food 09.12.06

In Memory's Kitchen

[In 1969, Anny Stern was at home on the East Side when she got a phone call from someone she did not know. "I have a package for you from your mother." Her mother, Mina Pachter, had died in a concentration camp 25 years earlier; what she received was a bundle of fading and fragile sheets of paper that had made their way from Czechoslovakia to New York. Each page was a silent but eloquent testament to lives that ended in the Terezín camp. Award-winning journalist Cara De Silva, who edited what became In Memory's Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezín, picks up the story:]

When In Memory's Kitchen was first published in 1996, few could have imagined the trajectory it was about to describe, least of all the 32 presses that had turned it down. But once this unknown form of Holocaust literature burst upon a startled world, it quickly became a small phenomenon. Based on a manuscript of "dream" recipes set down in a concentration camp (the recipes often flawed by the state the authors were in), the book was voted one of the most noteworthy of the year by the New York Times Book Review, covered by media around the globe, and touched people profoundly wherever it went. A haunting work of rare staying power (it has never been out of print), IMK has just been released in paperback for the first time.

In the course of working on the book, and after it was published, two dozen or more other examples of the genre came to light. Such cookbooks emerged not only from lagers and work camps, but from displaced person centers, and POW camps. (A manuscript penned by GI POWs in the Philippines was published in 1946.) All are best thought of more as memoirs inscribed in recipes, than as cookbooks proper, and, like that created by the women of Terezín (now in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), they were surely written as a means of keeping sane, of hanging on to life, as well as a way for the authors to comfort themselves by recalling gentler times.

But they were also a form of psychological resistance. Because food is a powerful identity marker, to remember the dishes you once cooked and served your family, the traditional foods with which you celebrated, is to reinforce your sense of who you are when your culture and your people are in danger of being obliterated. Could anything demonstrate better the ability of food to nourish not only the body but the spirit?

In the end, what at first seemed unusual, the recording of recipes in time of peril, came not to seem unusual at all. In fact, wherever people under siege are literate, and can find a scrap of paper and a pencil stub, food traditions are likely to be remembered. Certainly, somewhere in this embattled world, they are being set down right now.

In Memory's Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezín, Edited by Cara De Silva, Translated by Bianca Steiner Brown, Foreword by Michael Berenbaum; $14.95; Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
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