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Traditions in Food: Esther Cohen Salem

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Sarina Roffe:

Culture and tradition are passed down from one generation to another in a family through foods.

Selim Salem and Estrina Cohen-1922Esther Cohen Salem was the first to own a Syrian catering service in the Syrian Jewish community. In 1920, Esther and her two younger brothers, Sam, 13, and Joe, 11, came to America from Beirut sharing a passport issued by the French Troops of the Levant.

Esther and Selim built a kitchen in the backyard garage of their Bensonhurst home on 63rd Street. The basement was converted into a storage area for gallons of pickles and imported Syrian spices. Esther and her husband Selim catered life cycle events from the 1940s until the late 1960s.  The backyard kitchen became the center of life for the entire the Syrian community. Esther’s kibbe and pastry were famous.

Before the advent of catering halls, most Syrian Jews entertained in their homes and wanted foods familiar to them for life cycle events. The community relies heavily on Esther for its supply of the food of their culture. Members of the Sephardic community would trek up the narrow side alley to her backyard kitchen, especially in preparation for holidays and special events, to purchase her goodies. The smells would emanate from the kitchen and greet you like a breath of fresh air.