Doris Schecter’s At Oma’s Table is part memoir, part cookbook. It begins with her early memories of life in Vienna, then as a refugee in Italy and later the United States. Filled with vintage photographs of the author and her family, the introduction would have made a fascinating full-length biography.
Doris tells of her early years spent in Italy (Hitler’s army entered Vienna shortly after she was born in 1938) as a “free prisoner.” In July 1944, Doris and her family were invited as refugees to Oswego, New York; she chronicles the perilous ocean crossing in several tense paragraphs (“thirty Nazi planes flew over us, and we were continually hunted by Nazi U-boats and submarines”). However, life in the United States was equally difficult in some ways (“We arrived in America on August 3, 1944. On the very same day we were saved, Anne Frank was betrayed in Amsterdam”); her beloved father died of spinal meningitis shortly after arriving in New York. Doris, her baby sister and her mother at first crowded together in their Aunt Ciel’s home, along with Oma Leah (her grandmother), who had recently arrived from Belgium after surviving the war in hiding. They later purchased a larger house and Doris grew up surrounded by the freedoms and comforts of American life, going on to raise five children of her own.
Her grandmother led a truly difficult life; her husband, son, and daughter all died in concentration camps. Before the war, Leah was a successful businesswoman. In her new American home, she was in charge of the daily grocery shopping and meal preparation. Bearing and respect were everything to her. She did not talk about the war.
Nothing was wasted (and she never allowed junk food or sodas in the house).
Doris owns the restaurant My Most Favorite Food in Manhattan, and she puts her expertise to use in this collection of traditional Jewish comfort food with a Viennese/Italian twist. You have your classic cholent (slow-simmered stew traditional served on the Sabbath), tzimmes, matzo soup, kasha, challah, chopped liver, and gefilte fish, but you also have Viennese-style recipes such as fleishlabel (chopped meat patties), wiener schnitzel, backhendl (Viennese-style fried chicken), four separate recipes for Liptauer (a Hungarian cheese and anchovy spread), sweet-and-sour tomato cabbage soup, and red cabbage with apples. Doris’s early years in Italy surface in recipes such as a vegetable frittata and risi bisi (rice and peas). There are also nods to American cuisine, such as corn bread, cole slaw, stuffed peppers, and turkey recipes (roast turkey with apple, almond, and raisin stuffing and turkey pot pie).If you are, like myself, vegetarian, there are numerous wonderful vegetable and side dishes such as pepper ragout, potato pancakes, several whole-grain pilafs, and numerous green salads (cinnamon-scented green salad, green salad with ginger dressing) and veggie salads (tomato, red onion, cucumber, and parsley salad, endive and red and golden beet salad, green bean and red onion salad, pea salad).
The dessert section also deserves special mention. I own Rabbi Gil Marks’s wonderful (and out-of-print) The World Of Jewish Desserts: More Than 400 Delectable Recipes from Jewish Communities, which focused mainly on Eastern European-style baked goods such as Bundts, coffeecakes, and tarts. Doris’s selection doesn’t disappoint, with a fine variety of fruit tarts (Italian plum, apricot and chocolate), a Viennese hazelnut torte, crepes, butter horns, cheesecake, and several bundt cakes (apple, chocolate streusel), the perfect sweet ending to your meal, Sabbath or otherwise.
Finally, Doris also includes numerous sample menus, divided into two sections: menus for every day (Friday night, birthday, anniversary, dinner party, special occasion) and Jewish holidays (Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Shavuous, Succoth, Chanukah).