By Dianne McGinness
Cookbooks are not only brimming with recipes but are also rich with life stories, according to English professor, Rona Kaufman.
Kaufman spent a year researching the influence of Jewish cookbooks on American society, after winning the Graves Award in 2008.
Kaufman began teaching at Pacific Lutheran University 10 years ago.
In 2008 Kaufman was awarded the Graves Award, an award given to a faculty member at a liberal arts institute in the west. The award is given in order to further a professor’s research on a particular topic.
“The worry is that good teachers prioritize teaching and don’t have time for scholarship,” Kaufman said. “Our hope is that ultimately the students will benefit from the research.”
Awarded every two years, the university determines who the candidate will be. The winner receives funding to do their research during a yearlong sabbatical.
Chair of the PLU Women’s and Gender Studies Program and Associate Professor of English Lisa Marcus commented on how the Graves Award, awards excellent teaching.
“The university allows you a junior sabbatical before you come up to tenure,” Marcus said. “It’s a huge gift.”
Kaufman spent her sabbatical researching the impact of Jewish cookbooks on America and primarily on Washington State.
She selected Jewish cookbooks both because of her background and also because of her interest in writing that is often overlooked.
“Life writing is how people tell their stories in writing,” Kaufman said. “Cookbooks are a way women can tell their story.”
In particular she focused on a Seattle cookbook called “Temple de Hirsch” which was published in 1908, and then again in 1916, and 1925.
“On the surface it looks messed up,” Kaufman said adding that the Ladies Auxiliary of the Synagogue included items in the cookbook that were not considered kosher. “There was an entire section on shellfish, but none on ham.”
“Contributions came from women in this region so different class statuses in the region are represented in the cookbook,” Kaufman said.
Associate Professor of English and Kaufman’s long time friend, Jennifer Sinor, said she found the project interesting because the women were writing themselves into the cookbook.
“One of the things I learned I found a really complete history of food,” Kaufman said adding that stories can be told through recipes of how people are living their lives.
Studying the history of Jewish cookbooks also enabled Kaufman to spend time with her own family.
“My mom converted to Judaism and since she had no one to teach her how to be Jewish she read her way into Judaism,” Kaufman said.
Kaufman’s grandmother, an Irish immigrant, did not support her mother’s conversion. Kaufman’s family always dined on ham at her grandmother’s house where their meals were not always considered kosher.
During an interview with her aunt, Kaufman discovered that her grandma had thought that Kaufman’s father actually liked ham but had been forced to not eat it by her mother.
“She had the opportunity to study stories about her own family,” Sinor said.
Bruce Kadden, a rabbi at the Temple Beth El in Tacoma, WA and Visiting Instructor at PLU had the chance to talk to Kaufman about her research on one occasion.
“It was wonderful to work with her and talk about issues in the Jewish community,” Kadden said. “It’s encouraging to see someone do research in an area that it isn’t done as much.”
By studying cookbooks, it is possible to see how strictly a community follows dietary laws.
“It is not surprising that a cookbook produced and reformed at this time period did not uphold the dietary laws,” Kadden said. “It has changed in recent years compared to what it used to be.”
Sinor also noted the connections between Kaufman and the women who wrote the Temple de Hirsch cookbook.
“She is Jewish and living in Washington State,” Sinor said adding that this is similar to the women who originally wrote the cookbook.
Marcus commented on the value of Kaufman’s sabbatical research project.
“Her scholarly project is very original,” Marcus said. “It comes at a time when culture is interested in dietary consumption and what that tells us about ourselves.”
Kaufman’s sabbatical research allows people to grasp the concept of Jewish culture in an American context combining several aspects of her life that she deems especially important.
“Her work comes right out of what she values in the world and who she is,” Sinor said. “She is very interested in writing that is overlooked. She draws our attention to it.”