A World of Culinary Heritage, in a Humble Paper Bag
In a dark corner of an archival closet at the Yiddish Book Center, I recently happened upon an orphaned brown paper bag.
Inside are fragile newspaper clippings dating mostly from the 1950s, in both Yiddish and English, along with handwritten recipes in a fine cursive hand—not the same style as the label, “Yiddish Recipes,” which appears to be of a more recent vintage. The printed English recipes come chiefly from Canadian publications such as the Toronto Daily Star, Weekend Magazine, and the women’s periodical Chatelaine. Often part of advertisements, they blaze with vibrant color and demand in bold typefaces, “Look what you can do with cling peaches!” “Every mother needs a tea break.” “TRY THESE! COMPLETE NOURISHING MEALS READY IN 10 MINUTES.” A caricatured little fellow with cone-shaped hat and ponytail, in a picturesque attitude, presents a recipe for “Canton Style Chicken” (chief flavorings are chopped pimiento, chicken bouillon, and “soya sauce”), beside the enticement, “Enjoy exciting dishes from far and wide.”
The collection likely arrived at the Center through its Discovery Project, an initiative to unearth Jewish cultural artifacts, launched in 2009 by ethnomusicologist Hankus Netsky. Some of the project’s findings are on display in our Lee & Alfred Hutt Discovery Gallery, where visitors may spend some precious moments exploring others’ histories and reliving their own. The specific history behind this object, though, I had not yet learned.
The wrinkled bag of recipes was innocuous enough, but inside it flashed with possibility. It brought me not merely “that old book smell” so many visitors to the Center profess to love: it carried the fragrant promise of toasted almond and broiled cheese, sour cream and sweet tomato, pink salmon and red strawberry and crimson radish. To really understand this artifact, I would need to examine it, research it . . . and, of course, cook it.
As a collection, the recipes evoke an image of the person who may have saved them: a woman hungry to sample the riches of a postwar, post-rationing, industrial, newly outward-looking North America, but whose pocketbook or good housekeeping sense would perhaps not yet allow an oversized bite. A clipped recipe for “Wiki Wiki Tuna Salad,” promising “the flavor of Hawaii,” exhibits both impulses: the exotic (tuna is mixed with pineapple, green pepper, and banana for a modishly colorful, today somewhat unthinkable, combination) and the economical (the affordable ingredients come mostly from cans and jars).
That column of “Summer Salads—Hawaiian Style” is ripped at the edge, missing a mélange promised in its introduction: “Kona Ham Hawaiian.” The omission is telling. Our keeper of this bag of treasures is a Jewish housewife. Interspersed among these splashy, often trendy recipes are more modest, traditional, Yiddish-language ones, from the pages of Der forverts (The Forward) and Der tog (The Day), New York newspapers that enjoyed an expansive circulation across North America. Bright-eyed Margaret Carr of the Toronto Daily Star’s “Cooking Chat” is replaced by Regina Frischwasser of the “Forward Recipe Department,” whose attention to economy is as consistent as her interest in classical Ashkenazic cooking and her straightforwardness.
Here, in recipes often submitted by readers (whose addresses are provided), we are given simple instructions for heymish (homey) meals. They gesture toward the Old Country but keep one foot in the New: a “borscht” is made not with the traditional beet, but rather the classic Yankee pie pairing of strawberry and rhubarb. In these recipes, economy and resourcefulness are true virtues; saving is prized over sensation. One clipped menu is titled “A shporevdiger diner” (“An Economical Dinner”), featuring a dish called simply “A shporevdiger maykhl” (“An Economical Treat”): chopped cabbage baked in a buttered casserole with kasha and onion, and “bagosn”—“doused”—with sour cream before serving. There is also an op-ed by Frischwasser on the exorbitant cost of vegetables; it ends with a semi-poetic tfile (prayer): “Lomir hofen, az di prayzen af ale shpayzen velen falen un di prayzen af poteytos velen nit gehekhert veren” (“Let us hope that the prices of all foods will fall, and that the prices of potatoes will not be raised”).
The plainness (but great goodness) of the recipes is offset by the glamorous advertisements and society photographs that surround them. The “shporevdiger diner” appears beside a Swissair notice about a “luksus flih keyn shveytsarye” (“luxury flight to Switzerland”) for $657 round-trip. One page from a May 1952 edition of Der tog that has been cut out in its entirety—“In der velt fun froyen” (“In the World of Women”), a section for female readers, formerly edited by the well-known Yiddish poet Anna Margolin—is studded with photographs of international beauties in the latest bathing costumes and eveningwear. At the bottom is a society snapshot: “a khasene in holivud” (“a wedding in Hollywood”), with the actors Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis “vinshen zikh mazl-tov” (wishing each other mazl-tov) following their wedding ceremony. (Note that the editors misidentify the couple: it is the Reagans in the center and William Holden with wife Brenda Marshall on the outside, not the other way around.)
But these aspirational photos are only adornments to a page whose lead feature is an article by one Sarah Koenig (a past incarnation of today's NPR broadcaster, alike in name and journalistic rigor?) headlined “Fete froyen zaynen oft gliklekher in leben” (“Fat Women Are Often Happier in Life”). The piece contains such surprising evidence as “Fete froyen zaynen oykh mer religyez geshtimt un hoben lib tsu geyn in shul davnen” (“Fat women are also more religiously inclined and enjoy going to shul to daven”) and “Di statistik hot bavizn, az tsvishen fete menshen bikhlal zenen faran mer gut hartsige, vi tsvishn dine menshen” (“Statistics have shown that among fat people generally, there are more goodhearted people than among those who are thin”), a claim that the writer juxtaposes to the assertion that overweight people’s higher blood pressure necessitates their having a calmer disposition. The piece ends by comforting the reader with the assertion that though the number of plump women is great among Jews, the proportion of overweight Italian women is greater, and anyway, “Iz do zehr fil froyen vos di diklikhkayt past zey, un fete froyen kenen zayn sheyn un reytsnd” (“There are many women whose stoutness suits them, and fat women can be beautiful and alluring”). A list of “Tips for the Home and Kitchen” appears elsewhere on the page, but that might have been easily clipped alone—one likes to think that whoever first collected these recipes must have felt as delighted by Koenig’s apologia as I am, or perhaps reassured by it.
One fact is clear: this was a person who took pleasure in cooking and eating and bringing joy to those lucky enough to sit at her table. Nearly all of the handwritten recipes in the bag are for desserts: “Coconut Cake,” “Date Bars,” “Jam Bars,” “Apple Crunch.” One note reads, in curvy, pink-tinted lines, these words: “Dear Mother—Will be back at 3 o’clock. Have to see about a coat. I have made ice box cookies. I’ll do more baking when I get home. Leave the dishes. Beulah.”
And on its reverse? The ingredients for said ice box cookies. I could not resist it. It was a perfect, complete artifact, a token of love and care from more than a half-century ago that bore a plan for replicating such sweetness today. I had to get cooking. And I had to find out: who was this Beulah, and whence this tremendous spoils of kitchen wisdom?
Among all the clippings, Frischwasser’s “A spring diner far kompani” (“A Spring Dinner for Company”) from May 17, 1951, seemed the most temporally suitable to recreate. For it, Frischwasser prescribes:
- “Rubarb un stroberi borsht” (rhubarb and strawberry boiled in a good deal of water until the fruit is well-stewed and the soup red as beet borscht, cooled in the refrigerator and served with sour cream);
- “A salad” (this is literally the title of the recipe—I could learn something from her economy of expression);
- “Tshiz puding” (another buttered casserole, this one a sort of cheesy, eggy, matzah kugel made luscious with caramelized onions);
- “Semon roust” (canned salmon bound with—what else?—egg and matzah meal, whipped into a sort of gefilte fish-esque savory sweetness with peas and grated onion and carrot, then roasted in a buttered tin in a medium-temperature oven, from which it should emerge firmed-up and sliceable, with a gorgeously “yidishn tam,” Jewish flavor);
- And for dessert, icy “Tshokolad sno bols” (for which I substituted the ice box cookies, my one divergence from the Forward Recipe Department’s array).
(Note that it does not take a Yiddishist to puzzle out the names of the dishes: the titles are almost entirely in English written in Yiddish characters. These were recipes for Yiddish-speaking Jews who were becoming settled into American life and language, a fact reflected in Frischwasser’s culinary as well as linguistic style.)
I improvised and intensified flavors where needed, recognizing that Frischwasser could be as spartan in her herbs and spices as she was with her words—no more than salt or pepper is ever called for. Still, I did not add anything I thought would have been uncommon in a 1950s Jewish-American kitchen. A dash of paprika and nutmeg enlivened the cheese pudding. For Beulah’s “½ cup nuts,” I tossed chopped almonds in a dry pan before adding to the mixture, giving a welcome toastiness and warmth to the final shortbread-like ice box cookies (so called because the dough may rest in the fridge until one wishes to bake them). I laced dill into the salmon roast, one of the two loaves of which I chose not to bake in any average “blekh” (“tin”), as Frischwasser instructs, but rather in a fish-shaped mold loaned to me by the Yiddish Book Center’s director of education administration, Gretchen Fiordalice.
Recipes astonish because they are like spells, words easily converted into action and object, like the Almighty naming things into being at the dawn of the world. And on this night, the eve of the astronomical spring, with my “Spring Dinner for Company” and Beulah’s cookies, I created a sort of Eden of culinary delights for my friends—not paradisiacal only for the deliciousness of the forbidden fruit (though it was all rather geshmak—flavorsome—and heymish-tasting, we thought), but also for the pleasantness of being surrounded by such laughing Adams and clever Eves, and the notion that we could conjure such merriment and richness from the tumult and tohubohu of the past, as transmitted to us through the humble contents of a crumbling paper bag.
Strawberry borscht boiling away.
Strawberry borscht served with a healthy dollop of sour cream, as Frischwasser prescribes.
Frischwasser's "A salad," a sort of farmer's salad like the kind my mother Debra Yashinsky has always made for Yom Kippur's breaking-the-fast, with technicolor chopped vegetables suspended in a savory sour cream-and-cottage cheese dressing.
Cheese pudding, a rich matzoh-and-onion casserole that confused my guests but later had them asking for the recipe (mix browned onions together with torn pieces of dampened matzoh, grated cheese, and beaten eggs; season with salt and pepper; bake in a buttered dish in a medium-temperature oven until a glorious golden crust forms).
Fun with the ingredients for "Salmon Roast."
The salmon being placed in its decorative mold, in my possession through the kitchenly kindness of a supervisor.
The salmon loaf smiling on its bed of dill.
Still life with cookie batter and Yiddish poetry.
Even toy hands cannot resist a greedy grab at Beulah's "Ice Box Cookies."
Aftermath of the feast. It was discovered late in the evening that the ice box cookies make a splendid marriage dipped in the strawberry borscht.
I did eventually find Beulah, z”l.
The bag is totally unmarked. My clues were these: “Beulah” addressing her mother in the ice box cookies note, “The Rachlins” stamped at the top of a game scorecard (on the reverse of which is a handwritten recipe for “Pineapple Fruit Cake”), and the fact of the English papers coming from Canada. I hounded the Internet: “Beulah,” “Rachlin,” “Toronto.” I did find such a Beulah Rachlin, a homemaker who lived from 1919 to 1983 and emigrated from Toronto to St. Louis, where her husband, Maxwell Rachlin, z”l, would work as an ophthalmologist. Max’s obituary from 1996 listed living relatives. I was able to find contact information for one of them, Terry Sturke, who promised she would ask Lara (Rachlin) Steinel, one of Beulah and Max’s own children, to call me.
Lara, a cantor in Kansas City, Missouri, did so just a few days ago. She addressed me in a voice rich with wonder that we should have her mother’s recipes here at the Center and warm with abiding love for her parents, both of whom, she said, were passionate cooks and bakers. Neither, however, spoke or read Yiddish—she thinks it likely that the papers are a combination of Beulah’s own recipes and ones clipped and collected by Beulah’s mother, Beatrice Yollick. Lara remembers seeing such newspapers as Der forverts and Der tog in her grandparents’ Toronto home when she visited them as a child.
I was happy to learn from Lara that the Center is not hording the whole trove of her mother's recipes—she has six boxes crammed full of them (many, indeed, on the backs of scorecards). And I was enchanted by this story that she told me:
“Recipes, for my mother, were a point of connection with lots of different people. She and my Tante Lini, a Dutchwoman who had married my mom’s brother, were incredible cooks. I have this powerful memory of them. It’s mid-afternoon and they’re sitting at our kitchen table. In front of them is some of the smelliest cheese in the world, Liederkranz. And they are exchanging recipes. There they are, in this world before printers and 24-7 photocopying shops, writing down each other’s recipes, eating this armpit-of-the-earth, absolutely horrid cheese they both loved, and having the time of their life. Just sitting together, talking about recipes.”
After my day of communing with Beulah and her era through her recipes, I could imagine myself sitting right alongside them, at the kitchen table, in the light of an afternoon sun that does not set.
Author’s note: In my transliteration of the recipes and other text, I strove to be faithful to the historical source material; as a result, not all the Yiddish spelling is standard.