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When the dust of my move from Israel to Canada began to settle, I finally unpacked the box labelled “cookbooks.” I had ignored the warning that “cookbooks don’t travel well” and packed them all, as I could not possibly leave them behind. Here was the 1970s baking book, written for tiny kitchens with no stand mixer and ovens that speak in Celsius; the kosher version of Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian cookbook, with lemon juice and beer replacing yogurt-based meat marinades; and of course, my bulging binder of recipes.
In my old life those recipes composed the dictionary of my cooking language; I have made them for holidays and family gatherings, for fancy dinner parties in my prechildren days. But my new Calgary kitchen was empty of such memories, of marathon cooking sessions and ghosts of dinners past. I wasn’t in Tel Aviv any more, and wasn’t about to return; the true meaning of the word “alien” seemed, all of a sudden, to apply to me. My family, however, still needed to be fed, so I reached for my binder.
I wasn’t picky: the binder included recipes clipped from the Israeli counterpart of Chatelaine, articles written by my favourite food writers, and the home cook’s secret weapon: napkins, envelopes and stained scraps of paper scrawled with “Sarah’s chocolate cake” or “Nurit’s amazing red pepper salad” (index cards and recipe boxes were not really a thing in Israel). I looked for my old, comforting standbys, presumably to feed my family, in truth to evoke that time when I was at home and at ease with the world, when everyone around me was speaking my food language.
Now I had to bridge my past with the present and into the future. Each day in the kitchen was an experiment, using my familiar recipes on new-to-me ingredients. As I expected, many of my beloved recipes became collateral damage. But my cooking snafus were necessary steps on the road to learning how to be Canadian.
So many recipes are inextricably tied to traditions, seasons and place, and therefore need serious tweaking to retain their original charm. A Passover cake recipe – cheerfully prefaced with “strawberries are a classic Passover dessert as they are in season, cheap and plentiful!” – is a sad flop if attempted in March in Alberta, using imported strawberries that taste like grass clippings. My Israeli friend’s truly wonderful red-pepper salad was still delicious but prohibitively expensive, as six red peppers in Calgary cost as much as a good-quality steak. Cheesecakes were impossible to reproduce; unlike North American cream-cheese based cakes, Israeli recipes call for a particular low-fat soft cheese that, as far as I know, cannot be obtained this side of the Atlantic. Realizing that the cheesecake gap could not be bridged was a sad moment. My binder just wasn’t cutting it any more – as much as I cherished it, I had to forge a new path.
It was not all bad news on the food front: I was blown away by how good the beef tasted, how chicken tasted richer, how delicious the salmon was and how addictive berries are in summer. Not growing up with fruit-cake horror stories, I was immediately dazzled. I had a slice at a Christmas party and absolutely loved it. I still do, preferably when injected with a healthy amount of rum.
As the years went by, I made new friends, participated in potlucks and discovered seven-layer dip and Nanaimo bars. I have contributed burekas, stuffed grapevine leaves and baked challah for international food day at my children’s school. When we bought a house that had a giant rhubarb plant (or did we buy a rhubarb plant that happened to have a house attached?), I dove in to the strange and tasty new territory of rhubarb crisp, rhubarb squares, rhubarb everything. It got to the point where I received a rhubarb cookbook from an appreciative friend. My cooking vocabulary expanded with each trip to the grocery store and each new restaurant I tried.
My binder now lovingly accepts pages torn from accumulated magazines, cardboard packaging (the citrus Caesar-salad dressing printed on a box of Safeway croutons was a revelation), and scrawled out by my new Canadian friends: Donna’s beef barley stew, Kim’s banana bread, Brenda’s maple-and-mustard salmon. I still turn to Israeli food blogs when the situation calls for couscous soup or Rosh Hashanah dessert ideas, but I will browse anywhere in search of that perfect, elusive lasagna.
Some of my old recipes I sadly gave up on (those lighter-than-air Israeli cheesecakes, however, are just on hold by circumstances). Other recipes were resurrected when I was finally able to find date syrup, zaatar or baharat. Some perennial favourites were tweaked and Canadianized – my mom’s potato salad is so much better with fresh peas and new red potatoes, and chicken soup is achievable even if you can’t source celery root anywhere for love or money. Some of the recipes I’ve acquired in this new chapter of my life are now so entrenched in my repertoire that I can’t - and don’t want to - remember life before them. I’m talking about you, warm spinach-and-artichoke dip.
As immigration goes, the tug-of-war between absorbing my new culture and retaining a sense of who I am and where I came from is relentless. Each day I learn something new and am reminded of how much of my adopted culture I still have to learn. Each day my binder grows thicker, my life gets richer, and my kitchen becomes happier.
Inna Gurel lives in Calgary.