Geography is Destiny, Except When It’s Not

IMG_0091In 1984 When I opened Square One Restaurant I decided to focus on the food of the Mediterranean because that was where my heart and stomach were happiest. I had lived there, traveled widely and adored their food that I learned to cook with passion and care. The cuisines of Italy, Spain, Southern France, Greece, Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East inspired my recipe repertoire.

After a few years of running the restaurant, some of my customers asked me to cook Passover food during the Jewish holidays. I explained that because Square One was a Mediterranean restaurant, the food I would cook would not be Ashkenazi but would be the food of those Jews who lived in the Mediterranean: Sephardi, Maghrebi (North Africa) and Mizrahi (Jews in the Middle East). For me the familiar Ashkenazi diet that I grew up eating was too heavy on meat and saturated fat. It did not seem a diet designed for longevity. I loved that the Mediterranean diet was more diverse, based on lots of vegetables, fruit and grains, with small portions of meat, poultry and fish and lots of herbs and spices for flavor interest. Besides I was no longer living in New York and New England where my immigrant parents settled and where I went to school. I was in California, with its Mediterranean climate and agricultural bounty.

As a result of doing recipe research for the holiday cooking at Square One I subsequently wrote three books about Mediterranean Jewish Food for Chronicle Books. They were Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen, Sephardic Flavors: Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean, and Saffron Shores Jewish Cooking of the Southern Mediterranean. Last year I wrote my “magnum opus” on Jewish cuisines of the Mediterranean for University of California Press It is called The New Mediterranean Jewish Table: Old World Recipes for the Modern Home.

There is great irony here. I am of Ashkenazi descent. My parents were born in Russia. But my mother’s maiden name was Salata (which translates as “salted”) so I thought there might be a secret Sephardic Jewish leaf in our family tree. Naturally I did DNA tests with 23 and Me and Ancestry.com to see who that mysterious “salted” Sephardic relative might be. My hopes were dashed when I got the results. My family is 97 percent Ashkenazi, from Russia and Poland. Possibly a few stray Tatars in there. Sadly, not a Sephardi in sight. (Maybe a Salata was in line before my grandparents at Ellis Island and they gave them that name too, a common occurrence in years past.)

So while my geographic gene pool says I should be living on matzoh ball soup, pickled herring, brisket, chopped liver, kugel, lox and bagels and gefilte fish, my personal palate and culinary experience say no. I may cook those Eastern European foods from time to time, but for every day meals and holidays. I stay rooted in my California inspired Mediterranean Jewish Kitchen. Geography may be destiny but I can change my fate and location at will when I tie on my apron and step behind the stove.

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