07 May 2008

Food: Culinary heirlooms

We connect family memories and family history with comfort food, no matter our ancestral origins in Italy, Iraq, Iran, Eastern Europe or Ireland. Mother's Day (Sunday, May 11, in the US) is the perfect time to remember our mothers and grandmothers and our culinary heritage.

The New Jersey Star-Ledger published a story on cooks searching for a link to the past.

Families today are looking back to favorite dishes made by Mom or Grandma as they move forward, re-connecting to their culinary heritage by preserving beloved recipes and the unique family traditions associated with them.

The story details some New Jersey cooks and some books they've written or are currently preparing.

Another trove of recipes is never far from the mind of Aviva Djiji Levy, 55, a graphic designer in Leonia. Born into an Iraqi family in Israel and raised in Iran, she plans on self-publishing the unique Iraqi-Jewish recipes collected by her mother, Sally Djiji of Fort Lee. The task is daunting, however.

"My family doesn't have much recorded history," said Levy. Her efforts to set down her family's culinary background have been complicated by the need to locate sources for exotic ingredients, such as dried limes; analyze the Indian, Kurdish, Turkish, Persian and Russian influences on her family's cuisine; transliterate Arabic names into English; and test the timeless recipes to make sure they work in a modern kitchen.

Her friends in Iraqi-Jewish communities in Montreal, London and Israel keep asking her when she'll complete her book. "I'm hoping this year," she said. In the meantime, family gatherings offer Levy the opportunity to pass on her family's food traditions, such as the baking of the cheese-filled crescents known as sim-boo-sak b'je-bin, to her 19-year-old son, Darryl.

Here are some of the other books and cooks' comments:

"Cooking is a bright spot in our shared history. Nourishing one another and making sustenance -- these are good things to pass on if you can," noted Laura Schenone, 46, of Montclair, author of the newly released "The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family" (Norton, 2008).

Schenone also co-created the "Antique Recipe Road Show," an illustrated culinary blog, with artist and writer Nancy Gail Ring.

Ring learned to make the mandelbrot, rugelach, matzo ball soup, brisket and kugel of her Eastern European ancestors from her mother and grandmothers. "I still feel like my grandmothers are in the room with me when I'm baking," she said.

Schenone details her search for her paternal great-grandmother's Genoese ravioli recipe, consulting relatives and strangers on both sides of the Atlantic, and threw out mounds of dough as she tried to recreate the dish. Along the way, she inspired others to recreate lost treats.

Some individuals in the story are still pining for a perfect dish they had decades ago, such as Isabelle DeAngelis's search for a German dark chocolate ice box cake made by an elementary school classmate's mother. She's never found anything like it.

Suzann Brucato with Calabrian roots says: "The stronger the roots, the stronger the tree. It's significant for me to pass on as much as possible to them, and hopefully to their kids. How long that goes on, who knows?"

Read the complete story at the link above.

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