She Who Collects

As Joan Didion once advised, in times of trouble, “go to the literature.” A week after the attacks on Israel set off a brutalizing cycle of violence and expulsion, I found myself lost in archives, trying to find a thread of hope from the past to unravel and bring back forward. I looked at maps and sepia-stained photographs, textile scans and agricultural plans. And finally, I broke bread on the seminal work of Egyptian-born cookbook writer and cultural anthropologist Claudia Roden.

Born in Cairo in 1936 to a Syrian-Jewish merchant family, Roden’s life has paralleled the seismic shifts of the past century in the Middle East; a time in which multicultural pluralism gave way to discord, upheaval, and forced migration. After the Jews were exiled from Egypt in 1956, Roden’s family were forced to relocate to London, where she lives to this day, and began to amass records of food. “I started collecting recipes from refugees like us, because I thought if I did not, we would lose them forever,” she told Apartameto last year. “There had been no cookbooks at all in Egypt. Our community had been a mosaic of families from all over the Ottoman Empire and the recipes I collected reflected that.”

It’s a natural role for the émigré to become a person of record; she who gathers and records, collects, and remembers. In 1968, Roden published her first cookbook, A Book of Middle Eastern Food, and she has published many ever since, including the 1996 landmark The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand and Vilna to the Present Day. In the food world, Roden’s legacy is as foundational as it its outside of it. Once, when asked what items he would save from a burning house, Yotam Ottolenghi replied without hesitation: “Claudia Roden’s two books.” One doesn’t exist without the other. 

Maria Echeverri is a creative director and the co-founder of Marfala, a studio based between New York and Bogota, Colombia.