In spring 1997, in a small university town in the American Midwest, I accepted a job cleaning the house of a psychologist and a professor of classics to earn money to pay for my dissertation copies. As it happened, the family was Orthodox Jewish of Austro-Hungarian and Eastern European background. Because we got along well, eventually we became friends, and because I was quick in learning the requisite kosher rules, they also had me clean and cook for orthodox Pesach (Passover), the most restricted kosher cooking there is. When they asked me, however, to bake some of their typical Pesach desserts, I balked at it. I had grown up in Vienna from the 1960s to1980s eating very traditional Viennese cuisine and its desserts made by my mother, who had been an excellent cook. My mother’s mother had run her own small Viennese coffeehouse until 1920 and so renowned were her apple strudels and other desserts that my much older cousin would bike even from Graz to Vienna in the 1950s to get a piece. My other grandmother had been a pastry chef for an aristocratic family in Graz until the end of World War I. In this kind of family, the recipes handed to me for Pesach desserts were not palatable.
Instead, I leafed through my Viennese grandmother’s handwritten cookbook and my copy of Die Wiener Küche by Olga and Adolf Hess from ca. 1929 and I baked what were our quintessential family Christmas cookies, Haselnußbusserln and a Viennese Veilchentorte (hazelnut cake) among others. None of these dishes needed leavening, flour, or fermentable ingredients which are all prohibited during Pesach, and while Pesach guests were delighted and wanted the recipes, I was left with a puzzle: how was it possible that many of my grandmother’s recipes, menu plans, and those of the archetypical Hess cookbook were applicable to even the strictest Jewish culinary rules without needing any adjustments for kosher cooking? And my next thought was an unsubstantiated leap: was our famous historical Viennese Cuisine perhaps a shared culinary product, practice, and legacy of Viennese Jews and non-Jews alike?
Trying to search for answers led me along paths of archival and historical research as part of which I met many Viennese Holocaust survivors, formed close friendships with them, and learnt from their stories. The context within which I situate my culinary history is deeply influenced by my interdisciplinary background and my work as a former Holocaust restitution historian and archivist for the Jewish Community of Vienna, Austria (IKG), where I rebuilt the historical IKG archives the National Socialists had closed down. If this culinary research helps to unearth, acknowledge, and honor the contributions of Viennese Jews to our Viennese Cuisine, if it helps us see the complexities involved in everyday culture and the most simple of acts, if it helps us to remember and honor the Viennese Jews I met along the way as well as the amazing grandparents on both sides of my family who held on to the humanity of their neighbors, friends, and their own in troubling and dangerous times, then this research served its purpose.