Illustrations by Joana Avillez
If I could I would spend my days perusing cookbooks, buying cookbooks, cooking from cookbooks, inhabiting them in any and every possible way. I like to think that in a few years I’ll have a mighty collection of colorful cookbooks, in many languages, filling my very spacious and imaginary kitchen. I return to books over and over again, and it’s no different with cookbooks. There’s the first look, when I’m rushing through the pages as though ravenous, eating the recipes with my eyes, one by one. Then I return, perhaps the next day over breakfast, pausing at the recipes that intrigue me. Later I will read them, reread them. Then I will begin to cook. It’s a loving relationship, the one you establish with a cookbook, the way you carry it through the kitchen and the way your fingers oil the pages with grey specks. These books weather kitchen storms, they grow wiser as one tenderly batters, folds, and stains their thick pages. I’m always throwing the salt bowl to weigh down one side, to keep the pages open while I’m whisking, shaking, stirring…
I have to stop here for a moment to celebrate a beautiful cookbook I received this year: Oma & Bella by Alexa Karolinski. Last year I went to see Alexa’s documentary, also named Oma & Bella, filmed in Berlin and based on the life of her grandmother, Oma, and her close friend, Bella. Oma and Bella, both widows, have lived together for six years and spend their days cooking. The documentary is a beautiful celebration of food and the relationship between these two women. We see them walking around West Berlin, shopping for ingredients, shaving calves feet with disposable razors (everything has to be clean in their kitchen), chopping vegetables for soups, choosing clothes from their wardrobes… Both survived the war, though they lost their families in the Holocaust. They cook the best kind of Jewish comfort food: Pickled herring, boiled tongue, red borscht, potato pierogi, rugelach…

I left wanting to watch the film again, and as I walked out, I nibbled on a sugar cookie baked by Alexa, the recipe from Oma and Bella. The project was funded by Kickstarter, and was such a success that Alexa was able to write and publish a cookbook. The final product is a stunning work of art, illustrated by the talented Joana Avillez, and you’ll also find some bright, striking photos at the end, including ones of Oma and Bella. The recipes appear both in English and German. The small watercolor drawings bring light touches of humor and charm and magic: Oma holding a red pepper as large as her body, Oma and Bella carrying a Challot the size of a bed.
In her introduction, Alexa explains that she first really began to cook thanks to this project. Because her grandmother and Bella like to add a pinch of this, a handful of that, to their dishes, it was almost impossible to spontaneously recreate the recipes. Alexa had to patiently translate fistfuls into cups, sprinkles into teaspoons. Mostly she listened and observed and learned to use her taste buds. If there’s one thing you learn from your grandmother, it’s to taste and taste and taste. In the cookbook trailer, Bella throws two tablespoons of sugar into the soup, though she’s telling us, “And you add one spoonful of sugar!” There is something so personal and moving about the story Alexa tells us in Oma & Bella, and to have a slice of this in the form of her book is a true gift. So here I am, with sugar cookies in the oven, touching the soft cloth cover of the cookbook and preparing myself to leaf through it yet another time.

Here is the recipe for the sugar cookies.

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