Preserving more than pickles

Israel’s premier food editor Janna Gur warns traditional Jewish cooking is becoming a lost art. Have you spoken with your grandmother lately?

pessah soup kneidelach 311 (photo credit: Michal Lenhart / The Book of New Israeli Food)
pessah soup kneidelach 311
(photo credit: Michal Lenhart / The Book of New Israeli Food)
When Janna Gur came here from Latvia almost four decades ago, theater sounded kind of funny to her and movie actors seemed almost amateurish. Oh, and the food scene wasn’t much to write home about either. Since then, of course, things have changed. “Look what’s happening now,” says the energetic mother of two. “There isn’t a year when we aren’t up for an Oscar.”
Culture isn’t the only area where the country has undergone a revolution; gastronomy too has metamorphosed and Gur has taken it upon herself to spread the word.
Starting at the end of this month, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the wine and food magazine Al Hashulchan will commence teaching an on-line course on new Israeli cuisine on the New York Times Knowledge Network together with Times food writer Joan Nathan, author of Jewish Cooking in America.
Recipe: A three-course Pessah meal
The connection with the Times was serendipitous. When Gur published The Book of New Israeli Food a couple of years ago, she went on a tour of the US and was “discovered” by the Israeli consulate in New York, which “drafted” her for another hugely successful tour. When the Times launched the Knowledge Network, the consulate persuaded it to do a course on Israeli food – which was its first food course.
“The fact that they agreed is a huge achievement in my opinion, and for their first course on food what’s more,” says Gur. The course will be divided into three parts: The first lesson deals with history – biblical food, Jewish food, kashrut, Jewish holidays; the second lesson covers the period from the early settlement in Palestine, through independence, the food rationing of the early days of the state and up to the gastronomical revolution, covering along the way things like the kibbutz, the Israeli breakfast and the meeting of Ashkenazi and Sephardi cultures; the third lesson is the new Israeli cuisine, the quality in revolution, the connection with the Jewish kitchen and the future of Jewish cuisine.
“When I published the book, my goal was to bring the message of Israeli food to the world,” says Gur. “Because I believe that what is going on today in Israel in the gastronomical field is incredible. It is incredible in terms of quality, it is incredible in terms of the changes Israel has undergone and it is incredible in terms of its uniqueness.
“What makes Israel so special is the concentration in such a small place of dozens of ethnic cuisines and, on top of that, the fact that people marry between communities means that almost every household has its own unique fusion. The culinary scene in Israel is a sort of a wonder, and I decided that my role is to tell the world about this wonder. Food writers that visit here are simply stunned.
“I don’t think that there is anywhere else in the world that has such a huge culinary diversity. Not even the US with all its different ethnic groups. The US doesn’t have the idea of a melting pot as we do here, and that is something that creates such interesting crossovers. Jewish cuisine is so diverse, from Oriental to Eastern European, and everything else in the middle. And then you have great agriculture. Good food can’t exist without good raw materials. It’s true that in meat we don’t excel but in almost everything else, yes – vegetables, cheeses, perhaps lamb as well.”
Israel’s diversity of cultures, its mixture of modernity and tradition, and even its ever-present tension are a recipe for success, says Gur.
“On the one hand you have that desire to succeed and that existential fear, but on the other you have the whole family sitting down to eat together for a Friday night meal. On the one hand you have traditionalism and on the other a frantic New York pace, and in the middle you have a rich Jewish culinary tradition and advanced agriculture. It doesn’t get any better. Perhaps in 50 years we will be seen as a unique gastronomical phenomenon.”
GUR’S PATH into to the world of gastronomy was accidental, but once she got there, she was hooked. The only child of a mathematician and a medical doctor, Gur was born in the Latvian capital Riga in the then Soviet Union and came here at 16, an experience she describes as “unique.” Upon reaching army age she went to the IDF’s academic corps.
“It was the last galuti thing I did,” says Gur. “I didn’t really want to go into the academic corps; it was my parents that wanted me to. You know the Russian mentality: ‘What if I go into the army and meet some handsome officer, get married and don’t want to study?’”
Study she did though, English literature at Hebrew University, after which she became an officer teaching technical English to future naval officers. Upon completing her military service, Gur went on to MA studies in translation at Tel Aviv University, while working as an El Al flight attendant. She translated into Hebrew, from Russian, Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire Heart of a Dog and, from English, Yael Dayan’s biography of Moshe Dayan My Father, His Daughter. Of Dayan’s book, she says: “It couldn’t have been more ironic than a Russian immigrant translating into Hebrew a book written in English by the ultimate sabra.”
Gur thought that she had found her vocation; but then she met her husband, Ilan, with whom she recently celebrated her silver wedding anniversary. He was a journalist and publisher who ran a sailing magazine, and when Gur became pregnant with their first child and stopped working as a flight attendant, she began to help him.
“I wasn’t interested in yachts or sailing,” Gur recalls, “ but I was interested in the whole process of publishing. I started out doing graphics and went on to writing and editing. Then, in 1991, one month before the Gulf War, we started publishing Al Hashulchan, which began as a trade magazine for chefs and restaurateurs. We didn’t really understand what we were getting into; it was almost circumstantial, but we understood that the market lacked that kind of product. Very soon I understood that food was something that really, really interested me.”
Nevertheless, Gur could hardly have imagined that almost 20 years later they would still be working together and she would stand atop a gastronomical empire with a 20,000-circulation magazine and 30 books published and counting.
“At the time I thought the whole issue of working with my husband would be something temporary, so I asked him to give me some kind of credit on the masthead so that when I started looking for work I could say I had some editing experience,” she explains. “So he said to me, ‘Why don’t you be the editor’ and that’s how I became the editor-in-chief of Al Hashulchan. The title came first and then I gave it some content. With a lot of hard work, blood, sweat and tears we made it what it is today. It took us a long time to learn the market and to learn our place in the market, but I think that today we match in terms of content, design and editorial leading gastronomical magazines overseas.”
GUR AND Al Hashulchan have grown together with the local gastronomical scene. The food revolution here took off at the end of the 1980s as the country began to become more prosperous.
“The first decade I would call ‘the gourmet decade,’” says Gur. “We were very excited about boutique wines, 12-course degustations, gastronomical travel – people would do things like 20 Michelin stars in a week. It was all new, it was a new ethos, it was almost decadent. Then people began to get used to the fact that there is good food here. It wasn’t something new anymore. The new generation, people like my children who are in their 20s, grew up into this revolution, for them it’s something that is part of their lives.”
What then does the future hold in store now that gourmet is something the current generation of foodies takes for granted?
“I hope,” says Gur, “that we will see a greater connection to Jewish cuisine. There are so many amazing things here that people don’t know about. Take Halabi [Arabic for the Aleppo region of Syria] cuisine for example. Nobody knows Halabi cuisine unless they are Halabi or have Halabi family or friends. There are no Halabi restaurants here. Halabi cuisine is one of the most sophisticated and delicate cuisines. Persian food you can hardly find here – the Persians have an amazing cuisine.”
While Gur hopes to see chefs looking more to Jewish cuisine for inspiration, what is perhaps even more important to her is preserving the myriad ethnic traditions that exist here today. Over time, Gur says, she has come to understand that the big story is the Jewish kitchen.
“Sometimes you say the same thing over and over again before you eventually understand what you are saying, “ she explains. “In all my lectures I have always spoken of the 70 diasporas and the fact that we have all these ethnic traditions here and how they combine and fuse to create an Israeli cuisine that is so interesting and diverse. It was a real revelation. The cuisines in the Diaspora developed over the course of 2,000 years in a completely autonomic fashion.
“Think of the Iraqi Jewish cuisine. The Iraqi Jews lived there since the destruction of the First Temple, almost 3,000 years ago. They were traders, they were wealthy. They didn’t eat with the gentiles because of kashrut and lived in a kind of bubble where they created unique cuisines. Most of those diasporas don’t exist anymore. There are no Jews in Iraq, in Iran, in Syria, hardly even in Europe.”
At the moment a lot of Israelis are first-generation immigrants and are sill cooking these cuisines, but it is a matter of a generation or two before a large part of this gastronomical heritage disappears, warns Gur. “We need to find a way to preserve these traditions,” she says.
But how does one preserve a culinary tradition. As Gur notes, “You can record sounds, you can photograph sites, but how do you document tastes? A recipe isn’t taste, a recipe is a list of instructions. You have to preserve tastes and you have to preserve something else, the craving. Think of the first time someone eats gefilte fish; it can disgust them.
“Most of these ethnic dishes are acquired tastes. You have to want to eat them. I always say, ‘The grandmother knows how to prepare the dishes, the daughter wants to eat them and the granddaughter already doesn’t want to even taste them.’”
Time isn’t on the side of preservation; the hourglass is running out, warns Gur. A handful of dishes, like North African couscous, Tunisian shakshuka, Ashkenazi chicken soup or Kurdish kubbeh, have become all-Israeli staples, she explains, but they are just the tip of the iceberg.
“The majority of dishes are virtually unknown outside of their respective communities and are therefore bound to be lost. Every death notice you see is another dying bit of this puzzle that isn’t documented anywhere in the world.”
Gur says that given the finance, she would like to create a videolibrary filming these grandmothers cooking and to found a festival forpeople to taste these dishes.
One of the initiatives that Gur has taken is something she calls the Treasure Box, where people can put up questions on Al Hashulchan’sWeb site about dishes they remember from their childhood, dishes theirgrandmother used to make, and if someone knows the recipe they canrespond. So far several successful matches have been made.
There is though one thing that everyone can do, says Gur: “If you havea grandmother who cooks wonderfully, learn how to prepare your threefavorite dishes and make them part of your family menu.”