Tradition and surprises can be found in the Jewish-German cookbook put together by a mother-daughter team coming to Ann Arbor June 12th.
89.1 WEMU's Lisa Barry spoke with the mother-daughter team...
The German-Jewish Cookbook leads readers on a historical and gastronomic exploration of a country’s unique contributions to the Jewish table.
The book’s introduction makes the authors’ intentions perfectly clear: “We wrote this book to preserve and document the cuisine of a nearly vanished culture.” And traditional German Jewish food is precisely that, nearly vanished. There is an extant Jewish food culture in Germany today, but it is shaped by the Israelis and Eastern European Jews who settled there in the decades after WWII. What’s gone are, as the book puts it, the vibrant “traditions of a culture that existed in Germany (and Austria) for hundreds of years—up until the Nazi era eradicated it.”
The idea for the cookbook originally came from Sonya, who grew up in Boston hearing her family’s stories about Germany and eating traditional dishes. At first, Gaby—who was born in Bamberg, Germany in 1938 and immigrated to the United States with her parents a year later—resisted. Both Sonya and Gaby are visual artists, not chefs or researchers, which made the task seem daunting. But Sonya persisted and, over time, Gaby said she realized this was a story they were uniquely suited to tell.
The Gropmans began their culinary and historical research with books, particularly Jewish cookbooks published in Germany between 1850 and WWII. Gaby’s grandmother Emma had two prized cookbooks in her collection, a handwritten one and one professionally published at the turn of the 20th century, that provided both inspiration and recipes. From there, Sonya said, the research process evolved organically—a years-long process of reading, cooking, and, on more than one occasion, arguing and making up.
They also interviewed as many people as possible. Firsthand accounts of German-Jewish food are hard to come by. As the Gropmans write in the book, many German Jews—particularly those who came to America as children on the kindertransport—“had parents who were killed, or from whom they were separated at a young age.” And those who made it over with their families and memories intact are, at this point, quite advanced in age. Early on, the Gropmans contacted Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the well-known German-Jewish sex therapist and media personality, who has lived in Washington Heights for decades. “But she didn’t grow up with her mom and never learned to cook,” Sonya said.
The Gropmans developed the book’s recipes with a contemporary cook in mind, providing sources for harder-to-find ingredients and using modern techniques. But when it came to flavor, they decided to keep the dishes as historically accurate as possible. Knieküchlein, or “knee doughnuts,” offer one humorous example. The doughnut was prepared for Hanukkah by groups of women who would sit together and stretch balls of yeast dough over their knees before slipping the rounded disks into hot oil. "The first step was always to wash their knees,” they write in the book. In addition to their rustic preparation, the book states that the doughnuts also have an old-fashioned taste, “not too sweet or rich, but satisfying in their fried, doughy goodness.”
The book describes another baked good, haman—which are little cookies shaped like gingerbread men, representing the Purim story’s villain—as having a “bready, not too sweet” flavor that might be less familiar to the modern palate. “People could make them much sweeter, but we followed the older tradition,” Sonya said. Americans today are most familiar with triangular hamataschen from Eastern European. But in Germany, haman cookies were decidedly the most popular Purim treat.
Produce-focused dishes, which tend to get lost in the American concept of Ashkenazi Jewish food, feature prominently in the book: everything from a springy radish salad and chilled sour cherry soup to a kosher version of the traditional German dish kohlrabi in white sauce. “There was more of a vegetable culture present in the old kosher German cookbooks than we expected,” Gaby said. “It was a pleasure to put those dishes into our book.”
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