Me and Gil Marks at a kosher tapas restaurant in Manhattan, 2013
The culinary world recently lost one of its most important voices. Gil Marks, James Beard award-winning author and my dear friend, passed away a few weeks ago after a long battle with cancer. Gil wrote the American Cakes column on my website; many of you have enjoyed his work and his recipes over the years. The news of Gil’s passing came to me when I was traveling the east coast on business. It was not a shock; Gil had always been upfront about his illness, and his close friends knew he was in the end stages. And yet, it had only been a couple weeks since Gil and I had talked with each other. It felt so strange and terribly sad knowing that we’d never email or chat again.
Many times over the past few weeks I’ve sat down to write a post, a tribute to Gil’s life, but it has proven difficult. I always feel like I come up short. How do I pay homage to one of my greatest mentors, somebody who has influenced my work in countless ways? How do I make sense of his death, come far too soon, when he still had so much to give? How do I honor a friend who so generously shared his time, work and wisdom with me?
I won’t go into Gil’s many accomplishments here. The New York Times, The Jerusalem Post and various other publications have done a wonderful job of celebrating Gil’s life and work. Hillel Kuttler wrote a wonderful piece for the JTA and Eva Weiss shared a touching tribute with The Jewish Week. There isn’t much more I can say about his career that hasn’t already been said– Gil’s publications are considered classics, his contribution to culinary history is immeasurable. Instead, I’d like to share a bit about how two people from very different backgrounds managed to strike up a friendship on this strange and winding road of life.
Gil knew more about culinary history than anybody I’ve ever met. I first learned of Gil’s work when a friend recommended his incredible Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, which quickly became my most trusted source for Jewish culinary history. It’s a treasure trove of well-researched material, meticulously sourced with the bonus of well-tested recipes. Not long after I bought Olive Trees and Honey, the vegetarian cookbook for which Gil won a coveted James Beard Award. By that point I was an official fan of Gil’s work. I read his books like novels, indulging in the years and years of research he’d so carefully sifted through.
It’s a funny thing, food history. This little corner of the culinary world is populated by friendly, sometimes quirky, often nerdy folks who are drawn to the mysterious origins of our food like bees to honey. From the moment I was introduced to Gil’s work I knew he was a kindred spirit. We shared a somewhat odd, unique desire to understand the roots of what we eat. That unlikely interest turned into a lasting friendship. We began corresponding when I interviewed him for my website in 2012. Gil was eager to share his work and his knowledge. He ended up teaching me invaluable lessons about culinary research and tracking down rare recipe sources. He began to read my site regularly and was pleased whenever I cited him as a source. Sometimes, when I’d write about a particular dish (funnel cakes come to mind), he’d shoot me an email with several pages of research that he had done on the subject. I am convinced he knew more about the origins of our food than anybody I’ve met. He was certainly one of a kind.
Gil and I corresponded quite a bit before we finally met in New York back in 2013; he kindly accepted my invitation to grab lunch and talk food history. We hit it off immediately. Rarely do I encounter someone who will indulge my inner book nerd, discussing everything from the roots of Jewish food to antique American cookbooks to the symbolism of Biblical fruits. We could talk about food for hours on end, feeling like no time had passed at all. Gil had so much information to share, and he was very generous in sharing it. Not long after we met Gil sent me a complete set of his Kosher Gourmet Magazine, a print monthly he edited back in the 80’s. “You might find them useful,” he said. Not only did Gil edit the magazine, he wrote most of the articles and nearly all of the recipes. Each issue also includes some Jewish food history (naturally). It was a massive undertaking at a time when kosher was a small, largely unrecognized commercial audience. Launching a kosher magazine at that time took major chutzpah. Gil managed to keep it up for years with fresh recipe content each month.
It was his magazine, and my great respect for Gil’s work, that sparked the idea of a recurring monthly column on my website. I was delighted when he agreed to write about the history of American Cakes for The History Kitchen. He was working on a new cookbook and eager to share his new research with a wider audience. It turned out to be one of the most popular features on my site. Readers loved hearing Gil’s detailed histories on the cakes we’ve all grown up with. Even today comments continue to come in on older American Cakes posts, sharing family cooking memories and celebrating these home-baked treats. Gil loved reading through all the responses each month; it really made him happy to know that his research was out there, that people were learning from him and enjoying his recipes.
Gil accepting his James Beard Award for Olive Trees and Honey
I have two more cake posts that Gil wrote which I will publish over the next two months. Gil finished his American Cakes cookbook manuscript before he passed away, and I am very hopeful it will find a publisher– apparently several are interested at this point. I know many people would love to have this important work on their cookbook shelves. I’m in touch with Gil’s family as well as his agent, and have offered to help however I can. I’ll keep you all posted as the project progresses.
One of the things I’ll remember most about Gil is his unfailing optimism, even in the face of lung cancer. Gil never smoked a day in his life; it was just one of those random, cruel twists of fate that he ended up battling this dreadful illness. Yet in all the time I knew him, he never seemed to be afraid. He was upbeat, positive and strong. At one point I told him about the strange set of circumstances that led me into a culinary career. Here was his response:
That’s life. It sometimes takes us where we’re meant to be. It’s not always where we want to be. But where I end up is always better than where I wanted to be. So I can’t complain. Most people love to get away from their jobs and would never take their computer with them on vacation. I never go away without my computer. This is my fun. Putting pieces together, trying new things and experiments and figuring out these historical puzzles, what foods really are and where they came from. That’s my fun.
Did you read Gil’s columns or his cookbooks? I’m sure his family would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below and I will be sure to pass it along to them. If you were one of the many who enjoyed Gil’s work, I hope that you’ll make a recipe in his honor this week… a dish from one of his cookbooks, or maybe an American Cake from his column here on the site. He would have loved that.
Further Reading and Recipes: