Wizards of Oz: Six Women From Sydney Cook Up a rich History
Seven years ago, when six Jewish women in Sydney, Australia, started meeting casually to cook once a week, they didn’t know what they were getting into. But now that group, known as the Monday Morning Cooking Club, has created one of the best Jewish-themed cookbooks, drawing entirely from the Australian pocket of the Diaspora.
“We are a bunch of ‘ordinary’ Sydney girls who have created something extraordinary,” club member Lisa Goldberg confidently explained. “We started with a seed of idea—with no idea how to actually publish a book—and then produced a world-class cookbook for charity.” After three hardcover print runs down under and a fourth in paperback since its publication in 2011 (the club has its share of famous admirers, including Nigella Lawson and Nicole Kidman), Monday Morning Cooking Club: The Food, The Stories, The Sisterhood was published in the United States in paperback in September.
“In Australia, we don’t have the influence of Jewish food in the broader community like you do in, say, New York,” said club member Merelyn Frank Chalmers, a former PR professional who specializes in the food industry. “Yet lately there is more Jewish-style food.”
Cooking traditions, especially ones that might not flourish in a visible restaurant culture, can be vulnerable to loss. But this group of women used their intricately woven social network to extricate what’s often only shared in private or domestic settings and make it available to the wider public, Jews and non-Jews alike. “What they have done is to present the contemporary face of Jewish cuisine in Australia,” Melbourne-based food writer Rita Erlich told me. “They’ve shown it’s not a nostalgic form of cooking, but something living and changing.”
The club’s mission was cultural preservation, as well as sharing delicious recipes. Initially, the six members put out the call to friends and family requesting their favorite recipes, as well as suggestions about who else in the community might be a font of haimish culinary knowledge. They were especially tenacious in targeting individuals known for their cooking chops and unique recipes, particularly those that might vanish with subsequent generations. Every Monday, early in the morning, the women would compare the material they’d gathered during the previous week, and then they prepared the recipes, with the ultimate objective of producing a book. “At the time, some of us were busy at home raising families, and some were working part time, so Monday mornings just seemed to work,” said Goldberg, who is described as “the leader and driving force,” about their choice of timing. They continue to meet weekly, and the various operations connected to the club have become the primary job for the six women.
The process of creating the cookbook ultimately took five years, which meant repeatedly testing recipes that “trickled in, slowly at first, and then gained momentum,” according to the book’s introduction. The first Australian edition was published in 2011, containing over 100 recipes from 60 community contributors. Although the actual club includes six core founding members—Goldberg, Chalmers, Natanya Eskin, Lauren Fink, Paula Horwitz, and Jacqui Israel—the team found a wider fan base online since launching a website in 2011. The site continues to be regularly updated with the club’s most recent cooking, eating, and traveling exploits, plus a few items for sale. All profits are donated to Jewish charities and non-denominational organizations such as OzHarvest, the National Gallery of Victoria, Australian Women’s International Zionist Organisation, Canadian Hadassah-WIZO, and the Sydney Story Factory.
Personal introductions from the contributors—a few composed of sisters, mothers, and daughters, or married couples, written either in the first or third person—and the anecdotes that precede each recipe repeatedly point to themes of immigration, loss, family, vulnerability, oppression, faith, cultural retention, reinvention, and relying on the kindness of strangers. Food is an essential component of these experiences, as well as being vital to the process of nurturing community and familial bonds. In this sense, Monday Morning Cooking Club is a de facto compendium of the Jewish Diaspora in Australia. There’s a glossary featuring mostly Yiddish food terms, and a hamsa is also used as the background graphic motif for the book’s page numbers, underscoring its Jewish soul.
Given the heritage of its members and the overall tenor, is Monday Morning Cooking Club a Jewish cookbook per se? Yes and no. “We simply claim that it’s not exclusively a book of Jewish food,” explained Goldberg, who formerly worked in the legal field. “We do have a few of the essential Jewish recipes—chicken soup, lokshen, kreplach, chopped liver, chopped herring, challah—but most of the food is not typically Jewish, but rather representative of that part of the world where the cook (or cook’s family) has come from.”
The club’s popularity also speaks to the phenomenon of food websites as virtual kitchen communities, via sites such as Food 52 and Epicurious, plus the countless personal food blogs that have flooded cyberspace. “The website gives our readers a way of communicating with us, sharing their stories, recipes, and cooking experiences,” Eskin said. “We love hearing what everyone is cooking, and we are always there to offer tips and cooking advice.” Their accessible personalities, as well as eagerness to help solve kitchen dilemmas, foster a connection with readers.
But in the end, it’s the food that shines, along with the authenticity and sincerity of the contributors’ voices. The tales are brief, but they make for gripping, moving reading: May Stein’s childhood in Baghdad; Hungarian native Elisabeth Varnai’s surviving the Holocaust with her sister, losing their parents, and immigrating to Australia; how Benjamin David’s family of Indian descent had roots in Burma but eventually wound up in Sydney after living in Indonesia, including three years spent in a POW camp where his mother ran the kitchen. “We have heard from many non-cooks that they read our book in bed—because they enjoy the cooks’ stories so much,” Chalmers noted. The combination of the recipes with these stories bolsters the significance of the sisterhood’s undertaking.
While cooking is an essential tool in the struggle for cultural survival, tension over assimilation is part of the larger narrative, too. In her introduction to the four recipes she provides, Melbourne-raised Sydney resident Lyndi Adler speaks of how instead of the rye bread and Liptauer cheese-dip sandwiches her Czech-born mother prepared for her school lunches, “I lusted after my best friend’s white-bread Vegemite sandwiches. … But at home I loved that there was always a pot of soup on the stove, a fridge full of deli treats and delectable leftovers, and a pantry that boasted at least two home-baked cakes on any day of the week.”
The food showcased in Monday Morning Cooking Club and the way its members live reflect the inevitability of cultural hybridization in contemporary Australia. “We are all influenced by our surroundings, the climate available produce, the local culture,” said Eskin, a school teacher. Recipes in the book include local ingredients and shifted habits. “Modern Australian food, like the beetroot and chickpea salad, is light, colorful and fresh, and often uses Mediterranean or Asian ingredients,” Chalmers explained. What’s more, “Australians tend to be pretty casual and laid back, and we eat that way. Even when I’m cooking the Hungarian dishes passed down from my mother, like her rice paprikash, I present it in a totally different way, and probably lighten it up a bit, by serving it with salads instead of vegetables.” Goldberg points to Sharon Hendler’s inclusion of a pavlova recipe, based on the version published in Margaret Fulton’s Encyclopedia of Food and Cookery, as a typically Australian component of many meals.
Chalmers draws a connection between London-based Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks that have sparked a wide renewed interest in different types of Jewish food, and the club’s impact: “I always dreamt that it would be a bridge between the Jewish and broader communities, so I was tickled pink to see it happen.”