A unique cookbook author

Gil Marks, a recent immigrant, is an expert on all things food and offers history and background to common dishes served in Jewish homes.

GIL MARKS teaches cooking 521 (photo credit: Debbie Cooper)
GIL MARKS teaches cooking 521
(photo credit: Debbie Cooper)
Did you know that honey cake used to be made out of bread crumbs? Or that today’s cinnamon has no relation to the biblical kinamon? How about that the term “Jaffa orange” was coined by Germans from the Templer Society living in Jerusalem, or that the first known cooking instructor in America, Elizabeth Goodfellow, was an ancestor of Jackie Kennedy?
Gil Marks does. The author of the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, who recently moved to Israel from New York, is an expert on all things food, especially in the Jewish culinary world.
“A lot of what I do is check things for accuracy and bubbemeises [old wives’ tales],” he says. “The Internet is great in some ways but there’s a lot of misinformation out there.”
Marks is the author of Olive Trees and Honey, which won a James Beard Award (the “Academy Award” of cookbooks), and three other books on Jewish cooking, as well as the founding editor of Kosher Gourmet magazine, which lasted for around six years until it closed in the early ’90s.
His 650-page encyclopedia, published in 2010, was two decades in the making and covers ground from gefilte fish to lafrum, a Libyan meat-stuffed eggplant, and harira, a Moroccan chickpea and lentil soup, to klaicha, Iraqi meat-filled pastries. The book discusses traditional Sephardi and Ashkenazi food, from Bukharan to Moroccan, Ethiopian, Yemenite and Persian, plus an extensive time line of Jewish history from 1230 BCE to today.
WHEN MARKS arrived in Israel just a few months ago on a charter Nefesh B’Nefesh flight from New York, he joined his parents, sister, six nieces and nephews and 15 great-nieces and great-nephews in the country.
“In some ways, coming here is sort of like slipping on an old pair of comfortable jeans,” he says. “It just felt so comfortable and right.”
While conducting research for the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Marks – a self-taught cook who has rabbinic ordination and master’s degrees in history and social work – spent months at a time in Israel.
“I would come back and forth for the past number of years and spend a few months at a time here,” he says. Now that he’s settled in more or less full-time, he’s finishing up work on another book, entitled American Cakes.
“It’s kind of ironic that I wrote all these Jewish books and now I’ve made aliya and I’m doing a history of cakes in America,” he jokes. But Marks is also looking to explore the Israeli publishing world, potentially translating the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food into Hebrew and writing another book about Passover cooking.
Coming to Israel hasn’t been an entirely smooth ride. Less than a year before he made aliya, Marks was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, but he didn’t let it dissuade him from making the move.
“It’s just one more interesting complication,” he says. “The fortunate thing is that actually I’ve had an almost unprecedented response [to treatment].” Since his diagnosis, he has been taking chemotherapy in pill form, which enabled a smooth transition between the US and Israel, though he admits he is still trying to “better integrate into the Israeli healthcare system.”
“At this point I’m sort of in limbo... it’s sort of one of those karmic things,” he says. “We’ll see how it turns out.”
But he isn’t letting anything slow him down; not even trips back and forth to the US for work.
“I plan to be as active as possible,” he says. “At this point I’m still part of the American publishing industry, and part of what I do is a number of speaking engagements and scholar-in-residences all over the country.
“I’m sort of like bringing the rabbi and rebbetzin in at one time,” he jokes. “I can do the sermons and the speeches and the cooking demonstration too.”
He’s given speeches and demonstrations in Israel as well, including an event at Jerusalem cafe and bookstore Tmol Shilshom, talks at his mother’s senior citizens group in Alon Shvut and a demonstration for the Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews, where he “had the chutzpah” to prepare some traditional Ethiopian dishes. He hopes to speak to more Israeli audiences in the future and offer his own spin on Jewish food – with added history and rabbinic background.
“What kind of makes me unique is not that I know more than anyone else,” he says. “I know different things.”