Illus­tra­tion and recipe by Cipe Pineles

Sarah Rich is the co-edi­tor of Leave Me Alone with the Recipes: The Life, Art, and Cook­book of Cipe Pine­les. Cipe (pro­nounced C. P.”) was one of the most influ­en­tial graph­ic design­ers of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, and the first female art direc­tor at Condé Nast. 

When I first flipped through Cipe Pineles’s hand-paint­ed recipe book from 1945, it felt deeply famil­iar. This was my family’s food — not the food we ate for din­ner on an aver­age evening dur­ing my child­hood, but the food we kept in our cul­tur­al pantry.

It was a won­der to see these dish­es ren­dered with so much vibran­cy and char­ac­ter in Cipe’s art. In my mind, many East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish foods were fair­ly plain and monot­o­ne. You could paint mat­zo balls, gefilte fish, pota­to latkes, noo­dle kugel, kasha and brisket all with­in a spec­trum from beige to brown. Yet here was a rain­bow of beets, car­rots, pep­pers, and toma­toes; not to men­tion the cool blue enam­el and warm clay of the cook­ware. It was a visu­al cel­e­bra­tion of a cui­sine that typ­i­cal­ly feels nos­tal­gic, com­fort­ing, old.

Cipe’s paint­ings, too, were old by the time we found them — almost sev­en­ty years old — but the food felt alive, the aes­thet­ic very cur­rent. I remem­ber think­ing, Why can’t this food feel con­tem­po­rary and dynam­ic? Jew­ish deli foods were com­ing back into vogue. Places like Mile End Deli and the rein­vig­o­rat­ed Russ & Daugh­ters were New York City des­ti­na­tions, while Wexler’s and Wise Sons were served appe­tiz­ing” on the west coast. I fig­ured it must be pos­si­ble to go beyond deli fare and give a mod­ern update to some deeply Jew­ish classics.

There were a few chal­lenges to doing this. For starters, the recipes as Cipe had writ­ten them did not always hold up as a set of spe­cif­ic instruc­tions. It would take an expe­ri­enced home cook to read through her writ­ing and know where to adjust and impro­vise in order to arrive at a tasty result. When I first tried her kalacha (aka meat­loaf), for exam­ple, I fol­lowed her recipe to the let­ter, and end­ed up with more of a sauce than some­thing sliceable.

The sec­ond chal­lenge was decid­ing where the line was between mod­ern­iz­ing a dish, and fun­da­men­tal­ly chang­ing it. What makes these dish­es what they are? If you took hard rolls” and chick­en fat from her veal stuff­ing, and instead used bread­crumbs and but­ter, would it still con­tain the DNA of the orig­i­nal? And what if instead of veal, you used steak? The pol­i­tics of ani­mal rights and empha­sis on sea­son­al­i­ty that char­ac­ter­ize today’s food choic­es just weren’t fac­tored into recipes in 1945.

To devel­op the updat­ed ver­sions, I worked with an assis­tant, Chris­t­ian Reynoso, who cooks at the famed San Fran­cis­co restau­rant, Zuni Café. He did not have a back­ground in Jew­ish food. He did have a deep famil­iar­i­ty and great pro­fi­cien­cy with the ingre­di­ents of the moment in Cal­i­for­nia cui­sine. Togeth­er we wad­ed around the grey area in between old world and new, and aimed to make some­thing that would tempt today’s cooks and eaters.

For many of the orig­i­nal recipes, it’s pos­si­ble to skip the first few steps by virtue of what’s avail­able now in gro­cery stores. Cipe’s soup recipes often start by mak­ing a stock, then remov­ing the fla­vor­ing mate­ri­als, whether veg­etable or meat, and mov­ing on to the actu­al dish. For the new recipes, I pro­vid­ed two basic stock recipes — one veg­etable and one chick­en — as a foun­da­tion for the entire col­lec­tion, with the idea that if you have this (or pre-made stock from the store) on hand, you’re already sev­er­al steps into the recipe when you start.

The updates vary in how far they divert from Cipe’s orig­i­nals. The chick­en soup I felt was a rev­e­la­tion almost just as she’d writ­ten it. I had nev­er heard of putting a short rib bone (what was called flanken) into a chick­en soup but I will nev­er do it anoth­er way henceforth.

In the mid­dle ground was the bul­benick, a baked pota­to casse­role of sorts for which Cipe had two vari­a­tions. As writ­ten, it real­ly didn’t turn out too well with either vari­a­tion, so we devel­oped our own, still using the bare bones of her recipe (grat­ed pota­to, flour, egg), but leav­en­ing it gen­tly with bak­ing pow­der and throw­ing in herbs for added dimension.

Final­ly, one of the updates that departs most dra­mat­i­cal­ly from the orig­i­nal is prob­a­bly the lamb stew. Cer­tain prac­tices com­mon to today’s cook­ing, like sea­son­ing meat a day ahead and brown­ing it before sim­mer­ing, were absent in Cipe’s recipe. We felt the fla­vor and tex­ture turn out much bet­ter using these mod­ern approach­es, so we changed up the order of oper­a­tions, added a few steps, and then fin­ished it off with gar­ban­zo beans and yogurt — two ingre­di­ents that often pair with lamb in Mid­dle East­ern cookery.

It was a real cre­ative adven­ture to devel­op these updates, and an inter­est­ing exer­cise to think through what are the defin­ing and fun­da­men­tal aspects of a dish. In the end, I’m glad we were able to pub­lish both the unal­tered orig­i­nals and the mod­ern­ized col­lec­tion, so that read­ers can pick and choose, com­pare and con­trast, and draw their own con­clu­sions about what makes a recipe a recipe.

Below, see Cipe’s recipe for lamb stew fol­lowed by Sarah’s updat­ed recipe.

Illus­tra­tion and recipe by Cipe Pineles

Sarah Rich is a writer based in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia. She is the co-edi­tor of Leave Me Alone with the Recipes: The Life, Art, and Cook­book of Cipe Pine­les. She is a for­mer edi­tor at Dwell, Smith­son­ian, and Medi­um; and co-founder of Long­shot Mag­a­zine and the Food­print Project.