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Collection: INTERAMER
Number: 70
Year: 2001
Author: Rhonda Dahl Buchanan, Editora
Title: El río de los sueños: Aproximaciones críticas a la obra de Ana María Shua

IS THERE A TEXT IN THIS GEFILTE FISH?
READING AND EATING WITH ANA MARÍA SHUA
Darrell B. Lockhart*
A few years ago while engaged in one of my favorite activities in Buenos Aires—book hunting on Avenida Corrientes—a certain title caught my eye as I looked through the window of a bookshop. It was Ana María Shua’s Risas y emociones de la cocina judía. The book itself is rather llamativo with its hot pink cover and drawing of a woman smiling from ear to ear who is offering a plate of food (a photograph of an actual prepared dish) to passersby. I was intrigued by the prospects such a book might have to offer so I ventured in to have a closer look. I wanted to know if this was a book about Jewish food, which could prove to be entertaining and informative reading, or if it was a cookbook, which would provide a sampling of traditional Jewish dishes as they have been preserved by the colectividad argentina. To my delight, it turned out to be both, and much more.

I have this book now in my home where it travels back and forth between the kitchen and its place next to Shua’s other titles in my personal library. I’ve never been sure where exactly is the most appropriate place for it. It’s a slippery volume to try to catalog since it’s not exactly literary, that is, it doesn’t conform to any given literary genre, and it’s not only a cookbook. Given my interest in literature, in cooking, and in Jewish culture—particularly that of Latin America—I find Shua’s book to be an engaging cultural document that lends itself to critical inquiry. My purpose in this essay will be to explore the nature of Risas y emociones within the context of popular culture, Argentine Jewish identity, and culinary discourse.

Food holds a special place within culture. It is in fact an integral part of culture. It is not merely the nourishment that we need to grow, remain healthy, and sustain life. Food, in many ways, represents who we are as human beings. It defines and marks us in social, ethnic, religious, and even ideological terms. As such, food and food preparation is charged with semiotic meaning. In essence, food narrates many aspects of our lives and tells the story of our identity. The familiar adage “you are what you eat” is much more than a clever reference to what we take into our bodies and how it affects us physically and healthwise. We are literally what we eat, but also socially, politically, symbolically, and spiritually as Deane W. Curtin has shown in her essay on the philosophy of food. Likewise, Anne Goldman keenly demonstrated how food and cooking is a natural metonym for culture as well as a political artifact. While the foods we consume tell us much about who we are, what we do not eat is equally as telling.

During the past decade or so the study of the culture(s) of food has burgeoned into a field of serious academic inquiry within the social sciences. Food as a science is no longer the exclusive domain of dieticians and nutritionists. The ever-increasing bibliography on food and its significance within culture and society ranges from economics, to sociology and anthropology, to literature and cultural studies. Food has gained the attention of these sciences for the way in which it creates community, preserves memory, establishes both difference and sameness, regulates our lives, shapes our attitudes, and affects our health and well-being on a day-to-day basis. Roland Barthes has effectively demonstrated how food is a “system of communication” and how it “constitutes an information; it signifies” (21). Furthermore, Barthes argues for the existence of what he calls the “spirit” of food, which he links to language:

By this I mean that a coherent set of food traits and habits can constitute a complex but homogeneous dominant feature useful for defining a general system of tastes and habits. This “spirit” brings together different units (such as flavor and substance), forming a composite unit with a single signification, somewhat analogous to the suprasegmental prosodic units of language. (23)

If food and all the rituals of preparation that accompany it within a given social environment constitute a system of communication with its own set of codified signifiers, as Barthes contends, then food can be read as a cultural narrative. The question is: How do we go about interpreting the language and message of food? Furthermore, what does a book like Shua’s tell us about Jewish culture in Argentina?

The history of the link between the culinary arts and literature in Argentina dates back to the late nineteenth century when Juana Manuela Gorriti published her Cocina ecléctica (1890), a collection of recipes and anecdotes gathered from among some of Argentina’s and South America’s most illustrious women. The book was popular in its day and since has enjoyed several reprintings (the latest in 1999) and received a good amount of critical attention. More recently, several authors have taken an anecdotal approach to writing cookbooks. One can cite, for example, Alicia Steimberg’s El mundo no es de polenta (1991)—designed to teach adolescents to cook—and Luis Landriscina’s El humor y la cocina: cuentos para reír y recetas criollas para saborear (1996). More literary approaches to culinary writing include Silvia Plager’s Como papas para varenikes (1994), an ingenious parody of Laura Esquivel’s phenomenally popular novel Como agua para chocolate (1989) and Ana Pomar’s Sabores de la memoria: historias con recetas (1994). All these books clearly show a link between culture and cooking. Landriscina’s and Steimberg’s volumes focus mainly on criollo (homegrown Argentine) recipes, although Steimberg does include Jewish foods as well (plainly one could argue that Jewish cooking is “typically Argentine” just as is Italian cuisine). Plager focuses on Jewish food and culture to weave a narrative that is highly entertaining, and revealing in terms of social commentary, while Pomar centers her story and recipes into a cohesive narrative chiefly about Anglo-Argentine culture. Shua’s Risas y emociones de la cocina judía and a similar book edited by Patricia Finzi and also published by Editorial Shalom, Sabores y misterios de la cocina sefaradí (1993), join ranks within this realm of gastronomic popular culture, specifically Jewish in content, that together lend their voices to create the type of system of communication proposed by Barthes.

Within the context of culture, food is key to many aspects of Judaic tradition and holds a place of particular significance that is both symbolic and substantive. Moreover, food plays an important role in the construction of identity inasmuch as it is central both to religious rites and celebrations as well as characterizing regional Jewish identities. For example, the food items prepared for the Passover Seder represent, indeed narrate, the enslavement of the Jews and the exodus from Egypt. The dietary laws or kashrut dictate in literal ways what food is fit to eat (kosher) or that which is not (terefah). On a more secular, and regional or ethnic level, distinct Jewish communities have developed dietary practices that reflect the unique socio-cultural history of the group (i.e. in very general terms the difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazic dishes, for example). As Jean Soler has established, the semiotic analysis of the discourse about food in the Torah provides for a deeper understanding of the relationship between the Jews and a meaningful way of being in the world, that “[t]here is a link between a people’s dietary habits and its perception of the world” (55). Food, like the Word, plays an integral role from the beginning—Genesis. In fact, food is mentioned in the first chapter of Genesis and from that point on is central to the “plot development” of the Torah. A detailed and complex code—a body of law—regarding behavior is established for the Hebrews that revolves in large part around food and food preparation so that it becomes ingrained as an integral part of identity.

While dietary laws and ritual food preparation are central to many aspects of Jewish life, of concern for the present essay on Shua’s secular and popular (in its latinate meaning “of the people” [popularis]) Risas y emociones is how such a book serves to build community and preserve memory. Food serves as a vinculum to our past, a way of holding onto family history as well as a shared cultural identity. Preparing blintzes using the recipe left by la bobe is one way of keeping her memory alive but it is also a method of maintaining tradition and heritage. In other words, and again going back to Barthes, food is “commemorative” (24). In the same way that Barthes affirms that French food “permits a person to partake in the national past” and is a “repository of a whole experience, of the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors” (24), it is easy to make a similar kind of assertion with respect to Jewish food. Even though there is no concrete national past for diaspora Jews, certainly there is a cultural and/or ethno-religious past of which food speaks quite powerfully and even can be considered the (or at least a) glue that binds many Jews of the galut together as a group. For example, knishes, gefilte fish, or varenikes are all the same dishes, with slight variations, in the United States, Argentina, or Israel. As such, they share the same ancestry and cultural meaning even though they exist today in countries as dissimilar as those mentioned above.

The way that food and the meanings attached to it function to sustain both life and culture is evinced in an eloquent and remarkable way in the book In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezín (1996). It consists of a compilation of recipes collected by Mina Pächter who was held in the Nazi concentration camp of Terezín (also known as Theresienstadt) and who died there. The recipes are those of Mina and other women that were written on scraps of paper and miraculously preserved. Together they form a system of communication and impart the “spirit” of food to which Barthes refers. The recipes acted to provide spiritual sustenance in the absence of physical nourishment and exist today as a testament to the will to survive and the power of memory—in this case intimately linked to food and what it signifies.

In Argentina, Jewish food clings to the past while at the same time adapting itself to the conditions of the present. At least this is how Shua presents the situation throughout much of her book. Jewish food, like Jewish culture, is no stranger to the Argentine—more specifically to the Buenos Aires—cultural milieu. Since Buenos Aires is home to the fifth-largest (by some counts fourth-largest) Jewish community in the world it is obvious that Jewish culture has made an impact on the dominant culture, similar in many ways to how this is evident in a city like New York. There is a strong Jewish presence in Buenos Aires that is readily apparent in the theater district and the entertainment industry in general, the many restaurants, the synagogues and Jewish institutions that dot the city, and many businesses. This is not to say that being Jewish in Argentina is by any means unproblematic. The history of Jewish immigration to and life in Argentina has been well documented (Avni; Mirelman; Feierstein). Recent history has only served to demonstrate that Jews are still unwelcome by certain sectors of Argentine society. The military dictatorship of 1976-1983 was ideologically informed, at least partially, by nazism (Rock). During the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (the name given to the military’s “dirty war” against the citizenry), being Jewish was in fact a real peril (Senkman). Not only were the writings of Marx, Freud and Einstein banned, even Jewish cookbooks were considered to be enough of a danger to not be worth the risk of having around the house. In regard to this period of fascist military rule the writer Diana Raznovich has stated, “I remember going through my books, and burning even my Jewish cookbook, for fear it might be considered subversive” (quoted in Taylor, 12). As recently as 1994 with the terrorist attack on the AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina) that completely destroyed the building that housed it and killed close to 100 people, Argentine Jews have been made aware that antisemitism is alive and well in Argentina. Even so, Jewish culture continues to thrive, perhaps as never before. This is most evident in literature.

Ana María Shua’s anecdotal cookbook arose in the early 1990s, the postdictatorship period of relatively open democracy and economic and social freedom. The book contributes to a body of works that can be described as fostering the creation of a viable and visible Jewish popular culture in Buenos Aires. It joins volumes like Las idishe mames son un pueblo aparte (1993) edited by Eliahu Toker, Del Edén al diván: humor judío (1992) edited by Toker, et al, Al mal sexo buena cara (1994) by Silvia Plager, and Shua’s own Cuentos judíos con fantasmas y demonios (1994) and El pueblo de los tontos: humor tradicional judío (1995). These volumes all have aided in the promotion of Jewish popular culture in Buenos Aires. They present Jewishness as an alternate identity to the dominant Hispano-Catholic culture in Argentina in humorous, informative, and non-threatening ways. As a result, a kind of generalized—even superficial— popular knowledge of Jewish (mostly secular) culture is available to the common public. It is difficult to ascertain whether these books are read mostly by members of the Jewish community, or if they have also found a following among the non-Jewish populace. In any case, Jewish culture is more conspicuous in Buenos Aires than in previous decades and events such as the AMIA tragedy have also helped to form a solidarity between the Jewish community and some sectors of society that seek a more pluralistic future for the country. As concerns the colectividad judía of Buenos Aires, Risas y emociones participates in a community-building effort along with its companion popular culture volumes that give a sense of pride and unity to a group of citizens that used to be (and by some still are) considered second-class.

Shua’s book is divided into two main parts: the “risas y emociones” or anecdotal part, and the recipes themselves. The first part is further divided into categories: “ Para leer antes de leer,” “Tradición y futuro de algunos platos”, “Sobre ciertas cuestiones generales,” and “La comida judía en la literatura judía.” The first section (“Para leer...”) consists of a type of extended disclaimer in which Shua implores the reader to be patient, understanding, forgiving, and even participatory (inviting the reader to write the publisher with comments, opinions, etc).

One of the most appealing aspects of the book (por lo menos a nuestro parecer) is that the author consistently addresses her prospective reader(s) as “señora lectora, señor lector” or some variation thereof. In literary studies the kitchen, and consequently food and its preparation, is almost exclusively spoken of in terms of “women’s territory” or “feminine space.” While Shua obviously is conscious of the fact that the “domain of the kitchen” traditionally pertains more to women, she is also willing to allow that it need not exclude men. The kitchen as a lived space and locus of cultural conception is one where both sexes, if unequally, have opportunity to participate in the system of communication that food becomes within Jewish culture. Similarly, it is interesting to note that the masculine presence in the kitchen is central to Plager’s novel Como papas para varenikes.

Shua is careful to establish from the beginning that this is a book of recipes that are Eastern European in origin and that it does not contain either anecdotes or dishes from the Sephardic or Middle Eastern traditions. Since the book is composed with a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humor, the author makes it clear that the recipes are to be taken seriously and that each is meant to reproduce as closely as possible the original flavor. Although, she also quips: “Las recetas actualizadas están adaptadas a la realidad de lo que se consigue en el supermercado, la falta de personal doméstico y los avances de la liberación femenina con el doble trabajo consiguiente” (11). Furthermore, Shua declares in large, bold typeface: “Yo no soy cocinera” (12), by which she means that she is not a professional chef. She explains that she is a “cocinera de entrecasa” and by way of establishing her credibility as a cook she simply states to the reader: “Soy cocinera como usted. Es decir, tan cocinera como cualquier señora y como algunos señores también. No exactamente profesional pero sí algo más que aficionada, ya que cocinar es una parte de mis tareas de todos los días” (12).

One of the last disclaimers that Shua makes regarding the contents of the book has to do with what she calls the “dudoso y vacilante idish que se incluye en este libro” (14). She goes on to explain that the Yiddish expressions and their spellings come from her personal (family) experience and that she recognizes that there are numerous variations. There is a glossary of Yiddish terms at the end of the book to aid the uninformed reader. Popular terminology is interspersed throughout the volume, like a textual spice that seasons the narrative with an unmistakably Jewish flavor. With the characteristic humor that sets the ludic tone for the entire book, Shua explains, using a joke involving Albert Einstein and the theory of relativity, that in matters of (Jewish) food all things are relative:

Lector, lectora, a cuya buena voluntad entrego este libro: con la cocina judía tradicional y actualizada pasa algo muy parecido. Todo se puede hacer muchísimo más fácil y más rápido de lo que lo hacía la bobe en tiempos en que no existían la procesadora, el microondas, el supermercado. Pero naturalmente usted tiene derecho a preguntarse si va a tener el mismo gusto.

Tranquilícese. La respuesta es un rotundo ¡NO! No va a tener el mismo gusto en absoluto. En todo caso tendrá un vago parecido y, lo que es más importante, puede ser bastante rico de todos modos. (16-17)

The subsequent section of the book contains a variety of amusing relatos that revolve around the preparation of different dishes that Shua gathers under the subheading “Tradición y futuro de algunos platos típicos.” A summary reading of a few titles provides a glimpse into what is contained in this section: “Berejenas reventadas al microondas,” “Dudas metafísicas sobre la consistencia de los kneidalaj,” “Cuando todo se podía curar con goggle moggle,” and, “El cierre perfecto de los varenikes de papa.” After reading the anecdote about a certain dish one can then turn to the recipe and learn how to prepare it. The vignette that is the most developed and interesting with regard to what this essay proposes concerning the relationship between food and culture is “Guefilte fish, sabor de la nostalgia.” This is so because not only does it speak to the particularity of gefilte fish within Eastern European Jewish culture, but in addition it blends that history with the contemporary reality of Buenos Aires. As the title indicates and the narrative makes clear, there is perhaps no dish so entirely imbued with meaning as is gefilte fish. It is typically Jewish and brimming with nostalgia for what used to be. In Barthes’s semiotic terminology, gefilte fish signifies. It is much more than food. It communicates. It transmits a message. It speaks to the eater, just as a text speaks to its reader. This is true for much of the food and recipes that are contained in Shua’s cookbook. Shua dedicates more space to the telling of the story of gefilte fish than any other food item. For this reason, since I first happened upon this peculiar book, I have been contemplating the text in the gefilte fish, which in reality can be conceived as synecdoche for other Jewish dishes as well.

Is there a text? La respuesta es un rotundo ¡Sí!, to paraphrase Shua. Moreover, just as there is no one message to the text of a short story, novel, poem, or play, there is no single text in gefilte fish. Like literary texts, it may contain its own sub- and/or metatexts. It communicates, even narrates, a different story for as many families as prepare it. Toying with reader response theory, it is not difficult to see that one could feasibly—even if not unproblematically—apply a sort of “eater response theory” to food. A given dish (culinary text) has the potential to convey multiple meanings. In other words, what it signifies depends on to whom it signifies. Concomitantly, the “language” of gefilte fish is obviously more symbolic or abstract than a linguistic system governed by established laws of syntax. What it communicates as a text can be expressed orally in Spanish, Portuguese, English or any other language and it can remind one of forgotten languages (Yiddish, Polish, etc). However, the cultural signification of gefilte fish is transmitted by connotative semantic devices or signifiers that rely on metonymy and/or other tropes that constitute information. Therefore, gefilte fish can mean any number of things and range from individual to collective memory. It is possible to read the (sub)text of gefilte fish, as Shua perceives it, by simply reading her own interpretation of it. She clearly relates how gefilte fish is much more of a nostalgic memory than a reality and that it is always unique to the individual. Therefore, she explains, it is impossible to reproduce the dish as it is remembered by different people since it will always be lacking in some way, somehow different (not as good) as la bobe used to make. Her solution is to not try and satisfy generations of adults by attempting to recreate the mythical gefilte fish that exists in its embellished remembered form, but to focus on the younger generations who will remember their mother’s own special way of preparing it. She relates cooking gefilte fish to textual production.

Para ellos [los niños] la mame (o la bobe) es usted, no tienen recuerdos con los que comparar la realidad que les pone en el plato, y en sus mentes todavía blandas, arcillosas (en este caso la teoría de la “tábula rasa” funciona perfectamente, por suerte el paladar no se transmite a través de los genes) se grabará para siempre, profundamente, la huella del maravilloso sabor de su guefilte fish. ¡Y ningún otro! Ficción eres, y a la ficción volverás. Cocina guefilte fish y serás leyenda. (23, emphasis in original)

In addition to relating the characteristically Jewish aspects of gefilte fish (that it’s typically served during Pessach, that it conjures up a variety of culturally specific memories), Shua details the problems and inconsistencies one has to deal with in Buenos Aires in order to prepare (semi)authentic gefilte fish. This has mostly to do with the type of fish one can obtain and getting the pescadero to properly prepare it with the minced onions. Shua consistently, and with humor, tends toward practicality while working to achieve a balance between preserving tradition and saving time and energy.

A typical example of the drollery that circumscribes the volume and makes it such a superb example of a popular culture artifact is the brief anecdote “Ulnik o algo así.” It incorporates elements of personal experience, humor, and what Shua referred to as the “questionable Yiddish” used in the book. But more importantly, it signals the troubles that arise from the use of Yiddish as a cultural remnant and food as a physical link to the past, while simultaneously playing into the popular (stereotypical) image of the Jewish mother:

Un día vino mi marido y me dijo: quiero ulnik.
Bien. Si el hombre quiere ulnik, por algo será. Y es mejor que tenga ulnik en casa. No se trata de que tenga que andar buscándose su ulnik por ahí. Bien. ¿Qué corno será ulnik?

Ulnik, me dijo mi marido, es una cosa de papa muy rica que hacía mi mamá cuando era yo chico.

Ah.

En este punto es necesario recordar todas las ventajas que tiene un buen marido judío: no se emborracha, no juega, no le pega a su mujer. A cambio, suele traer un pequeño defecto de fábrica: un buen marido judío suele ser hijo de una idishe mame. (44)

The anecdote revolves around the author’s search to discover what ulnik is and, in the process, it reveals a good deal about the class and ethnic divisions that exist within the Jewish community. Even though all is told in good humor and with no ill intent, it does demonstrate that one should be mindful of thinking Jewish identity in terms of homogeneity. As with other dishes, Shua compares ulnik to another Jewish food and also to a common Argentine food in order to make it biculturally clear just what it is: “[...] resultó ser algo así como un latke al horno. Si usted no sabe lo que es un latke, piense en una fainá de papa, pero más gordita” (46).

The next thematic division of the book, “Sobre ciertas cuestiones generales,” moves away from anecdotes that deal with specific foods to focus on the kinds of issues that affect food preparation traditionally and in modern times. For example, the first three segments deal specifically with Mosaic Law concerning dietary regulations. The narration also changes from an anecdotal format to a more descriptive or explanatory one. There is no tale or personal experience recounted like a story, rather Shua writes about different matters that are relevant to the preparation of Jewish food in a way that is informative yet entertaining. Again, one must take such information as folkloric in nature instead of accepting it as authoritative religious or even pseudo-religious doctrine. What the author accomplishes is a lighthearted look at popular Jewish belief and customs with a cursory examination of the scriptures from which the laws of kashrut are derived. Shua points out that because the dietary laws are religious in origin, taken from the Torah, food is intricately woven into the fabric of Jewish culture and have become central to many aspects of Jewish life that still hold true even among many non-religious Jews:

Estas reglas incluyen la participación de la comida en el ritual religioso. Es a partir de ellas que la comida y el acto de comer resultan extrañamente entrelazados con la vida espiritual. Así, la cuestión de la comida está siempre presente en la conciencia judía. (76)

The following segments regarding other matters that are not only of concern to Jewish food, but do seem to be particularly relevant. The author discusses, with acerbic wit, issues of health that have to do with the cholesterol and sugar levels in Jewish food, commenting that “el leitmotiv de la cocina judía es obtener la máxima cantidad de calorías en la más pequeña de las porciones. Es una comida de la pobreza y el hambre” (84). Other more humorous approaches to the realities of Jewish food in the late twentieth century have to do with modern conveniences, such as the freezer and the microwave oven. Particularly noteworthy is the segment titled “El creador del microondas: ¿tzadik o dibuk?” in which Shua rather ingeniously gives a modern twist to Jewish folklore. Likewise is the following piece, “Consejos de la bobe Tzeitl para el uso del microondas,” which consists of a series of recommendations for when and when not to use the microwave when preparing Jewish food. Some of the other issues in this section center on customs, etiquette, and a discussion of Jewish food in the United States.

The most telling piece in this section in terms of how food relates and adapts to culture is “Cocina judía all’uso nostro.” Shua astutely illustrates how Jewish food has tailored itself to Argentine reality and has been influenced not only by la comida criolla, but by other immigrant groups as well (principally Italian). As most people are probably aware, the Argentine diet consists of two main components: beef and Italian cuisine. This is logical given the fact that since the early nineteenth century Argentina has cultivated an entire culture around the beef industry and that roughly forty percent of all Argentines are of Italian descent. That Shua incorporates this socio-gastronomic actuality into her description of Jewish food speaks to the social make-up of her Buenos Aires environment as well providing an important detail regarding the characteristics of Argentine-Jewish food, and on a wider scale, culture. In regard to beef Shua states:

Mi teoría personal es que el bife con ensalada es la quintaesencia de la comida judía, el sueño que las madres simplemente no podían cumplir en la mísera realidad del shteitl. […]

Pero volviendo a las modificaciones locales de la tradicional cocina judía europea, no es muy distinto de lo que sucede con el idish: ¿en qué otra lengua, en qué otro idish del mundo se puede decir que hoy vamos a morfarn a churrasque mit ensalada? (91-92)

In like fashion, the author enumerates a number of ways that Italian food has pervaded Jewish cooking and even describes it as “nuestra comida nacional” (92):
  • Latkes de matze meil con ajo y perejil.
  • Abundante queso rallado en los varenikes, en los kreplaj, en todas las sopas y caldos y, en general, donde se ponga.
  • Uso del matze meil para hacer milanesas.
  • Farfalej al tuco y pesto.
  • Orégano para condimentar todos los guisos, hasta los tzimes. (93)
This type of description allows the reader—in particular the foreign reader—to comprehend the uniqueness of the Jewish-Argentine position in relation to other Jewish communities throughout the diaspora. It also allows one to recognize how the Jewish community of Argentina has embraced the national culture while cleaving to tradition. This, in effect, has led to the formation of a singular identity, which is reflected in ordinary ways such as food preparation and dietary habits, and the intrinsic language associated with them. When sociocultural elements combine to permit such phrases as “vamos a morfarn a churrasque mit ensalada” and “farfalej al tuco y pesto,” then it is easy to see how the spirit of food is engendered and is transformed into a cultural product.

The final section of the narrative half of the book is about the presence of Jewish food in literature. For Shua the frequency of food as a literary topic among Jewish writers has less to do with the key role of food in Jewish culture and more to do with the permanence of hunger among Eastern European Jews. The segments in this part consist of a brief introduction followed by excerpts from the texts of famous authors. Shua finds examples among the Yiddish masters (Isaac Babel, Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer), women authors as diverse as Anne Frank, Golda Meir, and Mimi Sheraton (the food critic for the New York Times), and North American authors like Michael Gold and Philip Roth. Curiously she includes only one Argentine author; Alberto Gerchunoff, the cornerstone of Argentine Jewish literature, is represented with an excerpt from his novel Los gauchos judíos (1910).

One could say that the major portion of the book—the reason behind its existence—is the second half where the recipes are found (in alphabetical order). There are a total of eighty recipes for dishes that range from “Arenque marinado con crema y cebolla” to “Yorkoie (guiso de carne y papas).”

Recipes, like any other discourse, have a distinctive style and set of characteristics that when analyzed can tell us much more than merely how to prepare the given dish. In fact, recipe writing can be considered a genre of prose. Recipes contain a message, and are often directed toward specific audiences. For example, a commercial cookbook will tend to be much more direct and concise when structuring the recipe, while a community cookbook will often employ chatty prose, humor, and imply a certain familiarity with the reader. In her structural analysis Cotter breaks down the typical recipe into different components: “Recipes share a certain distinctiveness in their syntactic forms (the way sentences are structured) and their semantic realizations (what they mean), as well as in their formal discourse features” (55). Furthermore, Cotter claims that the “recipe narrative not only transmits culture-based meaning, as do more traditional narratives, it can also be viewed as sharing many aspects of the formal structure of basic narratives” (58). In her structural analysis of the recipe Cotter breaks down the typical into different components (title, list of ingredients, actions, etc). Shua’s Risas y emociones de la cocina judía is closely related to the community type cookbook, destined for an audience of peers (as she made patently clear from the outset), and meant to be read as a cultural document, as well as to be used pragmatically as a cookbook. The author includes two recipes for gefilte fish in the volume, “Guefilte fish fácil y económico” and “Guelfilte fish al horno o frito,” which are accompanied—like all the recipes—by a brief proverb about the food. The proverbs in this case are the already mentioned “Cocina guefilte fish, y serás leyenda” and “Sólo el guefilte fish tiene el sabor de la infancia perdida.” Both proverbs can be read as subtexts of the dish. Shua’s recipes all follow the same format: title, proverb, ingredients, preparation, variations, and (in some cases) observations. Since Shua adheres more closely to the discourse mode of a community cookbook, she includes a generous amount of what Cotter designates as “evaluation clauses,” that is, phrases that provide commentary outside of, or in addition to, the imperative instructions. In the following example from the recipe, the imperatives are underlined while the italicized portions reveal an evaluative purpose:
  • Cuando compre el pescado, lleve dos cebollas peladas y hágalas moler junto con el pescado.
  • Cocine en horno moderado durante 1 hora o hasta que se dore.
  • Para freír, en lugar de hacer un pan, forme bolitas con las manos húmedas y fría en abundante aceite caliente. (166)
The lists of variations at the end of each recipe are all evaluative in nature. For example, “Para hacer la preparación más liviana, puede separar las yemas de las claras y batir las claras a nieve antes de mezclarlas con el pescado” (167). Evaluation clauses are important in a recipe because

[t]hey differ syntactically and semantically from instructional actions and offer a means by which to compare and interpret the recipe in its social and historic contexts, especially when we compare the same dish from different sources. […] Because of the subjective nature of evaluation clauses, the reader’s own background knowledge or shared or divergent assumptions potently mingle with the narrative evaluation, allowing unconscious judgements to be formed—about herself, her community, and her place in the world. (Cotter 63)

As a community cookbook (in the sense that it contains recipes common to the colectividad judía), Shua’s volume becomes part of popular Jewish culture. Given the structure of the recipes, it enters into dialogue with potential readers, and in so doing, builds a sense of community. The evaluation components of the recipes allow for this kind of interaction between the reader and the composer of the recipe. The recipes transcend the mechanized actions that will lead to the end result and become symbols of the culture from which they originate. So one can truly say that gefilte fish is not merely a dish prepared with fish and onions, but it is el sabor de la infancia perdida.

As a whole, with its anecdotes, information, and recipes, Risas y emociones de la cocina judía is a book that combines culture and cooking in an innovative way. Ana María Shua has produced an estimable book for measuring the boundaries and borders of culture and a practical cookbook able to delight the epicure in us all. In addition, she provides a valuable lesson in reading the unseen text in gefilte fish and other platos judíos. One cannot resist inviting the enthusiast of literature and/or the gourmet to read and eat with Shua and enjoy the pleasant company of her risas y emociones.

* Darrell B. Lockhart is an Assistant Professor of Spanish at the University of Nevada-Reno.  He is a specialist in Southern Cone literature and Latin American Jewish literature.  He is the editor of Jewish Writers of Latin America: A Dictionary (1977), as well as the author of several articles on the same subject. Other projects include science fiction and detective fiction writing.