The Recipes of my 15 grandmothers - Unique Recipes and Stories From the Times of the Crypto-Jews During the Spanish Inquisition

By | Wednesday, February 26, 2020 Leave a Comment

The Recipes of my 15 grandmothers: Unique Recipes and Stories From the Times of the Crypto-Jews During the Spanish Inquisition, is the third volume in Genie Milgrom’s “My 15 Grandmothers” series, a project to which she has clearly dedicated a great deal of heart and time. In this volume she invites the reader to learn about her discovery of a trove of recipes written by her “15 grandmothers” – a chain of her female ancestors stretching back to the age of the Spanish Inquisition. From these she has created a cookbook for the modern American kosher kitchen, modifying the recipes as necessary to make them conform to the dietary laws of Kashrut, and work with the products, weights, and measures in use today.

Unfortunately, the very things that make it useful for the Jewish home cook, leave it lacking for the reader that wants to learn about the foods of the crypto-Jews of any generation. As a culinary historian, the exciting title of this book left me disappointed in the reading.

Milgrom’s introduction delights us with her discovery of a collection of recipes found after her mother’s death. We learn that her mother had denied their existence, yet, apparently, during her lifetime she was hiding them, just as Jews hid their religion through the centuries. Sadly though, Milgrom does not share the original recipes with us – only her recreations. How wonderful it would be to see reproductions of the pages in her ancestors’ handwriting! Milgrom also doesn’t give us an indication of when these manuscripts may have been produced. From her notes we can tell that some of the pages she possesses are no older than the mid-nineteenth century. She tells us of recipes calling for corn starch and providing metric measurements. Each of these are mid-19th C. inventions. She further tantalizes the reader in a note that some of the original recipes would call for things like ‘…a small goblet of water, or “an egg full of oil.”’ I want to read those originals! At the least I would like to know how much oil she calculated filling an egg, and what her thinking was in that conversion. Was it a whole egg’s worth, or did her grandmother’s grandmother mean filling half of an eggshell? Milgrom leaves me to guess.

Another unfulfilled promise of the book’s title is of stories from the times of the crypto-Jews living in Spain in the 15th to 19th centuries. The stories in the book largely center around Milgrom’s direct family, her own experiences with her family’s culture, and her work researching and recreating the recipes provided. Perhaps her earlier books about the 15 Grandmothers provide more of the stories bringing to life the experience of being a Jew hiding her identity from the Inquisition?

To my eye, the recipes in the book appear to be a tasty collection of Spanish and Latino dishes that can be cooked by kosher chefs. She writes, “I have only included in this book those recipes that meet the kosher guidelines and that have also been modified and tested with the meats and products available to us today”. To me this says that she has painted only half the picture. What recipes did her grandmothers cook that that could not be converted for today’s kosher kitchen? To the historian, this is every bit as interesting as those that could be, and knowing about them would shine even more light on the way that hiding religion affected their culture.

It could not be more clear that Genie Milgrom wasn’t writing this cookbook for me. I, for one, would have been much happier if she had made that clear in the title. If she had named it, “My 15 Grandmothers: Spanish and Latino Recipes for the Modern Kosher Kitchen”, I would have no complaints at all. Depending on the reader, this book will either delight or disappoint.
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