Eaten Up With Love

For those who seek to devour life, the ultimate Israeli cookbook - with autobiographical seasonings

"Okhel" ("Food") by Sheri Ansky, photographs by Alex Levac, Keter Books, 296 pages, NIS 128

Sheri Ansky has not written a cookbook in the classic sense of the word. She has written an autobiography that revolves around food. The cover of the book already says it all: "Sheri Ansky" appears in giant letters, and "Okhel" ("Food") in smaller type. Somewhere in the corner, she also makes room for Alex Levac, her partner in life and in the production of this book, who has supplied the aesthetic accompaniment - and apparently the emotional support, too.

Because Ansky lives, writes and cooks in a state of hysteria. Her goal is to shock people, to move them, to get the world to sit up and take notice, to devour life in all its intensity. The drama leaps out from every page, every paragraph, every recipe, barely leaving time to breathe: "Get down to work right away, peeling and chopping the vegetables. Each chopped vegetable goes straight into the pot, without waiting for the others. Start with the onion. Peel, slice and drop into the pot. Go on to the beets. Peel one, slice thinly, cut into matchsticks and proceed to the next beet" (Sheska's Borscht).

Ansky has written the ultimate book about Israeli food. Not only because she allows herself to utter the words "soup powder" and "canned tomato paste," which already came out of the closet in Shula Modan's cookbook "Bishula," and not only because she weaves in family anecdotes - a style employed by the renowned chef Haim Cohen. There is something else here, a blurring of the line between public and private, reality and legend, to the point where every sardine is an earthly garden of delight and every pod of okra derelict in its duty becomes grounds for a commission of inquiry.

Cooking and weeping

Ansky is so much a part of the Israeli experience that a woman in a coat and hat accosts her in the locker room of the swimming pool, pulls a huge leaf of Swiss chard out of her purse and orders her to "write what you do with this."

But there's more: Ansky's biography is the story of the Jews and the State of Israel, fleshed out with tears, laughter and food. She settles the score with herself as a girl from an observant home in Jerusalem who turns her back on religion, as well as with her mother and father, her husbands and her neighbors.

Her wonderful recipe for lasagna with peas includes not only pasta and fresh peas but her acquaintance with Christina, the daughter of a high-ranking Nazi officer, who takes her on a pea-tasting tour in Berlin. Integral to the recipe is the cold Berlin winter and Christina's questions about Sheri's mother. Sheri responds by evoking a family portrait: Her daughter sitting in the middle of the room with her legs crossed, jabbering away on her cell phone, as her mother talks about the day she arrived at Auschwitz.

Sheri's mother and Christina's father must have met at Theresienstadt, on different sides of the fence, but that is something they will never discuss. On the other hand, they both will shed salty tears into their glasses of chilled white wine from the Rhine.

The finely chopped vegetable salad in the book is the salad that the young Sheri ate secretly on Yom Kippur, after the phone rang for her older brother to make immediate contact with his unit - the brother who never came back from the war. Preparing grilled meat is always connected to the day Sheri invited herself to the neighbors' Independence Day barbecue, finished off all their food, and when asked who had won the Bible contest, replied that she wasn't interested in that sort of thing.

The man "looked me straight in the eye and asked: `Really? You don't watch the Bible contest?'"

"`No,'" I answered, with a smirk.

"`But you're Gevaryahu's daughter. The Bible contest is your father's life's work.'"

"`Yes, I'm his daughter,' I replied, my eyes filling with tears.'"

There is something about Ansky that is utterly free of cynicism. Something innocent, despite the scandalous price of the book and the use of a well-known photographer like Levac. Sheri Ansky wants to touch us. She talks and cooks at the same time, peeling and remembering, rinsing and weeping, and I feel for her. Her stories blend together with my own private memories, and I find myself pouncing on them like long lost kin, or some food that brings back distant memories.

State of mind

A kind of intimacy is created here, as Sheri takes control not only of our souls but of our actions. As we follow the recipe, she holds our hand every step of the way, offering amazingly precise instructions, barking out orders ("do this right away!"), peering over our shoulders. There is a sense that you can't fail, because Sheri is here, keeping an eye on things.

The friendship is further soldered by a whole page devoted to schnitzel - the pros and cons of using chicken or veal, with or without flouring, optimum thickness. Intimacy and nostalgia bubble over in the chapter on cholent in its myriad forms, with its assortment of preparatory techniques, ingredients and ethnic variations. (Unfortunately, not all the cholent recipes are in this chapter. Some, like cholent with stuffed vegetables and cholent with matza balls, appear elsewhere in the book).

Ansky understands that cholent is not food but a state of mind, a sense of home. When someone invites you over for cholent, it's a sign of love. The cook has thought about you at least a day in advance. This respect for the dish is conveyed to the reader. Chicken soup and herring are also treated seriously. A hefty chapter is devoted to rice, including the beliefs (and superstitions) linked to its preparation: "One woman confessed that she serves rice `undressed.' I asked another home cook what she thought of that, and she said: `Undressed is no good. Undressed - okay, but with an apron.'"

There are certain problems here. Why Ansky included the recipes of famous chefs in the book is beyond me. I'm talking about recipes that have been published in the past - like Joel Robuchon's potato puree, Eyal Shani's sliced turnip in soy sauce and olive oil, the onion jam served at Dixie, and so on. In my opinion, the pasta recipes are superfluous, and the dessert section is a bit weak.

And yet, it's hard for me to think of a book I would rather have at my side more than Ansky's - in the kitchen and in life. It is a book that demands total commitment. The stories, the food, and Sheri Ansky herself, become members of the family in every respect. You may be an excellent, experienced, professional cook, but Sheri reminds you that there is always room for another recipe, a new love, more memories, another something that adds to sitting around the table. Above all, Sheri Ansky's "Food" is an experience that will bring you love in return.

Gal Karniel is working toward a master's degree in cultural studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.