My mother's meatball recipe.

My mother’s meatball recipe.

When most people think about Jewish holidays, the first one that often comes to mind is Chanukah. Which is kind of funny since it’s actually a really minor holiday that has been blown out of proportion to keep up with Christmas (there are few things as depressing as being Jewish during Christmas). However, the most important Jewish religious holiday is actually Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Since Rosh Hashanah starts on October 2nd, and my research concentrates on the history of Jews in Montreal, I though this was a great opportunity to do another edition of “What’s in My…” featuring the most ubiquitous Jewish-Canadian cookbook of all time, A Treasure for my Daughter. Strap yourselves in – it’s going to be a wild ride.

 

Expert Tip: Rosh Hashanah, which is known as the Jewish New Year, is a holiday that occurs each year sometime between September and October. The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, which is why there is no exact date.

 

Cookbook as Textbook

A Treasure for my Daughter is a very unusual cookbook, mostly because it’s not just a cookbook; it’s also intended to be a guide on how to be the perfect Jewish woman in 1950s Montreal.[1] The book was created as a fundraising initiative by the Ethel Esptein Ein Chapter of Montreal Hadassah-WIZO. Members were invited to contribute their favourite recipes, and then the entire collection was edited by former social worker, Bessie Batist, under the supervision of community leaders (including the chief rabbi of one of the largest and oldest synagogues in the city, Rabbi Wilfrid Shuchat).

Treasure for my Daughter

The book is organized not by meal type, but by Jewish holiday. Each chapter includes basic instructions on how to celebrate the holiday in question, in the guise of a conversation between a mother and her daughter (whose name, not coincidentally, is “Hadassah”), as well as several full menu plans. And yes, these instructions are as cheesy as you think they are.

Also accompanying the book are a couple of chapters on the rules for common Jewish rituals, sans menus, as well as a 25-year calendar of future Jewish holidays, a form to list death anniversaries (Yahrzeiten), as well as family anniversaries (in order: my parent’s wedding anniversary, my husband’s parents anniversary, our wedding anniversary, my birthday, my husband’s birthday, the children’s birthdays, the children’s wedding anniversaries).

How ubiquitous is this book? It’s been in continuous print since 1950. The most recent edition is from 2013 and is the fourteenth printing. Nearly every single Jewish woman in Montreal owns the book. It is usually given to a bride by her mother to prepare her for married life (in theory, anyways). Whether or not anyone uses it is another story, which I’ll talk about a bit later in this blog post.

 

Rosh Hashanah in A Treasure for my Daughter

The text for in A Treasure for my Daughter for Rosh Hashanah is fairly straightforward. The narrator, “Mother,” explains that the Jewish New Year is the holiest time of the year. Anyone who’s watched the Colbert Report and remembers “the Atone Phone” will be familiar with this. The time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippour (10 days) is used by Jewish people to atone for their sins of the past year.

When we move onto the menu portion of this chapter, there are two full dinner menus and one full lunch menu presented. The first menu is as follows (presented as it appears in the book):

Wine        Honey and Apple

Gefilte Fish        Lettuce and Cucumber Salad

Chicken Soup        Mandlach

Roast Chicken with Potato and Liver Stuffing

Carrot Tsimmes        Green Beans

Apricot Whip

Honey Cake        Tea        Stuffed Prunes and Dates

 

The second dinner menu is even more interesting. Here it is:

Wine        Honey and Apple

Sweet and Sour Meat Balls in Tomato Sauce

Chicken Soup        Noodles

Roast Duck with Orange Slices

Potato Varenikes        String Beans        Tossed Salad

Jelly Mould with Fresh Fruit        Honey Teighlach        Tea

 

Finally, we have the “noon meal,” known to the rest of the world as lunch. Here’s the menu:

Wine        Honey and Apples

Brain Latkes        Tomato and Lettuce Salad

Breaded Veal Steaks        Steamed Potatoes

Peas and Carrots        Celery        Olives        Pickles

Apple-Strudel        Tea[2]

 

Mothers and Daughters

One of the first things to jump out from this textbook is its assumption that cooking is women’s work. This cookbook very much reinforces the idea that women belong in the home and are responsible for taking care of their families, while men go out and work. This is also called the breadwinner/homemaker dynamic, and is very much in keeping with what you’d see in other publications from the 1950s.

My grandmother's used copy of A Treasure for my Daughter.

My grandmother’s used copy of A Treasure for my Daughter.

At the same time, A Treasure for my Daughter is operating on the principle that Jewish mothers are responsible for educating their children about being Jewish (also known as “Jewishness”), and, by extension, appropriate gender norms for Jewish women. In this specific case, a mother is teaching her daughter, which rests on and reinforces the assumption that transmitting Jewish culture is primarily an activity for Jewish women.

Expert Tip: I’m using the word “Jewishness” here as opposed to Judaism for a specific reason. Judaism refers exclusively to the Jewish religion, which comes in many different varieties. The term “Jew” refers to the ethnic group, i.e. the group of individuals who are known collectively and among themselves as Jewish peoples. “Jewishness” refers to the culture practiced by individuals who consider themselves to be Jews. It’s important to remember that there is no such thing as a singular Jewish identity. The term “Jewish” can refer to your religion, your ethnicity, your culture, and any combination thereof.

 

Lived Religion

Something that I find particularly interesting about the text is what it does not mention. Judaism is a fascinating religion in the sense that religious rituals are performed at home and in a place of worship (synagogue). This distinction is preserved in A Treasure for my Daughter. While there is some discussion of what happens in synagogue for Rosh Hashanah, there is no information on the domestic rituals.

What am I talking about? While I didn’t grow up in the 1950s, my mother did. She taught me that we always wear new clothing on Rosh Hashanah, to symbolize a prosperous new year. The holiday is also celebrated by having two family dinners on consecutive nights, after sundown. I also learned that we eat sweet foods in the hopes of having a sweet new year, particularly apples with honey, which is actually really yummy. Special loaves of challah are also baked for this holiday. This is the only time of the year when they contain raisins and are baked in a circular shape. The raisins are for the sweet new year, and the circle is to symbolize the circle of the year. It’s also super yummy. Finally, we eat something called Honey Cake for dessert, which is basically a coffee cake with honey, again for a sweet new year.

But none of this is mentioned in A Treasure for my Daughter, not because such information wasn’t important but because it was assumed. The only domestic ritual that is mentioned is the sending of cards to friends and family, wishing them a Happy New Year, but this was, at the time, a relatively new custom.

 

Eastern European Jewishness

When we look at Dinner Menu I, for instance, and the accompanying recipes, there is an interesting pattern. The recipes included from the menu are: mandlach (soup nuts), roast chicken (potato and liver stuffing), Carrot Tsimmes (with Knadel), Apricot Whip, and Honey Cake. Gefilte fish and chicken soup are included in the previous chapter, so this one omits the actual recipes. Several of these dishes are Eastern European in nature, including the mandlach, tsimmes, knadel, and honey cake. The recipes are listed by their Yiddish names, and all of the Yiddish names appear transliterated in English (meaning the sounds have been written using English letters). Only one of the Yiddish names is translated (mandlach), while another is added (knadel). Tsimmes, for those of you who are not familiar with the term, is a sweet stew side dish. Knadel is the Yiddish word for matzah ball. None of these recipes come with any kind of explanation. There is no way that this menu would make any sense to anyone without a basic knowledge of Jewish Eastern European cuisine. And, despite this being a Jewish religious cookbook, we see the inclusion of the salad and the Apricot Whip are more 1950s North American cuisine than anything else.

Expert Tip: When most people think about Jews, they are reminded of the Jews that are usually seen on television and in the movies (think Seinfeld). These Jews tend to be exclusively Eastern European in ancestry, known collectively within the Jewish community as “Ashkenazi.” But this is not the only Jewish ethnicity. There are Jews from the Mediterranean and North Africa, called Sephardi, Jews from the Middle East, known as Mizrahi, and Jews who come from China and India. Each one of these groups has their own rich culture and history that is entirely their own. It just so happens that the majority of Jewish people in North American are Ashkenazi, and their prevalence has meant that “Jewish” has come to be defined as Eastern European.

Dinner Menu II, unlike Menu I, is much more North American in character. I can assure you that no Jews in Eastern Europe (or biblical Israel) were eating Roast Duck with Orange Slices for Rosh Hashanah. Not in a million years. (Even now, good luck getting anyone to consider anything but chicken or brisket.) Considering that the sweet and sour meatballs are made with “catsup,” that one is also out, as is the jelly mould (I shudder). But again, we also see the inclusion of two Eastern European recipes with Yiddish names that are not translated. Varenikes are dumplings, a bit like perogis, while teighlach is somewhere between a pastry and a cookie. The recipes that are included are for the meat balls, duck, varenikes, jelly mould, and teighlach. The reader is supposed to know what to do with the noodles, string beans, tossed salad, and the beverages.

The same pattern follows for the Noon Menu. Recipes that are listed include the latkes, the veal, the potatoes, and the strudel. (Don’t ask me to describe the brain latkes… I beg you.) Readers of the cookbook are presumed to know what latkes are. But for some reason, they aren’t supposed to be familiar with the steam potatoes, which incidentally are not steamed at all. The cook is instructed to peel them and cut into small slices, and then fry them in 2 tbsp of fat (probably chicken), before adding salt. Funny, I thought those were called potato chips (this is something that I will definitely be enforcing from now on. 😉 ) The strudel is very interesting, considering that it is a Germanic dish, but in this case, I think it’s being considered as a North American food. However, many Jews that are considered Eastern European came from Austria and Germany, including some of my ancestors, so this one is really debatable.

When we consider the cookbook as a whole, my calculations show that roughly a third of the recipes are Eastern European in origin, while the remaining two thirds are Anglo-American in origin. Yiddish words are nearly always used when referring to Eastern European dishes, but they are seldom translated.

 

Conflicting Identities

So what does all of this mean? Rather than being a cookbook, A Treasure for my Daughter is a detailed how-to guide on being a Jewish woman, as defined by community leaders in Montreal in the 1950s. This includes specific ideas about what being Jewish and what being a woman meant to these people. The Jewishness presented in this book is contradictory and internally inconsistent, a blend of Eastern European and North American culture. This is an uneven blend, one that is very Anglo-American in culture, with an underlying Eastern European flavour. The Eastern European aspects of this Jewishness is both assumed and underplayed. The two cultures exist in tension and in sync with one another.

 

Second Readings

Second helpings

All of this is well and good, but it begs the question: did anyone ever read the darned thing? Well, it turns out that the answer is actually no. Or at least, rarely.

Part of my research for my dissertation involved interviewing a number of Jewish women from Montreal, and one of the first questions I asked them was: how did you learn to cook? The answer turned out to be much more complicated that I ever anticipated.

Their immediate response was to argue with me about the question (I hear my husband laughing at me right now).

When I asked them specifically about A Treasure for my Daughter, most of the women I spoke to had never used it to cook and certainly never read any of the text. And this appears to have been largely a generational issue. The majority of the women I interviewed between 2008 and 2010 were between the ages of 50 and 69, which means they were born between 1941 to 1958. Remember, A Treasure for my Daughter was published in 1950. While women who came of age within a decade of its first publication may have used it as a cookbook, it was mostly outdated by the time my interviewees would have received their copy.

My mother's well-loved copy of Second Helpings, Please.

My mother’s well-loved copy of Second Helpings, Please.

So what did these women read instead? What’s extremely interesting is that the women I interviewed nearly always named the same cookbook: Second Helpings, Please (better known as Second Helpings).[3] I can also confirm that my mother’s copy is practically falling apart, if horrifically stained, and has been stuffed to the gills with extra recipes and notes. So what makes Second Helpings so different from A Treasure for my Daughter? After all it’s also a community cookbook, this time created by the Mt. Sinai Chapter of Montreal B’nai B’rith Women. It was first printed in 1968 and has remained in continuous print ever since. But unlike Treasure, this is not a religious cookbook, there is no instruction on how to celebrate holidays, and its recipes are not limited to holiday foods. Instead, it’s a general, all-purpose cookbook that happens to include an entire chapter devoted to holiday foods. Here’s how the editors describe their mission: “Why the young Jewish woman of today needs is a cook book – but not just any ordinary one! She needs a cook book suited for the young housewife who likes to cook and has little time; a cook book with helpful suggestions, imagination, and variety and simplicity.”[4] The book is much more practical in nature. Rather than being a primer in Jewish religious life, it’s a primer on cooking with bonus Jewish content. The cookbook includes detailed information about substitutions, how to measure, how to estimate how many people your dish will serve, cooking terms and definitions, and information on kosher cuts of meat.

Expert Tip: Kosher is a term that refers to the food that Jews are permitted to eat and are prepared according to Jewish religious law. For instance, Jews cannot eat pork or shellfish if they keep kosher (follow the rules of kosher). Similarly, only certain kinds of cuts of meat are considered kosher. For example, on a cow, you may only eat from the meat from the first half of the animal (up to the 13th rib), including the head and the legs. For more information, please see this website.

The section on Jewish holiday foods is quite short, consisting of a description of the holiday with short notes on synagogue and domestic rituals, and then contains several menus for each holiday. Rather than listing the individual recipes, they are scattered throughout the cookbook proper, and the menus note the relevant page. For instance, here’s the Second Helpings menu for Rosh Hashanah:

 

Menu I

Wine        Chalah

Halishkes

Beef Consommé with Noodles

Standing Rib Roast

Potato Kugel        Carrot-Pineapple Tsimmis

Apple Sauce        Honey Chiffon Cake

Tea with Lemon

 

and

Menu II

Wine        Chalah

Tomato Crowns

Bean & Barley Soup

Roast Turkey        Turkey Stuffing

Cranberry Sauce        Vegetable Fried Rice

Apple Cake        Nut Crescents

Tea or Coffee[5]

 

Expert Tip: The English words that are used for Yiddish terms are simply descriptions of sounds, a process called transliteration. That’s why there is no consistency when it comes to the English spelling of Yiddish terms, like challah versus chalah. They are both correct.

 

But for all these differences, the content of Second Helpings is very much in the same vein as Treasure in the sense that the recipes are a mix of (predominantly) 1950s Anglo-American cuisine and Eastern European cuisine. The bulk of the recipes contained within this cookbook are Anglo-American, with some obvious Julia Child influence in the addition of some French recipes. There is a smattering of “foreign dishes,” while the remainder are Eastern European. The Eastern European recipes are none of them are translated (at least here – the recipe itself describes for halishkes as cabbage rolls, but that’s the only example I could find).

So if the differences are only skin-deep, why did so many people prefer Second Helpings? Because, as a number of the women I interviewed remarked, who the hell wants to eat Jewish food all the time? (Trust me, most of its not that good). These women were first and foremost Canadians, and they ate the kinds of foods that you would have found in many other Canadian households at the time. Second Helpings facilitated this by providing a good mix of recipes that people might actually use, without the preaching.

But in the end, the message that first appeared in Treasure, won out. Eastern European foods, which were ordinary foods for most of the people’s ancestors became increasingly associated with the Jewish religious holidays. They ceased to be ordinary, and became ritual instead. Doing so reinforced the idea that Jewishness is Eastern European, that it is something that is generally performed in private, behind or beneath a North American facade.

 

What Mattered Most

In the end, though, none this really mattered. Rosh Hashanah was mostly about love and family. I’ll leave you with a description of how one of my interviewees celebrated Rosh Hashanah when she was a child:

My father would make kiddish and we would make the kiddish and the prayers for Rosh Hashanah, and then we would start with salad, generally tossed salad. We’d have gefilte fish, and then we’d bring in the soup, and then my mother would make kneidlach, oh and that was actually a favourite. […] And then the meal would go on and on, and there would be laughter and singing, you know, drinking wine, not too much. […] What was most important was the dessert! You’d have six kinds of cake, and my mother would make mundelbroit, and you know, she’d make honey cakes, and […] then we’d have cake, and we’d have coffee, and then you know, midnight, twelve-thirty, people would be perhaps sitting around the table, and then we’d start the cleaning up.[6]

 

 


Of course, you may be wondering how I learned to cook. I’m a millennial, so I learned to cook from the tv and the internet. 😉 I watched a lot of PBS growing up, but like my mother, I didn’t really do much cooking until I left home. My mom gave me a list of basic recipes when I first moved out west, though I mostly ate kraft dinner, homemade nachos, and toast (I like cheese, so sue me). But once I moved in with my then-boyfriend (now husband), he started doing all the cooking. Why yes, I am a lucky girl. And like a good Jewish daughter, he’s learned my mother’s Jewish recipes. But I still make my mother’s Honey Cake for Rosh Hashanah (Second Helpings, p. 138 if you’re wondering).

Do you have any special dishes that you only make on the holidays? Where did you learn to make them? Let me know in the comments below! And don’t forget to come back on Sunday for a brand new Canadian history roundup. See you then!

 

*Thanks to my mother for answering some questions and giving me the images from my grandmother’s meat ball recipe and the inside of a used Second Helpings.*

 

Extra Credit:

**Contains affiliate links**

If you’d like to read more about the subject addressed in this blog post, check out my article “Gefilte Fish and Roast Duck with Orange Slides: A Treasure for my Daughter and the Creation of Jewish Cultural Orthodoxy in Postwar Montreal,” in Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History, eds. Franca Iacovetta, Valerie J. Korinek, and Marlene Epp, 189-208 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012). See also:


Notes:

[1] Bessie W. Batist et al., A Treasure for My Daughter: a Reference Book of Jewish Festivals with Menus and Recipes (Montreal: The Ethel Epstein Ein Chapter of Hadassah Montreal Canada; The Eagle, 1952).

[2] Batist, A Treasure for my Daughter, 29-39.

[3] B’nai Brith Women of Canada, Second helpings, please!: (One helping, please! and Microwave basics included) : includes a selection of low-calorie and quick and easy microwave recipes and tips for today’s busy cook(Montréal: Mount Sinai Chapter #1091 B’nai Brith Women of Canada, 1968).

[4] B’nai Brith Women of Canada, Second Helpings, Please!, iii.

[5] B’nai Brith Women of Canada, Second Helpings, Please, 204.

[6] Interview 16, interview by author, November 10, 2008, Montreal, Quebec.

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