I have a handful of books that I read once a year, some on a very particular schedule. In the fall, right after Halloween and before Thanksgiving, I reach for Miriam’s Kitchen, by Elizabeth Ehrlich. This book is 13 years old. The cover has fallen off. The pages are dog-eared both at top and bottom. There are coffee drips on some pages; other pages are taped back in. I should get myself another copy, but really I don’t want to, I love this beat-up one.
This beautiful memoir recounts an assimilated Jewish woman’s attempt to embrace the religious traditions of her husband’s family by spending time in the kitchen of her mother-in-law, Miriam, learning her recipes. Miriam, a Polish Holocaust survivor, “guarded culinary specialties in her mind during years when possession and certainties were ripped from her hands.” As the relationship between mother- and daughter-in-law deepens, Ehrlich remembers and retells memories and traditions from her own Jewish heritage, including those of her fiercely left-wing family in the inner city of Detroit. She weaves stories from four generations of her immigrant family with those of Miriam’s tragic experience in a concentration camp and brief sojourn in Israel as a young mother.
Both families celebrate their Judaism through food, drink, ritual, prayer and family ties. Ehrlich’s views on Judaism shift as she travels the road to middle age, first as a young girl, then as a young adult, next as a new wife and, finally, as the mother of three young children. Along the way she explores such complexities as Miriam’s memories of the Holocaust and her native Poland, the challenges of managing a kosher home, and the joys and regrets of interfaith unions.
Simply put, this is a book about food, about cooking, about kitchens, about traditions. Even more simply put, this is a book about women. Rich with love, lore, memories, cooking tips and recipes, this is an absolutely outstanding read.
Click here to read one of my favorite chapters.