Food, memories merge in new cookbook

In May, author June Hersh welcomed contributors to her book, “Recipes Remembered: A Celebration of Survival,” to a festive launch party at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Photo courtesy of Caroline Earp

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER | “Recipes Remembered: A Celebration of Survival” published by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City is more than just a cookbook. It’s a treasury of stories from 80 Holocaust survivors and their families recounting where they came from, what and whom they lost and how they created new lives in the United States. Many of them came to this country with little else but remembered recipes or with memories of food that they had eaten before the world of their childhood was destroyed.

In January 2008, June Feiss Hersh, who had never before written a cookbook, came up with the idea of compiling the recipes and stories and publishing the book as a fundraiser for the museum. The museum said yes.

“Recipes Remembered” was released in May 2011. It is now in its third printing. It is illustrated with family photographs from the survivors and with photos of artifacts from the museum.

The book came about “organically” said Hersh. For three generations, her family had been in the lighting business.

“We were one of the largest lighting companies in the world,” Hersh said.

But the fourth generation didn’t want to go into the business, so in 2004, it was sold and Hersh, who had worked in the business with the rest of her family, found herself with some free time on her hands.

“I wanted to do something I would be good at it and make a difference,” Hersh remarked. “My family supported the Museum of Jewish Heritage. I love to cook and I love to write and I love to speak to people and I had a great respect for the museum.”

So the idea for the cookbook was born.

Hersh said that she wanted the cookbook to be one that people could really use, but many of the survivors were imprecise in their descriptions of how they prepared the dishes they passed on to her.

“It was my job to take the recipes and test them and add measurements and try them and tweak them and eventually come up with something that you could replicate,” recalled Hersh.

In some cases, the author enlisted the help of professional chefs such as Mark Bittman, the Capsouto brothers (of Capsouto Frères), Faye Levy and Michael Solomonov to recreate recipes from vague memories of a beloved dish. Then, said Hersh, “Every single person had to approve any changes. They had to approve every word in their story and the recipes.”

Hersh noted that she did most of the test cooking in her New York City apartment kitchen, which she said was ample.

“They had space back then,” Hersh said of her sources, “but the kitchens were not sophisticated. Most of these women had a wooden spoon. Anything more than that was sophisticated.”

Hersh noted differences in the recipes depending on their origin.

“For one year we ate like Polish peasants,” said Hersh, recalling how her family dined on what she was testing at the time. “They ate cabbage, celeriac and cheap cuts of meat that you had to braise for days. The Hungarians and Germans added lots of butter and spices.”

The book also contains recipes such as “arroz con pollo” that would not be considered strictly Jewish. “We’ve been thrown out of some of the best countries in the world,” Hersh commented. “I have a survivor who lived on spaghetti and tomato sauce.”

This woman, Sonya Oshman, who was born in Poland and who remembered eating “a lot of spaghetti” in a displaced persons camp in Italy, tells her story in the book followed by a recipe re-created by professional contributor, Mark Strausman.

“Some of the stories made me cry, but many of them made me smile,” said Hersh. “What the human spirit can endure is remarkable.”

All of the money generated from sales of the book is going to the museum.

“I think the book will sell for years and years,” said Hersh. “These people’s stories are incredible. Unfortunately they’re not going to be here forever.”

“Recipes Remembered” is available from the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s Pickman Shop and also from www.amazon.com.