The recipe notebook of Lola Blei, the author’s grandmother, who was known as Loly. Photograph by Daniela Blei.
If there was ever a doubt that cooking is more than just a means of providing sustenance, the evidence lies in my grandmother’s cursive. Her recipes fill a wire-bound notebook, its brittle pages a testament to butter and the passage of time.
Toiling in the kitchen of apartment 15A, in a leafy Buenos Aires neighborhood, my grandmother reaffirmed who she was: Jewish, European and Argentine. She was also a good cook, though not an exceptional one, with a knack for baking cakes named for Habsburg monarchs. Today, her recipe notebook lives in a drawer in my San Francisco home. Between the covers are glimpses of the 20th century: stories of loss, exile and nostalgia.
Like many Jews of her generation, my grandmother’s voyage to the New World happened more by accident than design. It began on a freezing February day in 1948, when Klement Gottwald, an ardent revolutionary and a drunk, stepped onto a balcony in Prague to proclaim a communist republic. For my Sovietophobic grandfather, whose wartime travails brought him unbearably close to the Red Army, it was time to run. Having escaped the drudgery of forced labor in Hungary, he saved himself by finding work in the Soviet Union, putting to use his polyglot education as a translator for Soviet troops. His experience left him terrified of communism’s march across the continent.
Facing limited options — with family dead or missing, papers hard to come by, and the political fate of much of the world hanging in the balance — my newlywed grandparents, Lola and Lajos, together with my great-grandmother, Flora, traveled to Rotterdam to board a passenger ship bound for South America. In their handbags were visas to Chile, Paraguay and Argentina. For this Central European trio, conversant in almost a dozen languages but knowing not a lick of Spanish, the world south of the equator was shrouded in mystery. Having no idea where to disembark, even halfway across the Atlantic, my ancestors met a gentleman out on the ship’s decks. Exchanging the details of their journeys, this Hungarian man exclaimed: “AY VAI PARAGUAY!” My grandparents took this as a warning and collected their luggage in Buenos Aires, the first stop on the vessel’s South American tour.
Tired and hungry, these three new arrivals settled into a café on the banks of the River Plate. This was the bottom of the world, but a land of plenty. A dark-suited waiter presented my grandfather with Argentina’s national dish, a bife de lomo the size of a serving platter, crowned by a fried egg. The women, Holocaust survivors fleeing a starving continent, found the sight morally objectionable, even obscene. They banished my grandfather to an empty table. “The ladies will steal my food,” he responded in English to a waiter’s quizzical gaze. This meal marked the start of five decades in Buenos Aires.
Reminiscing about life in Argentina, my grandmother always returned to this initial almuerzo. Perhaps she was fond of remembering this story because of the role that beef played in her cultural assimilation, like generations of immigrants who came before. Her recipe notebook begins with matambrito, or “little hunger killer,” a dish that originated with the gauchos, the fabled cowboys of the Argentine plains. A flank steak with vegetables and boiled eggs rolled up inside, tied with a string and baked, the matambre is typically chilled and served as an appetizer. Making matambre takes hours. It means participating in a ritual performed in kitchens around the country. My grandmother’s notes conform to Argentine custom, calling for a side of Russian salad, or boiled carrots, potatoes and peas under a glut of mayonnaise. None of my grandmother’s recipes, Russian or otherwise, appears without guidelines for creating a multi-course meal. Such was the destiny of a bourgeois matriarch: not just to cook but also to construct a menu that balanced the flavors of a meat, a starch and a sweet.
My grandmother ate matambrito at her dining room table surrounded by friends whose kin, like hers, were wiped off the face of the earth. With few exceptions, the entrée was Argentine, while dessert paid tribute to a world left behind. Many summer meals culminated in plum cake, standard fare for Central Europeans and Jews. A Bavarian invention, the yeasted plum cake, or zwetschgendatchi, made its way into Austria-Hungary with German-Jewish migrants for whom gefilte fish and bagels were unknown, or perhaps unwelcome. Tortes and tarts, laden with fruit and chopped nuts, dominate my grandmother’s culinary archive. It is easy to imagine why dessert mattered most. Conversation grows more engaging in the company of coffee and cake.
Recipes are a genre. Their form makes it possible to visualize and follow each step in the cooking process. But some contain deeper layers of meaning, which is why historians have used cookbooks as primary sources, or as written records of the past. We tend to think of cooking as a solitary endeavor, carried out in the private sphere of the home. Just the opposite is true: preparing food connects us to larger cultural and economic relationships. Recipes are products of social exchange and interaction. We acquire them from others, and no recipe is entirely new. Some, like my grandmother’s instructions for matzo ball soup, are intended to evoke continuity and a sense of permanence. Others, like her notes for making ham à la Virginia, a novelty in 1960s Buenos Aires (and a betrayal of religious custom) reflect the fleeting nature of culinary taste.
Like all cookbooks, my grandmother’s tells a story: how ingredients fell in and out of fashion, became expensive, scarce or too unhealthy. Nary a drop of olive oil appears in the hundred-plus pages of her crooked script. A recipe for Imperial Cake, second only to sachertorte as a symbol of Vienna’s belle époque, calls for a dozen egg yolks and a cup of butter. Some dishes are beloved by friends and family, while others live in obscurity. The origins of chicken à la Yugoslavia, for one, must be buried in the ashes of a former empire.
Just as the cook’s presence appears in the food, the author is visible from the pages of a cookbook. Recipes convey instructions, but also information. From my grandmother’s notes, anyone can surmise the basic facts of her existence: gender, social class, marital status and even the Buenos Aires neighborhood where she lived. Reading her recipes, I meet Cynthia (of pollo à la Cynthia), Aunt Hanne (of cookie fame), and other forms of proof that cooking, recipe reading and recipe writing were entirely a woman’s game. Or more precisely, a woman’s duty.
But there is another story, about migration, embedded in this culinary text. For immigrants like my grandmother, cooking was a way of remembering the past and interpreting the present. By cooking, my grandmother drew the boundaries between history and memory, the Jewish community where she was raised and the Argentine society where she grew old. Her notebook is compelling not because of the flavors it promises, most of which seem bland and old-fashioned. Rather, these recipes are my grandmother’s autobiography. They explain who she was and where she went, from a village in the Carpathian Mountains to the Confiteria Oriental on a Buenos Aires boulevard to buy puff pastry. They are a record of her triumph over starvation. At nineteen, she stumbled out of a hellhole in northern Poland, weighing just fifty-five pounds.
Food is subjective. We cook for sustenance, nutrition and comfort; for religion, tradition and maudlin memories. But we also cook for the representational power of food. You can go somewhere without really going there. Some write memoirs to contribute to the collective story of history; others rely on the oral tradition. Still others, like my grandmother, cook — preserving the past and making sense of their lives in the peace and quiet of the kitchen.
Daniela Blei is a historian with a Ph.D. in history. She has taught at UC Berkeley and Reed College. She lives in San Francisco where she is an editor of scholarly books.