Cara De Silva In Memoriam

Cara De Silva, journalist, author, scholar, lecturer and friend, died last week — which I just found out on Facebook. This is probably fitting, since she was an avid conversationalist on that platform, keeping in touch with people from around the world. But I’m nowhere near as big a Facebook fan, and I think her life deserves to be memorialized more widely, so I am reprinting at the bottom of this page the post written there by Fred Plotkin, her longtime friend and executor, informing her friends of her loss, reminiscing about her life, and explaining her legacy.

Cara was my colleague at New York Newsday, where, besides general features and personal essays, she wrote about food like nobody else — like a world explorer, a cultural anthropologist, a lover of neighborhoods, an advocate for New York City’s emerging communities. As she explained later:

“Food is who we are in the deepest sense, and not because it is transformed into blood and bone. Our personal gastronomic
traditions–what we eat, the foods and foodways we associate with the rituals of childhood, marriage, and parenthood, moments around the table, celebrations–are critical components of our identities.”

This is a paragraph from her introduction to the book she edited that counts as one of her most remarkable achievements, “A Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from The Women of Terezín,” which she described as a collection of “painfully flawed recipes set down by starving women in a Czechoslovakian concentration camp. Through it, a largely unknown genre of Holocaust Literature, the ‘dream’ cookbook, was brought to the attention of a startled world.”

Among her many talents was a talent for friendship. Cara and I kept in touch after we both left Newsday, and, in the past decade, became frequent dinner and theater companions. She had been an actress in her youth, and told me of her “profound connection” to theater her whole life. We last ate at Zia Maria, a restaurant on West 23rd Street where she greeted all the restaurant workers by name. Maybe because she knew I wasn’t on Facebook much, we were also diligent email penpals — which is to say, she emailed me frequently, with tips about new places, links to articles that she knew would interest me, reproductions of gorgeous works of art, most either from New York or Venice, her two beloved cities; some in holiday greetings, others just because. She occasionally shared with me her take on a play she had just seen. In one, she described the ending, and observed: “It was a powerful moment. We all wept as one.”

The White Night, Central Park, Adolf Fassbender, 1936

from Fred Plotkin:

I regret to announce the death, on December 7, 2022, of Cara De Silva in a New York City hospital following the briefest of infirmities.

Cara was born in Manhattan and made that borough her home for her entire life. She was fully in sync with New York as a place that welcomes you to be different and unique. 

She was, however, a woman of the world who loved and embraced cultural diversity in all of its permutations. New York was the perfect setting for her to explore world culture in her many years as a reporter for Newsday. Not content to cover the latest trendy ingredient or star chef, she ventured to neighborhoods to discover how people prepared food in restaurants as well as markets and homes. Her beautiful appearance and warm personality certainly helped open doors, especially because people from many cultures and continents assumed that she was one of them.

We were friends for nearly 40 years, having met when I was invited to participate on a Newsday panel about tomato sauces—very serious business. It was run with the rigor of medical research and the merits and shortcomings of each sauce were hotly debated by the judges. Cara’s defense of her choice would have made Emma Lazarus and Rosa Luxembourg cower. For her, this was culture and not foodieness.

Cara was, in every sense, about fighting the good fight. It was most manifested in what will likely be her greatest legacy—In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin, a book that scrupulously evokes the way women in what was cruelly called a “model concentration camp” used memory to preserve their lives and foodways from before being imprisoned and, for the most part, murdered. She was the editor and driving force behind getting the precious documents that were smuggled out of the camp safely to New York and then translated and formed into a book. Certain stupid “foodie” types groused that the recipes were not possible to make at home, entirely missing the point that these were women facing death as well of the extermination of everything connected to their culture and heritage. In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin should be required reading for people of all backgrounds to understand how quickly prejudice and hatred can take hold even in societies that regard themselves as open democracies.

I borrow from D’Annunzio’s description of Giuseppe Verdi—“Pianse e amò per tutti”—She wept and loved for everyone. She was as kind and loving to strangers as she was to her closest friends. Her warmth of spirit was central to whom she saw herself to be. Before Covid-19, a Cara hug was part of one’s interaction with her. She found the isolation imposed by the pandemic deeply painful. She was scrupulous about not contracting the virus—and she never did—but living the virtual life was not in any way her thing.

Cara loved to travel on her own or with friends. She and I went to Egypt in 1997 and she clung tight to me as men lined the streets calling out words of admiration, most especially “habiba,” which became my nickname for her. She demonstrably enjoyed the attention but was glad to feel safe with me. With her dear friend Lynne Rossetto Kasper she traveled extensively in Emilia-Romagna as Lynne did research on her incomparable The Splendid Table. They established deep roots in Parma and held high the flag for that city’s foods much as I exalt it for its music.

She traveled widely with her beloved friend Fern Berman, including numerous stays in Venice. Cara’s more recent research was for a historical novel focused on Venice, a city like New York that exalts genius, beauty, commerce but can also be by turns cruelly pragmatic and sadly disappointing to someone who romanticizes rather than see these places with clear eyes. Cara saw Venice as a mirror, one that can make us see ourselves—sometimes truthfully, at other times with distortion that can flatter or deceive.

She was an independent scholar and passionate lecturer. Her subject matter included the ones I have described above but also Arthurian legend, everything Scottish (from oatcakes to Robert Burns and, especially, Sean Connery). She lived for a time in Cambridge, England, studying there while her former husband did graduate work. She was a passionate advocate for the peoples known as the Roma, being a lifelong member of the Gypsy Lore Society.

Cara agitated for the equality of all peoples, lending her time and voice to the struggles for civil rights for African-Americans, women, LGBTQ+ communities and, as the daughter of immigrants, finding a place for people from all over the world who yearn to breathe free and contribute to the unique diversity and cultural richness of New York City.

It is fair to say that she had a colorful and busy personal life. I will respect her privacy apart from mentioning that, while she never had a chance to have a fling with Sean Connery, there was a nice time more than five decades ago with actor Alan Bates. In the 1990s, she and I attended a play in New York in which he starred and joined him after for a meal. Their connection was palpable and electric, so much so that I saw Cara do something I never witnessed before or since—she did not touch her food. Nor did Alan Bates.

Although I knew Cara better than most people did, her prismatic nature meant that she, like Venice, could be a mirror. The light that she shone on you and the light you shone on her meant that each of her relationships was unique. A Texas-born friend of mine who has lived in Friuli for decades observed when they met, “Cara De Silva is an experience.” And, for anyone who experienced her through friendship, scholarship, writings, exemplary work, fighting for her causes, or just a heart-felt hug, this will be part of her legacy.

Cara did not want a funeral or to be memorialized “in a building” (as she told me) but asked that those who want to honor her can make a donation in her memory to either the Southern Poverty Law Center (splcenter.org) or Save Venice, Inc (savevenice.org).

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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