Cookbooks as a Surprising Window into Our Past

Why study cookbooks? They offer so many insights into people today and in the past. For those of us interested in women’s studies, cookbooks provide women’s voices when few other resources recorded them. Cookbooks tell us what traditions women wanted to preserve and transmit by inviting us to see the recipes women treasured from their grandmothers and shared with family and guests around holiday tables. Whether those foods were cooked by the women themselves or instructions were provided for household help is also part of what we find in cookbooks. Thus we see how cookbook authors lived and entertained. One cookbook published early in the last century includes instructions to ensure your children leave no fingerprints on the piano when your help is serving drinks and appetizers!

The first Jewish cookbook was published in Houston in 1909 by the Young Ladies Sewing Circle of Congregation Beth Israel. Sold for 50 cents, it was designed to raise funds for charitable causes that the women supported. The cookbook begins with an admonition: buy your own copy, don’t borrow this! The cookbook also provided a way to preserve traditional Central European recipes of the women of Texas’ first Jewish synagogue.

Since the first cookbook, Houston Jewish has become increasingly diverse: its members hail from Mexico and Morocco, Russia and Israel, and a host of other nations. Houstonians watch TV chefs and have access to an amazing array of ingredients. Thus, in addition to preserving and transmitting the past, there is a sense of gourmet adventure – as well as speedy dinners for busy weeknights – that you find in the pages of recent Houston Jewish cookbooks.

Food may be the most important part of Jewish holiday celebrations. Open the front door and you will find the smells trigger memories of celebrations past. With family and friends gathered, one glance at the table reveals the symbols of the holiday. The upcoming holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, includes many food symbols. For a year that will be sweet, with long life, good deeds, and prosperity, look to the circular challah bread, the apples and honey, the head of the fish, a sweet noodle kugel, sweet carrots cut in the round, and honey cake.

For more symbols enjoyed by different Jewish cultures, please join me and Janice Rubin at The Heritage Society on September 14 at 6:30 p.m. for the program “Old Recipes for a New Year: Celebrating Rosh Hashanah,” cosponsored by the Houston History Alliance and Houston Arts Alliance.  Learn More About the Event.

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