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Before No-Recipe Cooking, There Was Mrs. Levy

Look past the giblet pudding and cholera cures, and you’ll find a 19th-century cookbook that anticipates a 21st-century cooking trend

A copy of Mrs. Esther Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book Nick Mancall-Bitel
Nick Mancall-Bitel is an editor at Eater overseeing travel coverage and the international maps program.

The full title of Mrs. Levy’s book, as it appears on the cover, is Mrs. Esther Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book on Principles of Economy Adapted for Jewish Housekeepers With Medical Recipes and Other Valuable Information Relative to Housekeeping and Domestic Management and Being the First Jewish Cookbook Published in America as Published in Philadelphia, 1871.

Ludicrously long by modern standards, the cookbook’s title seems even more laughable once you flip through the recipes: They look abridged, written in a kind of cooking shorthand. Measurements, if they’re included at all, may call for “enough” or “good sized pieces.” Instructions — such as “let [the onions] cook to take the strength out of them,” “the addition of a piece of beef would improve the flavor,” and “when it has fermented properly” — rely on a similarly terse brand of intuition.

But it’s their very brevity and ambiguity that make Mrs. Levy’s 150-year-old recipes look a lot like the paragraph-styleno-recipes” that have become popular on digital food outlets and in email newsletters during the last few years. A reaction to the glut of overly technical recipes, no-recipes take a contrarian stance to the gospel of optimization, offering recognition to overworked home cooks already exhausted by Wednesday night. They prioritize speed without too much fuss over cup measures or baking times.

The Jewish Cookery Book is fascinating for all the ways it feels at once familiar and foreign, even to a Jewish reader acquainted with Mrs. Levy’s religious dining instructions (if not her prescriptive rhetoric on gender roles). Mrs. Levy, nee Jacobs, is a bit of a mysterious figure. Nearly every reference to her book — including the one on the back of my 1988 reprint — is accompanied by the statement that “not much is known about the book’s author.” So the book stands on its own merits.

Jewish Cookery shows its age in dishes like giblet pudding, “old” pea soup, and calf’s pluck with margen (stewed offal), along with its requirements of its audience: A reader will need to stock saleratus, sago, and suet; measure liquid by the wine glass; preserve butter for winter; and boil pudding in a tied-up cloth (a method some British readers might recognize as “shirt-sleeve pudding” or “dead man’s arm”).

As its unabridged title promises, the book is not merely a cookbook: Its “Other Valuable Information” includes a housekeeping section where you can learn to “give a gloss to shirt bosoms,” make pomatum (hair oil) from scented beef marrow and lard, put out a fire on another person, and “destroy” roaches with snuff. You take your life into your own hands wading through the medical recipes section, where there’s both a regular cure for cholera (soda, cinnamon, clove, brandy, sugar) and a “good cure” that includes Hoffman’s anodyne (ether) and laudanum (opium).

For all its oddities, the book hangs together with a certain logic if you spend enough time with it. Mrs. Levy addresses her book to young Jewish American women, essentially newlyweds or soon-to-be-weds unprepared for the domestic duties thrust upon them. I can’t help but imagine this target reader as someone like the “Young Wife,” the satirical still life painted 17 years earlier by Lilly Martin Spencer, an artist who portrayed the travails of newlywed life.

“There is no opportunity for attaining a knowledge of family management at school,” Mrs. Levy frets in her introduction. “The direction of a table is no inconsiderable branch of a lady’s business, as it involves judgment of expenditure, respectability of appearance, the comfort of one’s household, and of those who partake of the hospitality thereof.”

She is equally concerned that parents aren’t adequately passing down customs. “If the daughters of the family were to take the head of the table, under the direction of their mother, they would fulfill its duties with grace,” she writes. That would obviate the need for a book like this, but she exclaims elsewhere, “The want of a work of this description has long been felt in our domestic circles.” So Mrs. Levy took it upon herself to provide immigrants and their offspring with a crucial link to their ancestral food practices. Included among her many instructions in the book are how to properly set a table, follow specific rules for holidays, and arrange a menu for a whole week.

At the same time, Mrs. Levy helped immigrants learn to integrate Jewish dietary laws with the global foodways they encountered in the American melting pot, something (fittingly) evident in the soup section, which includes tweaked recipes for gumbo, mulligatawny, and pepper pot. A generation later, cookbooks devoted to Jewish-American cooking, like the more famous 1901 Settlement Cookbook by Lizzie Black Kander, reflected a more complicated relationship with integration, specifically the fear among established German Jewish immigrants that the Eastern European Jews then entering the country would reflect poorly on all Jews and spur anti-Semitism. Pressure for immigrants to Americanize was coded into the Settlement Cookbook, which included education about American cultural norms but few Jewish recipes.

By contrast, Mrs. Levy’s encouragement seems more optimistic, promising her readers they can merge culinary traditions while preserving their heritage. She neutralized the temptation of sumptuous American foods considered treif (or not kosher) by creating kosher versions so that no one would have to miss out on the fun of an aspirational American appetite, even developing a Charlotte-style dessert with matzo for Passover. “The contents of our Book show how various and how grateful to the taste are the viands of which we may lawfully partake,” she writes.

In this context, the book’s format makes sense. Rather than offer complex recipes for individual dishes, Mrs. Levy teaches by repetition, like a parent might. There are over 40 recipes for puddings, and only by reading all of them does a reader begin to learn the basic components of pudding, get a feel for texture, and internalize the methodologies. A relatively extensive recipe may feature a key detail that is then applied in another recipe, but Mrs. Levy doesn’t always explicitly connect the two. There are no page references, no shortcuts; you just have to find both recipes in your own time. It’s an empirical approach, full of trial and error, almost like learning to play music by ear.

Outlets that produce modern paragraph-style recipes lean away from this parental instinct, instead acknowledging the independence of home cooks and the quotidian realities that prevent them from prioritizing cooking. But these non-recipes only do so much for amateurs. You have to know how to cook to some degree before you can disregard recipes altogether, and there is little motivation to push through the cacophony of internet cooking advice until you have achieved that mastery.

The Jewish Cookery Book can just as easily feel frustrating to novices (which in this case includes anyone not versed in 150-year-old cooking lingo and customs). But the recipes provide reassurance through their number and cohesion. If the author’s own encouragement isn’t enough, the recipes collectively tell you to keep going. Or, as Mrs. Levy says, “Be careful to observe these rules, and you will succeed.”