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The oldest Jewish American cookbook.

Before Martha Stewart and Heloise, there was Esther Jacobs Levy's 1871 Jewish Cookery Book--On Principles of Economy, Adapted for Jewish Housekeepers, With the Addition of Many Useful Medicinal Recipes and Other Valuable Information Relative to Housekeeping and Domestic Management.


Levy wrote for Jews who wanted to be "genteel without being gentile," writes Linda Kulman in Fine Dining. Her readers were women from assimilated middle and upper class households with domestic servants who wanted to maintain culinary practices "according to the commandments of our faith" while adapting to prevalent American fashion.

She flowingly describes dazzling white tablecloths, perfectly placed dishes and centerpieces of flowers ("their fragrance refreshes the eye and gratifies the mind"). Levy tells of the pleasure a Jewish woman "must anticipate when she will see everything looking so brilliantly clean" because cleanliness is the best way to ready ourselves to celebrate "our wonderful deliverance from bondage."

Recipes are of varied origins: English (steamed suet pudding), American (corn fritters), Ashkenazi (barley soup), Sephardi (almond pudding) and German (sauerkraut).

Since no other books existed on anglicizing Yiddish, Levy developed her own spellings: coogle for kugel, luzion for lokshin. Her graphic instructions include, for example, how to pickle meat: "First cosher it; then make a pickle of salt strong enough for an egg to swim on top of the water...."

A few of her suggestions are at odds with today's Orthodox practices. For example, she advises wrapping salt pork around the patient's neck to cure a sore throat, though she adds that pork should never be swallowed.

Levy's cookbook was not widely read in her day. But it's one of those "primary sources that help build a picture of America," says Phil Zuckerman, president of Applewood Books, which has been publishing it for more than 20 years. Today, the 1871 original is a collector's item: One copy recently sold at auction for $11,400.
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Author:Alpert, Joan
Date:May 1, 2009
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