August 15, 2014 4:16 pm

The history cook: Jewish Cookery by Florence Greenberg

Most postwar Anglo-Jewish households owned a copy of this book, a perfect mix of eastern European staples and ‘new’, continental fare

Jewish Cookery, by Florence Greenberg, 1977 edition, published by Penguin. First published in 1947 by The Jewish Chronicle

If you are British, over the age of 40 and have never heard of Florence Greenberg’s Jewish Cookery, it’s safe to assume you were not brought up in a Jewish household. Greenberg, cookery writer for The Jewish Chronicle between 1920 and 1962, was the Delia Smith of the Anglo-Jewish community.

Born Florence Oppenheimer in 1883, the fourth of eight children, Greenberg was the daughter of a wealthy Dutch meat importer who moved to Britain with his large family in the late 19th century. Following her education, Greenberg helped her mother to run the family home. But she longed to be a nurse and eventually, aged 29, persuaded her father to let her train, despite his misgivings about women nursing men. During the first world war, Greenberg embarked on five years of service on hospital ships, sailing to Port Said, Alexandria and Cairo.

Jewish Cookery cover©FT

'Jewish Cookery': short on strictures but crammed with recipes

Once home, she married the editor of The Jewish Chronicle, Leopold Greenberg, and began a second career as a cookery writer for the paper. In 1934 she wrote The Jewish Chronicle Cookery Book and during the second world war the Ministry of Food recruited her to advise Jewish women on how to eke out their rations. By 1947 her profile was high enough for her to produce Jewish Cookery in her own name.

Initially published by the JC, then latterly by Penguin Books, Jewish Cookery was reprinted 13 times between 1947 and 1977. At first Greenberg’s readership was primarily the Anglo-Jewish community. This numbered about 450,000 in the postwar period, a sizable market for a cookery book.

This population was made up of Jews who had left Russia in the 19th century as a result of Tsarist persecution, and more recent immigrants who fled Nazi Germany and Poland in the 1930s and 1940s. Thus, Greenberg’s book served both established Jewish-British housewives and those experiencing Britain for the first time.

Greenberg begins by explaining basic cookery methods (how to “dredge” or “clarify dripping”) and offers useful hints (“to prevent a disagreeable odour from green vegetables while cooking, put a crust of bread in the water”). In 1947, fewer than 2 per cent of British households had fridges, so she also describes how to manage perishable food – wrap cheese “in muslin wrung out with vinegar”; stand milk “in a basin of cold water”.

Some later recipes defy definition but they do suggest a very adventurous approach – banana and spaghetti curry is a case in point

For a book of Jewish cookery, strictures are kept to a minimum. There is one paragraph on Jewish dietary laws: “The separation of the Jewish kitchen into respective departments for meat and milk must govern its actual planning and arrangement.” She also sets out instructions on the soaking and washing of meat prior to cooking and, at the end of the book, has a small chapter detailing “traditional Jewish food” and a section of Passover recipes.

But for a small, paperback book Jewish Cookery contains a staggering number of recipes. Picnic fare, milk puddings, pancakes, fruit bottling and icings for cakes are just a selection of the 57 chapter headings. In a section dedicated to “etceteras for soups” she lists 14 options, including egg balls, kreplach (a type of stuffed ravioli) and “savoury custard”. Unsurprisingly, her recipes are often just a few sentences long.

Greenberg’s recipes reflect the food traditions of Jews from central and eastern Europe – hearty Ashkenazi food and a love of things sour and sweet. For hors d’oeuvres, suggestions include gherkins, rollmops, chopped herrings and chopped liver. Mains include halibut stewed with egg and lemon sauce, holishkes (stuffed cabbage leaves) and cholent (brisket with dumplings). Jewish puddings include honey cake and Purim fritters.

As tastes changed, Greenberg added new recipes to later editions. Some of these defy definition but they do suggest an adventurous approach to food – banana and spaghetti curry is a case in point.

The food on offer in Jewish Cookery draws from a mix of culinary traditions, reflecting the fluid character of the Anglo-Jewish community in the middle of the 20th century. The British and continental recipes answer an aspiration to assimilate, while the food of Jewish and eastern European heritage assuages a longing for the familiar and culturally significant. The breadth of the book resolves these tensions by allowing its reader to be Jewish, eastern European, British and continental.

It may not have been Greenberg’s stated purpose, but she produced a definitive cookery book as well as a manual on how to appreciate difference and maintain cultural identity. Perhaps she should feature in everybody’s kitchen.

Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library

Photography: Nina Mangalanayagam

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