Book Review: Katja Sindemann's Mazzesinsel Kochbuch
The intertwined observances of culinary and religious rites: a study of the traditional cooking in Viennese Jewish households
The "Mazzesinsel" is not really an island, more a mini-peninsula bulging rather than jutting into the Danube Canal from the north, part of Vienna’s 2nd District.
Culturally, though, it was an island for several centuries, populated almost exclusively, if not entirely voluntarily, by the Jewish population of Vienna. It was, of course, also the site for the ghetto under the Nazi occupation.
The area has gone through several reincarnations since then, with influxes of immigrants (formerly as "guest workers") predominantly from Turkey and Eastern Europe, and most recently from the native Viennese intelligentsia and artist set, who, in the 90s, pounced on cheap property just waiting to be renovated into spacious, chic designer abodes, plus easy access to the (desirable but financially unattainable) 1st District. For many, life centers around the delights of the Karmelitermarkt with its special mix of local and organic produce, Kosher butchers, Turkish grocers and Feinkost delicacies.
Through it all, a core Jewish population remained – or, rather, returned, having sought their roots when they, or their relatives, came back to Vienna after the War, reinstating a link to the centuries-old traditions, including, of course, those intertwined observances of culinary and religious rites. Katja Sindemann is to be congratulated for undertaking a study of the traditional dishes cooked and served in Jewish family households in Vienna.
This is a cookbook of the best sort, in which the author brings alive the customs of those preparing, cooking and savoring the dishes, describing, illustrating and explaining for a wider readership the Jewish calendar, the high days and holy days and the moving symbolism of the food offered at each, recalling stages of the Jews’ history, their wandering.
She takes us with her into family homes, into kitchens and dining rooms, where we are guests at the weekly Sabbath meal and at special ceremonies, for example at Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and Channukah, and allowed to watch the preparation of the food and be present at the blessing. The book is also peppered (forgive the pun) with many of the humorous Jewish stories that have passed out of mainstream Viennese literary life and which display such insight into the Jewish soul and human nature in general, and into dietary restrictions and how to circumvent them. For example pork:
Mr. Kohn goes into a grocer’s shop, points at a fine piece of ham and asks the shopkeeper "How much does that fish cost?" The shopkeeper answers, "That’s not a fish, that’s a ham!" Says Kohn: "Did I ask you for the name of the fish?!"
And then there are the recipes. We meet many familiar dishes, and learn, for example, that both "Wiener Schnitzel" and "Guglhupf", the round cake with raisins baked in a Savarin tin, used to be considered typical Jewish dishes, the Schnitzel for Sunday lunch when the Catholic Viennese ate their roast pork, and the golden cake traditionally served with coffee at the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Reconciliation, a strict day of fasting. Here also, of course, are the famous dishes such as "Gevilte fish," formerly always made from carp in Vienna, so far from the sea; and the chopped liver and aubergine puree of my own childhood.
The recipes are kept simple, most of them easy to follow because they are, for the most part, uncomplicated processes. Jewish food combines the cuisines from many parts of the Diaspora, integrating ingredients and flavors from the Middle East, Poland, Russia, Spain and Portugal; and the author refers briefly to these sources where it is illuminating to do so.
(For a fascinating and thorough account of the varied geographical and cultural sources of Jewish food there is nothing better than Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food, which manages to be both a compendium and a good read. Interestingly enough, however, that work highlights the Viennese influence on Jewish food as primarily coffee and the coffee house, although she also does mention Viennese Schnitzel!)
Finally, a mention of the beautifully sensitive photographs throughout the book, which illustrate not only the dishes but also life on the Mazzesinsel itself, the people and the daily and religious objects of their culture. All in all, a cookery book that enlarges one’s horizons and invites one into a part of Vienna one might have overlooked.
by Katja Sindemann
Vienna: Metro Verlag, 2009
Available at Lhotzky’s Literaturbuffet
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