Very soon after presenting the concept to the Museum, June Feiss Hersh began her work. Knowing it was important to speak to every contributor personally, she found herself not simply conducting interviews or making appointments, but making friends. They became her survivors, her connection to the past and her reason to optimistically embrace the future. She writes in the introduction to the book, “I spent hundreds of hours listening, learning, laughing, and crying. I heard incredible stories of defiance, resolve, bravery, and luck. I came home with recipes to test, savor, share, and enjoy. The survivor community has so much to teach and we still have so much to learn.”
The interviewing was only half the battle. Translating the recipe was another practical challenge.
How much is a glass of oil or an eggshell of matzo meal?
Is a bisel a teaspoon or a pinch?
And what about those recipes written in shorthand or scribbled as illegible notes stained with cooking oil and sauce?
Due to June’s dedication and diligence, she tested and re-tested every recipe and wrote each precisely in order to provide the reader with detailed introductions, recipe context, clear directions, consistent format and exact measurements. She also contributed several recipes of her own.
Here is a glimpse into the process, in June's own words.
My first interview was with Regina Finer, the mother of my Museum liaison, Evelyn Goldfeier. Evelyn explained to me that every question you ask a survivor is answered one or two hours later. You will hear about the cat’s cough, a second cousin who was looking for Mr. Right, an unforgettable trip to Israel, a visit to the dentist and then, your question will be answered. I was forewarned to be patient, but dogged. If I let the interview get away from me, I might never get it back. I sat down with Regina, ready to listen and poised to ask numerous questions. I left my watch behind.
Me: So Regina, tell me about a food that you remember enjoying as a child, something you still make today.
Regina: Kluskies, potato dumplings.
Me: Do you have the recipe?
Regina: I don’t need a recipe to make them.
Me: Well can you describe to me how you go about it, so I can share your “recipe” with others?
Regina: Well, you take some potatoes.
Me: How many?
Regina: How many? I never counted.
Evelyn: Mom, when you make dumplings do you buy a bag of potatoes?
Regina: Of course I buy a bag; the price is much better when you buy a bag.
Evelyn: And when you make your dumplings, do you use the entire bag?
Regina: What, you think I would waste potatoes?
Evelyn: And can you carry the entire bag of potatoes?
Regina: Who else is going to carry them for me?
Evelyn to me: Start with five pounds of potatoes.
After taking copious notes, and more importantly taking in the essence of what Regina was describing, I had a very clear understanding of her personal life history and a basic concept of her recipe. I realized that like Regina, many of these cooks prepare from instinct and memory, from taste and smell or by shitteryne; Yiddish for without a recipe.