I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “walking encyclopedia” to describe someone with a vast amount of knowledge. You’d be hard pressed to find somebody more suited to this moniker than Gil Marks, author of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. Gil may be considered the world’s foremost expert on the history of Jewish cuisine. He has made culinary history his life’s work, studying the origins and evolution of the foods we eat. Gil is a James Beard Award-winning author of several cookbooks, including Olive Trees and Honey – A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food was published only two years ago, but it has made a significant impact on the food history landscape. In fact, I just found out via Facebook that the Encyclopedia is now on display at the Library of Congress as a significant cookbook! What an honor, and so well deserved.
Gil Marks after winning his James Beard Award.
I had the pleasure to speak with Gil recently about his work, his upbringing, and his career in food. The interview appears below. After, you’ll find an absolutely delicious recipe for Keftes de Prassa – Sephardic Leek Fritters from The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. They’re a traditional Sephardic dish for Rosh Hashanah, and they’re amazingly tasty. You will love them!
Where did you grow up, and what is your ancestry?
I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. My father’s side of the family is Romanian, and they’re long time Americans, they came here in the 1880s. My mother’s side of the family is an interesting split between Lithuanian and Belarusan.
What kinds of foods did you grow up eating?
I grew up in the South, so I grew up eating typical American stuff, as well as iconic Ashkenazi Eastern European fare, and also Southern food. I had a diverse palate because of where we lived.
How did you get started in the area of food history?
I will tell you one thing, my mother claims full credit for my career. She tells everybody that when I was a little boy, I used to complain about her food all the time. She said, “Well if you don’t like what I make, make your own.” I was the type of kid that did, and as with any skill, once you overcome the initial intimidation and learn a few basics, then anybody can master it and grow it. So that’s how I got started.
I’ve never taken a cooking class in my life. I’m all self taught. If something interests me, I explore it and try it and develop it, then move on to the next thing. One of the things I did as soon as I got my first computer, about 20 years ago, I started collecting information. So every recipe I tried would go into the computer, and all of the research would go in. So over 15 – 20 years I had collected a lot, and it gave me some of the basis to go with for the encyclopedia. Then it was just a matter of checking the accuracy and making it as comprehensive and accurate as possible.
How do you go about verifying the accuracy?
Much of what we think about food can be erroneous. A lot of the things we read about food are just bubbe meises, which is Yiddish for old wives’ tales – bubbe as in bubby, or grandma, and meises means tales. But whether it’s Jewish food or generic American food, much of what is assumed to be the historic fact is just bubbe meises. And that’s kind of what I do in my work, I try to look and see the difference between how things developed, what they are and what they were. Just to give you a Rosh Hashanah example, lekach, the Jewish honey cake, is mentioned already in the year 1290. As with many medieval food innovations, it comes from the Islamic world. It came to Italy first, because those are the port cities and the main trade cities, and then later showed up in German fare. But the honey cake of that period was totally different from what we eat today. Gingerbread and honey cakes in the Elizabethan period were made with breadcrumbs instead of flour. So when you’re talking about gingerbread or honey cakes before the 1700s, you’re talking about a confection, like a panforte. Totally unleavened. And you only begin adding eggs and flour in the 1700s or so. The honey cake that we eat today developed in the late 1900s with the infusion of baking powder and such. The use of chemical leavenings like baking powder and baking soda is a very American innovation.
Another bubbe meise– Irish soda bread is not Irish. It was invented in America, just as corned beef and cabbage came from America. The problem is that the language changes as dishes evolve and change over time. So the lekach of the 13th century is totally different than the lekach of the 20th century. Same thing with cinnamon. The modern cinnamon which comes from Sri Lanka has nothing to do, other than in name, with biblical cinnamon. It was just probably a medieval marketing ploy—when cinnamon showed up in the medieval period, somebody said, “Well what do we call this thing?” and probably some guy said, “Oh look, we have this biblical spice that nobody uses or knows what it is anymore, we’ll just call it cinnamon.” And so we just assume, but the truth is that most Americans have never tasted real cinnamon.
When it comes to Jewish food, you literally wrote the encyclopedia on the subject. How long did it take you to put together The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food?
Well, it took me my entire life in some ways, because it’s a compilation of all the research I’ve done throughout my life. After I did Olive Trees and Honey, which was so successful, I was talking with my editor at Wiley about what to do next, and he said, “Look, you’re a walking encyclopedia of food, so why don’t you just write one?” And I did. It took about 5 years from that point until it came out.
What is your next project?
My next book is about American cakes. It’s a history of America, through cakes. And going back to the idea that much of what one assumes about American food is often erroneous.
When did you ultimately decide to pursue a career in food?
I didn’t go into this because I had to, I did this because I wanted to. I was working at a high school and I was very unhappy—not because of the kids, but because of the administration. I said to myself, I don’t want to wake up 10 years from now wondering why I’m doing something that makes me absolutely miserable. I knew I liked to write, I liked to cook and I liked everything about food. So I put those together and started Kosher Gourmet Magazine. Which was I guess in ’86. That was the very beginning of the movement of kosher food into quality. America was just starting to bring in some of the quality wines from Europe and stuff. So we lasted for about 6 years, then I segued into the books, and now I’ve got five of them and three James Beard nominations. I never planned to have a food career. It just came about, and in some ways it was one of these divine providence things. I thought I was going into community social work, some sort of communal Jewish organization. But I ended up teaching more people, I guess, through my food writing than I would have otherwise.
I can really identify with that. I’ve always loved food and cooking, but I never expected to have a career in food. It seems like the stars aligned.
That’s life. It sometimes takes us where we’re meant to be. It’s not always where we want to be. But where I end up is always better than where I wanted to be. So I can’t complain. Most people love to get away from their jobs and would never take their computer with them on vacation. I never go away without my computer. This is my fun. Putting pieces together, trying new things and experiments and figuring out these historical puzzles, what foods really are and where they came from. That’s my fun.
Here is Gil’s recipe from the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food for Keftes de Prassa – Sephardic Leek Patties. These fried patties are a traditional Rosh Hashanah food in Sephardic communities in the Middle East and Mediterranean. They are seriously tasty! Of the dish, Gil says:
“Sephardim serve keftes as an appetizer, side dish, or main course as both weekday fare and holiday food. Keftes, being fried, make an ideal Hanukkah food. Leeks, or spinach keftes, are traditional on Rosh Hashanah or Passover.”
If you’re watching your sodium intake, you can cut the salt to 1/2 tsp and still get a terrific flavor result. Enjoy!
- 2 lbs leeks (6-10 medium sized, white and green parts only)
- 1 cup mashed potatoes or 1 lb. ground lamb or 1/3 cup ground walnuts
- 1/2 cup matzo meal or bread crumbs (or more if needed - use matzo meal if making for Passover)
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 tbsp olive or vegetable oil
- 2 to 4 cloves garlic, mashed
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp pepper, or more to taste
- 1/4 to 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg, chili flakes, or cayenne (optional)
- Lemon wedges (optional)
- Halve the leeks lengthwise.
- Slice the halved leeks thinly.
- Rinse the sliced leeks thoroughly.
- Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the leeks, cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer until very tender, about 20 minutes.
- Drain the leeks and let cool. Squeeze out excess liquid.
- In a large bowl, combine the leeks, potatoes, and matzo meal.
- Add the eggs, 1 tbsp of oil, garlic, salt, pepper, and additional seasoning (if using). If the mixture is too soft to form patties, add a little more matzo meal or form the loose mixture into clumps and dredge them in matzo meal or bread crumbs to flatten.
- For each patty, shape 3-4 tbsp of leek mixture into an oval 2 1/2 inches long, 1 inch wide, and 1/2 inch thick, with tapered ends (like a football).
- In a large skillet, heat about 1/2 inch oil over medium-high heat till hot enough for frying. Fry the patties in batches, turning once, until golden brown on both sides-- about 3 minutes per side.
- Drain the fried patties on paper towels.
- Serve hot or at room temperature, accompanied, if desired, with the lemon wedges.