A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain's Secret Jews

Mini-Review

A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain's Secret Jews

by David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson

St. Martin's, 352 pp., $29.95

A Drizzle of Honey is one of the more captivating cookbooks to come out lately -- not because of the recipes, although they are well-researched and produce excellent dishes, but for the insight the authors provide into the lives of the Sephardic Jews of the Iberian Peninsula during the Spanish Inquisition. Imagine a world where you could be tortured and killed based on what you ate or when you ate it. Of course, the Jews were not actually being punished specifically for what they ate, but for refusing to abandon their religion. Their dietary practices simply made them more visible targets.

Gitlitz and Davidson spent two years researching and testing these recipes to make them practical for American kitchens. It was a monumental task considering what the authors were up against. They were researching a cuisine whose cookbooks were outlawed and destroyed by the Inquisition. In the late 1400s, as Christians began to take back lands held by the Islamic Moors in Spain and Portugal, all Jews were required to convert to Catholicism. Disguising one's religious faith might be easy enough for many people, if it weren't for the dietary restrictions of the Jewish faith. Prying neighbors began to notice if Sabbath meals were repeatedly cooked on Fridays, or if household servants were required to kosher the meat used in the house, or if pork was politely refused.

Except for a few very limited sources, the primary means for re-creating the foods of the Iberian Jews came from the court records of the Inquisition -- court documents from the 15th through the 17th centuries! As strange and difficult as it may seem, the documents would make reference to testimony from servants and neighbors, friends and detractors about culinary practices that indicated Judaism. In many cases, these documents would mention specific combinations of foods comprising a particular dish, or a certain method of preparation. And from these documents, Gitlitz and Davidson have revived the medieval Jewish Iberian cuisine.

Almost as fascinating is the discussion of medieval cooking practices, and the foodstuffs available before the introduction of New World foods. The number and quantity of spices commonly used in dishes is shocking. And excerpts from the testimony in court accompany a large percentage of the recipes, as well as the tragic punishments handed down. This is a gripping read, and if you didn't know much about the Inquisition before you began, you definitely will by the end.

But this is, after all, a cookbook, and to gloss over this collection of more than 100 recipes would be criminal. The authors have given readers clear and concise instructions using commonly found ingredients, and they have provided variations for preparation on many of the dishes. The recipes combine medieval Christian and Islamic traditions for a broad range of items, from salads and vegetables to fish, fowl, and beef, from sausages and meat and fish pies to breads and desserts. And one tradition that seems odd (and the source of the title of the book) was that a drizzle of honey, or a sprinkling of sugar, was the perfect garnish for any dish -- savory or sweet.

If culinary adventure, courtroom drama, and thoroughly researched food and religious history captivate you, A Drizzle of Honey is the perfect entrée for your reading plate. But the dessert of this reading meal is the incredible medieval Iberian food that the recipes produce. Gitlitz and Davidson live up to their promise to delight the adventurous palate, and captivate the reader with the foundations of modern Sephardic cuisine.

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