A unique contribution to Jewish culinary and cultural history has been recognized with a first-of-its-kind literary award.
The 2019 Jewish Book Award in the inaugural category of food writing and cookbooks has been given to “Jewish Cuisine in Hungary: A Cultural History with 83 Authentic Recipes,” by Andras Koerner. As Koerner told The Times of Israel in a phone conversation, the book “offers a cultural history of the diversity of Hungarian Jewish cuisine before 1945.”
“I think the reason why I feel it is important is because food is such a central aspect of a culture and everyday life,” Koerner said. “Because it is so central, it can reflect all kinds of things of importance in people’s identity and lives, such as religion, ancestry,” as well as “someone’s relationship to modern life, and whether they are opposing change or embracing change.”
Koerner said that an “important aspect” of his book is that it is “not really a cookbook.”
“It includes the recipes as historical documents,” he said. “It does not try to update them to the requirements of modern cooking, because I include them exactly the way they were printed, say, 100 or 150 years ago.”
An architect and author, Koerner has deep family roots in Hungary and its Jewish culture and cuisine. According to Koerner, the oldest handwritten collection of recipes from Hungary that includes Jewish recipes may have been compiled by his great-grandmother, Bernat Berger, which she started in 1869. This proved invaluable in researching a subject for which primary sources such as published cookbooks are hard to find, as Koerner delved into Hungarian history in the centuries before the Holocaust.
His book does not address Jewish cuisine in Hungary after the Holocaust, although it mentions a poignant 1944 compilation of recipes by female inmates of Lichtenworth. He himself lived as a child in the Budapest ghetto from late 1944 to the early days of 1945. He said he has “some vague memories from those times.”
By May 1945, some 565,000 Hungarian Jews had been exterminated by the Nazis, and half of Budapest’s Jewish population had perished.
“Hungary, because of the Holocaust, has a sharp dividing line,” he explained. “I felt that its Jewish cuisine and culture after the Holocaust were so different from the ones before the Holocaust that it would require a different book.”
He describes “Jewish Cuisine in Hungary” as an attempt to “put together a picture of Hungarian Jewish culture [and cuisine] before the Holocaust from bits of information, stories — pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, so to speak.”
Research included examining historic cookbooks and compilations of family recipes, including that of his great-grandmother, whom he profiled in a previous book almost two decades ago, “A Taste of the Past: The Daily Life and Cooking of a Nineteenth-Century Hungarian-Jewish Homemaker.”
She was born Terez Baruch in a western Hungarian village in 1851, and when she was in her late teens, she began writing down recipes into a notebook. The number surpassed 130 over the decades. Koerner said that “luckily this recipe collection of my great-grandmother [included] at least a dozen to 15 Jewish specialties — matzah balls, kugel, cholent, various Jewish, uniquely Jewish dishes.”
And yet, Koerner said, “There is no such thing as Hungarian Jewish cuisine in the abstract.” He called it “a mixture of different influences.”
“It’s many different kinds of things,” he said. “It reflects that Hungary has been sort of in the middle, in between East and West, Eastern Europe and Western Europe. It reflects both traditions.”
He explained that Hungary has been home to Jewish immigrants from Eastern European regions such as Poland, Galicia and Ukraine, and from Western European regions including Austria, Bohemia and Moravia.
“Hungarian Jewish culture — not specifically food, but broadly speaking — has been almost 100 percent Ashkenazi,” Koerner said, although he sees hints of Sephardic traces during the Ottoman occupation in the 16th and 17th centuries. “One of the traditional dishes on Shabbat was fish in walnut sauce… usually carp, with a sauce made with chopped walnuts,” Koerner said. “I’m not 100 percent sure, but it’s likely also of Sephardic influence,” as is a yeast-dough dessert called bolesz or bole popular in Transylvania.
In successive centuries, Ottoman rule was replaced by the Hapsburgs. “Sephardic influence completely disappeared after the recapture of Buda,” Koerner said, referring to the 17th-century Hapsburg conquest of the Hungarian capital, which eventually joined with the town of Pest on the other side of the Danube River to became today’s Budapest.
Depending on whether immigrant Ashkenazim came from Eastern or Western Europe, traditions and practices varied, and this was reflected in their recipes. Koerner said that Eastern European Jews brought gefilte fish to Hungary, whereas Jews in western Hungary had never heard of it. The book includes a gefilte fish recipe using pike — Stuffed Fish for Friday Night, from the 1984 cookbook “Old Jewish Dishes” by Zorica Herbst-Krausz.
The way Hungarian Jews celebrated holidays also differed depending on their regions of ancestry, Koerner said. For example, Orthodox Jews with Western origins such as Transylvania, Bohemia and Moravia “considered matzah balls perfectly kosher, one of the highlights of the seder dinner,” Koerner said. Yet some of their fellow religious counterparts from Galicia rejected matzah balls because they might moisten and ferment, and thus could become not kosher for Passover.
“Even within Orthodox Jews, the concept of what constitutes kosher and nonkosher, trayf, was quite different,” Koerner reflected.
In the wider community, change was coming in the form of the revolution of 1848, which was nevertheless suppressed. By 1867, Hungary joined with neighboring Austria to form the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The long-reigning emperor Franz Josef appears in a background portrait of a Passover greeting card displayed in Koerner’s book.
The book also includes a recipe for cabbage dumplings that Koerner writes was a favorite of both his great-grandmother and the emperor. In the greeting card, Franz Josef’s portrait is on one side of the Prophet Elijah. On the other side is a portrait of ill-fated Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in 1914 sparked World War I.
Austria-Hungary joined the Central Powers, the losing side in the war. The empire was broken up after the war, leading to a demographic change for Hungarian Jews. “After the First World War in Hungary, the majority of Jews were not Orthodox,” Koerner explained. “Before WWI, there was a small majority of Orthodox, but not after WWI, when Hungary lost around two-thirds of its territory… territories where most of the Orthodox lived.”
In a nod to these changing times, Koerner said, “I had to include Jewish cuisine from people who no longer kept kosher.”
I wrote a cultural history of Jewish cuisine, I had to describe non-kosher Jewish cuisine also
“If they were assimilated, assimilation is a process with many many levels,” he said. “It by no means equals secularism. At an extreme, of course, it includes secularism. It’s also part of Jewish culture. I wrote a cultural history of Jewish cuisine, I had to describe non-kosher Jewish cuisine also.”
There is a stuffed cabbage recipe that includes bacon drippings, lean pork, pig knuckles, sausage and lard, as well as a recipe for goose “bacon” reflecting the ubiquity of the fowl among Hungarian Jews as well as what Koerner calls “an interesting example of efforts by Jews to create kosher versions of inherently nonkosher foods.”
Whether assimilated or Orthodox, whether from Eastern or Western Europe, Hungarian Jews were decimated by the Holocaust. Yet traditions have managed to survive — some of them preserved in the pages of handwritten recipe collections by Koerner’s ancestors, and now further preserved in Koerner’s book.
Koerner said the book “describes not only the history of Jewish cuisine” and typical dishes, it also branches out into exploring “different kinds of households, the food industry,” as well as “the hospitality industry, restaurants, banquets, domestic hospitality, even the growth of good manners in eating.”
Acclaimed scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett wrote the preface. “She wrote that my book is almost uniquely comprehensive in nature,” Koerner said. “There’s no comparable book about Jewish cuisine, or the cultural history of Jewish cuisine, from any other country.”
Although the National Jewish Book Award ceremony was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak, Koerner is grateful for his recognition.
“The important thing for me, even more than the ceremony, is the fact that the book was awarded a prize, really a very prestigious prize,” Koerner said. “It gives me great satisfaction.”
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