Sampling the Lost Cuisine Found in ‘The German Jewish Cookbook’
In our current food-obsessed culture – especially in places like New York City – it seems that we are global food citizens. We have easy access to an endless variety of restaurants and specialty food stores, which enable us to explore foods from all over the world. And we can easily watch a multitude of food shows and videos online, celebrating different cultures and recreating recipes, even from other eras.
However, one type of cuisine that is almost completely extinct is German Jewish cooking. During WWII, Jewish history in Germany was erased. In the 1930s, the Jews who survived and fled to the United States didn’t want to draw attention to themselves as German Jewish refugees. They cooked German Jewish food only at home and the recipes were soon lost.
This forgotten culinary culture is not what we think of when Jewish cuisine comes to mind. Blintzes, perogi, latkes, and even “New York Jewish food” like pastrami and corned beef sandwiches are more accurately eastern European.
To remedy this, mother and daughter team Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman and Sonya Gropman have written The German Jewish Cookbook: Recipes and History of a Cuisine.
Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman was born in Germany in the late 1930s. She was one of ten Jewish babies born in her hometown of Bamberg in that decade, as Jews in the immediate run-up to Nazi Germany were reluctant to have children. As a baby, though, she and her parents fled to NYC’s Washington Heights, which was home to the largest surviving community of German Jews in the world.
When Gaby met her husband Don at Brandeis University, she noticed that the food she grew up with was different from the Eastern European Jewish food his family had cooked. Sonya had the good fortune of growing up with foods from the Jewish cultures of both parents.
Gaby and Sonya, who are both visual artists, had always been deeply involved in cooking and wanted to combine their personal memories with history, creating a story from a multigenerational perspective.
They were also inspired by Gaby’s father’s stories of his childhood in Bamberg, a medieval Bavarian city, which in 1930, had a small population of 1,000 Jews. Many of these stories had to do with the food: fresh cherries, cakes, challah, dumplings, and black radishes.
Getting the thoughts and experiences of two generations of women – along with the people they interviewed in Germany – was no small task, but six years later they have a finished book of recipes and stories.
The Gropmans work on the book also involved tracking down very old recipes, where they discovered that some of the details, such as the quantities or the cooking times, had not been written down. These dishes needed much trial, error and taste testing, until they knew they had gotten it right.
We recently went to a party and talk at Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks on East 2nd Street, celebrating the release of the book. We sampled delicious desserts, such as krokerle (spiced chocolate hazelnut cookies), berches (water bread), and orange cake with almonds.
Speaking about their inspiration, Sonya said, “My grandfather had an emotional attachment [to German Jewish cuisine] because he lost his parents to the Nazis. He’s one of the main influences for the book.”
On their travels to Germany, they learned that although it isn’t advertised as Jewish, there were still remnants of German Jewish food. Sonya reflected on this, saying “They sell a sausage in Frankfurt which is beef, and that is Jewish. It’s not prepared in kosher environments, but it was a vestige.”
Gaby described initially feeling reluctant to give up her art for a while in order to focus on the cookbook. She said, “When I finally realized that this massive project was going to become part of my life, it tied back to what I thought about for years: the food and the culture is not known. We [as German Jews] are very much a minority in a minority.”