Tuesday, December 12, 2017

"Candies from Heaven"

Gil Hovav is famous in Israel for his TV and print journalism, especially his cooking shows. As I'm not a consumer of Israeli pop culture, I hadn't heard of him until I read the reviews of his newly-translated memoir, Candies from Heaven (published in English in October, 2017). My favorite review is in Tablet Magazine, here.

Each chapter tells a story about Hovav's childhood in Jerusalem. He completely captures the point of view of "Gili," his childish self. I enjoyed the colorful descriptions of his brother, his parents, his grandparents (living and not), aunts, uncles, cousins, and Aisha,  their "housekeeper," a woman who came from Morocco and always lived in the family apartment because she had never bothered with legal papers. Their conflicts and affections and his childish struggles with understanding them are beautifully described.

As in many families, food was important to Gili's relatives. There were pastries from France, quince candies, chicken soup, packed-lunch sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, and many other foods. His aunts, and many others had their special dishes such as Aunt Levana's Carrot Salad or Moroccan Chicken in Paprika and Lemon. I appreciate the simplicity of most of the recipes that follow each chapter -- they actually seem to be real renditions of the foods that were eaten in the chapters.

But Gili's mother was so terrible at cooking that on her one effort to make a Sabbath roast, she messed up so completely that she had her sons take it to a garbage can somewhere and corroborate her story that the dog had eaten it. His father was sometimes so hungry for meat that he would eat the chicken necks that were supposed to be the dog's actual dinner.

Candies from Heaven
is beautifully and amusingly illustrated.
Above all, his grandmother, called Mooma, had recipes. I especially liked the chapter titled "A Morning of Laughing Bourekas" --
"Every Thursday, Mooma made about one hundred bourekas with three different fillings: eggplant, spinach and cheese. Despite the respectable quantity, only about fifty bourekas would survive until Saturday night, when the ancient gang of Ladino speakers – we called them the Sephardi Underground – would convene. The bourekas were actually meant for them, and if there weren’t enough – it would mean big trouble." -- Candies from Heaven, Kindle Locations 3124-3127). 
Of course the small child Gili gets in trouble for his fascination with the bourekas -- he becomes ambitious and tries to shape, fill, and bake them while his grandmother is letting the dough rest. They open up in the oven, instead of staying sealed. And Mooma forgives him and says his ill-formed pastries are smiling at him, not mocking him with laughter.

Hovav's mother had an expression: "I don't envy you." This was a threat -- it always followed something he was about to do but she was warning him not to. I enjoyed the humor in this repeated theme. A few of them:
"Now I would like all of you to be quiet. I’m tired, I took two sleeping pills and want to get a good sleep. If anyone bothers me one more time ... I don’t envy either of you, do you hear me? Quiet, hush!" -- Candies from Heaven, Kindle Locations 929-931.
“Either you get back here this very minute or I don’t envy you. For God’s sake, there’s a policeman here, don’t you see?! He’ll shoot you!” -- Kindle Locations 2854-2856.
"'Stand straight, Moshe, stand straight!' my mother instructed, holding a lit candle. 'Don’t do anything foolish. If you pull your back out again, I don’t envy you. You’ll have to find someone else to feed you and bathe you and serve you for two weeks while you lie in bed and read newspapers.'" -- Kindle Locations 1407-1409.
Gili even picks up this expression when threatening to tattle on his older brother:
"I’ll write in my diary that you refuse to take me, and then Mom will find the diary in its hiding place and read it, and then Mom won’t envy you.” -- Kindle Locations 1110-1111.
I enjoyed reading Candies from Heaven. Almost every major Israeli immigrant group seems to have been part of Hovav's family. His father was from a Yemenite neighborhood. His grandfather was the ultimate Yiddish-speaking Jew, namely Eliezer Ben-Yehuda who created the modern Hebrew language and convinced the settlers around 100 years ago to adopt it -- not Yiddish -- as the language of the newly emerging nation. Collateral relatives came from France, from Sephardic areas like Morocco, from the German Jewish immigrant community, and so on. Because the point of view in the stories is always in the eyes of Gili, the child of six to nine years old, this multi-ethnic environment is taken as normal, not over-hyped.

Hovav manages to make all kinds of things seem totally natural, not forced or literary. Is this for real?  Or is it sort of a work of fiction? That's not an important issue: it's a book that really reads naturally, with lots of very nice food memories, family stories, family rivalries, and all around warmth.


Kitchen Riffs said...

Hovav is new to me -- haven't heard of him. That's OK -- he hasn't heard of me, either! :D Really good review -- this sounds like a fun book. Thanks.

jama said...

Thanks for the heads up about this book. Your review makes me want to read it -- will have to look for it.

jama said...

Thanks for the heads up about this book. Your review makes me want to read it -- will have to look for it.

Deb in Hawaii said...

It sounds like an interesting book with lots of food and humor mixed in. Thanks for sharing about it--I'm adding it to my foodie book TBR list. ;-)

Beth F said...

I hope my library has a copy!