Monday, April 13, 2009

Pomiane and Jewish Cooking

The Jews of Poland: Recollections and Recipes by Edouard de Pomiane (French original, 1929; English translation, 1985) is out of print and hard to find. My usual libraries don't have it, and the price is high. I've been looking for it for a long time, and especially interested since I read another of his books (blogged here). Finally, I found an affordable copy, and I've now read it. And I understand its obscurity.

Most books of "recollections" about Jewish food are based on interviews with elderly Jews who represent a lost era. And most are conducted by other Jews. Pomiane, born in 1875, was the son of Polish nobility who fled after resisting the mid-19th century Russian owners of Poland. Though Jews of that era suffered too, people like the Pomianes had no particular interest in Jewish problems or high awareness of their persecution (though he does describe an eyewitness account of the Kishinev massacre). Pomiane, though born and raised in France, thus reflected a combination of French and Polish upper-class view of Jews.

Pomiane was a research doctor whose hobby was food and cooking; in the 1920s he even had a radio show about cooking, and wrote many popular cookbooks. His interest in Jewish food was unusual for his era. Both his knowledge of Polish and his decision to go to Poland and interview Jews in cities, towns, and villages was extraordinary -- perhaps unique. His descriptions of Jewish dishes and also his recipes are really interesting, though I think most sophisticated Jewish cookbook authors have used this source, so no recipe is totally surprising.

It's somewhat painful to read his work, enlightening though it is. I wouldn't call him an antisemite. Rather, he views Jews as the other, as most extremely exotic, despite their interesting food. Pomiane describes Jewish life in Polish cities and shtetels from completely outside, and doesn't fully relate to them the way that Jewish food writers usually do. He has no nostalgia: only curiosity. As a Jewish reader of many books on Jewish food, I found this slightly jolting, and then totally useful and fascinating. And as I say, my conclusion isn't that he was really antisemitic, just alienated from his subjects -- even to an extent from the assimilated French Jews whom he admired and befriended. I find it hard to accept my identity as part of such an alien group, but the book offers another way to understand how it was to be a Jew nearly 100 years ago, something I'd like to be able to do.

The food descriptions and portrayals of his Jewish informants are intriguing, since he is reporting directly on what was being cooked in the 1920s, not on post-emigration nostalgia for it. He seems to have enjoyed meals in both restaurants and homes, as well as watching cooks in their kitchens, and as a food writer was very observant. He was interested in details, like which fish they ate and how they cooked it, though he didn't like the use of sugar in fish preparation. He especially found Sabbath slow-cooking in the bakers' ovens interesting, and tried to reproduce it in his own kitchen. He questioned both cooks and rabbis about kosher practice, though as the translator points out, never really grasped the principles of kashrut. (The translator notes his lapses when giving his recipes.) His description of the Jewish quarter of Paris is as interesting as his description of the Polish Jews.

Usually when I read about Jewish memories, I think of my father who came to America from a shtetl in 1921. Reading this, I thought about a character whom I don't often consider: M. Klusinski, the landlord who ages ago rented us a small, cold room with a coal stove and shared bathroom. This was in Grenoble when we were just-married students.

Klusinski, when we knew him, was a wealthy French businessman. His large house stood on a hillside -- our apartment, probably, was meant to be servants' quarters. He had come from Poland, and had quite negative views of the Jews he had known. When he described them, though he wasn't virulently antisemitic, he chilled me by his cold stereotyped attitude. I think by mutual agreement, we didn't talk to him at all often. It's been a long time, and I'm not so chilled any more, not by Pomiane. I really enjoyed this book.

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