From adafina to zwetschgegkuchen

More historian’s treasure trove than cookbook, the ‘Encyclopedia of Jewish Food’ delves into 2,000 years of Jewish cuisine.

Latkes 521 (photo credit: MCT)
Latkes 521
(photo credit: MCT)
Gil Marks’s recently published, more than 600-page Encyclopedia of Jewish Food belies one important fact – Marks has never taken a cooking class in his life.
Marks teaches cooking classes all the time, mind you, but he’s entirely self-taught. “My mother takes complete credit for my career,” he tells me. “She tells everyone I used to complain about her food. So she’d tell me, ‘Go make your own!’ And I did.”
Fast-forward into Marks’s adulthood. After becoming editor of Kosher Gourmet magazine and winning a coveted James Beard Award for his book Olive Trees and Honey, Marks talked to his editor about what to do for a follow-up.
“You’re a walking encyclopedia of food,” his editor told him. “Why don’t you write an encyclopedia of Jewish food?”
The book, with approximately 300 recipes included, is nothing short of a culinary history of a nomadic people. But Marks points out that it’s not just a delicious love song to Diaspora cooking.
“There’s also a very strong Israeli component,” he says, noting that he spent a considerable amount of time doing research in Israel, where his parents live. “Israel and the Diaspora are quite different, and so it is a love song to Jewish history and Jewish culture in general.” While over much of the last two centuries Jewish cooking took place on foreign shores, now, in Israel, a new fusion cuisine of Diaspora and Middle Eastern flavors is coming into full blossom.
Marks recounts that it took three years for him to research and edit the volume, “making this as accurate, comprehensive and readable as possible.”
“I didn’t want this to be a very dry text,” he says, noting the inevitable association with the word “encyclopedia.” “I wanted it to be lively and entertaining as well as informative. So that took three years of obsessive work.”
The hardest part of the process, he says, was cutting foods and recipes out. “We just couldn’t include all things – I could do a separate book just on recipes alone.”
But Marks is quick to note that while it was hard work to compile the encyclopedia, it didn’t feel like it. “Confucius says that he who loves what he does never works a day in his life,” Marks says. “To me, this wasn’t work. This was fun to me, to put the puzzle pieces together and look and explore and see how kishke is named after the stuffing, not after the intestines... well, to me, it was just fascinating.”
The book is more historian’s treasure trove than cookbook, going into the history of nearly every Jewish food, from latkes to liver, adafina (Sephardi/ Moroccan cholent) to Central European zwetschgegkuchen (plum cake).
“My mother won’t let this book out of the dining room” because she wants it to be a centerpiece rather than a cookbook, Marks says.
He notes that it is a practical cookbook, but it’s also much more.
“It’s a history book, a cultural book – it’s the narrative of the Jewish people for the past 2,000 years. My hope is that people will use it for recipes, but also I get a lot of people who don’t cook at all, and have no intention of cooking, who just want to read it.”
“You learn that much of what we think about food and often history is not true,” Marks says, noting that “the Jewish role in cuisine is not so much innovation but transformation and transmission – it’s a process that repeats over and over again through history, whether humous to America, or yogurt or doughnuts, or so many other items you might not associate with Judaism.”
It comes as no surprise in talking to Marks that he loves cooking. He’s rarely bought bread for the past 20 years, preferring to make his own, whether whole-wheat honey halla or German-style water-bread halla.
“I love traditional Jewish food... not just Ashkenazi, but I have a real fondness for Sephardi and Mizrahi – I like that diversity,” Marks says. “I just can’t fathom people eating the same thing over and over again forever. Hanukka, for example, I love having the potato latkes and sufganiyot – but also love trying new things, finding Sephardi spinach or leek kefta pattie or Syrian pumpkin pancake kind of thing. I do a combination of traditional and new.”
Marks himself is a combination of traditional and new – he’s an Orthodox rabbi, historian, social worker, chef, cookbook author and teacher – and his food combinations date back to his youth in a kosher home in the South.
“We were always exposed to more than just ‘Yankee food,’” Marks recalls. “‘We had spoon bread and fried green tomatoes when I was growing up, as well as kugels and matza balls and stuff like that.”
After this, what do you do for an encore? When asked, Marks laughs. “I have a couple of ideas for certain Jewish books, but actually think I’d like to do something on American cakes – maybe a history of America through its cakes.”
After that, maybe there’s a revised encyclopedia in his future. “I’d like to come back and put [all the recipes I left out] in and anything people broach to me. Or maybe I’ll just do a cookbook with all the recipes left out of this book.”