1940s Archive

An Alphabet for Gourmets

continued (page 2 of 3)

The rules for keeping Passover properly are many and, to a gentile, are mysterious as well as very confusing. The most bothersome prescription decrees that nothing which has even touched a crumb of leavened bread must be used for eight days. This means that a separate set of dishes is needed and that all the cable silver and cooking utensils and cutlery must be sterilized.

To kosher correctly (which means in Hebrew to make right or fit), red-hot coals are plunged into boiling water, and then the various kitchen utensils are immersed in it. They can be used when Passover has finished for that year but must be made kosher again before the next holiday, whereas the special set of table dishes is usually carefully wrapped and stored in a place where there is no faintest danger of its being polluted by the presence of leaven.

As a result of this and other kosher rules, a strict orthodox family can have four complete sets of tableware: duplicate Passover sets (the extra one in case of accidental pollution), one for meat meals, and one for milk meals!

Passover dishes are probably the most interesting of any in the Jewish cuisine, because of the lack of leaven and the resulting challenge to fine cooks. There are all kinds of Torten and almond cakes and puddings, and an infinity of uses for matzoth or matzos: knaidlach, or dumplings, and soups and cakes and puddings of the motzoth meal. Everything is doubly rich, as if to compensate for the lack of leaven, and clarified goose and chicken fat and beef drippings carefully excluding suet are used most artfully.

And it is there, and thusly, that old Moses looked after his children, as well as in his bluntly realistic attempts to protect them from pollution and decay, dietetic as well as spiritual, in their wanderings through the hot, filthy countries of the ancient world: he made them see to it that the vessels for their feasting were sterile, freed from most of their omnipresent bacteria by the ceremony, at once mystical and practical, of making kosher.

He forbade them to eat any kind of leaven, that fine proving ground for digestive bubbles.

He let them soothe their starved nerves and muscles at least once yearly with a fine, wise unguent of fat, fat from the goose and even, most carefully, from the cow…and as any refugee from today’s Europe knows, that is balm indeed, for hungering people who have had no fat at all for too long a time become moody, shiver easily, and grow sick.

Moses let his people lie back, now and then, upon whatever kind of couch they could find, and eat and ear. Even today, at Passover, they eat well if they eat at all, and woes are forgotten in the pleasures of the table, for if the Mosaic laws are rightly followed, no man need fear true poison in his belly, but only the results of his own gluttony.

L is for literature…

…and the banquets it can serve forth, from the gorgeously photographed Spamola sur bun à la mode de Fourth of July of a present-day advertisement to the phosphorescent elegance of a courtesan’s memoirs, in which every dish at her table possesses, at least in legend, a special phallic importance, political as well as personal.

There is no question that secondhand feasting can bring its own nourishment, satisfaction, and final surfeit. More than one released prisoner has cold me of the strange peacefulness that will come over a group of near-famished men in their almost endless talk of good food they remember and wish to eat again. They murmur on and on, in the cells or the walled yards, of pies their sisters used to make for them, and of the way Doménico in Tijuana grilled bootleg quail, and of the pasta at Boeucc’ in prebomb Milano. They swallow without active pain the prison’s maggoty bread and water-soup, their spiritual palates drowned in a flood of recalled flavor and warmth and richness.

If they had books, they would be reading their banquet. For want of them, they talk it, voluptuously repetitious, unconsciously dogged against the death of their five senses, without which they would indeed be death-condemned.

This necessity does not so immediately menace the men outside the walls, but there are many of us who have found something of the same sensuous relief, from our invisible and private prisons, in gastronomical literature.

Given the fact that almost every gastronomer has some kind of literary predilection, it is amusing and interesting to speculate on the whys and whens of such a love. I know one man, for instance, who, for fairly obvious reasons, collects only political menus, from Julius Caesar’s to Harry Truman’s, and another who, for equally obvious reasons, has little curiosity about any meal that has p been served outside a brothel!

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