In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin is not your usual memoir. The book is based on a collection of recipes crated at Jewish internment camp during the Holocaust. It is written by Cara De Silva, a food historian and food journalist whose family immigrated from Russia and Poland and whose ancestral Jewish experience had to do with Pogroms, not the internment camps of the Third Reich. And yet the book is a memoir, more convincing and real than most memoirs, more alive, more urgent, and far more intimate.
Ms. De Silva said that her research was so intense that she, indeed, time traveled.
“For two years, I spent part of each day with the women of Terezin,” she said.
In fact, she was there, in more than a mystical way. Her research — extensive reading of letters, memoirs and history, and a good number of interviews brought the author face-to-face with the Holocaust. She had to face the fragility of what seems to be eternal, the certainty of death, the uncertainty of when it will announce itself, the incomprehensible capacity for violence that humans possess.
Ms. De Silva’s decision to go with the pain and remove her self-imposed blinders accounts for the deep emotional truth in the book, the vivid immediacy of the story. Her own story did not include the horror of the Holocaust, yet the women of Terezin’s story was a part of her own story, a part that she excavated determinedly, most likely with an 800 pound teaspoon.
The personal excavation led Ms. De Silva deeper and deeper into a shared past. She said that food has the power to carry us back, back, back into our personal historical context, to see ourselves within a particular family, ethnic or cultural tribe, incarnating a set of values, or personal mythologies. Like Dr. Gong, author of The Cultural Revolution Cookbook, Ms De Silva feels that cooking and remembering food is a form of resistance, a way of refusing to be erased. Erased as a person, a race, a culture, a gender, a citizen of a particular place and a particular time.
It’s a long way from the Holocaust and China’s Cultural Revolution, but taken together, the conversations about food in the time of genocide made me wonder about the effect of another sort of tyranny. The tyranny of the moment, the fad, the fashionable, the story-that-signals-hip, as well as enlightened, privileged, well educated, well traveled, and quite possibly brilliant.
In terms of food story, this sentences the writer to force the square peg of her own food experience into the round hole of a particular heroic myth — the vulnerable person rises from beneath an Everest of junk food — an improbable Phoenix! — and is reborn as a highly discriminating, deeply righteous Locavore. Tales that deviate from this myth are often marginalized today.
It takes a lot of courage to tell the truth, as opposed to a chic, socially and politically elevated truth. And yet, the truth of one’s own experience, no matter how un-cool, geeky, retro, dowdy or embarrassing, contains the gold.
Writers who tell me they don’t have food stories, are usually saying “I am ashamed of my tuna-fish-casserole past.” I say: tuna-casserole is your gold mine. Take heart. Inhale. Dig. — Molly O’Neill
( Cara De Silva is currently time traveling to Venice during the Renaissance. She also makes frequent excursions into the history of Venetian-Jewish food.)