May 26, 2019

Cookbooks, Blades and Survivors

Some people dream of buying cars, luxury clothing or jewels. Chefs covet cookbooks and knives. Although I’ve tried to get a thrill from clothes, shoes and handbags — and I sometimes feel strange that I don’t care about those things — when I want to treat myself, what I most enjoy buying is a new cookbook or blade.

For years, I felt as if there was something wrong with me. Although I have never been particularly materialistic, I’ve always appreciated fine things. Still, I could never get as excited as my friends would over a new dress, diamonds or pearls. I’m more likely to be flipping through the pages of an “Art Culinaire” professional chefs magazine than a Vogue. Even when presented with a gorgeous piece of jewelry, it never stirs my soul.

On the other hand, give me a cookbook or a Japanese steel blade and it’s game over — you’ve won my heart forever. It may sound odd, but there is something that melts me about the romance of a person possessed to write a cookbook. Maybe it’s the tremendous openness and generosity I’ve found in the pages of these tomes, the love of family culinary history, the drive and the passion necessary to convey a precious taste memory to a reader.

To this day, the most memorable date I’ve ever had was not in a dimly lit five-star restaurant but in a tiny New York kitchen of an Israeli chef. After showing me his knife collection, he led me to a small bookshelf and pulled out a book of his mother’s recipes, written in her hand before she died. It was clear that it was his most prized possession, and he sheepishly asked if I was in the mood for some Israeli nostalgia. My answer: “Always.” As a young chef, he probably didn’t have the money to take me out on a “proper” date, but the care he took chopping and slicing vegetables with his mother’s knife, while telling me stories of his childhood in Israel was by far the most intimate first date I’ve ever had. Is there anything more romantic than a man sharing his mother’s cooking notes with a woman he is courting?

Perhaps, my love of cookbooks comes from this idea that cooking for someone is the most intimate act of all. Mother to son, wife to husband, matriarch to family, we are all shaped by these first tastes of nurturing, and some of us who are lucky enough to have experienced them, feel no greater joy than to re-create them for others.

Another reason cookbooks stir me is that I’m fascinated by how food concepts began; chef and author Alice Waters has made it her mission to share “the slow-food movement” with her readers. Her restaurant, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, pioneered California cuisine and the idea of locally sourced, fresh ingredients.

With her book “The Art of Simple Food,” she has inspired a generation of chefs as well as farmers to seek out and grow organic fruits and vegetables picked and eaten at their peak. Waters has such a simple and beautiful approach to food that my copy with a personalized message from her is something I treasure.

Still, the book I would grab on my way out the door if my house were burning down couldn’t be more dissimilar. “Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin” is a crude epithet from the eccentric owner of Shopsin’s on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Shopsin’s General Store was a staple of Greenwich Village for decades, most famously known for kicking out customers if they didn’t follow his “rules” for proper ordering: no parties larger than four, you can’t copy your neighbors order, no substitutions.” Shopsin breaks down the general concepts of short-order cooking and intersperses them with magical stories of his life with his family in their “Village” luncheonette.

His mac-and-cheese pancakes are legendary, and they were among the original dishes I put on my menu in my first restaurant, New York Kitchen. Shopsin pretends to hate everyone and fights with the media at every turn, but he has such a big heart that that you can’t help but fall in love with him. The book’s chapter titled “Cooking for My Customers” is one of the most accurate descriptions I’ve ever read of what it’s like to be a chef and shaped some of my own thoughts on the subject.

My love of cookbooks comes from this idea that cooking for someone is the most intimate act of all.

Then there is one of my most recent purchases, “Holocaust Survivor Cookbook: Collected From Around the World” by Joanne Caras. Caras asked Holocaust survivors to gather their family recipes and spent years picking through their submissions. She collected 129 stories from around the world, including Europe, Israel and the United States. Her goal was to ensure that the stories and bravery of these survivors would live on for generations to come.

In the introduction of the cookbook, she asks that each person who cooks a recipe also read the accompanying story to his or her family before serving the dish. It’s such a beautiful idea, and the book contains so many heart-wrenching tales, that the reader can’t help but feel concurrent sorrow and hope.

One of the recipes in “Holocaust Survivor Cookbook” is for butter cookies called Kourabiedes, submitted by the family of a Greek grandmother named Rena Carassos (nee Gani). Because each story in this cookbook reads like a little miracle, what struck me the most about Carassos’ story was that her children titled it “Because Our Parents Survived.”

Kourabiedes are Greek wedding cookies. Carassos and her sister survived Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, then returned to their family home to find that they were the only survivors. They moved to Athens to start a new life, where Rena met and married Daniel Carassos, another survivor who’d lost everyone.

After a small but joyful ceremony, bereft of most of their friends and relatives, they went on to create a family of their own in the United States, where they had two daughters and five grandchildren.

The irony of my cookbook obsession is that, like most chefs, I find it impossible to follow a recipe. But when I baked Carassos’ wedding cookies from this cookbook, instead of my usual substitutions and additions, I followed her recipe to the letter. I shared them with my customers and friends, and I told them her story.

Impossibly, through a cookbook submission from the daughters of a woman I’d never know, her story and the memory of her family live on in me and the taste of her butter cookies. There wasn’t a soul to whom I fed them that wasn’t touched and amazed — and for me, that’s the most precious gift.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.