Aug. 19, 2011
A culinary legacy preserved
A new cookbook features Ashkenazi cuisine and family stories.
In many aspects of her life, Ethel Karmel has always strived to keep Jewish cultural heritage alive. It was with that goal in mind that she wrote her second cookbook, Generation to Generation: Traditional Jewish Festival Menus, which was published earlier this year.
“I wanted to preserve the Ashkenazi culinary treasures for future generations,” she said in an interview with the Independent. “I always loved cooking, but young people now don’t know much about Ashkenazi cuisine. I wrote this book because I wanted to savor our people’s food of the past…. If I didn’t write it, my children and grandchildren might not remember the recipes. I didn’t write this book as a source of income, I wrote it for my family.”
It came as a surprise to Karmel that people aside from her family wanted to buy her book. Approximately 80 percent of the first print run of 500 has been sold. “It sold by word of mouth,” she said. “I had a book signing at my home. Some people bought one book; others bought several, as gifts. One woman bought 15 books,” she said, smiling.
According to Karmel, one of the difficulties of writing Generation to Generation involved measuring all the ingredients for each of its 83 complete menus. “My mother was a fantastic cook,” she recalled. “I attribute my love of cooking to her, but she taught me to cook in the old style: a pinch of this, a bit of that…. For a cookbook, you need the exact measures.”
Unlike some other cookbooks, this one is very personal. In addition to the abundance of recipes of traditional Ashkenazi holiday Jewish cuisine, the author also included vignettes about her family and how they have celebrated the major Jewish holidays. The book is dedicated to her parents, Dora and Jack Slobin, and to her husband, Jonah Karmel.
Besides being a gourmet cook and a writer, Karmel is also an accomplished artist. She paints in a traditional Chinese style, the only Ashkenazi Jew in Canada known to do so. The style took her 18 years to master and, for all of those years, she studied with the same master, Ching Ku Chang, a well-known painter of the Chinese Orthodox School.
“I was always interested in arts,” she explained, “but I didn’t find my niche until I met Master Chang. It was a sad time in my life. I lost my parents. My husband was unwell. I heard about this artist, met him, and felt so much serenity in his work.”
Pulled by the gentle tranquility of Chinese art, she started her lessons in the early 1980s, already a mature woman. Soon she fell in love with the entire culture. “I felt honored and privileged to be Master Chang’s student. He didn’t speak any English. He taught me everything with brush strokes. It was a challenge and a joy.”
To deepen her understanding, Karmel traveled to China and Japan in 1994. “I went to nine cities, visited a painters’ village…. I was enthralled by the breathtaking scenery. It was a fascinating trip, but I felt that Chinese art was becoming Westernized, losing its uniqueness, its sense of identity. It’s a pity. We should keep what we have.”
To learn more, she took classes in Chinese and Japanese art at the University of British Columbia. She participated in multiple exhibitions at UBC’s Asian Centre as well, and she applied and was accepted into the Chinese Canadian Artists Federation. “At the time, I was the only Caucasian member. I’m still the only Jew,” she said.
The artist’s fascination with everything Chinese had another manifestation: mah jongg has become one of her favorite pastimes. For more than three decades, Karmel and a group of her friends have been gathering weekly to play mah jongg and share the delights of friendship and gastronomy. “Each week the host would serve a spectacular lunch before we sat down to play. It was fun, and my friends often asked me how I cooked this or that, so I decided to write a cookbook for them.”
Her first cookbook, Lunch Recipes for Mah Jongg Winners, was published in 2009. Blending the author’s two loves – for cooking and for Chinese painting – the book was illustrated by her drawings.
Karmel’s determination to preserve cultural heritage, be it Jewish cooking, Chinese painting or old trees, found another expression, when she organized the movement to save Cambie Street boulevard from the proposed overhead Skytrain line. In the early 1990s, she became the founder and first president of the Cambie Heritage Boulevard Society.
“We organized rallies, spoke at meetings, made presentations to the city council. I never gave up,” she said. Her tenacity paid off. Thanks to Karmel and those she helped to organize, Cambie Street was declared the first Heritage Landscape in Vancouver, and the Skytrain was dug underground. In 2006, in recognition of her efforts, Karmel was awarded an honorary membership in the B.C. Landscape Architects Society.
To learn more about Karmel’s art and her cookbooks, visit ekarmel.com.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].