Recipes of my 15 Grandmothers
Gefen Publishing House (2019)
Soft Cover, 163 pages.
If this were only an article about a recently published new cookbook, I would be one of the least qualified persons on earth to write it. I don’t cook. Well, okay, I can fry an egg (always breaking the yolk) and put a piece of bread in the toaster, but the only two dishes I ever succeeded in making were grilled cheese sandwiches—after watching an old black cook make one for me at 3am at an all-night San Francisco diner—and French toast—after seeing Dustin Hoffman make it toward the end of the movie Kramer vs. Kramer.
But fortunately for all of us, Recipes of my 15 Grandmothers by Genie Milgrom is much more than a cookbook. It is the story of centuries of Jewish life in Spain and Portugal, the Reconquista and forced conversion of Jews to Christianity, the rise of crypto-Jewish or “Marrano” communities, the brutal Inquisition, the expulsion of Spain’s remaining Jews in 1942, and the dispersion of these Jews and Crypto-Jews throughout the world.
And as if all that weren’t enough, the book is also about a remarkable woman who was born in Cuba to a Catholic family, was raised Catholic, lived as a Catholic until well into her thirties, and felt something inside her, a ‘still, small voice’, that told her she was Jewish.
“Even as a little girl, I always felt that somehow I didn’t belong in the world I was born into,” says Genie Milgrom. “It was just something I knew inside.” She describes that world as an upper-class Cuban family of Spanish origin, who left the island after the Castro revolution when she was four. “I grew up in Miami in the best girls’ Catholic grade schools, Catholic middle schools and high schools, even girls’ Catholic university. But at the age of six or seven, I felt I just wasn’t part of these people. I didn’t think I was Jewish at this point, because I didn’t know what Jewish was.”
Milgrom soon learned what that was when she met her first Jew, a little girl, when they were both around eight years old. “And from then on, I was drawn toward Judaism.” But it was still many years before she was finally to join the “tribe”. She married a Catholic man, had two children and, she says, “at the age of twenty-eight, I realized I just couldn’t do this anymore.” She divorced her husband and began to embark on her “return to Judaism.” After sampling such varieties as Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative, Milgrom found her home after visiting an Orthodox synagogue. “It took me five and a half years to convert Orthodox.” Her divorce agreement, however, stipulated that she could not convert her two children.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Milgrom’s conversion to Judaism did not sit well with her family, which had been Catholic for more than five hundred years and who were not particularly enthusiastic about, interested in, or even aware of their Jewish ancestry. Her mother vowed never to speak to her again. And yet at the funeral of her grandmother, Milgrom’s mother brought her a box containing some of her grandmother’s personal effects, which included a Hamsa and a Magen David. It was then that she realized that she and her family were descended from Spanish Crypto-Jews.
This revelation launched her on a long meticulous journey through genealogy and historical research. She traced her direct maternal lineage to 1545, 15 grandmothers ago. “I went back and back and back. When I got to the 15th grandmother, I found 40 of my direct maternal lineage relatives sentenced to death in the Inquisition.”
This inspired Milgrom’s first book, My 15 Grandmothers. People began following her on Facebook, and on her website, https://www.geniemilgrom.info, with many readers contacting her with similar feelings of “something Jewish inside them” and wanting to know how to connect with their suspected Jewish pasts. Milgrom (the surname came with a remarriage, this time to an Ashkenazi, Modern-Orthodox American) then began lecturing at such venues as AIPAC and the Israeli Knesset. “I became very public,” she says, “in order to help people like me who want to return to Judaism. I was all alone in my journey, and now I want to help others. And there are many others.” Milgrom cites studies that claim there are some fifty million descendants of these Crypto-Jews dispersed throughout the world. She also adds that she prefers the term Crypto-Jew to the more commonly used “Marrano,” a derogatory word meaning “pig,” used by unconverted Jews to refer to those who converted to Christianity.
Having traced her 15 Jewish grandmothers, Milgrom had no idea that she would soon find the recipes of some of those grandmothers which fill her current book. Milgrom’s mother, virulently opposed to her daughter’s journey back to Judaism, fell seriously ill six years ago and needed to be moved out of her house to an assisted-living facility. Cleaning out the house, Milgram found a hidden treasure trove of old books and papers relating to the family’s Jewish past. Although these precious items had been taken from Spain to Cuba, from Cuba to Miami, from Miami to Georgia and then back to Miami, her mother vehemently denied having them and withheld them from her daughter. They included family trees, baby books, birth certificates and recipes, perhaps hundreds of recipes going back many years, on fading, brittle scraps of paper, many placed between pages of old books, and all written by women.
In Recipes from My 15 Grandmothers, Milgrom tells the amusing story of how, after finding all of these recipes, she realized she had to cook them and taste the finished results. For this she enlisted a small army of friends, cooks, and even academic experts to make the recipes, see which ones “worked”. And figure out how to tweak the ones that did not.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I do not cook. I thus have nothing much to say about the 92 recipes in this book for meat, chicken and fish dishes, side dishes, sauces, desserts and beverages. I may not cook but I do love history, and each of these recipes is a short but informative vignette on the customs and cuisine of a fascinating branch of the Jewish family tree.
It also provides some fascinating and surprising insight into one aspect of the lives of Crypto-Jews during the dreaded Inquisition. I have read many stories of Spanish and Portuguese families that maintain a rather strange custom. At certain times of the year, these families maintain a tradition of sitting in front of their houses, where they very publically barbecue and eat pork. They are usually at best vague about why they do this, saying merely that it’s an “old family tradition”. Historians have noted, however that the days they do this are Jewish fast days, and that their ancestors once did this to convince both suspicious neighbors and spies of the Inquisition that they had become true Christians and not “backsliding” Jews.
Milgrom provides us with a dessert recipe called “Chuletas,” or pork chops’, which were actually a kind of French toast concoction of bread, milk, eggs, sugar, and tomato jelly which was made to look exactly like a pork chop. Perhaps the Crypto-Jews of the 15th and 16th centuries who were barbecuing pork in front of their houses weren’t really cooking pork!