Food for thought: Learning culture, cooking, and verb conjugations …

Posted By on July 11, 2023

Two platters of triangle-shaped baklava and tongs for serving.

Amid hectic schedules, the obligation to fulfill course requirements, and the need to actually get some sleep, it is difficult to find time (and space) to cook in college. I try to cook for myself most meals, as I have the facilities to do so. Nonetheless, I didnt expect a language class to give me an excuse to make more dessert, or that trying these recipes would help me connect to the cultural side of said language. This past winter quarter, I signed up for JEW ST 215: Ladino Language and Culture, which I had wanted to take since learning about Ladino in a previous course. Ladino is the traditional language of Sephardic Jews, who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. As a linguistics major and ASL minor, languages are kind of my thing, and adding another understudied one to my repertoire was enticing. I quickly fell in love with the multicultural history and development of Ladino, primarily stemming from fifteenth-century Castilian, with influences of Hebrew, French, Greek, Italian, Arabic and other languages.

El Tiempo newspaper article from September 14, 1983. National Library of Israel.

At the beginning of the quarter, we learned the Hebrew block letters and cursive, followed by the Rashi script used in Ladino-language printing, such as newspapers from the Ottoman Empire. Like most language classes, we practiced greetings and family terms, introductory questions, and verb conjugations. Each week, we also listened to and translated a Ladino song and were introduced to refranes, or proverbs. Along with idiomatic expressions, these gave us insight into Sephardic culture and values as we worked on the language. One of my favorite idioms is alegria kon biskochos de raki, which can be translated as fake happiness. This is because biskochos, a shortbread-like cookie often eaten with tea and raki (an anise drink) are what you bring to someone whos in mourning. Thus, any alegra (joy or happiness) in that situation is likely fake. Among other foods, biskochos came up in class repeatedly, which both made me hungry and interested in making some myself.

Cinnamon-sugar biskochos made by Stephanie Dossett.

Then, when we started to learn imperatives (the command form of verbs), professor Canan Bolel brought in Sephardic recipes to translate, as recipes use the imperative frequently. As we worked through translating recipes for borekas (a kind of cheesy scone) and halwa semolina (a semolina version of a sesame treat), I remembered my desire to make biskochos. I asked the professor if she had a recipe to recommend, and she shared one with the class. I made the recipe at home that weekend. Yum! The cinnamon-sugar circles pair perfectly with an afternoon tea, without being overwhelmingly sweet. I was hooked, so when arroz kon leche (a kind of rice pudding flavored with cinnamon, vanilla bean, mastic, or other spices depending on region and personal taste) came up in class, I found a recipe from the same website as the first and set to work. Another weekend gone and another delicious Sephardic dessert made. Arroz kon leche also known as stla takes some time to make but is very much worth the wait. Making these recipes helped me connect to Ladino outside of class and gain a better understanding of Sephardic Jewish culture beyond the language.

A piece of baklava made by Stephanie Dossett.

As the end of the quarter approached, Id finally collected all the ingredients needed to make baklava, a more daunting undertaking. It turns out, with store-bought frozen phyllo dough, baklava isnt so scary to make so long as you follow the recipe instructions fully (whoops!). Despite being soupier than intended, a successful pan of baklava made for a sweet end to the quarter. I havent done much baking since then, what with the chaos of a new quarter starting and preparing to graduate in June, but those two recipes wetranslated in class for halwa semolina and borekas are definitely on my short list to try.

So why am I telling you this? Well first off, Sephardic food is delicious! In addition, recipes are a great way to practice your imperative verbs while providing a gateway into a new or different culture from your own. If you make more food than intended, share it with friends and possibly meet some new ones! I couldnt take the next Ladino course this quarter, but I hope to keep practicing my Ladino and expand my cooking comfort zone to new cuisines. In the meantime, try these recipes yourself or consider learning an endangered language.

Mersi muncho por meldar mi artikolo. Al vermos!

Stephanie Dossett graduated from UW in 2023 with a degree in Linguistics and a minor in American Sign Language. She will start at the University of Hawaii at Manoa this fall to work on her MA in Linguistics, focusing on the documentation and conservation of endangered languages. In her time as an undergraduate, Stephanie had the opportunity to learn some Ladino, as well as Southern Lushootseed and ASL, and contribute to work on Yakama Sahaptin. These experiences furthered her passion for learning and studying languages, and emphasized their importance to the cultures of their respective communities.

Featured photo courtesy Meryl Schenker Photography.

Note: The opinions expressed by faculty and students in our publications reflect the views of the individual writer only and not those of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies.

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