The Dialogue Book Club took off this month (as the actual brick-and-mortar closed up shop in April and the team is re-focusing energies on events in Berlin and e-publishing) so I thought I’d share instead a book that I’ve been particularity smitten with lately. I came across Oma & Bella a few months ago, a heart-warming story of two grandmothers, Polish-born Oma and Lithuanian Bella, who survived the Holocaust’s concentration camps and keep each other company today living together in Berlin. Oma’s granddaughter, Alexa Karolinski, filmed their day-to-day life, much of which revolves around food; the intimate story shows simple scenes of shopping at the market, cleaning produce in their night robes, checking on roasting stews in the late hours, enjoying Berlin’s sunny summer sipping Berliner Weiße, preparing for a dinner party, relaxing after a long day with a snack. Most of the film takes place in the kitchen and the food leaps off the screen—you can almost taste the soup, you want to nibble on the cookies. These woman live and breathe cooking, it’s what keeps them going, all day, every day.
After seeing this dedication to cuisine, I couldn’t wait to get the accompanying cookbook and went to three Berlin stores until I stumbled on it at the wonderful culinary outpost Goldhahn und Sampson. Everyone else can order it here (and I think it would make quite the gift, perhaps for upcoming Mother’s Day). The book is a charming little collection of recipes and illustrations, in both German and English, highlighting traditional Eastern European and Jewish dishes including chopped liver, matzah balls, potato kugel, and gefillte fish. Reading through this simple book is like chatting with an old friend—“the food, at its most fundamental, is made for the pleasure of eating. It represents all of the love and warmth that a grandmother has for her family.” The words could not be more mine if I had written them myself. The recipes are straightforward, and most only call for a few basic pantry ingredients, but they are written with love.
Written by Alexa, the cookbook is an attempt to preserve the food her family grew up with and the memories of these women. I am constantly surprised when I meet someone who is disoriented by the concept of cooking without a recipe, cooking only with what you have, cooking by taste. This is the way that Oma and Bella cook; after years of cooking for their families, their recipes are not specific but are second nature. As Alexa explains it, in order to translate that free-nature way of cooking into a methodology for the cookbook, she spent years cooking with the grandmothers, translating the “handfuls into half cups, the pinches into teaspoons.” I believe anyone that reads a book like this, that comes first from a place where cooking is rooted in second nature, will be more adapt at that kind of cooking.
The book is also full of kind words of wisdom that only can come from grandmothers. On fashion: “Have an outfit for cooking, preferable a fantastic one.” Health advice: “There’s no sickness that can’t be healed by food.” On cooking: “Measuring all this is a bad idea, you have to feel it.” It’s really hard to look at a picture of these sweet women and not smile, not feel warm inside, as if these lovely ladies are your grandmothers. Clearly, as I mentioned, I am smitten. Perhaps because I never really had a chance to cook with my own grandmothers.
Although quite simple, this is a touching book and documentary, both of which I thoroughly recommend, (you can easily stream the film at home), especially if you’ve been as intrigued as I have about the historical and culinary aspects of our life in Berlin.