by Shelly Butcher
It’s not the anticipation that excites me — I know what the package contains as I’ve ordered it myself. Rather, it’s the world contained within each book that sparks my curiosity — recipes I hadn’t imagined, food traditions from the “old country,” combinations of flavors and ingredients at once foreign and yet faintly familiar.
My most recent acquisition is as dear to me as an old friend. I could hardly contain myself as I ripped open the cardboard packaging and removed the delicate white tissue paper that wrapped The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, by Edda Servi Machlin.
A beautiful compilation of recipes, family lore, history and old photos — this was the cookbook that ignited my passion for the study of food, its history and the people who prepare and enjoy it. While my young Ashkenazi palate knew the flavors and textures of matzah ball soup, noodle kugel and challah bread, Machlin’s book was full of exotic fare such as riso del sabato (Sabbath saffron rice), an entire section dedicated to various and sundry brodo and minestre (broths and soups) and perhaps most fascinating, prosciutto and salame d’oca, a kosher interpretation of the classic cured Italian meats made of goose.
I was particularly riveted by the tales Machlin wove around the recipes, bringing to life her childhood in an Italy besieged by war. Her family’s flight from the Fascists and Nazis was aided by generous farmers, family friends and strangers alike. One very poor family took in the whole family for the night, feeding them a dinner of cabbage from the garden and homemade pasta made with flour, water and a single egg.
“Though [the farmer’s wife] had only the one egg, a few trimmings, and seven people of her own to feed, she did not hesitate to share what she had with a stranger. On that December night, in the midst of the war, my life was forever enriched by those beautiful, smiling people.”
The beauty of Machlin’s story lies in its simplicity — sharing with complete strangers that most basic of human requirements, food. Food is arguably the foundation of every culture upon which everything else rests. Its preparation and sharing marks rituals and rites of passage, invites strangers into the fold. My challah might be your paska, or cheorg or manakish, brioche. The dumpling likely traveled from China to Korea, on to Central Asia and possibly to Russia and the Ukraine via Turkey, where it was known as mantouvarenyk. The Spice Route and mass migrations over time have helped shape the development of cuisines the world over, crossing cultures in a delicious mélange.
The Borscht Belt will explore the fundamental interconnectedness of all things food, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, the ways in which traditional regional dishes have migrated, changed, adapted, yet continue to echo their predecessors, however distantly. People, too, vary greatly by culture, region and belief, but remain fundamentally interconnected. Tracing back the history and origin of dishes provides insight into the richness of the dishes themselves, as well as the people who prepared them.
Welcome to the Borscht Belt, exploring the “fundamental interconnectedness” of all things food. Regional dishes: what they’re made of, where they’ve been and how they got here.