Cook­ing from the Heart: A Jew­ish Jour­ney through Food

Gaye Wee­den and Hay­ley Smorgon
  • Review
By – January 25, 2013

On a brisk fall Sun­day after­noon at Riz­zoli Book­store in New York City, I had the plea­sure of inter­view­ing the charm­ing Aus­tralian cook­book authors Gaye Wee­den and Hay­ley Smor­gon, whose new book cap­tures Jew­ish life in Aus­tralia through its unusu­al recipes and mov­ing nar­ra­tives by the recipes’ contributors. 

The two charm­ing young women have four chil­dren each and as Gaye avers, We are pro­fi­cient cooks.” The authors explained, We cook con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian food using fresh pro­duce. We can also put on tra­di­tion­al Shab­bat and Fes­ti­val cel­e­bra­tion meals for twen­ty-plus peo­ple, using our moth­ers’ and grand­moth­ers’ recipes.”

For Shab­bat or Hol­i­day meals, the authors usu­al­ly do a cou­ple of meat dish­es with a vari­ety of sal­ad and veg­etable sides. Gaye not­ed that among their reper­toire are chick­en soup, brisket, Israeli cous­cous, Per­sian rice, bok choy sal­ad, and roast­ed vegetables. 

They wrote their first cook­book, Cook­ing From Mem­o­ry: A Jour­ney Through Jew­ish Food (2006) because “[they] want­ed to doc­u­ment [their] moth­ers’ and grand­moth­ers’ recipes as both were in their 80’s [Gaye’s moth­er and Hayley’s grand­moth­er] and had cooked the same tra­di­tion­al recipes for as long as [they could] remem­ber. [They] both gen­er­al­ly cook con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian cui­sine with a touch of Jew­ish influ­ence. With­out actu­al­ly watch­ing [their moth­er and grand­moth­er] cook and write down quan­ti­ties and ingre­di­ents, the recipes would have been lost.”

I inquired about the chal­lenge of cre­at­ing an Amer­i­can ver­sion of the book, to which Gaye and Hay­ley respond­ed: not challeng­ing real­ly as the jour­ney of migra­tion is a very Amer­i­can sto­ry also. Some ingre­di­ents were changed and the mea­sure­ments were trans­lat­ed.” In some cas­es they have kept the orig­i­nal names of foods. Wit­lof, I learned, is chico­ry or endive; stuffed cap­sicums are stuffed pep­pers and bis­cuits are cookies.

Kudos to Mark Rop­er, whose stun­ning pho­tographs have cap­tured the peo­ple behind the sto­ries — how they came to Aus­tralia from East­ern Europe, Europe, the Mid­dle East, Asia and Aus­tralia, Africa, and the Amer­i­c­as. They recount the role of Jew­ish food in their old life or new one, as they were grow­ing up and explain­ing how what they cook con­nects them to their her­itage and for­mer homelands. 

Helen Schon from Czecho­slo­va­kia endears her­self to you as, after explain­ing how she came to cook and recount­ing her life expe­ri­ences, she explains, I just thought the end of the world was in the con­cen­tra­tion camp, that noth­ing else was exist­ing some­how. Hav­ing a fam­i­ly, hav­ing chil­dren, it’s a mir­a­cle, an absolute mir­a­cle.” Do try her Pop­py­seed Cake. 

Han­ni Scel­wyn of Finland’s Beet Root and Her­ring Sal­ad is a most col­or­ful and savory dish for a dairy meal. Yuval Ashkar of Israel shares a fla­vor­ful Aash­pe­lo (Afghani Rice with chick­en and sul­tanas), Sara Sut­ton, from Syr­ia, con­tributed her Stuffed Mar­row (actu­al­ly stuffed zuc­chi­ni) which has among its ingre­di­ents, pome­gran­ate molasses. Loli­ta Lewis of the Philip­pines intro­duces us to Beef and Mixed Veg­etable Empanadas. Debru­tu Almeneh-Rosen­baum of Ethiopia invites us to try our hand at Injera (Ethopi­an Pan­cake Bread). 

It is real­ly, lit­er­al­ly through word of mouth” that Gaye and Hay­ley met all the peo­ple fea­tured. They say, we tast­ed all the food, we went to their kitchens and we real­ly got to know them.” The cook­books are in the Holo­caust Muse­um in Berlin, and at the Aus­tralian Nation­al Library as Gaye told me, “…to doc­u­ment the his­to­ry of the Jew­ish People.” 

Go through the book and be inspired by the dish­es but most of all by the coura­geous tes­ti­monies of these cooks and their very human accounts. Note that a few of the recipes are not kosher. Glos­sary, index.

Danièle Gor­lin Lass­ner (wife, moth­er, grand­moth­er) retired after 35 years at Ramaz where she served as Dean of Admis­sions, For­eign Lan­guage Depart­ment chair and teacher of French and Span­ish. She owns hun­dreds of cook­books. She has trans­lat­ed sev­er­al chil­dren’s books from French into Eng­lish. She has recent­ly trans­lat­ed “ A Mem­oir of Sanc­ti­ty “ by May­er Moskowitz (Mazo Pub­lish­ers, Jerusalem, Israel) from Hebrew into Eng­lish. No mat­ter the lan­guage, food is a con­stant.”

Discussion Questions