Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Part I: French cooking in 2009? Mais Non!

I didn’t use a single one of my 37 French cookbooks in 2009. As much as I loved the movie Julie and Julia, think of Julia Child as my fairy godmother cooking mentor, and am in awe of Julie Powell’s accomplishment, I didn’t cook French. Not once. In Part II, below, I’ll tell you how I know this astonishing fact.

What was going on? I’ve cooked plenty of French food in the past, including the months preceding Katherine’s and my trip to Paris, Burgundy and Provence in 2005. This last piece of information is, I believe, crucial. My relationship with France has grown pretty slack since 2005. It is off my radar. I have a stronger connection to other cuisines at the moment. Were I to make plans to vacation in Provence next summer, everything would change. France would be back on the screen, I would need to get my mouth ready for the trip and the French cookbooks would resurface.

What do I make of these yearnings in my mouth for particular flavors and the spurning of others? Based on the French experience, anecdotal as it is, I want to propose a theory: My tastebuds are relational. If I have a strong relationship with a place (historical, in the present moment, or in my imagination), I am more likely to want to cook from that place.
So let’s look at what I did cook.

1. The answer is Middle Eastern, North African, and Mediterranean food. Lots of it. I love that part of the world: since 2003 I have visited there five times. But I was intrigued by the flavors long before the travel. I bought my first Persian cookbook in the 60s. [Indulge me here. According to my National Geographic DNA study, my gene pool reached Europe via what is now the Middle East. Is anyone willing to speculate as to the food my gene pool ingested on the way? Might I still be influenced by it?] In 2009 I visited both Jordan and Israel and my cousin-in law, Rivka, visited Syria. In preparing for my trip and following hers vicariously, I cooked from The Arab Table by May S. Bsisu, used Joan Nathan’s The Foods of Israel Today and devoured Saha by Malouf and Malouf. I cooked more food from this part of the world than from any other.

2. I also purchased a slim book (used and without a dust jacket) called Sara Foster’s Casual Cooking and used it a bunch. Sara Foster opened a primarily take-out market in 1990 in Durham, North Carolina where I lived from 1975 to 1995. I was an avid supporter of the market and often went there for lunch or to pick up some dinner. I ate great Southern food (Magnolia Grill and Nana’s in Durham, Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill) and acquired a fair number of Southern cookbooks (now up to 20). Last night we ate at Pican, a restaurant in Oakland specializing in sophisticated Southern fare. I love cooking from both of Sara’s cookbooks because they combine Southern hospitality with really good food, just like the market. Below you’ll find Southern-style recipes for Pimiento Cheese and Chilaquiles with Salsa Verde.

3. And finally I notice that my taste buds are pulling me in the direction of Thailand and Vietnam. Nancie McDermott’s Quick & Easy Vietnamese cookbook which I took with me to Hawaii has been getting quite a workout, along with a Thai soup that I love for its simplicity and delicious flavor. Check on next week's blog for some great recipes. Turns out I really want to visit Vietnam in the next couple of years and I’m getting my mouth ready to go. Fish sauce really didn’t do much for me until I got this hankering. Now I can’t seem to get enough.

I would love to know if you have any special relationships to the food you cook. My friend Karyn says that her relationship is with the place she gets her vegetables: The Farmers Markets and her own backyard. Once she has the produce in her care, she starts thinking about how to cook them and reaches for cookbooks that are organized by seasons or by the fruits and vegetables themselves. What about you? How do you choose what to cook?

1 comment:

Ravenous Couple said...

fish sauce is wonderful isn't it? can't wait to see what you make with it!