Authors serve up a warm posthumous tribute to an unsung hero

Though it was beyond the scope of the authors’ research, food seems to run in the Dunie family. St. Louis brothers Harry and Nathan Dunie, who founded Dunie’s downtown deli in 1912, were likely the brothers – or at least the cousins – of Isadore F. Dunie, husband of Ruth Ginsburg Dunie. The authors could not confirm whether Ruth’s recipes were ever served at the legendary deli and restaurant, which closed in 1990.

By SUSAN FADEM, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

It’s not unusual for the public to remember and honor someone who’s left a visible community legacy. It’s quite another for an unsung hero, a sweet woman who lived humbly, to receive such recognition for a gift that was never intended for anyone other than her own family.

A husband/wife team of River Forest, Ill., anthropologists and authors, who share a passion for researching and reading about food – and he for devouring it, though neither for cooking – have brought such posthumous honor to a St. Louisan. And like TV’s brainy detective Adrian Monk, the couple did so with the scantest of initial evidence, theirs acquired on eBay some 35 years after the woman’s death.

About five years ago, Ellen F. Steinberg submitted a winning online bid of $40 for what the seller, who apparently was not Jewish, described simply as handwritten recipes. By “great good fortune,” Steinberg says, the seller had posted, with no comment, a photocopied page of recipes for matzo balls and matzo cakes.

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When the real thing arrived, a fragile manuscript of 100-plus traditional Jewish recipes, handwritten in English, Steinberg says, “It was like, ‘Oh wow, is this a treasure.'”

The writer, whose presumed initials, “Mrs. L.F.D.,” appeared on a torn label on the manuscript’s cover, mentioned her Lithuanian roots. In Steinberg’s experience, it’s not only unusual to find manuscripts by immigrant Jewish women living at the turn of the last century, but especially by women able to write in their acquired language, in bound composition books.

The last was crucial. Separate slips of paper or cards rarely last. They are too easily lost or discarded by subsequent generations.

Like many academics, Steinberg and her husband, Jack H. Prost, frequent used-book stores, flea markets and auctions. But only once before had Steinberg acquired a trove comparable to the one she found on eBay. That time, she literally stumbled on it.

Exiting a used-book store in Champaign, Ill., she tripped over a box labeled “Diaries and Journals.” Although the bookseller, upon questioning, said the contents seemed to belong to “nobody special,” Steinberg randomly opened to a page that talked of entertaining Carl Sandburg, the poet and eventual three-time Pulitzer Prize winner.

For the requested $50, she swiftly bought the box. Its contents, including recipes, were handwritten, mostly by Chicago-born Irma Rosenthal Frankenstein, who lived from 1871 to 1966 and had German/Jewish roots.

Unlike many researchers, Prost says, his wife recognized that manuscripts of handwritten recipes are “original, primary data.” Prost is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In contrast to published cookbooks, which tend to reference other cookbooks, he adds, handwritten recipes, often with margin notes, reveal what real people were making, thinking and buying.

After spending a year transcribing the Frankenstein collection, Steinberg wrote two books: “Irma, A Chicago Woman’s Story, 1871-1966” and, with a former head of Kraft Foods test kitchens to modernize the recipes, “Learning to Cook in 1898: A Chicago Culinary Memoir.”

And here, the matzo-meal path to a St. Louis mystery gained density. Upon reviewing “Learning to Cook,” one culinary historian asked Steinberg to produce a book on Midwest Jewish food, for a series he was editing on “heartland foodways.” Buying Mrs. L.F.D.’s recipes proved pivotal.

First, Mrs. L.F.D. credited a number of recipes to relatives and friends, whose names she listed.

Although tracking down the Hennie of “Hennie D’s Cheese Pie” would have been fruitless, Steinberg and Prost examined U.S. census reports available at their neighborhood library. By plugging in “Hoffheimer” and the other more unusual last names Mrs. L.F.D. cited, the couple found every last name in a 1910 census report. Plus, all the people lived in St Louis.

Second, Mrs. L.F.D. mentioned Crisco shortening, introduced in 1911 and touted as every Orthodox woman’s dream. Made from vegetable oil, Crisco was kosher.

Thus fortified, the couple contacted Diane Everman, archivist for the St. Louis Jewish Community Archives. For an era when women were widely referred to, in public, as “Mrs.,” followed by their husband’s first and last names, might Everman have marriage records for a Mrs. L.F.D.?

In archives that occupy some 700 cubic feet at the Brodsky Library here, Everman had just one rabbi’s wedding records. Marked “Lithuanian Orthodox B’nai Amoona” congregation, they dated from 1911 to 1930.

Hoping that Mrs. L.F.D.’s nuptials would be included was “sort of a long shot,” Steinberg admits. Still, she and her husband couldn’t resist traveling here.

What came next is described by archivist Everman as the joy of locating that “golden nugget.” In the rabbi’s handwritten records for 1913, Prost found the marriage of Ruth Ginsburg to Isadore F. Dunie.

On the torn label on their manuscript’s cover, Prost realized, the “L” in “Mrs. L.F.D.” must have been an “I.”

Somehow, the rabbi had “exactly the same handwriting” as the woman the couple came to refer to as Ruth, Prost says. Back when the teaching of longhand was formalized, “The rabbi and Ruth must have come from the same community,” he continues, awe still in his voice.

Interestingly, in all the marriage records he checked, only Isadore was shown with a middle initial. Isadore’s “F” helped confirm the second initial in what Prost and Steinberg now felt fairly sure must be “Mrs. I.F.D.”

To double-check, archivist Everman showed them Missouri’s online marriage records, which cross-reference the bride to the groom and vice versa. Sure enough, Ruth Ginsburg married Isadore R. Dunie in 1913. The wife, widowed in 1928, lived from 1893 to 1969, they subsequently found.

To say that writing their book was then a “piece of cake,” even a piece of Ruth Dunie’s “Potato Flour Sponge Cake,” would be an overstatement. For additional material and data necessary for “From the Jewish Heartland: Two Centuries of Midwest Foodways,” Steinberg “haunted eBay and more used-book stores and estate sales and Jewish archives and historical societies.” She and her husband also “ran all over the Midwest.”

In all, they ended up with some two dozen manuscripts, journals and diaries, all handwritten by Midwestern Jewish women alive during the years 1892 to the 1930s and ’40s. “By then, people were using Jell-O and making Jell-O molds. And who cares?” Steinberg says. Nonetheless, she and her husband reprint special praise for Ruth, sent to them by one of Ruth’s granddaughters, former St. Louisan Carol Christian, who now lives in New York. “Grandma Dunie was a very sweet, humble woman,” she wrote.

Prost offers his own epitaph of sorts. “The great heroes who fight the battles, the Napoleons, are not what the history of human beings is all about.” For that story, one needs a Ruth Dunie.

 

‘From the Heartland’

WHAT: Co-authors Ellen F. Steinberg and Jack H. Prost talk about their book, “From the Jewish Heartland: Two Centuries of Midwest Foodways.” Food educator Aura Kavadio serves a sampling of the book’s recipes.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 25

WHERE: Brodsky Library, 12 Millstone Campus Drive

COST: $7 per person, free to Friends of the Brodsky Library

RESERVATIONS: E-mail [email protected] or call 314-432-0020.

BOOK DESCRIPTION: Though it includes a number of kosher and non-kosher recipes, including nearly a dozen of Ruth Dunie’s updated recipes, which rate their own appendix, the book explores the Jewish presence in the Midwest, the role of refrigeration and ubiquitous corn, and gustatory favorites from Tzizel bread (credited to St. Louisan Max Pratzel, founder of Pratzel’s Bakery) to pastrami and Chicago cheesecake.