Sunday, May 26, 2013

Foods (And Food Writers) Of The World

My attempt to learn more geography and history (subjects which never interested me in school) has somehow got entangled with my culinary interests.  The result is a growing collection of books on food from different parts of the world!  Not mere cookbooks, for I initially selected them because they served as guides to various countries' geography, history, political past and culture.

I began with some of 'The Beautiful' series quite by chance - Mexico The Beautiful was the first, a gift from an old Mexican friend.  These books are a cross between a small encyclopedia and a large coffee table book, with lots of recipes thrown in.  An interesting and informative combination.  What got me thinking a little more about them was when I read 'China The Beautiful' by Kevin Sinclair.  This was so well written that I wondered if the author was not merely a cook or gourmet traveller in the country.  After a little search, I discovered that he had been a veteran and irrepressible journalist, who  spent forty years reporting on Hong Kong.  This led me to thinking about the universal appeal of thoughtful and well written books.

The next step in my search came when I looked at some Time Life volumes which were part of the 'Foods of the World' series.  These were lying at the very bottom of a large bookshelf, almost concealed, in a second hand bookstore.  They had been lying there for some time and I had seen them earlier but had never bothered to give them a second glance.  I was usually searching for more modern and relevant cookbooks.  This time, I thought of Kevin Sinclair and Time Life's reputation for serious, high quality writing and opened these books.  They seemed filled with quaint pictures, interesting-sounding recipes and very personal interpretations of food.  The Time Life teams appeared unusual - some were writers, some journalists, editors and professional photographers.  I bought the few books that were stocked in the bookstore and am slowly going through them.

I find them quite fascinating, not just because of what I learn about the country they deal with but because of their intrinsic subjectivity.  The mind of the author comes through distinctly, lending a particular style to each volume that sets it apart from the others (though I sense that some volumes have been over-zealously edited).  Equally interesting are the reasons given for creating these books; these shed light on the authors and their regions of interest.

I quote below, from various authors, their reasons for writing about food.  (My main reason for writing about food is that it satisfies me from within.  But others have put it far more eloquently and movingly than I can ever hope to):

One of the nicest descriptions that I have come across in general is that by M.F. K. Fisher, (one of America's earliest food writers), when asked why she chose to write about food and hunger :  

'When I write about hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth, and the love of it . . . and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied.'

Certainly the last century was filled with horrors of war and its aftermath in many parts of the West, where most of these food writers lived.  Elizabeth David, in the preface to the second edition of her book 'Mediterranean Food' writes:

'This book first appeared in 1950, when almost every essential ingredient of good cooking was either rationed or unobtainable.  To produce the simplest meal consisting of even two or three genuine dishes required the utmost ingenuity and devotion.  But even if people could not very often make the dishes here described, it was stimulating to think about them; to escape from the deadly boredom of queueing and the frustration of buying weekly rations; to read about real food cooked with wine and olive oil, eggs and butter and cream, and dishes richly flavoured with onions, garlic, herbs and brightly coloured Southern vegetables.'

For many authors of the Time Life series, the assignment began as a personal quest that shaped the style and manner of presentation of each volume.  The quest varied in nature depending on the person and their circumstances.  Dale Brown, writer of 'American Cooking' travelled within America at a time when there was no scarcity or rationing and these were his main concerns :

'New York, New England, the middle Atlantic States and the Mid-West - have long been familiar to me.  But until recently I had not had an opportunity to acquaint myself with the food in other parts of the country and to study the influences that have affected it.  And so, my wife and I, with our two year old daughter, embarked on an extended gastronomic tour of the country.  Before our journey was over, we would have tasted everything from Florida's Key lime pie and South Carolina's wild orange marmalade (a real rarity) to Louisiana's mirliton, or vegetable pear, stuffed with Gulf shrimp, and Oregon's kippered salmon.  I welcomed so unique an opportunity to show my Dutch wife this beautiful country and to introduce her to its regional cooking - but I was also, to tell the truth, a little worried.  I felt that mass communication and mass travel might have succeeded in throwing a net of conformity over many formerly colorful areas.  How wrong I was, only the trip could tell.'

For some, moving to a new country (especially from the West to the East) was a eye-opener of sort.  Emily Hahn began 'The Cooking of China' with her description of the first meal in a Shanghai restaurant, where she was a guest of some Chinese friends:

'For one thing I was exasperated by the behavior of my host, who made what seemed to me a ridiculous fuss about giving the order.  After all, I said to myself, we weren't celebrating anything, but simply going to eat.  Yet the host went into a long, incomprehensible (to me) discussion about the menu with the proprieter.  With every minute that passed I grew more bored and hungry, wondering how people could possibly find so much to say about food.  Long after the proprieter had gone away with the order, I continued to feel indignant.
   Then the first dish arrived - soup with sliced pork and Chinese vegetables - I tasted it.  I looked up in amazement, waiting for someone else to comment on its excellence, but nobody did.  They spooned it up busily, and after a moment I followed their example.  I was considering a second bowl when the waiter brought in a number of dishes that he put on the table in a haphazard way, all together.  One was steamed fish in black bean sauce, tender and juicy, full of different tastes of spice, and enriched by the sauce.  There were spareribs of just the right crispness, and a dish of vegetables that I did not recognize, crunchy and as fresh-colored as if they had not been cooked.  I asked how this effect was attained, and was told that they had been "stir-fried", or cooked quickly in very hot oil.  There was also chicken cooked in soya sauce, and that completed what my host called a plain, simple little meal.  It certainly showed me how much I did not know about Chinese food.  I had come late to the realization, but I determined to make up for lost time.'

Her determination resulted in a book explaining the food and cooking of different parts of China!

Rafael Steinberg, a correspondent during the Korean war and later Tokyo's bureau chief, was married to a Japanese and was introduced in some detail to Japanese food through her and her family.  (This book is also filled with beautiful photographs taken by Eliot Eliofson, a painter and photographer.)

In the prelude to his book 'The Cooking of Japan' Rafael Steinberg quotes from the writings of Faubion Bowers, author, world traveller and aide-de-camp to General Douglas Mac Arthur during the early years of the post-war occupation of Japan:

'The time finally came for me to visit my dream of Japan, and as soon as I set foot on the good ship Hikawa-maru in Seattle - oh yes, aircrafts were invented but they weren't flying the Pacific - I was confronted with what the passengers called "The Choice".  You could have either a full Western meal or a full Japanese one.  I asked for Japanese food, got it three times a day and stuck to it for the whole 21 days of the voyage to Yokohama.  My motives were mostly brummagem, but partly too, I like to imagine, good sense.  I was determined to learn Japanese for, as I now tell the story, I knew war was coming.  I have never believed that "you are what you eat" (in Japanese they drink snake's blood for longevity), however I am convinced that you can't learn a language without enjoying the food of the nation.  Just think of the loss of idiom an English-speaking Japanese might feel if he didn't understand things like a lover being the "cream in his coffee", or something being "as English as roast beef".
   Now, in retrospect, I must admit I explored Japan's gustatory and culinary arts the hard way.  I tortured myself with umeboshi, ultra-sour plums, on deck while watching the sun rise.  I snacked on odorous, fermented soya beans, called natto, at night before retiring .  I even tried again and again those little cakes printed in the shapes of flat flowers, which taste dry as chalk and crumble into sandy powder with every bite.  But along the way I encountered myriads of delight and miracles of surprising pleasures.  Sukiyaki and tempura, as it goes without saying, and noodles too, and tonkatsu, which loses totally in translation if you say "pork cutlet".  The warmth of bean soup, the dew-like freshness of thin soup, the brilliant clarity of good, first-quality soya sauce, and thousands of other sauces, each bound, as in a marriage, to its own particular mate.  Where else in the cooking world can you have so light, so greaseless, so sparkling a set of flavours and textures that turn into aromas or melt as soon as they reach your mouth?
   The day soon came when raw fish was on the ship's table d'hote, and I discovered that it didn't taste raw, or even like fish.  And with this conclusion I joined the ranks of astonished foreigners whose numbers increase, like school children and textbooks, year by year.  By now the last threshold was crossed, and I was enslaved to Japanese cooking...
   ...Today I often find myself "hungry" for Japan, and once it got so bad I cooked up an excuse for a quick trip back just because I was hungry.  So, there are dangers in becoming habituated to this great cuisine.  However, a book such as this one at last makes possible the impossible: You can now do it yourself in your own home.  Here, too, be careful.  My own son said to me recently, "Please, Dad.  Not tofu again!"  But just wait until he grows up.'

And finally, a book on African food by a very interesting author, Laurens van der Post.  I couldn't believe that such a book might actually exist!  I was curious about the food of Africa - a whole mysterious continent that one knows little of, and that too seen through the eyes of one who was born there and had extensively explored and written about it.  He drifted between Africa and England and finally settled in England; his biographical claims and descriptions were mired in controversy after he died, but some of his words remain haunting and evocative.

In his book 'African Cooking', he says:

'My earliest memories of Africa, and of my life there, center around the large dining table in the home of my Boer grandfather, in the Orange Free State, deep in the interior of south Africa.  And almost invariably the scene in this theater of my past is the evening meal.  I used to wait for this meal, six decades ago, with the same kind of excitement that I was to experience much later as a drama critic in London, before the curtains rose on the first night of a new work by a friend from whom I expected much.  As in a darkened playhouse, the excitement would start when the maids began to light the heavy oil lamps in the long passage that led from the front door on the veranda surrounding the house.  At last they came to the dining room, and the biggest lamp of all.  In the center of that room was a great table made of an African wood so hard and dense that a piece of it would sink like iron if it was thrown into water; and over the center of the table, suspended in massive chains, hung an immense oil lamp made of brass  that glowed and shone like gold...
   The sense of smell is surely the most evocative of all our senses.  It goes deeper than conscious thought or organized memory and has a will of its own that the mind is compelled to heed.  Since the scent of cinnamon is the first to present itself to my memory of the moment when the great lamp was lit and the great table set and ready, I must accept the fact that my first coherent recollection of the drama of our evening meal begins with the serving of a typical milk soup of the South African interior...
   The fragrance of cinnamon would still be adrift in the room when the more acute sense of cloves announced that the main course was on its way.  This would be a superbly pot-roasted leg of lamb, a standard dish of the interior.  Studded with cloves from Zanzibar, less than 2,000 miles from us as the crow flies, the lamb - itself a product of our farm- was so tender that it seemed to flake rather than cut at the touch of my grandfather's carving knife.
   Mixed with the smell of cloves was that of saffron rice and raisins - a dish that was not typical of the interior, but one that had been introduced to my family by my French grandmother.  My grandfather served it more as apart of a ritual remembrance of all she had meant in his life than as mere gratification of his own liking for it.
   With these varied scents, there came the sharp fragrance of quince jelly, which was always served with our roasts, burning like a maharaja's ruby in its own crystal bowl, and tasting as brilliant as it looked.  Then, since this was winter, came a dish of dried spotted beans, which we know as governor's beans; centuries ago , presumably, some forgotten governor had first planted them in the vast kitchen garden that his masters, the Dutch East India Company, had made of the Cape of Good Hope.  (Their purpose was to provide fresh foods to forestall scurvy among Dutch sailors in the spice trade.)  At grandfather's house the beans were cooked in mutton stock and pureed tomatoes and were accompanied by baked pumpkin flavoured with nutmeg.
   Last of all came a bowl piled high with yellow peaches, turned to burnished gold by the alchemy of the great lamp overhead.  These peaches still glow in my memory like an offering of fruit from some sheltered grove of Hesperides.  Like everything else we ate they were the product of our completely self-sufficient farm.  They were preserved whole in glass jars in the summer, so skillfully that much of their original savor remained.  I have yet to discover, in this technological age of ours, any preserved fruit that could rival those peaches.  They brought into the winter night the fullness of the summer gone by and the promise of its return...

...Some months ago I badly injured my right arm and was told by doctors that, if I ever meant to use it for writing again, it would have to be rested for many months.  This enforced ease seemed a wonderful opportunity to revisit the whole of Africa.  I would see again the lands I had explored for 40 years of my life; I would see what Africa was achieving now that so many influences of European colonialism were vanishing.  I intended, once I could write again, to set down my appraisal of this new emergent Africa.  But everywhere I went I found myself too profoundly depressed by what I saw to write dispassionately about it.  In an Africa that is so much at one in its deepest nature, millions of human beings are involved in divisive conflicts, killing one another from Mali to Zanzibar and The Congo on a scale that even the reviled former imperialists would never have permitted.  The political and social scene in Africa seemed to me eroded and bankrupt, and I instinctively rebelled against joining in any form of activity so negative and destructive.
   All this may be part of the price Africa must pay before it can enjoy ultimate unity.  But I was certain that I could not further this unity by entering into the ideological conflicts and rivalries that are tearing the continent apart.  I came to believe that embattled Africa could best be regenerated by a profoundly nonpolitical reassessment of common aims and ideals - a rediscovery of the overriding values of the dignity of man and the reverence for life.
   Then I wondered, often in desperation, what in the world all the warring systems, countries, tribes and races still had indisputably in common.  Oversimple and childlike as it may seem, one answer that popped up from my imagination was food.  If I did what has never been done before - if I wrote about the food of Africa as a whole, about African man and his ways of eating and cooking from the Stone Age Bushman to the sophisticated gourmet in Addis Ababa or Capetown - perhaps I could render some service and at least pay homage to my troubled continent.  In a way, I would be doing what my grandfather did at those meals at his homestead, when he assembled all the races around his table every night.  In a small way, too, I could recall for my readers the fact that all men are one in their needs and searchings, that whatever set them apart is evil and whatever brings them peacefully together is good.  This is what I have tried to do in the chapters that follow.'

The down side of so much subjectivity is that one depends heavily on the writer for accuracy of reporting, but these books (mostly published in the early seventies) are an incredible read.  So here  begins a culinary adventure of a different kind for me - one that starts in the mind and that can be converted into things one can smell and taste (the books come with recipes) - more exciting than reading mere geography or history!

2 comments:

Eugene Cis said...

Free cook book Recipes.

pkinbrisbane said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts - I also adore the Time Life Cooking series, but unfortunately have very few of them. Laurens van der Post's book on African food is one that I had, but left in the US when I came back to Australia. I still have the one on Scandinavia.

Your blog makes me think that I need to spend some time in thrift stores when back in the US again, and try and find some of these again. Even harder to find are the spiral bound recipe volumes that accompanied each hardcover in this series.

By the way, the roast lamb recipe at the start of the Africa book is superb.

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