70 years ago, in the austerity years following the Second World War, the Jewish Chronicle newspaper published a cookery book that was to become legendary in Jewish households across Britain. Written by Florence Greenberg – the ‘Delia Smith’ of the Anglo Jewish community – Florence Greenberg’s Jewish Cookery Book would be reprinted 13 times between 1947 and 1977, latterly by Penguin Books.
Florence was born in Canonbury, north London, on 13 April 1882, into a large Jewish family – she was the fourth in a family of eight (six girls and two boys). Her parents were Alex and Eliza Oppenheimer. In her memoirs she writes: “We were a happy united family with a sweet gentle mother and a rather strict father.” Florence describes a happy childhood. She was educated at Lady Holles School for Girls, and spent a year at a boarding school at Bonn on the Rhine – which she didn’t enjoy. Afterwards, it was decided that Florence would help her mother to run the home – and she was soon cooking for a household of twelve, assisted by a younger sister. “We did this for ten years. That is where I gained all my cookery experience – by trial and error until I managed to get the result I wanted.” [MS116/63 AJ181/8 ‘Two interesting careers: my memoirs by Florence Greenberg.’]
During this time, when she was busy with home life and charity work, it was Florence’s ambition to be a hospital nurse. Her father was “deadly opposed to women nursing men”, but thanks to the intervention of her elder brother, she commenced training at the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton in 1911. Florence took her final exams as war broke out and immediately put her name down for the Queen Alexandra Nursing Services Reserve. In the summer of 1915 she was sent to the Middle East, travelling the long journey by ship from Plymouth, she transferred first to the temporary hospital ship the Alauria, and subsequently served at Alexandria, Port Said, and Cairo. She was in Egypt at the time of the armistice, but signed on for another six months and transferred to Haifa hospital in Palestine. “After five years of really hard work” Florence returned to England in December 1919, proud to have been mentioned in dispatches for her work in the Gallipoli campaign. Her remarkable diary of these war time experiences, complete with photographs, survives today in the collections of the Jewish Museum in London.
Soon after her return, Florence was introduced to Leopold J. Greenberg, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle. They married the following May, and it was her husband who started her second career – in cookery:
“Soon after we were married, my husband said to me that he wished I would write cookery articles for him for the paper, and I told him not to be funny – I had no literary ability. He said: ‘What do you want literary ability for. You are a marvellous cook.’ Of course, I couldn’t refuse; so I contributed recipes regularly every week for 42 years. This started my cookery career….”
Sadie Levine, writing in the Jewish Chronicle on Florence’s retirement in 1962, noted:
“One of her finest achievements to my mind is that during that time she never missed a deadline. Let me tell you that takes some doing. I do not know of another journalist who has met a Thursday deadline with unfailing timing every single week for nearly half a century.” [Jewish Chronicle, 28 December 1962]
Florence’s marriage was a very happy one and she was devastated by Leopold’s death in 1931. When his successor at the Jewish Chronicle asked her to put some recipes into book form, Florence, still grieving, was glad to have something to do. Daily newspapers were publishing readers’ recipes as paperbacks, but Florence could see that the real need was for a modern Jewish cookery book. The Jewish Chronicle Cookery Book, published in 1934, filled that gap. Five thousand copies were printed at the retail price of 3s. 6d. Unfortunately, in 1941, before a second edition could be published, the London offices of the Jewish Chronicle were blitzed, and the text was destroyed.
Meanwhile, her weekly column and her famous cookbook cemented Florence’s reputation as an authority on Jewish cooking. It was no surprise that during WWII she was recruited by the Ministry of Food – which was sending people out to give talks to housewives on how to make the best use of the food available during the rationing period. Florence remembered:
“They had no one who knew the Jewish Dietary Laws, so they would like me to talk to Jewish groups. I explained that I wasn’t a lecturer, and really I couldn’t undertake it. She said ‘Mrs Greenberg, I haven’t been talking to you for the last half hour without realising that you are just the person we want, a practical housewife ‘to get it over from me to you’.” I felt I must do it after that, and I accepted the job.”
Florence researched where Jewish children with their mothers were being evacuated. Starting with the Home Counties she travelled to groups in Bedford, Oxford, Cambridge, and as far west as Somerset and Devon. She took samples for display and after her talk, would answer questions and try to solve any problems. The interest that was shown in her recipes led to regular broadcasts for the BBC on the programme ‘The Kitchen Front’ throughout the war. Her fan mail was huge.
And so it was, in June 1946, that Florence completed the text for a new cookery book – Florence Greenberg’s Jewish Cookery Book was published by the Jewish Chronicle the following year. She wrote to the editor:
“Glad as I will be to see it in print I feel rather as if I have lost a baby. For over eighteen months it has been my main interest and has helped to keep me going during a very difficult period. I hope I won’t be disappointed in the result and that it will really be what the public wants.” [MS150 AJ110/2 f.2 F.Greenberg to I.M.Greenberg, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, 12 June 1946]
Her book was indeed what the public wanted: by the time of her death, aged 98, in 1980, more than 105,000 copies had been sold. Generations of Jewish families had been raised on her recipes and Florence Greenberg had become a household name, not just among the Jewish community. What was the secret of her success? According to Sadie Levine, “She doesn’t only think up the recipes and write them. It is common knowledge that all Mrs. Greenberg’s recipes are ‘tried and tested’… on a simple little gas stove in her West End flat.” Put simply, her recipes worked; her explanations of basic techniques and practical tips were accessible; and as tastes changed, she adapted and added new recipes. 70 years on, Mrs. Greenberg would be thrilled to know that cooks around the world are still sharing, discussing and enjoying her recipes.
The Special Collections at the University of Southampton holds a typescript copy of the memoirs of Florence Greenberg, written in the 1970s and annotated in the hand of the author, MS116/63 AJ181/8; plus correspondence with her publisher in MS150 and MS225; and various editions of Florence Greenberg’s Cookery Book.
Florence is featured on the website ‘London Jews in the First World War’ at: https://www.jewsfww.london/florence-greenberg-115.php
Her WWI diary is held at the Jewish Museum: