More on Claudia Roden in The New Yorker’s Food issue

roden.jpgAlthough I am no fan of flying, I do find that one of its perks is having uninterrupted reading time. I was already looking forward to my husband and I celebrating our one-year anniversary with four days in Oregon. But when the New Yorker arrived last week, and I saw it was a double issue dedicated to food, it made me even more excited — what better airplane reading could there be?

It didn’t disappoint.

Yesterday, I polished off the issue as we flew from Portland to Oakland, laughing aloud at this gem from “Spice Routes: Claudia Roden’s culinary diaspora” by Jane Kramer. In it, Kramer describes how Roden’s Egyptian-Jewish of Syrian origins but now living in Great Britain parents had tried to arrange her marriage, but she ended up choosing a man of Russian-Jewish origin.

The family welcomed him, to Claudia’s great relief, because for most Sephardic emigres the Ashkenazi of Northern and Eastern Europe were an almost mythically bewildering people — “peasants” who raised carp in bathtubs for a tasteless dish called gefilte fish and didn’t know a cardamom pod from a coriander seed, or, worse, the sort of intellectuals who had brought Zionism to a Middle East where, in the emigres wishful imagination, everybody had got along.

The article describes, in great detail, how Roden set out to write her first masterpiece, “Middle Eastern Food.” To do so, she did such things as spend a year testing a book of thirteenth century Baghdad court recipes and made friends with a man who had written a doctoral dissertation on a culinary manuscript from medieval Damascus.

Then, after that book’s great success and numerous editions, she began to think about her “Book of Jewish Food.” Sixteen years in the making, many of her friends thought it would be published posthumously. The article once again brings up the Sephardic bias against Ashkenazi food; Roden knew nothing about Eastern European food, and furthermore, felt she had nothing in common with Eastern European Jews.

It was only because her editor pushed her to include Ashkenazi recipes that she did. And somehow, over time, she became interested in them, though two-thirds of the book are Sephardic recipes.

Here’s another part which had me laughing on the plane, about how there is no single Sephardic recipe for anything:

The Iraqi Jews didn’t like the food of the Syrian Jews; they called the Syrians ‘cows’ because they ate too much parsley. The Syrians didn’t like the Iraqis’ food because it had too much fat and meat. Then, there were the Iraqis in Iran, who united the Jews of Lebanon and Syria against them by putting beetroot in their kibbeh.

And on it goes.

This is just a taste of the article, which I highly recommend, but even moreso, if you don’t have these two books already, go out and get them. I was lucky enough to receive both as review copies when I worked at a Jewish newspaper, but even if I didn’t, I surely would have bought them by now.

As Roden herself says in the article: “It blew my mind — the idea that through food you could describe or reconstruct a world.”

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