By Andrew Silow-Carroll
(JTA) — In an essay she wrote in June, Marlena Spieler reminisced about her grandfather’s neighborhood in San Francisco in one long, exuberant sentence:
It was basically a small shtetl transplanted to San Francisco, with delis redolent of pickle barrels, bookshops that sold holy books and ritual items, shops full of used furniture and junk, and my favorite: the Ukraine Bakery, where we bought poppyseed studded Kaiser rolls, the air smelled heavenly of baked goods, and where flour-dusted women would grab me and kiss me, pinch my cheeks and stuff cookies into my hands and pockets when I went out and about with Papa.
If that reads like the memory of a future food writer with a deep love of place, that is exactly what it is. Spieler wrote the Roving Feast recipe column for the San Francisco Chronicle from 2000 to 2010 and wrote or contributed to over 70 cookbooks during her career, including “The Jewish Heritage Cookbook” (2001) and “The Complete Guide to Traditional Jewish Cooking” (2011).
“She would travel the world and bring back wonderful tales of food and adventure, and relate them all to what we were all eating and feeling here in Northern California,” Miriam Morgan, former food editor at the Chronicle, told the newspaper. “Her recipes sparkled with life and were incredibly popular with readers.”
Spieler died July 6 at her home outside of London. She was 74. News of her death led to an outpouring on social media.
“She was one of the people who opened my eyes to the excitement of food, flavor and cultures, ultimately leading me to a career in food and drink,” wrote Jo Aspin, a step-niece and a marketing consultant for restaurants.
“When I think of her, it’s her sharing something delicious and giggling and laughing,” wrote Steve Sando, founder of Rancho Gordo, the specialty bean business. “I think her non-seriousness was off-putting to certain pedantic types. I think many people loved reading her columns, and the world has been better off with her in it.”
Spieler won numerous awards and was lauded both in California, where she was born and grew up, and in England, where she moved around 1990 and where she met her husband, Alan McLaughlan. She earned a James Beard Award in 1992 for “From Pantry to Table: Creative Cooking from the Well-Stocked Kitchen,” and was twice the recipient of the Guild of Food Writers Award, a top prize in the U.K. She won the International Cookbook Award for her 2000 book “Feeding Friends.”
In 2007, she wrote another book titled “Yummy Potatoes”; the next year she was invited as an ambassador to the United Nations’ International Year of the Potato conference in Peru.
She also worked as a caterer and book illustrator and contributed to her Substack newsletter until shortly before she passed away.
Spieler was born in Sacramento on April 16, 1949. She wrote that her grandparents’ generation were mostly Yiddish speakers who “fled terrible things” in Europe. Her grandfather’s second wife was from a family active in the Jewish community in Harbin, China.
Spieler attended California College of the Arts, then in Oakland. She lived in Israel for a year and was working as an artist in Greece when a publisher noticed the recipes she had included with her drawings of food. The subsequent book of recipes (minus the drawings) launched her career as a food writer, broadcaster and columnist.
In 2011, Spieler lost her sense of smell and taste after suffering from a head injury in a car accident. She described her halting recovery in a New York Times essay, remembering the taste of “a sardine sandwich at Brooklyn’s Saltie [that] made me nearly cry with pleasure, as did the ripe peach I ate as I walked down the street.” A friend remarked, “Even damaged no one appreciates flavor the way you do.”
In “The Complete Guide to Traditional Jewish Cooking,” Spieler traced the history of a British staple — fish and chips — to its roots in London’s Jewish East End, and before that to the first Sephardic Jews to come back to England after the Jews’ expulsion in the 13th century.
The book also includes recipes from Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, India and Latin America. Spieler celebrated such culinary diversity in a recent column about Passover, writing, “Pesach is a holiday in which Jews from all over the world… bring their own traditions to the table. To me it says: we are all different, and yet we are all one.”
She is survived by her husband Alan, a daughter, grandson and step-daughter.