Found in translation: 100-year-old Yiddish cookbook

tel aviv  |  When a rare volume of a 1914 cookbook written in Yiddish for American Jewish housewives came into the hands of Bracha Weingrod, the once popular but forgotten book began its long journey from dusty oblivion to celebrated translation.

The thick, worn copy of “Dos Familien Kokh-Bookh,” now newly translated by Weingrod as “The Yiddish Family Cookbook,” appears to be the only Yiddish cookbook now on the market.

It came to Weingrod more than 35 years ago, soon after the native Canadian immigrated to Israel. A friend, a forager of old books, had found it on the bottom shelf of a used bookstore in New York and had brought it for her as a housewarming gift in Jerusalem.

Weingrod was instantly smitten.

Bracha Weingrod photo/jta/aaron weingrod

“It was like going back to my roots. I did not have to go Russia to the small village where my mother was from,” said Weingrod, a retired teacher. “I just opened the book and it was somehow there.”

It was a cookbook with Old World tips, like how to stuff a goose (“place it between your legs and open its mouth, putting in as many dumplings as possible”). But it also was a practical guide for Jewish women finding their way in the New World with foods such as cherry pie, ice cream and sandwiches transliterated and thoughtfully decoded by the author, H. Braun.

There is virtually nothing known about Braun aside from the authoritative but neighborly tone she strikes as she sets out to educate a generation of Jewish immigrant women who avidly read her cookbook, sailing it through four printings, the last in 1928.

She tried to coax women to liberate themselves from the ways of heavy shtetl cooking and make more careful, considered dishes, introducing them also to French and Italian cuisine modified for a kosher kitchen, like mock turtle soup.

A search by Weingrod about Braun in the Library of Congress quickly went cold.

But through the translation, Weingrod hopes a new generation will be able to tap into Braun’s knowledge. That includes her boundless advice on nutrition, special focus on digestive issues (“no herring in the summer”) and tips for being a practical, frugal shopper, among them how to select fresh fish.

Included in her suggestions are how to substitute olive oil for shmaltz and lemon juice for salt, marking her as a nutritionist ahead of her time.

“This book provides innovative ideas for preserving and creating foods using long-lasting core ingredients often without need for refrigeration,” Weingrod said.

Weingrod has translated some 200 of the book’s original 693 recipes, doing her best to preserve the cadence of tone of the original Yiddish.

Weingrod began the project after retiring, although the idea for a translation had been in her head for years.

Joan Nathan, the doyenne of Jewish cooking, wrote in a blurb, “It is wonderful to have this translation … ‘Dos Familien Kokh-Bookh’ in English is a fantastic entry to the canon of Jewish cookbooks.”

In their lives in Europe, Braun reminds her readers, food could be scarce, but in America, where food — and food choices — were abundant, she cautions against rich diets and repeatedly returns to the subject of being kind to the “mogen” — the stomach.

Writing about sauces for meat, for example, Braun warns, “It is the sauce that plays a great role in giving many foods their taste, but if not prepared correctly the stomach will protest.” She also mentions coconut butter as a substitute for butter for making such sauces so that kashrut can be maintained.

In a chapter titled “Caring for a Sick One,” she counsels how to best feed the ill. “People who don’t know how to cook for a sick one,” she writes, “can very easily make them even sicker.”

Braun suggests serving a variety of food from soups to raw beef sandwiches and always with a white napkin, polished cutlery and “the nicest plates.”

In an introduction for her readers that presages what many in the new food movement are saying today, Braun writes, “It is true: we live not to eat but eat to live. It is therefore also true that the kind of food we eat determines the kind of life we lead.” n

“The Yiddish Family Cookbook: Dos Familien Kokh-Bookh” by H. Braun, edited and translated by Bracha B. Weingrod (190 pages, CreateSpace, $19.99)

Honey Cake recipe

From “The Yiddish Family Cookbook”

Sieve a quart of honey into a bowl. Here one must note that our Jewish housewives are often cheated in America regarding honey. Instead of honey made by bees, they are given imitation molasses. And so we caution that one must have clean, pure, natural bee’s honey. This can always be found and purchased through better grocery stores.

So, take one quart of clear honey, and add 1⁄2 pint of sugar and the same amount of melted butter. Dissolve a teaspoon of soda in a 1⁄2 cup of warm water, grate in half a nutmeg, add a full teaspoon of ginger and sifted flour and mix all together. We do not give the exact measurement of flour because the housewife has to know that this depends on the type of flour. Often the flour is too dry and sometimes it is too fresh. Therefore she must know that just enough flour is needed to make a dough that can be rolled out. The dough should be cut up in thin pieces, like cakes, put on a greased pan, and baked in a hot oven.