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We are writing a cookbook! We are very excited to announce that Brandeis University Press – a member press of University Press of New England – will publish our German-Jewish cookbook as part of the HBI Series on Jewish Women. The book, to be published in 2017, will include:

• approximately 100 recipes (sourced from historic cookbooks, archives, interviews, friends — and, of course, family recipes)

• photographs by yours truly, Sonya Gropman, and illustrations by Megan Piontowski

• a look at the food culture of German-Jews through individual stories, including those from our own family

• a brief history of the culture of Jews in Germany

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This book will contain recipes that were cooked by Jews in Germany pre-World War II, as well as post-war, after emigration. These recipes use mainly fresh, seasonal ingredients; lots of vegetables, fruits, grains, meats, and of course, cakes!  Perhaps most importantly, this food is delicious! Dishes such as chilled fruit soups, vegetable slaws and salads, baked Schalets (aka kugels), Sabbath fish (such as Pike and Carp), roast meats and poultry, dessert puddings, and much more.

In addition to wonderful food, this book is also about preserving a vanished culture. Therefore, we are collecting both recipes and stories. If you (or anyone you know) have recipes to share with us, or food memories of shopping, cooking, eating, holiday meals, etc. (either in Germany, or after leaving Germany), we would like to hear from you! We will, of course, credit anyone whose story we tell in the book. Thanking you in advance!

You can leave us a comment below, or email us at german.jewish.cuisine@gmail.com

Also, we will be in Berlin later this month. We will be teaching a cooking class at Goldhahn & Sampson (the class is sold out, but there is a waiting list in case any spots become available), and meeting with people related to our book. If you know anyone in Berlin who you think we should contact (for example, someone with a story to tell or someone who works with food), please let us know!

That’s all for now. We will be updating our book progress on a regular basis. Until then, we are wishing you a Happy Spring!

My image of Bamberg began before I ever went there — starting with the black-and-white photo of the rivers and bridges and medieval buildings hanging in our New York City apartment during my childhood, and continuing with my father’s tales of the glories of his native city (and my birthplace) – all memories wrapped in lushness.

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[reproduction of medieval map of Bamberg]

 Close to the old medieval center of town is the Hain, a neighborhood of late 19th century mansions of light-colored stone, square and stolid. I saw it for the first time in 1973, when my father guided us to the places he had always talked about. He showed us the building on Hainstrasse where the Jewish social club (Ressource) had been located. In 1973, it was an insurance building. We actually went to the door to see if there was any indication of its previous incarnation. Nothing. Many of the builders and original owners of these homes were Jewish; they were hop merchants and factory owners. The Dessauer family was one of those and number 4a Hainstrasse is the address of the Villa Dessauer, which today houses the  Municipal Museum of Bamberg.

When Hitler came to power the Villa was inhabited by the Pretzfelders, Jewish descendants of the Dessauers. In 1939, while the Pretzfelders were still living there, #4a became a “Jew House” (Judenhaus).  The Jews of Germany no longer had any rights as citizens. They were removed from their own homes into group quarters. My grandparents were relocated there from their own long-time residence, as well as numerous other Jewish people. They had been friends with the Pretzfelders and one can only imagine the psychic and physical impact of such a dislocation. By late 1942, all these people had been deported to their various fates in ghettos and death camps and none of them survived. After the War, the Villa became the America House, a part of the U.S. Government whose job it was to re-educate German citizens with democratic principles. After the Americans gave it up, the Villa became the Municipal Museum.                                                           IMG_0481  IMG_3202

 [left and right, interior of Villa Dessauer, Bamberg, 2013]

In 1991, I had an exhibit of my artwork there, along with three other American artists. My work was titled “In Search of the Lost Object”. It was a multi-media installation in several rooms of the Museum, and it was about the fate of our Jewish Bamberg family — those of us who survived, and those who didn’t. Since my grandparents, who were deported to a camp east of Lublin in April, 1942, had resided and suffered in this building, my show was full of ghosts and my mind was filled with imagined scenarios. It was the most powerful experience of my life as an artist.

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[left, Chriss Fiebig and Gaby in Bamberg, 1990; right, Chriss’ bookplate]

During a trip to Bamberg in 1990 to prepare for the exhibit, Sonya and I met Chriss Fiebig. She was a striking woman with blonde hair pulled back into a tight bun, piercing blue eyes set in an angular face and a deep laugh. Chriss was a fierce advocate of all things Jewish in Bamberg. She felt certain that her grandmother had been Jewish and she adopted Judaism as her identity. She learned Hebrew and married a religious Jewish man in Paris, where she had gone to become a model. When the marriage failed, she returned to Bamberg. Chriss was active in more ways than I can say: in restoring the Jewish cemetery; in giving tours to visiting Jews and gentiles alike; in teaching about Judaism to seminarians; in leading interfaith services, and on and on. She became my guide and mentor in Bamberg and I will always be grateful to her for her combination of warmth and shrewdness. When an expanded version of my show was at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in 1994, we invited Chriss to join a panel that also included Reb Zalman Schacter-Shalomi and the Reverend James Morton, then Dean of the Cathedral, to talk about Jews in Germany today. For me, Chriss was a cheerleader, guide, and a dear friend.

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[Gaby, with art work at Villa Dessauer, 2013. Top, “White Dove”; all others, details of “Document Wall”] 

 In November, 2013, the two pieces from the 1991 show that the Museum had acquired were to be exhibited again as part of a large historic exhibit called “Jüdisches in Bamberg” (Jewish Life in Bamberg). (the exhibit is up until June 1, 2014.) It was very sad that Chriss was not there for this show — she died quite suddenly in 2004. She is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Bamberg. Regina Hanemann, the Director of the museum, guided the process of this show over a period of years. She is sensitive to all aspects and she was a generous and caring guide to Sonya and me during our one-week stay in Bamberg. Among other things, Regina is aware of our interest in the food history of German-Jews. She pointed out the berches       (bear-ches) bakeries in Bamberg and had fresh berches from one of those bakeries at the reception, in our honor. It was very moist and chewy, the way it used to be in New York when I was growing up.

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 [Berches served at opening reception of “Juedisches in Bamberg”, Villa Dessauer, Bamberg, November, 2013]

The new exhibit traces the history of Jews in that city. Included are artifacts, photographs, portraits, written material, art work and videos. Looking at the intervening 19 years, there has been a massive change.  The show curated by a young historian, Timo Saalmann , reflects the amount of academic interest there is today in all things Jewish in Germany. The preservation of memories and historical information is a driving motivation. I was pleased to be able to speak at the opening to a packed audience, in bad German, about the changes I have witnessed, and about my family’s ongoing connection to Bamberg.

— Gaby

 

 

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image from aufschnitt.net

 

Boston being Boston, the Boston Globe’s food pages last month turned to Irish food traditions, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. In this article, Jane Dornbusch wrote about a butcher shop in the Irish-American neighborhood of Dorchester in Boston. What struck me most profoundly about the piece was how in many ways it could just as easily have been written about German-Jewish food traditions. It included aspects of Irish food that were unfamiliar to me, and the one that struck me first was the topic of sausage.

Dornbusch writes: “…the shop carries as many as 18 house-made varieties. Even on a dreary winter day, there are several types in the case: lamb, curried chicken, chicken with spinach and feta, Buffalo chicken, Italian sweet and hot, Guinness and leek.”

This same description could have been written about the German-Jewish butchers of Washington Heights when I was growing up in terms of the large variety of sausages available.

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image from aufschnitt.net

The butcher, Alan Gibson, is a native of Ireland who opened the Butcher Shop Market in 2009. He acknowledged that the Irish-American tradition of corned beef was unknown to him in Ireland, but that he, being a food purveyor in Boston, learned about corned beef in order to meet the demand of his customers. He prepares it the natural way, without preservatives, with a simple brine. The color of his corned beef is not the commonly seen red (which is chemically induced), but rather greyish.

The prevailing tradition here is not only the food itself, but also its preparation and adherence to historic standards of purity. This story felt familiar. I could relate – not only to the sausage part, but to the principle of simple food preparation without a whole lot of food industry commercializations. I thank Jane Dornbusch for this story which illuminated an aspect of our own story for me.

The pictures of sausages you see above and below are not Irish. In fact, they are not real sausages at all, but rather sewn and stuffed fabric! We recently discovered this shop owned by Silvia Wald, called Aufschnitt, that makes these “cuddly wursts” in Germany – in the Friedrichshain neighborhood of Berlin. She makes a variety of meaty stuffed items – from small sausage links to large beanbag chairs in the shape of a ham bone. And since they’re made from fabric and thread, they’re all vegetarian (and kosher)!

-Gaby

image from aufschnitt.net

            [Raspberry patch in my backyard, 2012]

Stephen Rossmer (my father, Sonya’s grandfather) yearned for various things from his Bamberg homeland, which he left as a refugee at the age of 33. The yearning was driven by the loss of his parents who were killed in April, 1942 outside of Lublin, Poland where they had been transported by the Nazis. The garden of their home in Bamberg, shared by two generations of Rossmers who lived in the same building, held special meaning for him. In the mid-1950’s he bought a house in Englewood, New Jersey with a small garden. The house even had timber-framing (fachwerk) with dark brown wood and light buff colored stucco forming irregular triangles. This form of construction was reminiscent of the historic houses in Bamberg.

[Red currants growing in a Munich backyard, 2011]

The square, suburban sized backyard, surrounded by a white picket fence, had nice plantings of rhododendron, magnolia and dogwood trees, and between the “rhodies” were several tall pine trees. I was excited to have this small patch of earth and I began learning about gardening, planting small annuals at the edges of the manicured borders. Before long, my father decided he wanted to grow currants and gooseberries. These two berry variants are common in Germany, and he was thrilled to be able to grow his own. Fresh currants, and especially gooseberries, were very uncommonly sold in the produce stores in the New York area. After a year or two, small crops of jewel-like berries were visible under the kitchen window against the brick back wall of the house. They were easy to pick and good to eat. I recall the berries getting sugared, but not too heavily. They were sweet enough and rather pithy. That is, each had a vigorous and unique tang. Sometimes the currants were served with raspberries, a very common mingling. Before long, my father found out that his berry bushes were illegal. It must have been quite a blow. He did not know that these plants, both gooseberry and currant, but most especially black currant, can carry a blister rust (cronartium pibicola) that is fatal to White Pine trees.

[Left, berries for sale at farmers’ market in Berlin, 2011; Right, red currants, 2011]

In fact, that is why these berries were so scarce in the States. Once he found out about the problem, my father dug up and got rid of his delightful crop plants. He never looked back. Being a good American meant more to him than even these wonderful berries. Today, there are hybridized disease-resistant ribes nigrum, or black currant varieties, and red currants and gooseberries are permitted in most parts of New Jersey. This ‘berry-love’ was not lost on me. In fact, along one side of the house in Englewood, there were a few somewhat straggly raspberry bushes, acquired by my parents from their (German-Jewish) dentist’s property in rural New Jersey. These bushes were tenacious and productive. I moved my first transplants in the 60’s to upstate New York, where I was then living. They have travelled with me as I have moved to Brookline, Richmond, and Medford – all in Massachusetts – in the years since. In Richmond, they grew into a sizable rural raspberry patch and one summer the delectable berries were sold to several restaurants and bakeries in the Berkshires. In my current garden in Medford, this summer – after a non-winter produced a very early, super-abundant crop — I made my usual 8 jars of jam and had enough berries left to make raspberry sauce, eat fresh berries for a couple of weeks, and still have a pint in the freezer. Ancestral berry love continues strong.

— Gaby

Raspberries have a special place in the food traditions of central Europe. One of the most common uses for them is in syrup form. Today, one can readily buy tall bottles of raspberry syrup, as well as currant and other fruit syrups that mostly come from Balkan countries such as Slovenia or Croatia. When I was growing up in Washington Heights, the immigrant German-Jewish community had its own provider of this glorious sweet, which in our house was mixed with water to make a fresh and divine soft drink. Mrs. Bauer’s raspberry syrup came in a rather short bottle and it was considerably more concentrated than what appears today. One generous teaspoon of the thick, deep red syrup would flavor a whole glass of water or seltzer and emit a heavenly aroma of raspberry. It was a staple of my childhood diet, a yummy accompaniment to any meal. Of course, raspberry syrup can also be added to iced tea or lemonade. Or, to a glass of white wine to make a Kir (or sparkling wine for a Kir Royale) – or any other cocktail, for that matter. In Berlin, it is often added to Berliner Weisse, a regionally brewed wheat beer.

Now that Mrs. Bauer’s is long gone and I have found nothing as good on the market to replace it (and since I have a massive raspberry crop this year after the warm winter), I am making my own syrup. In addition to using it to flavor drinks, it can also be drizzled over any number of foods – pancakes, waffles, yoghurt, pudding or ice cream.

If you are lucky enough to have access to a supply of fresh raspberries you can pick yourself, all the better.  Here is the recipe:

Raspberry Syrup (Himbeersaft)

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

2 cups raspberries

1) Combine the water and the sugar in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Lower heat and simmer for another 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

2) Meanwhile, put the raspberries in a heavy-bottomed pot. Cook over low heat until soft, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cool slightly and pour into sieve that has been set over a bowl. With the back of a tablespoon or a wooden spoon, press the berries to extract all the juice. Let it sit for another 15 minutes and press again. You should have about 1 cup of juice.

3) Add the raspberry juice to the syrup.

4) Return the raspberry syrup to the stove, bring to a boil and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until syrup thickens and becomes more concentrated. Cool.

5) Store in a sealed jar in the refrigerator, or freeze.

I recently noticed that a good New York rye bread with caraway seeds is much tastier and crisper than a plain white New York rye bread. (Does anyone know why?) It got me thinking about caraway seeds. They are an important flavor addition to many German dishes and therefore also to German-Jewish food.

When I was growing up in Washington Heights, my mother made sautéed potatoes with great regularity – probably three or four times a week. I have to assume that this practice arrived on these shores with her, and that is what she was used to cooking in Germany. Like most of my mother’s food, it was simple and delicious, relying on ingredients that make themselves easily known. She used a black enameled fry pan with tapered sides brought over when they immigrated in 1939. The pan would get a large dab of Crisco or butter, or both; the pan was heated and the previously steamed potatoes were then sliced and laid into the hot fat. The aroma of the butter signaled that these delightful potatoes were on the menu. If I was doing homework on the living room floor, I would head through the swinging door to the kitchen and check out the pan, maybe snitching a slice of potato.

Mom tended to fry hotter than I do, so her potatoes usually had some darker and lighter spots, including some very crisp portions. She would add salt and caraway seeds somewhere during the cooking process. The seeds dotted the potatoes, making a very noticeable pattern which is appropriate because the caraway taste is a very distinctive characteristic of this dish.

In Germany, caraway seeds are also often added to cabbage dishes and to sauerkraut, things I also remember from my childhood. Why, I wonder, is caraway, which is called kümmel in German, so popular? This spice, like so many, has a long history winding from one continent and millennium to the next. Think Stone Age, and Egyptians burying the seeds with their dead. It is related to other spices such as fennel, coriander and anise seed and this whole family of flavorings is considered to be carminative, which means they are soothing to the digestive system. It probably does so well in North-Central Europe because it grows well there, which I think is not the case with fennel and the others. It probably also has a calming effect when eating some rather heavy, difficult-to-digest foods.

Here is a recipe for my version of my mother Erna’s roasted potatoes. I’ve swapped out her Crisco for vegetable oil, but they remain essentially as I remember them from my youth: both crispy and soft, slightly salty and filled with heady caraway notes. They are a wonderful accompaniment to just about any meal, but work especially well with schnitzel, roast chicken, or any type of wurst.

Pan-roasted Potatoes with Caraway Seeds  [serves 4 as a side dish]

1 ½ pounds thin-skinned, waxy potatoes, peeled and cut in half (if using organic, may leave the skins on)

2 tablespoons neutral vegetable oil (or 1 tablespoon oil + 1 tablespoon unsalted butter)

2 teaspoons caraway seeds

1 teaspoon salt

1) Steam or boil the potatoes until barely tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from pot. When cool enough to handle, slice into ½ inch thick pieces.

2) Heat the oil (and butter, if using) in a large fry pan. Layer potatoes into the pan and cook on medium heat. Turn frequently so they will brown evenly. When they begin to brown, scatter the caraway seeds and salt over the potatoes and toss. Cook another minute or two. The potatoes should be gently browned around the edges. Eat hot.

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