In 1916, the New York Board of Health issued a concise 36 page recipe book aimed at Jewish American homemakers. Published bilingually in both Yiddish and English, “How to Cook for the Family” contained recipes for such “plain, substantial and wholesome” dishes as tomato soup, beef stew and cornstarch pudding. So far as we can tell, the book was a flop among its intended audience. When a reporter working on a story about it asked a couple of Yiddishe homemakers for their opinion, the women told her off.
“The Board of health ain’t got no right to say what I should cook and how,” one woman, explained, in the cadence of a Jimmy Cagney tough-guy. “The East Side is the East Side,” her friend agreed. “I make like my Grossmutter Selig and my mother, Gefullte fish and stuffed helzel. What [do] I care for the Board of Health?”
Interestingly, both of the dishes the women named are stuffed foods — gefilte or “stuffed” fish, and stuffed poultry neck. Neither is “plain” or simple to prepare. Rather, they require both large investments of time and attention to detail, as did so many of the filled foods that were mainstays of our ancestors’ kitchens.
“You’ll have to crawl on your hands and knees to find the lentils” warned Dr. Gideon Ladizinsky, a researcher at the Faculty of Agriculture in Rehovot, Israel. We were on a field trip to explore the wild progenitors of agricultural plants, scuffing up our clothes in the process. Even with my face centimeters from the damp earth, the fragile mesh of green was easy to overlook.
Wild lentils grow where other plants don’t; tiny roots grasp rocky soil, spreading fast and fiercely before the winter rains have evaporated. Soon the undergrowth takes hold, competing for the little moisture and space available. By the peak of spring, lentil pods have already dispersed their tiny seeds and have wilted back to the ground. There they lie dormant until the cycle begins again.