What is SCHIBBOLETH “the foodnik’s armchair therapy”?

Remnants of a feast: Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna sitting outside at a table with the remains of a meal from 1920.
Remnants of a feast: Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna sitting outside at a table with the remains of a meal from 1920.

I am writing this blog from Vienna’s Island of Shattered Glass (“Glasscherbeninsel” a.k.a. “Mazzesinsel”, Matzo Island), the name of which stands as a tribute to the many Jews who used to live here. Post-World War II Vienna is marked by the destruction of the vast majority of its Jewish inhabitants along with the heart of its former vibrant intellectual, cultural and social life. The Viennese are still struggling to fully grasp the void created by this rupture of civilization.1

The Viennese weren’t even able, or more precisely, they likely conveniently forgot to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Sigmund Freud’s death. Scholars frequently discuss the public’s indifferent, somewhat hostile attitude toward Freud and psychoanalysis. Historian Peter Gay largely sums up the issue with the following statement: “Vienna, it seems, has largely repressed Freud.”2 One might add that the Viennese have done so especially with regards to the psychologist’s Jewish heritage as the city has done with its own Jewish past as a whole. Many of the articles here discuss Vienna’s lost cultural background with regards to the impact the Jews have had culinarily throughout the years.

Sigmund Freud’s haunting specter

Sigmund Freud-Stele 'The Secret of Dreams' next to the Bellevuewiese, where Freud's favored hotel Bellevue used to be, with the city of Vienna in the background.
Sigmund Freud-Stele ‘The Secret of Dreams’ with Vienna in the background. This is where Freud began the inception of The Interpretation of Dreams. Read more ->

Sigmund Freud, who is perhaps the most famous thinker to have come out of Vienna, happened to have had very particular tastes and preferences regarding his meals. He offered at least one cookbook to his wife, Martha Bernays, and later, another cookbook to their cook. And then there’s Freud’s own (apocryphal) cookbook. The pages you will find here try to investigate, albeit light-heartedly, the relationship between food and thought, particularly of psychoanalytical ideas and Viennese food with a special focus on its more or less repressed Jewish influences.

For me, cooking is akin to treatment. By researching a particular food’s history, I begin to work through the events in my own personal life. Even the simple process of cooking itself — the act of washing and cutting up vegetables, for instance — is a rewarding, meditative ritual. Then, in turn, serving that food to guests, friends, and family members is rejuvenating and therapeutic.

Of course, cooking cannot replace proper psychotherapy

Cutting up vegetables: a meditative exercise.
Cutting up vegetables: a meditative exercise.

Here I’m particularly interested in the cultural – especially sociological and anthropological – aspects of food. Vienna has a kind of melting-pot cuisine. Its cuisine has been influenced by its neighbors and immigrants, including the Jewish, Italian, Hungarian, and Bohemian nations, all of whom lived in or interacted with Austria at some point throughout its history.

We can, indeed, gain valuable insight into Viennese ideals and values through immersing ourselves in its culinary culture. Psychoanalysis, which has come to shape the Western world of the twentieth century is, indeed, an apt lens through which we can come to appreciate national, and perhaps even international narratives. The process of becoming aware of one’s cuisine, of the recipes, ingredients, and flavors through which it expresses itself, can serve as the culinary equivalent to psychotherapeutic analysis.

Ever since your mother’s milk, all eating must surely be an oral fixation

The origin of the Oedipus complex: When visiting the newly opened Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna in 1891 Sigmund Freud was defied by the infant’s look at the viewer in Orazio Gentileschi’s (the father of Artemisia) breastfeeding Virgin Marie.
The origin of the Oedipus complex: When visiting the newly opened Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna in 1891 Sigmund Freud was defied by the infant’s look at the viewer in Orazio Gentileschi’s (the father of Artemisia) breastfeeding Virgin Marie. Continue reading->

If you believe in the therapeutic potential of the culinary arts, and you enjoy a bit of academic humor, you’ve come to the right place. Put briefly, what I hope to evoke through my blog are some of the stories we as humans tell about ourselves through our food.

While to some extent my culinary interests have a Southern Central-European and Austro-Hungarian focus, my kitchen is very cosmopolitan, or at least European. Thanks to my time in Vienna, Budapest, Paris, Tel-Aviv, as well as my frequently prolonged stays in Venice and New York, I often blend cuisines and flavors in my culinary explorations.

My Cosmopolitan Kitchen

 “Schnitzels eaten in Vienna since January 1st.” This counter is part of the permanent media installation “Pi” by Canadian artist Ken Lum (located in the Opernpassage, between the subway entrance near the Secession building and the Naschmarkt and the subway stop “Karlsplatz”).
“Schnitzels eaten in Vienna since January 1st.” This counter is part of the permanent media installation “Pi” by Canadian artist Ken Lum (located in the Opernpassage, between the subway entrance near the Secession building and the Naschmarkt and the subway stop “Karlsplatz”). Continue reading->

Modern technology has made international travel and exchange of information easier than ever. With it has developed the globalization of food production. New ways of cooking mean new ways of telling stories. That is partially why I like to think of this blog as exploring textual landscapes and analyzing the new worlds they reveal.

S(c)hibboleth

I made the logo for this website by using cutlery to form the Hebrew letter “shin”. You can get aprons, mugs and other apparel with the logo.
I made the logo for this website by using cutlery to form the Hebrew letter “shin”. You can get aprons, mugs and other apparel with the logo.

The Hebrew letter shin, which you’ll find in my logo, marks the entrance to many traditional and religious Jewish homes. Shin stands for שדי, Shaddai, meaning the Almighty. It is written on the cover of a ritual object called a mezuzah, which is a scroll usually encased in a small decorative box. The word itself translates to “doorpost,” which is where it is placed, and the scroll contains the very verses from which the obligation to affix a mezuzah to the doorpost is derived. My logo has no such religious application. Rather it marks the head of every page on this website, the way logos usually do. It designates a cultural rather than a religious realm where recipes replace verses.

The Hebrew letter shin of my logo represents the word “shibboleth,” which refers to a password or cultural marker. This blog presents my shibboleth, the homolog from the Book of Judges, whose pronunciation distinguished the Ephraimites from the Gileadites. About the famous poem Schibboleth by Paul Celan,3 Jacques Derrida writes in his eponymous text “le poème ne dévoile un secret que pour confirmer qu’il y a là du secret”. (“The poem does not reveal a secret except to confirm that there is, there, a secret.”)4 It is this resistance to meaning that relates the shibboleth to Freudian theory. I try to unearth national narratives through the shibboleths, cultural passageways and passwords I analyze in my writing and cooking.

Nino Loss at Café Korb by Ronnie Niedermeyer for Vienna's "Wina - das jüdische Stadtmagazin" June 2017 edition.
Me at Café Korb in a photograph by Ronnie Niedermeyer for Vienna’s “Wina – das jüdische Stadtmagazin” in its June 2017 edition.

I hope these pages will inspire you to embark upon your own culinary journey. You don’t have to start at the beginning, nor even with the basics. Make cooking a part of your regular routine, and allow your heart to lead you where it may.

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Footnotes

  1. So, why do I live in Vienna? The magazine WINA asked me this question for its 2017 June edition. Have a look at my short answer, if only to see the excellent picture Ronnie Niedermeyer took of me at Café Korb.
  2. Most of the recognition Freud has received in Vienna has been the work of foreigners: His bust, which now stands in the University, was presented by Ernest Jones. There is in Vienna, crisscrossed with streets named after its great, or at least prominent, residents, no Freudgasse….The public indifference, the latent hostility, are chilling. Freud, the first psychologist to chart the workings of ambivalence, had, in this city he hated but could not leave, abundant materials for the exercise of mixed feelings. Vienna, it seems, has largely repressed Freud.

    Edmund Engelman (Author, Photographer), Peter Gay (Introduction), Berggasse 19: Sigmund Freud’s Home and Office, Vienna, 1938: The Photographs of Edmund Engelman, (U. of Chicago Press, 1981), p14.

    Though Edie Jarolim, aka Freud’s Butcher, expresses some hope in her first post for her blog on Freud’s world over at Psychology Today. See “Did Vienna Repress Freud? A New Attitude in Austria. Given scant attention in Vienna for decades, Freud may be staging a comeback.” (published May 15th, 2018) (retrieved on May 18th, 2018 URL: <https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/freud-s-world/201805/did-vienna-repress-freud-new-attitude-in-austria>).

  3. Here is my attempt at an English translation of Celan’s Schibboleth. I tried translating Paul Celan’s poem while heavily relying on the translation by Edward Mackinnon in Paul Celan’s Political Touchstone, but also Michael Humberger and Christopher Middleton’s translation published in Paul Celan – selected poems (Penguin Modern European Poets, 1972).

    SCHIBBOLETH

    Together with my stones,
    heavy with weeping
    behind the bars,

    they dragged me
    to the middle of the market,
    that place
    where the flag unfurls to which
    I did not swear an oath.

    Flute,
    double-flute of the night:
    think back to the dark
    twin redness
    in Vienna and Madrid.

    Set your flag at half-mast,
    memory.
    At half-mast
    today and for-ever.

    Heart:
    here too reveal yourself,
    here in the midst of the market.
    Call the shibboleth, call it out
    into the foreignness of your homeland:
    February. No pasarán.

    Unicorn:
    you know of the stones,
    you know of the waters,
    come,
    I shall lead you away
    to the voices
    of Extremadura.

  4. Jacques Derrida, Schibboleth: pour Paul Célan (Paris: Galilée; 1986), p21.

1 Comment

  1. What a great idea for a food blog! and funny, too. Can’t wait to read more. I work on the history of the Viennese Jewish community myself. It would be nice to meet, next time when I’m in Vienna. Best.

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