Machlin, the author of the widely acclaimed book The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, opened the window to the culinary and cultural world of Italian Jews. She died this week at the age of 93.

When Machlin first started writing about Italian food and testing recipes in her home in the late 1970s, a time when the resurgence of interest in the diversity of Jewish food was just beginning, she was one with her subject. It was as if across decades of history she had found a link to her Italian Jewish culinary roots that was inextricable and genuine. You could feel it from the moment you began reading about what she had to say about any recipe. It became immediately imbued with the patina of Pitigliano, the charming Tuscan town where she was born in 1926, living there until 1943 when, at the age of 17, she and her siblings had to flee the Nazis.

Edda Servi Machlin. (Photo courtesy Gia Machlin)
Edda Servi Machlin. (Photo courtesy Gia Machlin)

The racial laws against the Jews of Italy had changed the idyllic life in this hilltop town, where 10% of the population was Jewish. In the fall of 1943, when friends came to warn her family of the Nazis’ plan to round up the Jews the following day, Machlin her two older brothers and her sister all fled into hiding in the hills of Tuscany. Her father Azeglio was the makeshift rabbi of Pitigliano and did not want to leave his community, so he, his wife Sara, and their youngest son stayed behind. The next day they were taken by the Nazis to a concentration camp in Northern Italy. Miraculously, the entire family survived the war.

This week, in a eulogy, Machlin’s daughter Gia told the story of how Machlin and her siblings defied death, hiding in the hills of Tuscany for nine months, and survived due to sheer luck and the goodness of strangers. “One night, sleeping in the warm cow manure under piles of hay in a kind farmer’s barn,” Gia wrote, “she and her siblings woke up to the voices of SS soldiers sweeping for Jews. The soldiers stabbed the piles of hay with pitchforks, just missing Edda by inches.”

After the war Edda followed her sister to New York City where she met Gene Machlin, who would later become her husband. After having two children, she went to the school of General Studies at Columbia University. When her girls were older, she started writing the story of her family and testing recipes. In 1981, Everest House published The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, and in 1982, Marian Burros of the New York Times wrote about Machlin’s cooking and memories. Machlin went on to publish The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews II in 1992 and The Classic Dolci of the Italian Jews in 1999. In 2005, Ecco Press bought the rights to the three books and published Classic Italian Jewish Cooking.

I met Machlin, an energetic and positive force of nature, over 25 years ago at her home in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., where she made for me tagliolini colla crosta, a crusty pasta dish with a Bolognese sauce for the Sabbath of Purim. This twice-baked pasta was, of course, an Italian Jewish dish—pasta covered with the beloved Bolognese sauce, without the cheese—made before the holiday began and then put into the public oven, similar to the synagogue matzo oven I saw in Pitigliano’s synagogue when I visited her hometown, and brought out warm for the Sabbath. Thanks to Machlin’s memorializing life in Pitigliano and all the foods that she ate throughout the year, this small town of about 3,000 people today will live in our hearts and hearths. And many of the recipes she taught us represent the rich heritage of Jewish tables throughout Italy.

After Machlin suffered her debilitating stroke in 2002, I lost track of her as did so many others. According to her daughter Gia, she could no longer use her hands in cooking, painting, or sewing. But I never forgot what she told me many years ago, when describing the time she was hiding from the Nazis in the hill towns of Italy: “We became beggars, often living with peasants from farm to farm. But In our soul, in our heart, my brothers and sisters were free. And we never forgot that we were Jews.”

Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.