Sharing Food with Friends

(This article first appeared in the Canadian Jewish News, November 12, 2003.)

When I was in New York City recently, I made dinner plans with one of my Internet “pan-pals,” Dalia Carmel. We had “met through the Net” as members of a warm group of foodie-friends, called Rinaslist, who enjoy sharing recipes and friendship.

Dalia and I had spoken on the phone several times, but had never met in person. She insisted that I come to her apartment to relax after an exhausting day of work. Then we would have dinner at her favourite Turkish restaurant. I asked if I could bring along another foodie-friend.

“Of course!” she replied warmly.

When we walked through the door of her New York apartment, it was like entering cookbook heaven. There were bookshelves of cookbooks lining almost every wall of her apartment – including the entrance hall, living room, dining room, even the bedroom. It was like being in a magnificent library.

Surprisingly, Dalia’s kitchen doesn’t contain any cookbooks – in fact, there’s barely room to make a sandwich! There are three food processors and two blenders snuggled together in one corner. A sturdy pot rack hangs from above, with 20 skillets of all sizes hanging from it. When I asked why she needed so many frypans, she replied “For one egg, two eggs.”

Dalia’s cookbook collection is arranged by categories – Italian, Jewish, Middle Eastern, Hungarian, Turkish, Chinese, vegetarian. There are nearly 6,000 cookbooks in her immense collection. Her late husband, Herb, jokingly said that they must have multiplied at night because every time he looked, there seemed to be more!

Dalia declared, “I am afraid to buy any more. I’m sure the apartment below will suffer from the weight.”

Israeli born, she left in 1960. She became curious about cooking while living in England. Although she did not know how to cook, she loved food. When Dalia moved to the United States, she received a mailing addressed to “The Occupant.” It was from a cookbook club, offering three cookbooks for a dollar. She chose the three thickest books on the list. Little by little, her collection grew and she was hooked.

Many of Dalia’s friends are well-known cookbook authors and she is also an accomplished photographer. Several of her photos grace the covers of cookbooks.

When we took a cookbook tour through the various rooms of her apartment, Dalia reached into a shelf and handed me a small book. “This is a gift for you.” It was a copy of Ravensbruck 1945, Fantasy Cooking Behind Barbed Wire by Edith Peer, a Holocaust survivor.

Peer had gathered recipes from the women prisoners of Ravensbruck, then had the first edition of 500 copies translated and printed with the help of close friends. Her plan was to donate the books to a Jewish charitable organization to use as a fundraiser. Her generous offer was refused because the book contained many non-kosher recipes; both Jews and non-Jews in the camp had shared the food fantasies that helped sustain them. One copy went to the Jewish Museum in Sydney, Australia, where it went on display. Peer stored the unsold copies in her apartment.

Meanwhile, Dalia was instrumental in the publishing of In Memory’s Kitchen, A Legacy from the Women of Terezin, edited by Cara de Sylva, another Holocaust cookbook memoir. Through Cara’s Web site, Dalia learned that a similar cookbook was on display at the Jewish Museum in Australia, but the person didn’t elaborate. She volunteered to act as a sleuth and track it down.

Dalia discovered that Edith Peer had moved to a smaller apartment, so she had to get rid of the unsold copies. She gave them to a friend, who threw everything away, except for 10 copies. Dalia bought them all. She donated one copy to Yad Vashem, and several others went to specialized Judaica cookbook collections. Apparently, there are quite a few collections at Yad Vashem in various languages.

Ingredients and instructions were vague and incomplete; women of that generation expected the reader to know how to cook. There are recipes for all sorts of delicacies, including Cheese Dumplings, Marrow Dumplings, Stuffed Veal Steak, Chocolate Marquise, Viennese Slice and Special Wedding Cake. There are copies of handwritten recipes in Yugoslavian in the centre of the book.

From the Foreword of Ravensbruck 1945 by Edith Peer: “It was bitterly cold, our spirits and bodies broken. We shivered, not only because of lack of proper clothing, but because of our empty stomachs; we were desperately hungry. There was nothing to warm our emaciated bodies after the infamous ‘Appel’ (rollcall) twice a day.

“So we started to talk about glorious food, food that was served around the family table during better times. I was able to gather some paper and pencil and asked my fellow inmates to write down their recipes in the hope that, if the unbelievable miracle of freedom ever eventuated, I would be able to feed my feeble body with those gourmet dishes. Many of these recipes were incomplete in that they did not specify the quantity of the ingredients required for that particular dish; nevertheless, they give enough guidance for an experience cook to be able to prepare them.

“Looking back now, I think that our preoccupation with these recipes reflects the degree to which civilized people had been degraded by an inhuman system and the solace we found in our fantasy dishes.”

Claudia Roden refers to Dalia Carmel as “the angel of American food writers, because she makes her gigantic library of cookbooks available to all who ask.” This Syrian version of a marvelous red pepper paste in Claudia Roden‘s The Book of Jewish Food comes from Dalia Carmel. Enjoy.

Walnut and Roast Pepper Paste

4 large red bell peppers
1 hot chili pepper
2 slices whole-wheat bread, crusts removed
11/2 cups shelled walnuts
1 garlic clove, crushed in a press
3 tbsp. pomegranate concentrate (molasses)
juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp. sugar
1/2 to 1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cumin (optional)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, or more if necessary
3 or 4 sprigs of flat-leafed parsley, finely chopped, to garnish

Roast and peel the peppers. Choose fleshy peppers. Put them on a baking sheet under the broiler, about 31/2 inches from the heat (or grill them on the barbecue). Turn them until their skins are black and blistered all over. Put them in a pan with a tight-fitting lid or in a brown paper bag and twist it closed. Leave for 10 to 15 minutes. When cool enough to handle, peel them and remove the stems and seeds.

Put all the ingredients except the parsley in a food processor and blend to a thick creamy paste. Serve sprinkled with the parsley.

Serves 8 to 10.