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1940s Archive

An Alphabet for Gourmets

Originally Published April 1949

K is for kosher…

… and for a few reasons why the dietary laws laid down by Jehovah to Moses about 1200 B.C. have rightly been called “one of the best economic regimes ever made public,” gastronomically as well as otherwise.

These interdictions, which, except to the orthodox Jews, have come to mean very little beyond bortsch-and-blintzes in any restaurant which displays the Star of David, are puzzling mainly because so few people really know them (including a great many modern Jews, who are astonished to learn that they can read them easily in Leviticus, the Third Book of Moses in the Old Testament…and very good reading it is, for anyone with a true gourmet’s curiosity…).

Its complex rituals for the butchering and inspection of meats by properly trained men need bother no one, since they are taken care of by experts before food is bought and prepared for the table; but the ancient, sensible, good rules for cookery, to be followed or at least pondered on, are best told as Moses told them to his people more than a thousand years before the greatest Jew frightened the Romans in Jerusalem and then, after the Passover feast, died, perhaps to save them.

Pragmatism, of course, often triumphs over religious principles, as when, in G. B. Stern’s The Matriarch, Babette Rakonitz inadvertently discovered the excellence of ham and managed to enjoy it for many a long year by pretending not to know what she was eating. It is easy to reason as Babette did, when wealth and wanderings have turned people willy-nilly into tolerant cosmopolites, like the Rakonitzes. And there are many Jews like them.

It is the poorer ones, the oppressed, who have held fiercely and loyally to the ceremonial laws bound round and round them, who, centuries after their nation disappeared to rise again, stand unshakable as a race of great religions faith. It is an astonishing and moving thing that after so many flights from terror, after so many vigils in strange lands, the Jews still feast and fast as Moses told them to.

It is exciting, gastronomically, to recognize the influence of their wanderings in their wealth of dishes: olives and oil from Spain and Portugal; German, sweet-and-sour stews; cucumbers, herring, butter cakes, and coffeecake, from the hospitable Dutchmen; fishes stewed and stuffed, and soup made with goosey drippings, from Poland; from Russia and Rumania the blintzes, the buckwheat groats called kasha, and the sweet heaviness of fruit compotes and preserves…and bortsch thin or thick, hot or cold, any time of the clock or calendar…

But it is not the international flavor of the Jewish cuisine that makes it really exciting as much as it is the fact that many dietary and ceremonial laws have of necessity evolved a peculiar art of substitution, disguise, and even trickery (a trickery which has nothing to do with dishonesty, as was the case in rich Babette’s delicate gluttony, but which is one solely of flavorings and spicings).

Fish is a favorite of the Jews, because of the many prohibitions about preparing and eating meats. Highly seasoned salmon, for instance, is one of the main dishes for the Sabbath, when all cooking is forbidden, since it can be made the day before and served delectably in a hundred ways when it is cold. Fish is convenient, too, because there is no prohibition against cooking a cold-blooded animal with cream or cheese or any other milk products, as is the case with red meats.

Meat is usually served only once daily in Jewish households that can afford it at all, but even so, relatively few vegetables are eaten in most orthodox homes, since they cannot be prepared with butter or cream at any meal containing meat, and the cooks are therefore not educated to cope with them. They are eaten more by the poor people in soups than by the wealthier classes, although salads are more in favor than they were even a few years ago.

Fortunately there are a great many feasts to be observed by good Jews…but there are also alarming numbers of strict fasts. A few of them, like the Fast of Esther, which precedes the Feast of Purim, are observed now only by the very religious, but Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, will be a period of purification and reflection as long as the world rolls, probably, wherever a Jew may find himself.

There are semifasts, too, such as a one-day period in the summer heat hen no meat should be eaten: a simple, dietetically sound rule to protect any wandering and ill-housed people, whether in the desert of Arabia a thousand years ago or in a New York tenement next August.

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!

As for me, I sometimes think wistfully that it would be pleasant to be able so completely to limit myself! I have too much to read…

I have a fine, fat pile of menus, actual ones dating from 1929 and book ones for the past five thousand years. Among them are the last dinner served chez Foyot, the ink already very faded, an illuminated parchment limned by George Holl in San Francisco, the gold sull bright although the round, witty gourmet is now i;one, a smudged paper from a Nazi Bierstube in Mexico, and another from a Loyalist cafe in Zurich, where we drank out of bottles like udders, in squirts from the little glass dugs, as in a Hemingway story…

And there are so many books!

Why can I not limit myself to gastronomical novels, for instance Imperial Palace, by Enoch Arnold Bennett, and Work of Art, by Sinclair Lewis, and all the stuff about hotels by Ludwig Bemelmans; or to Huysmans and Saltus and Petronius and all those scribes, new and old, who wrote of man’s excesses…or Virginia Woolf, who wrote perhaps better than anyone in the Western world about the feeling of being a little drunk, or of being a hostess, in things like The Waves and To the Lighthouse. Why not make it that simple?

Or why not just cookery books? Why do I not just have what I think are the best work-manuals and read them carefully when I need them, which I do constantly because I need them constantly? But no. I have everything from Mrs. Simon Kander’s Settlement Cook Book through all of Sheila Hibben to the latest throwaways from baking powder and refrigerator companies, with their flossy culinary triumphs in full Kodachrome. I have them in rows and piles. Fortunately, I also have the common sense to limit my working manuals to a maximum of twelve inches of shelf space…but the rest! They go on for countless feet, through European titles and Hawaiian and regional, through Suzanne Roukhomovsky and Trader Vic and André Simon, some of them good and a lot of’ them absolutely phony, except for perhaps one invaluable recipe or hint here and there.

And then the other books the ones I have kept because they are bound in shagreen or mottled with age or smudged with the adolescent gorgings of boarding school! All have a gastronomical significance, some of them to no other human being but myself. They mean exoticism or respect or gluttony. Perhaps they should be shed at regular intervals, like a skin. But they sit safely on my shelves, a strange company bolstered by nostalgia, curious indeed, and a dead giveaway to anyone curious to know their owner.

I do believe sincerely, recognizing strength of character in my fellow men if not in myself, that a gastronomical library is more signicant than mine could ever be, if it is sternly limited. That is, I think a collection of menus from the! Regency to the First Republic or vice versa, as served in one town or one district, say Dijon or Seine-et-Oise, might prove to be intensely interesting to gourmets of the whole world. It might even have a fine building erected around it and provide bookwormish nourishment for a score of dyspeptic curators. As for my own magpie collection, it can, do little but bewilder…

Few but me can ever know, or care why this one frayed, paper-bound edition.of Paul Reboux’s Plats du Jour means high zest and adventure in Burgundy in 1930. Perhaps no man in the world speaks truthfully who says he knows where this one-shilling copy of Farmhouse Fare came from, and why its recipe for butter brine brings me close to weeping. And how about Notes on a Cellar-Book and why I keep this new, shiny, vulgar edition rather than the “first” I gave away? George Saintsbury would know. I know. But it does not matter in the least that no one else does, at least to me.

I look at my crammed shelves and feast with artful reflection, for no meal is good that cannot be reflected upon with pleasure. It comforts me to know, in this distracted world, that thanks to my motley library I could be well fed in I any of this world’s distracted prisons.