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The Foremothers of Food Memoirs

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Food memoirs have been springing up like chanterelles after a rain. For 20 years or so, we’ve been treated to a harvest of life stories with recipes included; an Amazon search for “food memoir” turns up more than 2,000 entries. 

Reading food memoirs may feel like eating dumplings (or maybe kreplach): they’re comforting, produced by people hailing from all over the world, and easy to love. Look at a few titles, and you’ll see the scope: Poor Man’s FeastTreyfMy Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw (Elissa Altman); Lunch in Paris (Elizabeth Bard) and Talking With My Mouth Full (Bonny Wolf). 

When, in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, Mimi Sheraton and Laurie Colwin, and later Ruth Reichl, were writing about the conjunction of food and family life, they were looking back in ways that anticipated and influenced the contemporary food memoirs. 

“Food is like no other trigger, physiologically,” says Traci M. Nathans-Kelly about her 1997 study Burned Sugar Pie: Women’s Cultures in the Literature of Food. “It has a physical presence that something like a song doesn’t. It is one of the few things that are hard for people to forget. So, when you combine it with memory—people, places, things—it’s really powerful.” 

Mimi Sheraton, author and New York Times restaurant critic from 1975 to 1983, can attest to that: “Food was so much a part of my life, so if I cooked, or longed for, a food that my mother made, it evoked a whole scene. …The tone of my family life informed the cooking, or the other way around. I always wanted to tell the story of my family as a surrounding for the recipes,” she told Lilith in a recent interview.

Sheraton’s book From My Mother’s Kitchen: Recipes and Reminiscences was first published in 1979. It alternates chapters featuring recipes from Sheraton’s mother with fond essays about growing up in a food-obsessed Jewish family in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in the 1930s and 1940s. “I just always conceived the book that way,” Sheraton said of its unusual format. It was practical, too: “We didn’t want to do memoirs first, then recipes,” or vice versa, Sheraton explained. “No one would read all of it!”

Sheraton’s mother was an experienced and skilled home cook, and while the book contains many classic Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish dishes, like brisket, chicken soup, and farfel (egg barley), her repertoire also included non-kosher American favorites like shrimp Creole and chicken pie.

While responses to the memoir sections were “very, very positive,” From My Mother’s Kitchen “got an adverse reaction from Jewish organizations because it wasn’t kosher,” Sheraton recalled. Although she provided kosher substitutions, “B’nai B’rith started a letter-writing campaign” to the author in protest. 

If the inclusion of non-kosher recipes bothered some readers, others took a different tack. “For a restaurant critic of the New York Times to write about Jewish food was considered strange, because Jewish food was not [thought to be] very good,” Sheraton said. “There wasn’t a big market for Jewish cookbooks. It’s not a status cuisine.” Or at least it wasn’t 40 years ago.

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Jewish food (then nearly synonymous with those Eastern European dishes) was maligned. It had “chicken fat, and was considered heavy, and greasy, there was a smell of onions and garlic, and I would guess most of the people who didn’t like Jewish food had had it at Jewish restaurants where it wasn’t served well,” Sheraton declared.

Because of this, “There was nothing on the jacket to indicate From My Mother’s Kitchen was about Jewish food. Today, Jewish cooking is huge, though Mediterranean and North African Jewish food” gets the most attention, Sheraton noted. Nonetheless, “If the book were to be reprinted, it would have to say something like, ‘Memoirs of Growing up in a Jewish American Kitchen’” on the cover. 

Her latest book is 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die: A Food Lover’s Life List, from 2014. In both her work and in conversation with Lilith, Sheraton is authoritative, opinionated, and incidentally hilarious. On kale: “I believe it should be cooked long and slow, with fat.” She eats local when possible, but “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with selling Maine lobster on the West Coast.” Nor has she any objections to GMOs, “if it’s done responsibly and safely, and if it adds to the world’s food supply.” 

Regarding current trends and controversies within the food world, Sheraton doesn’t like “no tipping” policies. “I think tipping is a useful way to ensure good service.” She believes cashless restaurants are elitist, and, in the wake of numerous #MeToo revelations coming out of the restaurant industry, Sheraton has a novel idea for penalizing establishments that fail to monitor and address proven sexual harassment: “The New York State Liquor Authority should be able to revoke or suspend a restaurant’s license.”

Sheraton does “really important, wonderful work,” says Arlene Avakian, professor emeritus in the Department of Women, Gender, Sexuality studies at University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the author of Through the Kitchen Window: Women Explore the Intimate Meaning of Food and Cooking. “Mimi Sheraton tells me something that I really want to know, and she sometimes puts it in an autobiographical frame.” For instance, from Sheraton’s The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World, she learned “what bialys meant to people.”

Thanks to her breadth of knowledge, Sheraton carries an air of omniscience, I’ve discovered. Towards the end of my conversation with her, I recalled a sentence in From My Mother’s Kitchen: “If I could remember the precise moment that I began to love soup, and especially soup that is volcanically hot, I think I could mark the turning point from childhood to adulthood.” For the past 30-odd years, I’ve been waiting to love really hot soup. When I tell her that, Sheraton laughs: “I love soup for what it is, and I love to make soup. The thing I like about first courses is that they promise there’s more to come. I like beginnings, there’s a note of promise in that. I’m not so crazy about endings.”

The late novelist Laurie Colwin, who died in 1992, also saw more than superficial meaning in a meal. During her lifetime Colwin was best known for novels like Happy All the Time and Family Happiness. But today, her food writing—1988’s Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen and More Home CookingA Writer Returns to the Kitchen (a collection of essays first published in Gourmet, released in 1993)—is considered especially influential. “I think of her as kind of a proto-blogger,” cookbook author, food journalist, and scholar Mitchell Davis told the New York Times in 2014.  

In Colwin’s witty, stylish essays, which include plenty of kitchen disasters, “She took the topic of food and used it as a way to comment on life,” says Davis, chief strategy officer at the James Beard Foundation. “Colwin shared personal stories about personal things,” just as food bloggers do today. “She was like James Beard in that her work offered a kind of ongoing narration of culinary life that was part of her appeal…. She was an important figure in personalizing and neuroticizing food.” Which I feel is a compliment. 

Like Mimi Sheraton, Colwin did not keep kosher. Unlike Sheraton’s, Colwin’s food memoirs contain scant mention of Judaism, though in the Home Cooking chapter “Friday Night Supper” she writes, “It is a night when the heart of even the most assimilated Jew cries out for something more substantial than one skinless chicken breast.” So Colwin offers recipes for pot roast and her mother’s potato pancakes. Her books also include recipes for staples like roast chicken, lentil soup, and gingerbread, as well as equally homey but unexpected dishes like yam cakes with hot pepper and fermented black beans, and peach pizza.

“Part of the reason her stuff resonates today is that amidst all the perfection that is presented in food media, old and new—the perfect dinner party, the most beautiful pie crust decoration, the happiness depicted on the plates and the tables in magazines and on Instagram,” Colwin revealed “the imperfection and messiness that is cooking and food and eating,” Davis says. Because “It isn’t pretty most of the time. And much of that reality was left out of the media. With Colwin, food writing could also be about not what’s perfect, but about what’s personal, and the process.”

From Niche Genre to the Cultural Mainstream

Though neither Mimi Sheraton nor Laurie Colwin was the first to take this approach to memoir, these immensely accomplished writers offered “a window into a domestic space that is quite different from [traditional] memoirs, which tell stories about famous people doing the things famous people do,” says Davis. Memoirs like these—some of them by well-known chefs—accounted for many of the approximately 30 women’s memoirs-with-recipes that Nathans-Kelly found during her research for Burned Sugar Pie in the mid-1990s. Today, few contemporary food memoirists are famous, at least not prior to publication. Instead they, like Sheraton and Colwin, share stories about everyday people—themselves.  

In 1996, Claudia Roden published The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York. Its 634 pages (plus index) include Roden’s memories of her family’s life in Egypt, and the food she ate growing up there. Personal anecdotes also appear throughout the book, in the historical essays that introduce a region’s Jewish cuisine and in discussions of particular foods. 

Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 12.25.45 PMUnlike Sheraton and Colwin, Roden didn’t originally plan to include autobiographical material. Instead, she writes, “When I decided (as I did several times) to give up, my editor, Judith Jones, convinced me that the only way to deal with the subject was to make the book a ‘personal odyssey’ and to forget about trying to be comprehensive.” Though with 800+ recipes from all over the world and an emphasis on once-overlooked Sephardi foods, The Book of Jewish Food nonetheless is pretty comprehensive. Fortunately, she adds, “This was a very appealing idea…” Her approach was clearly successful—The Book of Jewish Food won the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook of the Year award in 1997.

Then, in 1998, Ruth Reichl published Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table. Like Sheraton’s, Reichl’s first memoir-with-recipes was published while she was the New York Times restaurant critic. Tender at the Bone received rave reviews, and was a bestseller. Both it and its 2001 sequel, Comfort Me With Apples: More Adventures at the Table, use food, and cooking, as a way to explore themes of family, love, home, and discovery.

Davis says, “If there is a master of the genre, I think it is she…Ruth’s writing connects [with readers] in a very profound way.” Reichl’s most recent book is Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir. It’s not exactly a food memoir; instead, it’s about the business of writing about food—Reichl was editor in chief of the storied Gourmet magazine from 1999 until its shuttering in 2009.

The book is a familiar, but appealing, fish-out-of-water story. Reichl, who once lived on a California commune, learns how to run a magazine while adjusting to the lavish lifestyle expected of Conde Nast editors. Like her other memoirs, Save Me the Plums is also about family—in this case, the Gourmet staff and Reichl’s Conde Nast colleagues. And, like all of Reichl’s work, it’s accessible, wry, and affectionate.

Reichl has acknowledged Sheraton and Colwin. Of Sheraton, her predecessor at the Times, Reichl says, “She was tough, fearless and forthright. …The longer I had the job, the more I respected her. She was so unpretentious and so unafraid of offending anyone.”

The Jewish Themes

Even before the spate of recent food memoirs, a most poignant antecedent was created in the early 1940s and published in 1996: In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin, edited by Cara De Silva and translated by Bianca Steiner Brown. Lore Dickstein’s New York Times review of this extraordinary “fragile, handwritten book of recipes, the pages sewn together by hand” bore the headline “Hell’s Own Cookbook.” This remarkable book is both a recollection of happier times and far better meals than the moldy bread the prisoners were fed in the “model” concentration camp, and also offers testimony to the terrible existence these Czech women knew during the Holocaust. This is a food memoir that calls upon the reader to remember as well.

So many writers of recent food memoirs are Jewish; even a casual search turns up a list of about 30. And some, like Lynn Shapiro’s Food, Family and Tradition: Hungarian Kosher Family Recipes and Remembrances, contain explicitly kosher recipes. Jewish women have also penned fictional versions of the genre: Nora Ephron’s 1983 novel Heartburn is peppered with recipes from her cookbook-writer heroine. So: Are Jewish women especially drawn to the melding of family experiences and cooking?

“I think a big part of the plethora of Jewish women’s food memoirs is simply a function of Jews writing a lot and publishers recognizing that Jews buy books,” explained sociology professor Susan Starr Sered. “I think that Jews in general are drawn to writing about themselves and their culture.” Sered is the author of Women As Ritual Experts: The Religious Lives of Elderly Jewish Women in Jerusalem

Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 12.26.07 PMMemoirist Elissa Altman has another theory: “There are so many food memoir writers who are female and Jewish and of a certain age (I’m in my mid-fifties). I suspect that it is, in part, because we have a distinct and first-hand memory of the foods from the past—foods and practices that were carried over from the Old Country and thus were the last thread of connection to them.” More than 2.5 million Jews immigrated to the U.S. between 1881 and 1924; many may have been the grandparents, or great-grandparents, of the women food writers of Altman’s generation. Altman adds, “The language—Yiddish—was beginning to die out when I was a child growing up in the ’70s. All that was left were the stories and the culinary culture, which often traveled hand in hand.” 

Beyond Brisket 

Food memoirs have such broad appeal because they are “about the association of food with cultural identity, ethnic community, family, and cross-cultural experiences,” Barbara Frey Waxman noted in a 2008 article. These subjects appeal to readers and writers of all backgrounds, including Jewish women whose food cultures are very different from those of Eastern and Central Europe. Susan Barocas has written an award-winning piece for Lilith on the Sephardic food that is so much a part of her family’s heritage, and Ruth Mason has completed a food memoir pegged to her family’s Bukharian foods, prepared in Bukhara, Israel and L.A.

Altman, whose Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing will be published in August 2019, says: “The food memoir impulse is universal. … When I was on tour for Treyf, my audiences and readers came from every conceivable background and culture, which proved to me: our stories are identical, and for many of us, they manifest at the table.” 

Although most of the Jewish women food memoirists I’ve come across do not keep kosher, and only Sheraton’s book includes much mention of “Jewish” foods, perhaps Jewish women’s implicit (in my case, it’s certainly not explicit!) understanding of the ritual and religious importance of food and food preparation makes food memoirs a natural subject? This is something I can relate to: I don’t keep kosher, but I always mark Jewish holidays and events by cooking traditional Jewish dishes. To me, it’s an obligation, and a pleasure. 

Elizabeth Michaelson Monaghan is a former Lilith intern and a native New Yorker. Her work has appeared in City Limits, Paste, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela

© 2011 Lilith Magazine