Writing about food: Elizabeth Ehrlich

Two weeks ago, I went to my local independent bookstore (yes, there still is such a thing, and it is wonderful) to pick up a copy of Stir I had special ordered. Before I went to the counter to ask for it, I decided to check the food-and-cookbook section to see if there was any interesting food writing I should pick up. The first book that jumped out at me was Miriam’s Kitchen: A Memoir, by Elizabeth Ehrlich. Originally published in 1997, the volume is a National Jewish Book Award winner. The back-cover summary convinced me to grab it and run to the counter while I was still committed to buying only two books that day. After all, I needed to have a few dollars left over to pick up reference bagels from Bruegger’s, a few doors down in the shopping plaza.

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This wonderful, absorbing book is about Miriam, and her kitchen, and her recipes. But it’s also about Elizabeth’s upbringing as a Detroit Jew, about the Holocaust, about Brooklyn, about Yiddish, about Poland, about kashrut, and about Elizabeth’s gradual wonderings, enlightenment, and spiritual journey “back” to a consciously practiced – and now freely chosen – Judaism that she wants to give to her children as their own heritage. This book taught me so much about everything.

Ehrlich is a talented writer, and so many of her topics in this book were independently interesting to me. The combination of them was compelling. As I stated when I previously mentioned the book, it’s organized by the Jewish year and begins with September topics and recipes. I tried in vain to read only a “month’s” worth of short essays a night; every time I put down the book I picked it up again. Each chapter begins with Ehrlich’s journal-like thoughts, then delves into time-hopping stories of interactions with her in-laws Miriam and Jacob, or her husband and children (sometimes one, sometimes two, sometimes three), or her parents, or her grandparents. The different time perspectives in each short section are no more trouble to comprehend than a collection of old photos in a drawer. What does it matter if one Passover photo is from three years ago and is touching a Passover photo from 1958? They are both images, perspectives, facets of a larger Passover mosaic that only comes into focus, only has a larger meaning, over the longer passage of time.

If Ehrlich will forgive me, here is her intro to the February chapter. You just have to “hear” her words.

We’re not there. We’re miles from kosher. I sorted my dishes, pots, and implements for a trial run, assigned drawers and cupboards. Some of these items can’t properly be kashered, or bear associations that taint them.Throw them in the drawer and pretend. Pretend I will use that barbecue fork to stir pasta with meat sauce from now on, because I’ve committed the pasta stirrer for dairy. Pretend the cheese grater never grated Parmesan.

Must I live without real Parmesan?

Don’t have enough things. Washing up is a nightmare. Pareve things should be washed separately. Dishwasher half-full of the wrong kind. Meat and dairy sponges stacked together. Quick dinner leaves dairy plates; sink is full of previous meal’s meat dishes. Silverware jumbled together in the dish drainer. Spatulas and graters in the wrong drawers, contaminated, pulled out by someone and used the wrong way.

Do I have to stand there clearing the decks after every meal? Washing, drying, putting away, supervising, being preoccupied? Does this force me into a little sphere, the kitchen?

I’m only interested in the symbolism, so what if things get mixed up? I sort them out … but it’s not the same anymore, the object carries a projected burden, projected by me, if not by actual molecules.

She is a honest writer, and this is not an easy journey. Not all of her memories, let alone those of Miriam and Jacob and other Holocaust survivors, are happy ones. Life is not easy in Poland or Israel or New York or Detroit. But as Ehrlich searches for meaning and order in her life, she gains so much. Through this book, she shares it, too, along with Miriam’s stories and recipes. I didn’t count them, but I am very much looking forward to trying them. For January, the only recipe is one for Chocolate Sour Cream Cake with Chocolate Fudge Frosting, but I’m willing to make the sacrifice. It must be somebody’s birthday this month!

Like Laurie Colwin, Elizabeth Ehrlich is one of those excellent writers whose writing persuades you to pick up your own pen. (Or sit at your own keyboard.) My family’s stories need to be told and my great-grandmother’s recipes deserve to be recorded, shared, and cooked; yours do, too.

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