Like any rabbi, Robert Sternberg has seforim, volumes of Jewish learning and commentary, at home. But he may be alone among his peers with a collection of 500 cookbooks, many of which extend far beyond Jewish cuisine.
The Denver native, who was ordained at an Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem and now has a congregation near his home in Springfield, MA, has been a culinary enthusiast for as long as he can remember.
It began when he was five years old, helping his grandmother as she rolled dough and stuffed blintzes for a kosher caterer. Fueled by those memories, he tried years later to replicate his grandmother’s knaidlach (matzo balls), without success. Midlife, he finally indulged his gastronomic passion by going back to school — and to his roots in the kitchen — to earn an associate degree in culinary arts.
Equally at home in the pulpit as he is at the stove now, Sternberg is a dedicated collector of culinary literature that spans centuries and continents. “I’ve read every single solitary cookbook I own and used something from all of them,” says Sternberg by phone, retooling recipes to conform with kosher regulations. (He touts portobello mushrooms as a good stand-in for oysters. ) Still, he enjoys reading cookbooks as much for their cultural back-story as putting them to use.
Of the 500 titles on his shelves, 68 are Jewish-themed and include the 1926 “Gezundt und Shpiez und Vegetarisches Kokh Bukh,” vegetarian recipes published in Yiddish in New York by the Better Health and Correct Eating Institute; “Old Jewish Dishes” by Zorica Herbst-Kraus, published in Budapest in 1988 from the original in Hungarian; and a 1943 edition of the famous “Settlement House Cookbook,” first released more than a century ago as a cultural primer for Jewish immigrants on American food and cooking.
The collection has been growing for many years, much of it purchased in bookstores, some titles given to him and the odd one picked up at a tag sale. A specially built wall-to-wall bookcase conveniently corrals them within easy reach, just off the kitchen.
International in scope, the culinary texts roam widely, from the Time-Life series “Foods of the World” to numerous editions on French, Italian, Greek and regional Middle Eastern food, before returning home to America’s regional kitchens, particularly Louisiana and Creole dishes. A reprint of “The Roman Cookbook of Apicius” from ancient Rome, is possibly his most obscure acquisition.
Initially, Sternberg gravitated toward illustrated recipe books. But now, to win shelf space, a cookbook must satisfy one of the following criteria: be a classic, “contribute something unusual” (regional cooking techniques, for example) or showcase “distinctively Jewish” recipes.
A teacher of Holocaust history and literature at local community colleges, Sternberg is himself a published author of two cookbooks; he is currently updating “Yiddish Cuisine: A Gourmet’s Approach to Jewish Cooking,”, originally published in 1993 by Jason Aronson Publications.
Of all the culinary texts he’s amassed, one in particular has a special connection: the 1943 edition of the “Settlement” cookbook which belonged to an aunt.
Stuck between its pages, Sternberg found a note with a recipe for “Mom’s Knaidlach”, calling for “six eggs and matzo meal, not too much.” His chance discovery finally ended the search for the elusive matzo balls of his childhood. His grandmother’s mystery ingredient? Six eggs.
Sternberg’s shelves are studded with many favorites. His top picks include “anything by Joan Nathan or by James Beard,” he says and the list of cookbooks below:
“From My Mother’s Kitchen: Recipes and Reminiscences” by Mimi Sheraton
“So Eat, My Darling: A Guide to the Yiddish Kitchen” by Naftali Avnon and Uri Sella
“Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” by Marcella Hazan
“French Provincial Cooking” by Elizabeth David
Among new releases, Jane Ziegelman’s “97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement” gets the nod.