Though only just beginning my thesis research on how food is used as a response to trauma, I have found in cookbooks several impressive examples of how people experiencing and recovering from traumatic events have used food as a means of coping with the unfathomable.
In Memory’s Kitchen is a published collection of recipes, edited by Cara DeSilva, translated by Bianca Steiner Brown, written and gathered at the WWII Terezín ghetto/concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. The horrors of life in Terezín were myriad, but hunger was a persistent and lethal experience.
Some women in the camp coped with their hunger by writing this cookbook. But the practice of thinking, talking, and writing about food one could not access was a common response in Terezín:
“‘The hunger was so enormous that one constantly ‘cooked’ something that was an unattainable ideal and maybe somehow it was a certain help to survive it all,” wrote Jaroslav Budlovsky on a death march…And Susan E. Cernyak-Spatz…describes people in both [Terezín and Auschwitz] as speaking of food so much that there was a camp expression for it. “We called it ‘cooking with the mouth,’ she say. ‘Everybody did it. And people got very upset if they thought you made a dish the wrong way or had the wrong recipe for it” (xxviii – xxix).
To honor the women who wrote this cookbook, I made cookies from one of the recipes. I prepared the fluffy oat-thumbprint cookies called Makaronen from the German recipe, with measurements and instructions that were less extensive than what I’m accustomed to. Just as these women were likely accustomed to in former times of plenty, I mixed ingredients until the consistency looked ‘right,’ and baked them until they looked ‘done.’
Thinking of how the author of this recipe dreamed of cookies as she and her family and friends were starved, beaten, and burned brought me to tears. I can never truly understand what she went through but I can honor her memory by following her recipe, sharing it with you, and acting against atrocities taking place today.
Cara de Silva, editor. 1996. In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin.
Translated by Bianca Steiner Brown. London: Rowan and Littlefield.