Edda Servi Machlin, 93, Champion of Italian Jewish Cuisine, Dies


Edda Servi Machlin, who survived the harrowing World War II years in Italy by hiding out with anti-Fascist partisans, then immigrated to the United States and wrote a definitive cookbook on Italian Jewish food, died on Aug. 16 at her home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. She was 93.

Her daughter Gia Machlin said the cause was vascular dementia.

In 1981, when Ms. Machlin published “The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews,” few people were aware of the distinctive Jewish culinary traditions of that part of the world, or of the centuries-long history behind them.

Especially in the United States, where dishes from Central and Eastern Europe dominated Jewish cuisine, many Jewish readers were surprised to learn that instead of hamantaschen, the triangular pastries associated with Purim, her book offered a fried pastry known as Haman’s ears.

The book (which she followed with a Volume 2 in 1992) did more than just offer recipes; it recounted her memories of growing up in Pitigliano, a town in Tuscany that was known as the little Jerusalem because — at least until World War II — it had a vibrant Jewish community and culture, one that had been there for centuries. She told of an underground communal oven that, when she was young, was used only for baking matzo at Passover.

“All the equipment was centuries old, and no one knew where it came from,” she said in an account quoted in The Boston Globe in 1987, though she speculated that the oven was built by Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. The baking, she recalled, resulted in leftovers that became their own tradition.

“No matzo could remain in the house after Shavuot, a holiday that comes seven weeks after Passover,” she said, “yet no matzo could be thrown away. So after the Shavuot midday meal, it was our custom to go to the river with paper bags full of matzo. The fish seemed to know this custom, because they were there by the hundreds as soon as the first few crumbs reached the water.”

Edda Debora Rafaella Servi was born on Feb. 22, 1926, in Pitigliano. Her father, Azeglio, was the village rabbi. Her mother, Sara (DiCapua) Servi, provided the example and knowledge that later turned up in her cookbooks.

“Mamma was such a great cook,” she wrote in “Classic Italian Jewish Cooking,” a 2005 book that combined elements of her earlier cookbooks, “that not only festive meals but every meal she prepared for the family twice a day every day was a gourmet delight.”

In her books, Ms. Machlin described the village of her childhood as marked by tolerance and cooperation between Jewish and Christian residents, but that began to change in 1936 when Benito Mussolini entered into a pact with Germany.

“Until the lamentable day of Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler,” she wrote, “our life in Pitigliano had been integrated and as happy, or unhappy, as anyone else’s.”

After that, and especially once Mussolini imposed anti-Semitic laws in 1938, the idyllic life was gone, and so was the acceptance and support by gentiles.

“All who had remained good friends up to that moment began to avoid us as if we were suddenly infected with a repulsive disease,” she wrote.

In 1943, her parents and youngest brother were sent to a concentration camp in northern Italy (from which they were later liberated), and she, two brothers and a sister fled into the hills of Tuscany.

“We found safety in the ranks of the partisans,” she wrote, “and with those generous farmers who risked their own lives and the burning of their farms to shelter us.”

The family reunited in Pitigliano after the war, but the Jewish community was shattered, and they relocated to Florence. In 1958 Ms. Machlin moved to New York, joining a sister who was already there. In 1960 she married Eugene Machlin, and they settled in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Her cookbook-writing career was set in motion by well-meaning friends who, early in her stay in New York, would take her to the city’s Italian restaurants.

“‘Italian’ food was, even in some of the better restaurants, mediocre, to put it mildly,” she wrote. To avoid being subjected to it, she started inviting these friends to dine at her home instead, preparing recipes for them that she remembered from Italy.

“People began to ask for doggy bags, and names of recipes,” she wrote. So she began writing the recipes down.

“Eventually, what I thought of as a legacy to my children and a few intimate friends caught the attention of a publisher,” she wrote, “and my ‘secret’ recipes became public domain.”

Ms. Machlin, who also wrote “The Classic Dolci of the Italian Jews: A World of Jewish Desserts” (1999), detailed the Jewish influence in Italian cooking.

“While adapting the dishes of their host country to their kosher laws,” she wrote, “the Jews in Italy, as in the rest of the world, enriched the local cuisine with their ancestral culinary customs. Obviously, then, many traditional Italian dishes have an unsuspected Jewish origin.”

For instance, eggplant and fennel, she said, were originally used only by Jews but became “the quintessence of Italian vegetables.”

Ms. Machlin’s education was interrupted by World War II, but decades later she enrolled at Columbia University, receiving a bachelor’s degree there in 1979.

Ms. Machlin had a stroke in 2002; her husband had been her principal caregiver since then. In addition to him and their daughter Gia, she is survived by another daughter, Rona Machlin; a son, Chet; a brother, Mario Servi; and three grandchildren.

Many of Ms. Machlin’s dishes of course involved pasta, which she learned to make as a girl. In “Classic Italian Jewish Cooking,” she urged her readers to try the do-it-yourself route too.

“A whole world of delicious meals is yours when you are willing to make pasta at home,” she wrote. “And, I might add, no one in my family is overweight despite the many delicious pasta dishes we habitually eat.”

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