Jewish Cookbooks

A history from the traditional to the treif.

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What's big and long and treyf in some places? The history of Jewish cookbooks. Long before the Joy of Cooking was published in 1936, Jewish women were writing and sharing their recipes and food traditions. Filled with recipes from gefilte fish to oyster canapés to dafina, Jewish cookbooks are the single largest form of writing by and for Jewish women. These cookbooks offer a revealing glimpse into the everyday lives of Jews, and the range of cultural practices and religious customs in the modern period. 

Defining Jewish Cookbooks

cookbooksA Jewish cookbook is a collection of recipes in some way associated with Judaism and/or Jewish people. Commonly divided into three categories: promotional, community (or charitable), and individually authored, Jewish cookbooks may be brimming with traditional Jewish recipes or lacking in all but a few.

Promotional cookbooks are published by food companies with recipes that call for products they produce. Manischewitz, for example, published Tempting Kosher Dishes (1930) featuring advertisements for their products placed between kosher-for-Passover recipes such as Strawberry Shortcake. Meanwhile, Procter and Gamble promoted their pareve Crisco oil to Jewish women in their cookbook, Crisco Recipes for the Jewish Housewife, first published in back-to-back Yiddish and English in 1933.

Jewish community cookbooks are fundraising endeavors compiled to collect funds for a Jewish organization (e.g., Hadassah, ORT), a synagogue, or other charitable causes. Jewish community cookbooks have been published in cities, towns, and suburbs all across North America. Although publication runs for individually authored cookbooks are often larger, Jewish community cookbooks represent the greatest number of Jewish cookbooks published.

Jewish cookbooks penned by one author, often a food or nutrition expert of some sort, are published by commercial publishing houses, both secular and Jewish, and geared for large audiences.

Going Back in Time

The first bound volume of Jewish recipes emerged from the German city of Carlsruhe in 1815, but the most successful early Jewish cookbook was Rebekka Wolf’s Kochbuch fuer Israelitische Frauen (Cookbook for Jewish Women) (Berlin, 1856), which went through 14 editions in several languages. The first English Jewish cookbook emerged in London, The Jewish Manual, or Practical Information in Jewish and Modern Cookery (1846).

As Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has shown, by the end of the 19th century, gourmet kosher cookbooks appeared across Europe and served as common gifts for young brides. Fifty years later, European Jewish cookbooks took on a new flavor, highlighting regional specialties or political and philanthropic causes, such as those of the Juedischer Frauenbund, the German Jewish feminist organization.

In the United States, Esther Levy wrote the first Jewish cookbook, Jewish Cookery Book on Principles of Economy Adapted for Jewish Housekeepers with Medicinal Recipes and Other Valuable Information Relative to Housekeeping and Domestic Management (Philadelphia: 1871). As migration from Eastern Europe began en masse, Yiddish cookbooks also began to appear in the United States, such as Hebrew Publishing Company’s Dos familyen kokh-bukh (The Family Cookbook) (New York: 1914). With recipes for apple pie and other American favorites, these cookbooks in part acted as early tools of integration, providing traditional recipes for gefilte fish alongside American classics. 

Meanwhile, “Aunt Babette’s” Cook Book, an early and exceptionally popular cookbook first published by Bloch Publishing Company in 1889 (Cincinnati)--with dozens of editions thereafter--offered lengthy instructions on gourmet cuisine and fashionable table setting. Bloch released several follow-ups to Aunt Babette’s (a pseudonym for Bertha Kramer), including in 1945 The Jewish Cookbook (revised and enlarged in 1958), by dietician Mildred Grosberg Bellin. With non-kosher recipes such as ‘Oysters Baked on Shell,’ Aunt Babette’s reflected the Reform community from which it emerged.

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Lara Rabinovitch is a Joint PhD candidate in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and the Department of History at New York University, where her field is modern Jewish history, with an emphasis on foodways and immigration. She serves as Managing Editor of Cuizine: The Journal of Canadian Food Cultures / Revue des cultures culinaires au Canada (www.cuizine.mcgill.ca).