This Book is a Classic, Even If It Sucks: Love and Knishes, by Sara Kasdan

Some years back I bought a box of postcards that Penguin published — it was a fabulous collection of the covers of Penguin-published cookbooks from decades back. I have sent cards from this deck to many people, over time, and about half the recipients have asked me, “Where’d you get these postcards?” Well: This is the collection. Ignore the dim-witted Amazon reviews that talk about how the cards aren’t colorful enough. These images are from books published mostly during wartime or just post-WWII in England: to say that having fancy bright colors on book covers wasn’t a priority is a vast understatement. Having newly printed books at all would have been something of a miracle, and anyone who comments on how the colors aren’t bright enough is a pinhead and a schmuck and an insensitive lout.

But: moving on. Of the hundred books represented in this collection of postcards, about twenty, thirty of them are books I can remember having held in my hands. Maybe five of them are books I own or have owned; and the rest are titles that I’ve never seen in real life. One of them, a Jewish cookbook called Love and Knishes, looked like it’d be right up my alley, but strangely I never put any effort into finding a copy. I sent the postcard to a friend, she put it on her fridge, and I pretty much never thought about it again.

Recently I was in a vintage housewares store downtown. The owner of the store greeted me warmly, as she always does, and said, “I just got in a lot of books, you should poke around, there’s some cookbooks.” So I scanned the shelves. There were maybe a hundred books, mostly of dubious value in terms of content, some notable for the publisher’s cloth decorated bindings. I am, personally, a sucker for a really good cloth decorated binding, but I don’t permit myself these luxuries anymore: shelf space is too limited here at the house. However, way over to one side of the shelving there was, indeed, a small cluster of cookbooks. Mostly, it was stuff that would be a bit of a hard sell: grim massive general cookbooks that everyone’s grandmother had around, not pretty enough, not weird enough to tempt me — ok, I admit it, they’re fascinating and fun, but I don’t buy these often anymore, because I’ve been around, and I know, for me, they’re not pretty enough and not weird enough — but there were also a few oddball specialty items. One was Betty Wason’s book on German cooking, which is kind of a classic, and not always easy to find. A nice clean hardcover in a handsome dust jacket? Mine. And then I noticed Love and Knishes. “Well I’ll be damned,” I said out loud.

I pulled the book from the shelf. Nice; clean; not a first edition, but a solid hardcover copy in a really nice dust jacket. I opened the book. Tucked inside was a clipping from the cooking section of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, 1967.  I asked Carol, the shop owner, how much she wanted for the books; she told me; I said, “Sold.”

I started to read Love and Knishes while I waited for my bus back home. From the moment I started reading, I knew I’d made a good decision. The book is one of those in-the-vernacular pieces of work. The recipes are given in straightforward English with straightforward measurements and so on, but the text that makes up the real body of the work is your old bubbe talking to you about how cooking is supposed to be, how it was, and how it will be if you would just shut up and listen.

So, ok, this is not a cookbook for everybody. I will grant that. If you are looking for recipes for grits with shrimp, for example, this is not your book. And if you are not entertained by the old American-Jewish mode of speech — even as it was brought into American pop culture, I mean — this is not for you. By which I mean, it helps probably to be a fan of the Marx Brothers, the old Dick Van Dyke Show, Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, and early Woody Allen movies. (I can understand if you can’t stomach the Woody Allen. Let’s move on.) It’s a book that will be enjoyed by people who laugh at (and with) Hyman Kaplan.

If you are a fan of those things, in addition to being a fan of cookbooks, on the other hand, you are likely to be immediately charmed by Love and Knishes. Here is the introductory paragraph to Chapter 1, entitled “You Should Live So Long!”

One day it comes to me the idea to write a Jewish cookbook. Why? Who can say? Thousands of cooks there are with good Jewish backgrounds. They don’t need to cook from a book; they can cook from their heads. So why should I write a book? On the other hand, why not? There are plenty of cooks whose background is still ahead of them. They remember the wonderful food that mama and grandmama made and they want to make it, too. And if they don’t remember, so their husbands do, and this i even worse. Good food is to eat, not just to remember. 

Also a reason: I am the type person who likes to study human nature. 

I’m telling you: it’s like if The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N were a cookbook. Some of my readers will run out to Google Hyman Kaplan, that’s fine, or you can click on the link (apparently it’s in print, which is some kind of miracle), but my mother will just nod her head and go, “okay, I get you now.”

There is a ton of stuff in here that I would like to try my hand at (there’s a recipe for bagels that looks plausible; also, yeast-risen hamantaschen, like I need to start mucking around with new hamantaschen recipes, for god’s sake; and my husband has already protested this, saying, “But you’ve got hamantaschen DOWN! Why mess with it anymore?”). But mostly I’ve been enjoying this book for the author’s voice; sure, it’s just schtick, but it’s well-done. I love this:
So this is the story how I lived to get an electric stove. Such a stove! Three ovens. For a while I couldn’t figure out why three ovens, then it comes to me clear. The Automatic-Automatic Co. is not anti-Semitic. They’ve got an oven for milchiks (dairy dishes), an oven for flaishiks (meats), and the third? Naturally, that is for trefe (non-kosher). After all, they have gentile customers, too.” 

This is just comedy gold, but it’s also, like, totally valid anthropological observation from Mrs. Kasdan’s perspective (not sure what Levi-Strauss would say but I don’t care much, either, so, pheh*):

The story of how our narrator/teacher comes to have her first electric stove — and it’s a long story — is brilliant, I could read it three times in a row (and have). The detail in it is phenomenal, and she even writes the kind of thing that — as my husband said — was probably true not just in her house but in countless houses when the ladies of the houses got their first electric stoves: “Because it’s an old habit, I’m keeping on the stove a box of matches.” I read this to my husband, who observed, “That sounds like something my grandmother would do.” It does, too. I remember my husband’s grandmother and it’s true she was the furthest thing I can think of from a Jewish grandmother, but she would totally have kept a box of matches on the back of her electric stove, because, you know, you’re supposed to keep a box of matches on the back of the stove.

I’ve read this book cover to cover, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I’ve yet to cook out of it, but I certainly plan to. If even one recipe in it is worth making, then I declare it an A+ Jewish cookbook classic; if nothing I make is worth doing a second time, it’ll still be a pleasure to read and re-read, and it will be a classic in the vein of Peg Bracken — maybe not a book to cook out of, but still a book to love. Love and Knishes is a book I wish I’d read years ago. Think of all the times I could have re-read it by now, if I’d known. So, now I know.

pheh is how Mrs. Kasdan spells the word known to me my whole life as “feh.” They both work. I’m adopting Mrs. K’s spelling for the purposes of this essay, out of respect.

 

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