Time: 1942 | Place: Palestine | Author: Lilian Cornfeld
Writing a cookbook is often like writing a manifesto: it’s not about what people eat, it’s about what people should be eating. You don’t simply document the food culture around you, but rather your vision of what the surrounding culture should look like. Every salad is a little step towards utopia.
This is particularly true of many books written by professional nutritionists in the 1930s and 1940s, when the science of nutrition was gaining more political power than ever before. Nutritionists became part of national and international governance, wrote policy papers on economy and agriculture, and advised the League of Nations (which was, in many ways, the predecessor of the UN). In Mandate Palestine, governed by the British Empire after World War I, several Jewish nutritionists advised the British authorities and participated in surveys and policy-making. They were mostly women, who used food as a way to become involved in high-ranking politics.
Lilian Cornfeld, a Canadian Jewish nutritionist and cookbook writer, worked for the Mandate Commissioner for Nutrition Policy in Palestine in the 1930s. She was a professional nutritionist while the discipline was still emerging, and her books included recipes alongside opinions on Zionism, productivity, and waste prevention. She published her first cookbook, “What and How to Cook in Wartime?” in 1942, both in Hebrew and German, targeting new settlers from Central Europe. The cookbook reflects some of what we find in other World War II-era cookbooks, offering housewives practical ways to avoid waste and manage household economy under supply shortage, inflation, and danger. Historians often write about these efforts to instruct housewives in wartime as part of the “Home front,” or the way in which household management and hunger prevention became part of a total war.
But Cornfeld’s book was slightly different. She was not only writing for an audience of women in wartime, but also for recent settlers, and she had her particular vision of what the Jewish settlement in Palestine should look like. She tried to use local products and cooking techniques, stressing that her recipes were good “for wartime and other times.” Cornfeld was extremely devoted to introducing European Jews to dishes of the Middle East, and produced groundbreaking work about food cooked by Mizrahi Jews and Arabs from various parts of the Levant. Though she was not the only advocate for this “locality” agenda, she was the first to incorporate it into her professional framework. When writing about food, she considered economy and climate, and did not write much about pleasure or taste. She was the first person to publish a recipe for hummus in a Hebrew cookbook – a dish that many European Jewish immigrants had never heard of.
*Special thanks to Dr. Dafna Hirsch for sharing her ideas and research on the history of hummus with us as we worked on this post*
Our 2015 interpretation
No instructions? Cornfeld’s style is so terse that we had to draw on our own knowledge of hummus texture and flavor. Considering that she was introducing the dish to people who had never cooked it and probably had never even tasted it, we expected more detail. But Cornfeld’s book operates at a wartime tempo: 6 or 7 recipes per page, very little information, many verbs, and often no measurements. As you will see in the recipe below, the book often refers to earlier recipes.
Crushing the Hummus? We make hummus regularly at home, but since we use a food processor to combine all of the ingredients, the texture is generally smoother. Here, we used a mortar and pestle because it seems like this is what Cornfeld intended, and we ended up with some chunks of chickpeas. This actually made for a really nice style, with a lot of chunky, raw flavor. This crushing method also explains why Cornfeld preferred to mix the tahini with water and lemon before adding the chickpeas, to enable easier processing.
No quantities? The recipe has no quantities, but we relied on our experience and knowledge of hummus texture. We also used the water that we cooked the chickpeas in, although Cornfeld didn’t do so, simply because it’s conventional in other recipes that we know.
The original recipe:
Hamza (hummus): Soak it [the chickpeas] in water for at least 12-24 hours, and cook it like dry fava. Hamza and tahini: peel the cooked chickpeas, mash them, and mix them in with the tahini salad, oil, and lemon.
Modern Reconstruction of the Recipe:
- ¾ cup of tahini
- 2 cups of cooked chickpeas
- 1 lemon
- olive oil
- Soak the chickpeas overnight. Strain and wash the chickpeas in clean water. Cook in water for about an hour, until the chickpeas are very soft.
- After cooking, strain the chickpeas. Conserve the water that you’ve cooked the chickpeas in. For every 2 cups of cooked chickpeas, use the proportions of tahini and lemon mentioned above.
- In a large mortar and pestle, crush the cooked chickpeas with the tahini, lemon, olive oil and some of the conserved chickpea water. An electric blender also works for this, of course.
So how was this hummus after all?
The taste was great, but not as flavorful as hummus usually turns out. Perhaps it’s just part of Cornfeld’s laconic writing style, but she does not mention any spices and does not explain which kind of oil should be used. This recipe desperately needed some salt. For styling, we added some olive oil, parsley, and whole cooked chickpeas. A touch of cumin and sumac was also a great upgrade.