Revered Wisdom: Judaism

This was, unfortunately, a very disappointing read.  The author’s in this tome, took an interesting topic and completely killed it.  What was supposed to be the historical background of the second half of the Old Testament and an overview of Jewish literature, turned into a biased/prejudiced slog through history and a superficial slice of Jewish authors.

JudaismJudaism by Charles Foster Kent & Gustav Karpeles, was given to me by my parents for Christmas.  They know I like to read about Biblical history as well as expanding the pool of authors I select from.  This book seemed to them to kill two birds with one stone.  What they didn’t know is that this book is a compilation of two different books.  Kent and Karpeles wrote separate books and the publisher of the edition that I have, decided to abridge both books and smack them together into single volume.

Kent’s work is from 1945 and some of his language is very dated.  He also writes with a somewhat arrogant tone.  He does a good job giving the background to books of the Old Testament such as Esther, Isaiah, and Nehemiah.  This interested me because sometimes I think we lose context by not knowing the history of what was happening when these books were written.  Knowing the context gives more meaning to what was written, in my opinion.  However, every now and then, Kent makes these remarks like, “Of course we know…” or “Obviously it couldn’t be…”.  It irks me when authors make those evaluations when there is some doubt that there is 100% certainty.

Karpeles’s section on Jewish literature was more modern, but was sparse when it came to actually discussion works of Jewish literature and authors who wrote them.  Instead, it was a long discussion of the Bible and the Talmud, which no one will argue is the foundation of Jewish literature, but there’s much more than that.  For example, Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman and Motl The Cantor’s Son is now famous for being the origin of The Fiddler on the Roof, yet it’s not mentioned in this section.  If I were Karpeles, I would’ve wanted to give readers a sampling of Jewish authors, rather than spending time on works that are already well known.

This book was a two star.  It was slow going and I think it could’ve been written better.  I’m pretty sure there’s much better books out there so I do not recommend this book.

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The Cuisines of Germany

Who doesn’t love history, culture, and food?  Having already reviewed a book about the history of American foods, I happened across this book, combining actual recipes and the history behind the dishes from each region of Germany.  Apparently this is my year of reading historical cook books.

GermanyThe Cuisines of Germany by Horst Scharfenberg is different from other books on the dishes Germany.  First off, Scharfenberg begins by giving a brief history of the influences on each region’s typical cuisine.  I’m turning into a bit of a food history nerd, so this immediately grabbed my attention.  I find it fascinating how dishes develop due to climates, geography, flora, and fauna.  A little anachronistic, but still intriguing is that the regions now no longer considered part of Germany: Silesia, Pomerania, and East Prussia are also included in the list as well as references to East and West Germany.  None of this distracts from the succinct and purposeful explanation for how each region developed a certain palate.

Scharfenberg then divides the book into sections like soups, stews, desserts, beef, poultry, game, etc.  With each recipe under each section, Scharfenberg gives a note on the history of the dish, where the recipe came from, and on what occasions the dish would’ve been served.  Sometimes the recipe is actually taken from a historical diary/cookbook from several centuries ago.  And let’s just say that I’m grateful today we have standard measurements.  Some of those old recipes clearly assume you’re an established cook.  With directions like, “a pinch of salt”, “enough flour”, and “amount of sugar to your choice”, it drives me crazy!  Luckily, Scharfenberg gives a modern recipe to accompany the antique one.

While some of the recipes are typical “meat and potatoes”, there’s actually a lot of diversity within each category.  Amongst the soup recipes, there were several fruit soups as well as bean and barley soups.  So if you’re a vegetarian or just not big on having meat in every dish, there’s still recipes for you.

If you like a good serving of history and culture with your food then I do recommend this book for you.  Guten appetit!

The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites

I love food.  And history.  So any book that can tell me the history of the food that I eat or am aware of is of interest of me.  The American Plate by Libby O’Connell is a book that does just that.  Beginning with the Native Americans and the staples they consumed through the debates over GMO’s and other ethical topics in today’s epicurean debates, O’Connell explains the relationship between food and history.  On top of that, she includes recipes for some of the principal dishes of each era.

American PlateWhat’s amazing to me is that the foods we eat today still have many of their roots in the Native Americans’ diet such as corn, squash, and beans.  Think about a lot of our holiday food or the food we prepare for special occasions, there’s usually some form of corn, squash, or bean. And being good Americans we have a lot of food dishes that are a consequence of our innovative spirit, Wonder Bread and Tang anyone?

It was surprising to me the influence the government and economics has had on our palate.  From the rationing in WWI and WII which spawned crazes in canning and meatloaf to the soups of the Great Depression, these two factors have played a factor in the next generation of food innovations.  We also have to take into consideration the influence of immigration on our culinary choices.  Many of the foods we consider part of the American diet other nations would consider “foreign food”.  Bagels, Meatballs, Chop Suey, these are all made by immigrants in the U.S.  Thanks to the proliferation of meat and the limitation of geographic-specific ingredients, many immigrants groups changed their native diets to fit what they found in America. For examples, spaghetti and meatballs and chop suey are all made by Italian and Chinese Americans but are not necessarily the same recipes you would find in Italy or China.

Who knows what the next evolution of food will be?  We still see fad diets telling us what to eat and not eat and Veganism and Gluten-free diets seem to be determining what super markets advertise, but history teaches us that these fads won’t last long.  I don’t know about you but I’m excited to see what we will be adding next to our American plate.