Having recently finished a rough draft of my next novel, I’ve been focused on working with alpha readers and trying to revise, restructure and basically reinvent my ever-evolving storyline. All this is done in stolen moments in between a 10-hour work day and household responsibilities… laundry, grocery shopping, etc. Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings when all I want to do is write; and before I knew it, the Jewish holiday of Passover was upon us and I was not prepared. Being empty-nesters, the holidays are just not the same any more, especially because my children, and family in general, are spread out across the world. But I still wanted to celebrate the occasion and preserve the traditions, so out came the cookbooks and beloved recipes. To commemorate this holiday, our diets are restricted throughout the week; and in particular, we must not eat anything made with flour or yeast. Nothing that “puffs up.” In looking at the family favorites, I noticed how I have tweaked the directions here and there. Ingredients have been swapped out, preparations have been revised. In other words, the recipes evolved, much like my latest novel, depending on whose voice had taken the lead. Depending on which grandmother, aunt, or cousin passed it along, or from which country, culture and timeframe, the difference was notable. All this musing about the kitchen, led me to today’s post.
I had previously written about Lady Judith Montefiore, and the impact of her cookbook on Anglo-Jewry, but started to think about food in relation to our identity. I am ethnically a Russian Jew who was born in Argentina. But I am also a (proud) naturalized citizen of the United States of America and have been highly influenced by the culture in my adopted land.
“Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are.”
That statement was published by Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1825; and I think, it still holds true! Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver recently stated that “Dishes evolve, impacted by trade, war, famine and a hundred other forces.” It is fascinating to think how our foods have a shared history. How they have developed through time and the pride we take in saying: This is my contribution. Here are some fun examples.
Almond sweets were all the rage in Sicily; but by 1552, they had gained popularity and became known to the rest of modern-day Italy, Spain, France, and England. And across the pond, in a hand-written cookbook published by the first lady, Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery contained a recipe for almond cookies. So, by the 17th century, we have the word macaron in French or macaroon in English. At this time, the world was also introduced to the Sicilian word maccarruni. In English, of course, we know it as macaroni.
To complicate things a bit, a fad developed in the United States in the late 1800s with the importation of coconut from India. Coconut cream pies, ambrosia and custards were very popular— as was the coconut macaroon, which suddenly began appearing in Jewish cookbooks. In 1871, Esther Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book included a recipe for this new dessert; and because they didn’t contain flour, this cookie soon became an American Passover tradition.
Never let it be said that the French were left behind in the world of baking! Soon after coconut macaroons first appeared, bakers Gerbet and Desfontaines created a sandwich cookie by putting almond paste or ganache between two individual macarons. The new cookie was called “le macaron Parisien.” In the United States, the word macaron now referred to the French ganache cookie, leaving macaroon to describe the coconut confection.
Don’t forget the word macaroni. We think of it as elbow pasta. Right? Au contraire! In 18th century England, macaroni had an altogether different meaning. Wealthy gentlemen, who sported outlandish hairstyles and pretentious fashions, were called Macaronis. Why? Because while they did the Grand Tour across the Continent, they acquired a taste for Italian pasta, which was considered an exotic food sensation. For those of us who grew up singing “Yankee Doodle,” this explanation helps to make sense of the song. The chorus makes fun of a disheveled Yankee soldier who attempts to look fashionable. Remember? “…stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni”. Talk about being “puffed up”!
Ready for another interesting fact? Consider England’s Fish and Chips. This fast-food staple stems back to the 16th century, when Iberian Jews—escaping the Inquisition—made their way to England. Pescado frito, a dish of white fish, typically cod or haddock, was a particular favorite of Sephardic Jews who prepared it on Friday nights in preparation for the Sabbath. The batter was supposed to preserve the fish, so it could be eaten cold the following day when cooking, or starting a fire, was prohibited. This preparation became so popular, it could be found sold on the streets of London, day or night.
Claudia Roden’s work, The Book of Jewish Food indicated that Thomas Jefferson, who was president of the United States from 1801 to 1809, ate “fish in the Jewish fashion” during a visit to the English capital. Alexis Soyer, a French cook who became a celebrated chef in Victorian England, included a recipe for “Fried Fish, Jewish Fashion” in the first edition of his 1845 cookbook, A Shilling Cookery for the People. That’s the fish part, but what about the chips? It seems that in the 17th century, French Protestants—known as Huguenots— fleeing religious persecution, might have brought their taste for fried potato with them to England. It is interesting to note, many of these refugees settled in the East End. Charles Dicken’s used the word “chips” in A Tale of Two Cities in 1859; and sometime in 1860, an Ashkenazi Jew from Russia named Joseph Malin, combined the Sephardic’s fried fish with the Huguenots’ fried potatoes. He opened the first Fish and Chips shop in London’s East End.
This year for Passover, I couldn’t find a nice brisket in my grocery store, so I chose to make an American-style pot roast. And because my husband doesn’t care for chicken soup, we ate our kneidalach (matzah balls) in Argentine-style tuco (similar to a Pomodoro sauce). I wonder what Lady Judith might have opined of my menu. And what of our beloved, Jane Austen? Did she have an interest in food? In one of her many letters to her sister, Cassandra, she wrote:
“My mother desires me to tell you that I am a very good housekeeper, which I have no reluctance in doing, because I really think it my peculiar excellence, and for this reason – I always take care to provide such things as please my own appetite, which I consider as the chief merit in housekeeping. I have had some ragout veal, and I mean to have some haricot mutton to-morrow.”
Both of these entrées stem from French cuisine. Hmm? I wonder if Jane Austen ever dined on anything quite so exotic as pasta? I know for a fact she was acquainted with a few Macaronis—at the very least she wrote about them! But then again, our Miss Jane was never at a loss for words about pride…
“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves; vanity, to what we would have others think of us.”
Which Austen character qualifies for such an appellation as a Macaroni? I think I can name a few…
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