Just the other day, I picked up a copy of a cookbook that I had not seen since I was a child; back then, it occupied pride of place in my mother’s kitchen. As I held “The Chinese-Kosher Cookbook” in my hand and made my way through its recipes for Pineapple Chicken Fay Gel Lah and Beef Goy Ish Ah Kupp, a swirl of memories — of the crowded shelf that contained it and other housekeeping manuals, of the sun streaming through the kitchen windows, of my mother’s dinner parties — suddenly came to the fore. But then the grown-up in me — the grown-up academic part of me, that is — kicked in, and I found myself puzzled, even taken aback, by the cookbook’s tone and sensibility.
At first blush, “The Chinese-Kosher Cookbook,” which was written by Ruth and Bob Grossman and published in 1963 by Paul S. Eriksson, purveyed a rather sophisticated palate. At a time when mah-jongg was the one thing most American Jews knew about China, here were recipes that called for the use of then-wildly exotic foodstuffs such as bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, soy sauce and bok choy, and for stir-frying rather than roasting. This was food meant to be served at dinner parties, itself a brand-new practice in suburban, postwar America. At those moments when, as my mother recently recalled, “flanken would no longer do,” the Grossmans’ unusual array of dishes sure came in handy for the kosher-keeping cook.
And yet, for all its apparent worldliness, “The Chinese-Kosher Cookbook” featured a distinctive authorial personality — Grandmother Slipakoff, she was called — in whose name and voice recipes were introduced. No Julia Child she, the genial Grandmother Slipakoff spoke in a Yiddish-inflected English, encouraging her readers to “wash good the spinach, it shouldn’t be too sandy,” “to make hot a frying pan” and to make use of a “nice” chicken breast, whenever possible.
If that weren’t enough to take the sting (and sand) out of stir-frying, the text renders the names of Chinese dishes as if they are an organic part of the Yiddish language, as in Fish Bah Lah Boo Stah, Far Blun Jed Egg Drop Soup and Roast Duck Qveh Ching. There is even a glossary, according to which the word faygelah, for example, was glossed as “my son, the dancer.” Added the text: “This dish, believe me, they’ll love on Fire Island.”
By contemporary standards, this is cringe-inducing stuff. Or, to put it more delicately, there’s a real tension here between the adventurous palate that the Grossmans advocated and the irritatingly comic way in which they presented it. But that’s how I read the text; perhaps earlier generations of readers saw things differently as, I suspect, younger generations do, too. It may well be that having a sweet, old-fashioned Yiddish-speaking grandmother introduce strange and unfamiliar foods to a tradition-minded audience was an effective way of defanging the foreign-ness of Chinese cuisine. This device reassured readers that they were not venturing too far afield when serving spiced water chestnuts in lieu of sweetened carrots. After all, if Kellogg’s had its eponymous Kay Kellogg, Quaker Oats its Aunt Jemima and General Mills its Betty Crocker to entice otherwise wary consumers, why shouldn’t the Grossmans have Grandma Slipakoff?
Their use of Yiddish, though, is something else again. Here, I think that the Grossmans were not just being coy or fey, although they were guilty of that on occasion. Rather, I believe that their deployment of Yiddish and of familiar Jewish references was part of a much larger social phenomenon, one that went well beyond the kitchen to affect American Jewish popular culture more generally — and that, of course, was the widely held view that Yiddish, at its core, was a comic language — an earthy, raunchy and rib-tickling vernacular.
The Great White Way, and vaudeville before it, established the association between Yiddish and humor. In the early 1950s, popular Broadway revues such as “Borscht Capades” and “Bagels and Yox” enjoyed much of their long-running success to their ham-fisted use of Yiddish, prompting Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times theater critic, to write that as far as he could tell, these productions made a point of treating all Yiddish words, whatever they were, “as funny.”
But then, the Grossmans did Broadway one better. By evoking the familiar cadences of Yiddish, that self-styled mamaloshn, “The Chinese-Kosher Cookbook” minimized the dangers of culinary experimentation. It took an enterprise fraught with concern, anxiety and missteps of one sort or another — the wrong pot, an unfamiliar spice — and rendered it fun, easy and safe. Through its use of Yiddish, “The Chinese-Kosher Cookbook” reminded its readers at every turn of who they really were, even when they deftly wielded a pair of chopsticks.
More to the point, perhaps, the Grossmans’ contribution dramatically enlarged the repertoire of foodstuffs available to kosher-keeping cooks of the 1960s and 1970s, changing how they cooked and how they marketed, and, along the way, lessening their distrust of the outside world.
A cultural artifact of its time, “The Chinese-Kosher Cookbook” left an enduring imprint on Jewish culinary practice. In awakening the palate, the Grossmans encouraged kosher-keeping American Jews generally accustomed to thinking in terms of the restraints of kashrut to think more in terms of the joys of eating. Surely a noble venture, even if it meant filling up on the likes of Lychee Fruit Salad Shmuh Geh Ghee!