Entries Tagged 'Food writing and writers' ↓

Scratching for an argument

I recently hit up the Clouston & Hall store in Canberra. They’re an academic remainders store and they often have excellent cookery books hugely reduced. The book I was really excited about in the latest catalogue was independent UK researcher Dr Frances Short’s Kitchen Secrets: The Meaning of Cooking in everyday life. It promised that it would explore

the thoughts, values and opinions of home cooks, their practices and experiences, and the skills and knowledge they use to prepare and provide food. It provides new and challenging ways of thinking about cooking, examining and often contesting commonly-held beliefs and theories about the role of practical cookery lessons, dinner parties as showcases for culinary flair and the negative effect of convenience foods on home cooking and kitchen skills.

It was a very unsatisfying book, but as we all know that’s the next best thing to a really good one, right? For an overview of Short’s arguments, check out this journal article from 2003 (pdf), and you can also read extracts on Google Book. Her writing is clear and unfussy and there were some parts I found very interesting, such as her careful dissection of the “family meal” as an unquestioned and unassailable good and her findings about which types of home cooking parents were more likely to involve their children in.

Kitchen Secrets was developed from Short’s PhD thesis in sociology and her exploration of claims that domestic cookery is becoming deskilled has been significantly influenced by food historian Rachel Laudan’s 2001 polemic A plea for culinary modernism.

It will help to briefly look at Laudan first. The full text is here (pdf), but to give a potted version of her argument, “culinary luddites” have conflated the terms “natural” and “unprocessed” with “good food” and in doing so they display ignorance of the history of food. In the past survival has demanded that all but the richest perform endless backbreaking work to make highly monotonous diets safe let alone palatable. Laudan says that historically wherever people have an opportunity to eat more processed food that requires less work to prepare, they have taken it.

My problem with Laudan’s argument is that I don’t accept that the leap from wheat kernel to bread is the same as the leap from bread to McDonalds. In saying so, I don’t underestimate the hours and expertise that making raw agricultural ingredients into food takes (for a very entertaining example in relation to the journey from corn to tortilla, read Dave Arnold at Cooking Issues).

It frustrates me that Laudan builds an air of legitimacy by footnoting research arguing that European peasants were stupefied by adulterated food for 500 years or essentially hibernated through a bad winter, but she doesn’t name and shame any “culinary luddites”. She does give the them credit for foregrounding that we “need to know how to prepare good food, and we need a culinary ethos”, but she’s very upset with the ethos of nostalgic agrarian utopianism she insists they are demanding we adopt. I could find you a back-to-the-land hippie who believed the crap that Laudan is arguing against but what persuasive or political power do they have anyway? The exercise would be a pointless waste of everyone’s time – at it’s heart Laudan’s argument is posturing against a strawfoodie.

Her provocative stance certainly has managed to generate attention for her ideas a long time; when a snippet of Laudan’s piece was published in the New York Times last year, she blogged that she was “just relishing the thought of responding to the flood of hostile comments. I love controversy.” More recently in Australia, her spittle-flecked food-politics troll mantle has been adopted by the Institute of Public Affairs’ Chris Berg, in this recent piece for Fairfax “Dig in, don’t wait. Our slow food nostalgia is misplaced.”

Right, so that was a little less brief than I intended, but I jeez I feel better. As I was saying, Short has applied Laudan’s scepticism to claims that none of us can cook anymore. It certainly not an argument that I’ve ever supported, and it something I’m active about both personally and professionally.

Short points out that many terms in this discussion have remained undefined, terms such as “pre-prepared”, “convenience”, “raw” and “natural” and she agrees with Laudan’s view questioning whether food really can be divided into “two nice, neat groups”. (link) It’s disappointing that the only response to rejecting “two nice, neat groups” is to throw your hands up in the air and stick to one meaningless group.

None of her interview subjects express a view that prepared foods are unacceptable, although for different types of meals they might rely more or less on processed or packaged ingredients. Short asserts that “Kitchen technologies and their offspring, the trimmed, par-boiled, floreted, deboned and ready-to-steam, are regularly proclaimed as the scourge of home cooking” (link) or, even more alarmingly, “the scourge of good diet and family health and unity”. (link) Her subjects’ universal lack of anxiety about using processed ingredients makes me think that the prevalence and vehemence of these “proclamations” is being overstated.

I’d rather buy bottled passata with an ingredients list that said “tomatoes, tomato juice” and avoid the BPA lining in canned tomatoes, but I certainly don’t think anyone credible is pointing at canned tomatoes as a scourge of home cookery. What’s the point of clinging to the inclusion of items such as canned tomatoes and rice in the “processed” category if it’s only you and Rachel Laudan putting them there?

Short’s argument is much stronger when she points out that there is no consensus in ordinary life or academic practice of what is meant by “cooking” and “cooking skills”. In addition to concrete skills such as “baking” or “chopping”, she describes a range of tacit skills that are built from experience and learned knowledge, extending from the ability to open the oven and inspect a dish and know at what stage of cooking it’s at all the way to the organisation, planning and emotional work it can take to cook every day for fussy children.

To me the ability to look in the fridge, garden and pantry and whip up something delicious is the mark of a good domestic cook. My definition also includes an element of domestic economy, which would amuse my friend Chris who was astonished that I don’t have a budget for food shopping. What I mean is that there is no food waste in this house. Every usable morsel is eaten by us, the chickens or the worms. There’s a hint of class-based distaste for that kind of frugality in some of Short’s subjects, who don’t want meals to appear as if you’d “bunged your leftovers in” (link)

My parents both worked and eventually my mother got sick of cooking as well as doing all the rest. I was brought up with Deb instant mashed potato and frozen vegetables that were favoured because they didn’t go off in the crisper. I don’t know why I struck out against that way of eating so vehemently. I still try and do all the cooking at my parents’ house rather than eat that way.

My list of “acceptable” processed food will differ from yours (unless you’re Tammi :) I do make some things “from scratch” that are almost exclusively used in bought versions. By Short’s and Laudan’s arguments, is the hoi sin sauce I make using miso and malted barley from the Co-op and Megachef oyster sauce just another assembly of processed foods?

My list of “unacceptable” processed foods will differ from yours too – I find chilled packaged “fresh” pasta a ridiculous invention and will either make fresh pasta or, more commonly, used dried pasta. I’m under no delusions – I am what’s described in the book as a “food hobbyist” and I’m clearly more than a couple of standard deviations past the bell curve of processed food eating – to the extent that my use and consumption of processed food surprises people sometimes. For instance the lovely @charlotteshucks responded when I tweeted that I was making the kids chicken drumsticks with lemongrass and Maggi seasoning sauce for dinner recently “wow, never thought I’d hear you singing the praises of Packet Food … #worldupsidedown”. Fortunately she wasn’t on twitter when I posted a couple of days later “I think y’all will realise how crook I’m feeling if I tell you we’re having Crust pizza for dinner”.

I think what I ultimately found most disappointing about the book was that although Short was a chef for 15 years before becoming a scholar there is nowhere detectable in the book a passion for food beyond that academic fascination. Particularly where a book has begun as a formal qualification-directed research project we can’t judge it for what it’s not about. But how can you talk about cookery skills and how people cook without talking about how it tastes?

Anthony’s Authentic™ Soupe ou Pistou

Mid-autumn in Melbourne coincided with a burst of hot weather, which meant fresh borlotti beans were in my green grocer’s at the same time I was contemplating how to cook summery meals. My thoughts turned to soup. Now normally, in Melbourne’s peak temperatures, the only soup that attracts is a cold and garlicky gazpacho. But my second favourite warm weather soup is soup au pistou. This is basically a pretty bland soup based around (ideally fresh) shelled beans, some pasta, potatoes and summer vegetables (zucchini, green beans) which is enlivened by a spoonful of pistou (which, as we’ll see, is just the Provençal version of pesto) stirred into bowls at the last minute.

I was first introduced to this soup in Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, but have more recently followed a recipe of Patricia Wells, which I adapt below.

The success of the soup as a summer tonic lies of course in the pistou. And the secret of a good pistou is a mortar and pestle, not a food processor. Patience Gray in her remarkable book Honey from a Weed has a whole introductory chapter on ‘chopping and pounding’. There she writes: ‘Pounding fragrant things – particularly garlic, basil, parsley – is a tremendous antidote to depression…Pounding these things produces an alteration in one’s being – from sighing with fatigue to inhaling with pleasure. The cheering effects of herbs and alliums cannot be too often reiterated’.

Before I get to the recipe, I just want to reiterate what a peculiar — in a good way — cookbook Gray’s book is. She co-wrote an earlier cookbook, published as a Penguin paperback, with Primrose Boyd in the 1950s, called Plats du Jour, then she absconded to Europe to make a life with a Flemish sculptor for the next forty or fifty years, living in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia: in effect, chasing the marble that a sculptor needs.

One remarkable aspect of her book lies in the subtitle: ‘Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cylcades and Apulia’. Not only does the word ‘fasting’ rarely appear in connection with contemporary cookbooks, but here it is given priority of place before the word ‘feasting’.

Many contemporary cookbooks on regional cuisines are embedded in some sort of narrative — explicit or implied — about The Quest for Authenticity. It is not enough to know that we are going to use olive oil in a recipe; we need to be told that the dish was originally tasted on a hiking trip near Carrara, using oil obtained from the first pressing from the gnarled trees of a domestic grove of a poor but honest Italian farmer and so on. This Quest for Authenticity along with a persistent nostalgia coalesces to give us the Mediterranean Diet as Culinary Pastoral. Yet what we today evoke as the Mediterranean Diet probably bears little relation to how most Mediterraneans ate for most of history. Up until relatively recently, the Mediterranean diet was one of long seasons of malnutrition, interspersed with episodes of famine.

Gray’s book is one of the few Mediterranean cookbooks to acknowledge this in its overall approach. She captures what the anthropologist Carole Counihan, writing about rural Sardinia, observed when referring to an ‘iron clad ethic of consumption: daily consumption took place within the family and was parsimonious; festive consumption took place within society at large and was prodigal’, there being a ‘rhythmic oscillation between these two different modes’.

So yes, Gray’s cookbook-cum-travel memoir does play the authenticity card, but without the reassurance and comfort and warm fuzziness that comes with most books of this genre. At one stage she watches, and describes for the reader, a Greek islander woman’s method of cooking fresh haricot beans into a soup over an outdoor fire. When Gray takes some of the surplus soup to a neighbour, the neighbour ‘believing them to be cooked by me and foreign in consequence, later threw them to the pig’. The Mediterranean diet, like Tolstoy’s ideal of love, can be a harsh and dreadful thing.

Anyhow, the promised recipe for La Soupe au Pistou:

If you have access to fresh borlotti beans, buy half a kilo which will come down to around 200 – 250 g shelled beans.

Warm some oil in a saucepan with chopped garlic and some thyme sprigs, parsley sprigs and a bay leaf or two. Add the beans and cook for a minute or two. Add a litre of hot water and cover and simmer for around ten minutes.

In another pot, start the soup: oil, onions and garlic sweated over a low heat. Add chopped carrots, chopped potatoes and again more bay leaves, some thyme and parsley sprigs. Saute all this for ten minutes or so, stirring regularly, to build depth of flavour.

Then add the beans and their cooking liquid to the vegetables with some diced zucchini and some tomatoes (fresh or from a tin, whatever’s at hand) and another litre of water. Simmer gently until all is cooked. Add some small pasta shapes and cook until the pasta is cooked.

Serve the soup hot, passing both pistou and grated pecorino or parmigiano cheese to swirl into the soup

Pistou:

For pesto or pistou, I’d go with a cup of basil leaves pounded together with a tablespoon of pine nuts, a clove of garlic, half a teaspoon of salt and four tablespoons of olive oil. Enjoy.

In search of lost recipes

So remember that I’m a cookbook nerd? Sick and home in bed with a laptop one day this week, I saw this tweet from @eleg_sufficiency – simply brilliant idea for anyone with too many cookbooks and too little time to search through them > Cook & Eat

That’s me suckered. I checked out the Cook & Eat project, which is called Gobbledybook, a search engine for cookbooks by Seattle photographer, stylist and food blogger Lara Ferroni .

It’s a clever idea to use web searching mechanisms to render the (beautiful, expensive) books you already own more useful – for years Harold McGee has been using a sidebar link to a Google Books search of his On Food and Cooking at his site News for Curious Cooks as a super-charged index. I also use food blog search a lot, and have recently started using forage, the Australian food blog search engine (and you’ll find both of those in the sidebar).

The difference with Gobbledybook is that it searches cookbooks, not blog posts. And I have a lot of cookbooks, although not as many as Pat does.

Cookbook shelf

Gobbledybook seems to have a reasonable selection of Australian content, with titles by Luke Nguyen, Curtis Stone, Bill Granger and *cough* Donna Hay. Ottolenghi is in there, and a few baking and vegetarian books, 60 in all to date for a total of nearly 5000 recipes. It has started as Ferroni’s own collection, and she will expand it with more of her titles and is encouraging others to start logging their own recipes.

It requires you to sign in with facebook, which I don’t like. It’s unclear about how the sites interact, and the sign-in box makes it clear they might publish to your wall. I’m worried that if I accidentally look up a Donna Hay recipe it could get posted to my Facebook profile and I will lose the respect of my loved ones. (Updated: more seriously, if you purchased a book via Gobbledybook while logged in through Facebook, Facebook might keep your financial data without asking first.)

As it so often happens, someone else has had the same great idea. Another recently launched service called Eat Your Books does pretty much the same thing. In both cases, ingredients lists but not method are entered, there being no copyright in an ingredients list. Eat Your Books is in beta, but is still considerably more developed with 16,521 Cookbooks and 240,795 recipes entered. It costs US$25 per year or (for a limited time only!) $50 for a lifetime membership. There’s a 30 day free trial, which I’m doing at the moment. I can see myself handing over the $50 at the end of it.

Gobbledybook is a charming name the first time you encounter it, but gets pretty tedious to type. And “EYB” makes it a lot easier to stick to twitter’s 140 characters. The problem is, I’ve found Gobbledybook to be pretty buggy and it’s certainly not intuitive to use. Perhaps that comes from it being an individual’s project expanded? EYB is much better designed and has a more developed search function. You can request that books be added and indexed.

Gobbledybook says their service is better than Eat Your Books because you can add your own books to Gobbledybook rather than waiting for the service to do it, and they will “match up” data behind the scenes so that a failure to use a sufficiently specific term won’t bugger up your search results, a problem Ferroni says she’s had at EYB with things like searching for “soup” not picking up a “bisque”.

I haven’t played sufficiently with Eat Your Books a great deal yet, but haven’t found any problems. Adding just 24 of my books has given me 4800+ searchable recipes. Searching my books for “witlof” gives me 22 recipes, including chicory and witlof so it looks like someone’s doing some “matching up” there too.

I emailed to ask some questions and was really impressed by the substance and tone of their answers. I asked if I could import the few hundred books I had in my Library Thing and was advised that a data import is on the way, and that they’re linking with British suppliers and eventually Australian and New Zealand ones to expand the library. And already, somewhere in Canberra, is an indexer adding info from the most prominent Australian books (nah, not me, although I offered …) Their focus is on the last 15 years, but I hope eventually they’ll index older titles like the Time Life Good Cook series which I have so painstakingly accumulated.

I’m not so interested in the “community” parts of the sites, as I already have a food blog and a twitter problem, but there’s potential for it to really take off. Much as I love flipping through cookbooks, sometimes I’d rather just be able to find or remember what I’m looking for – so when there’s something new at the farmers’ market or a glut in the veggie garden, dinner need never be boring. Even if it’s zucchini again.


Updated:
disclosure! Eat Your Books has given me a free lifetime membership after reading this post. It didn’t cross my mind before writing, and I was going to pay up anyway, but as I don’t usually accept stuff I thought I should mention it.

Eat.Drink.Blog – the washup

You know, I’ve never been to a conference where everyone stayed for all the sessions, all the presenters were uniformly interesting and no-one was bored for a minute. People I thought I would like I REALLY liked; and the people I wasn’t sure about I REALLY liked too. And I met some completely new people and – yes – REALLY liked them.

Part of the brief talk I gave was about blogging as a way of exploring and enjoying a community of interest, and it certainly seemed there was a real joy for all of us in being in a room full of people who “get” our passion because they share it.

I’m planning to write up my talk and post it soon, (you will be glad to hear that despite the fears of another attendee before the conference, it wasn’t too wanky ;) Gill of confessions of a food nazi has a post on some of her excellent talk here, and a plan to blog the rest. She’s encouraged the rest of us who participated in panels to do the same, and I think it would be great to link them all from the Eat.Drink.Blog site.

There were three (I think) attendees who weren’t on twitter, and less by the end of the day. The stream of the #eatdrinkblog hashtag appeared on the super-cool projected TweetWall – Lisa of unwakeable, Nola and Suzanne of essjayeff being the funny-girl stars of the day. Although I wish they had been less funny in the panel segment, sitting facing the audience cracking up at a tweet I couldn’t read!

I really appreciated that there wasn’t a push towards homogeneity amongst the group, in fact quite the reverse. I think the best session to demonstrate the point was the photography one, where Ellie from Kitchen Wench, Nola from Once a Waitress and Matt from Abstract Gourmet talked about their individual ways of going about making photos that worked the way they wanted them to, with a few tips and tricks thrown in. (Ellie’s tip – read the manual; Nola’s – think about using photographs as a means of communication; Matt’s – find a way to do it that works for you).

Claire from Melbourne Gastronome pulled off a real feat with her talk, managing to be legally precise and not dull. I really wasn’t expecting the sessions on SEO (by Michael of My Aching Head), “How to be social” (by Pennie of Jeroxie:addictive and consuming), geotagging (Brian of fitzroyalty) and the monetising sessions (by Jules of Stonesoup and Phil of The Last Appetite) to be interesting, but I found them fascinating because the presenters really knew their stuff – as @tummyrumbles (mellie) put it on the Tweetwall, they showed a “good balance of nerdy theory and feel good philosophy”.

I found some things quite surprising throughout the day – that so many of us who’d been blogging for a few years had blogged on other subjects (like me, mostly politics) before coming to focus on food; the immediacy of our ease in each other’s company; how generous everyone was with their expertise and how true-to-life some people’s blogging identities are. For instance The Healthy Party Girl left in the afternoon to go to cheerleader practice and came back to bum a fag and piss on in the laneway!

Once the strictly social part of the day kicked in, we started to talk about the next Eat.Drink.Blog. What made it possible this year was the organisation work (by Ed of Tomatom, Reem of I am obsessed with food… (who have a beautiful talk on why she blogs, including starting because she needed somewhere to talk about her love life!) Mellie of Tummyrumbles, , April of My Food Trail, Jess of That Jess Ho, who hung the photo exhibit, and Tammi of Tammi Tasting Terroir who moderated – thank you all).

There was also significant sponsorship from the organisations listed at the end of this post. Certainly for interstate visitors it made it much more affordable to not have to pay to register and to be treated to lovely drinks and food, and not having to handle monetary exchanges meant we don’t need to formalise an organisational structure and the further administrative load that entails. I think it’s really important that more people have the opportunity to go, but I’m eager to find a way for that to happen without losing the lovely sense of intimacy that permeated the day. On the third hand, having organising multiple streams during the day means we can really go into detail and cover a lot more ground.

There is a full list of bloggers who attended (thanks to Mellie), and I’ve set up a twitter list here. I’m conscious that I haven’t mentioned everyone; I encourage you to check out the full list.

The conference was sponsored by Daylesford and Hepburn Water, Der Raum, Prentice Wine, Red Hill Brewery, SBS Food, StreetSmart – Helping the Homeless, St Ali and The Essential Ingredient.

NB – this post is brought to you by an absence of blurry iphone photos. Not that there aren’t any, but they’re not mine – my phone’s from Aldi.

Eat Drink Blog – Australia’s first food blogger conference

Along with Reem from I am obsessed with food … and another outspoken female from confessions of a food nazi, I’ll be talking at the upcoming Eat Drink Blog conference in Melbourne on “Why we blog” on March 21. I’ll just give you all a minute to get the “but you never blog, you lazy sod” jokes. It’s a small-ish event, with only a limited number of places due to the nice dinner and cocktails we’ll be getting (largely thanks to the connections and charm of Ed from Tomatom). But I’ll be in town for a day or two, so perhaps some Melbourne PDP writers and friends could meet up?

My abstract (which seems a very fancy name, but anyway) is:

There are a million reasons to start a blog, but most blogs are quickly discarded. What will keep you going? The answers are as various as the many genres of blog that exist, even within the food blogging world. Identifying what you want your blog to be helps you create a space that feels right for you and attracts the readers you want to engage with. The first step is identifying what you want to say and why you blog – whether it’s to stretch a writing muscle or show your photographic chops, to share your culinary skills or the latest news, or simply to become part of a community of like-minded food nerds.

And another outspoken female has also suggested that I should talk about group blogging, and the particular benefits of that approach. Part of the reason I wanted to be part of a group blog was to alleviate the pressure/guilt of not posting very frequently, but what I value about it most is the collegial conversations we have around here. It’s all I could have hoped for when entering the food blogging world.

I’ve been thinking too, about the power of images in blogging. There’s a photo competition and exhibition in concert with the conference, and I put a few photos in for the hell of it – there are almost 400 images in the competition flickr group. I’ve always resisted the desire to have very beautiful and styled looking photos – I’ve had to, as I don’t have the expertise, equipment or ability to keep the family waiting while I take pictures. Mostly though, I wanted to see people eating, and bring the world forced away from the food through bokeh and the like back into focus.

Yet having had a camera meltdown and not having replaced it yet (my work is casual, was not needed over the long uni break and my taste in cameras have become more expensive than it used to be) has really held me back. I don’t see why it should, as I’m certainly not a particularly good photographer, but I think that taking the pictures often sparks the thinking. It’s odd, because I am a writer not a photographer, but the interplay between illustrative and/or decorative images, texts and links has always seemed to me the greatest technical fun of blogging.

I’ve really wanted to post the abundance of my veggie garden and a few special dishes and meals. I’ve tweeted a couple, but you can see the quality of the images deteriorate before your eyes:

Both of these, by the way, were from Sean Moran’s Let it Simmer. The first a lake of chocolate mousse in the crater of a flourless chocolate cake (which is essentially a cooked mousse) and the second a custard tart with a finger lime glaze (and I added a layer of thinly sliced figs to the top of the tart, and some rose geranium leaves to the glaze). New camera soon, and then right back to it.

In the meantime, I’d be very interested to hear any thoughts on why food blogging is an activity worth doing, and what might be interesting to hear about.

In which I go to Wheeo

Dinner outside

There’s something about the sound of that name “Wheeo”, doncha think? It came to mind today, watching my elder son hurtle down the slide at the waterpark – it’s a sound of exhilaration and anticipation, but there’s a delicious thrill of risk to it, too. At least the first time around, you don’t know how cold it’s going to be when all of a sudden you’re immersed.

It can be a little daunting when Twitter comes to life, but like splashing down on a hot day it’s relieving and exciting all at once. I first met Tammi of Tammi Tasting Terroir (and @tammois) when she’d come to Canberra for a conference related to her PhD (yeah, it’s about food). We’d planned to go out for a drink but the combination of my small children and her tight schedule made it too hard. Instead, she came to my house, the morning after the conference had finished.

We share a lot as it turns out. We are Serious Home Cooks, both completely obsessed with food and feeding people, and we both love reading and writing about food. We hit it off, and Tammi and her family recently invited us to spend New Year’s Eve at the country house of their friends Antonia and Mark, a couple of hours drive from here. Owen was in Melbourne with an old friend for NYE itself, but joined us after a couple of days.

Hillview

The house itself was beautiful, the only drawback the sincerely expressed and repeated warnings about brown snakes. I’m not too thingy about snakes as a rule, but that’s because I live in the suburbs and never see any. So the idea of my rather silly 18 kilo toddler being bitten in a place which is out of mobile range, has no landline and is a good hour’s drive away from a hospital made me a big angsty. Fortunately Snake Education 101 from the four larger children seemed effective. The one snake that was spotted (yep, a brown one) was terrified off by Tammi’s husband Stuart’s desperate desire to kill it, by his stashing of sharp threatening spades near the scene of the spotting and by his general air of manly readiness.

clothesline

For fear of brown snakes, no clothes were washed.

I mentioned that the house was beautiful, but it was also full of beautiful things – indigenous and contemporary art, wonderful books, rooms crammed with beautiful Turkish carpets, interesting found things, such as the beautiful bowl of nests which brought Gay Bilson to mind, and linen cupboards stuffed with super-soft old white damask sheets.

bedroom view

From the bedroom we stayed in.

We had a few friends around for a drink before Christmas and my friend Chris (an ex-chef) asked laughingly while she enjoyed a Rhubarb Fizz made by one of the other guests whether my friendships were self-selecting around food. I suppose it’s no stranger than others who share a common interest coming together; probably less so because food is so social. And while it’s true that most of my friends care about food and cooking, to most of them it’s not so deeply embedded as it is with Tammi and me. We could talk about food all day, interrupting that only to read about, make or eat food. And we both left Wheoo with new treasures jotted in our little notebooks – for me in particular, Tammi’s basil and garlic hollandaise which is so good that it has returned hollandaise to my inner list of Things Worth Eating.

The books I took for my holiday reading were Richard Olney’s Simple French Food, Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, and Julian Barnes’ The Pedant in the Kitchen. I didn’t open any of them, as it happened, although Stuart read some of the Olney. Tammi had brought her own stash of books, so I read Lauren Schenone’s The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken and some of Barbara Santich’s Looking for Flavour instead. The owners of the house are also food nerds, and in addition to the supremely well-stocked kitchen, there was a bookcase of food and wine books. Whenever it wasn’t stuffed with food, the table looked like this:

I don’t always cook well with others (sounds like it should be on my school report), particularly in my own kitchen, but Tammi and I quickly settled into a rhythm of each preparing parts of the meal. The exception was my introduction to ravioli making, and there I was very much the student. In the week I’ve been home I’ve broken my pasta machine, bought a new one and read quite a bit of Marcella Hazan.

Despite the thousands of recipes in the house, mostly we both cook improvisationally. One of us would suggest a dish, the other come up with something sympatico to accompany it. Tammi’s described some of the yummies (with pictures) at On Cooking and Feasting, Merrily.

Here were some of the highlights that occurred before my poor little camera died:

Tammi's bread proving

Tammi embraced breadmaking at Wheeo. It meant we could stay in the house and not have to go anywhere and still eat proper bread. WIN

Really Very Large T-Bones

Pasture fed Columbooka T-Bones from my sister-in-law’s farm in Southern NSW. We shall not mention the little incident with the brazier. Stuart made a giant bowl of horseradish sauce so delicious we ate it all. That would have been at least half a cup each, but in our defence it was made with yoghurt rather than cream.

Stuffed tomatoes

Tammi and I share a predisposition to frugality and a hatred of stingyness. The tomatoes were stuffed with crumbs made from one of Tammi’s loaves, herbs from the garden, olive oil and about 18 cloves of minced garlic.

Spuds

We had no cream so Tammi infused some milk with herbs from the garden to make a delicious potato gratin to eat with the pork. Stuart’s home-cured olives were what really made it sing.

Prepared pork

I unrolled a rolled boned forequarter of Wessex Saddleback Pork from Mountain Creek Farm and found some nice things to go with it. I love fennel with pork, so made Owen pull over on the way back from picking him up to join us. If you are going to pick herbs from the roadside, there are a few things to keep in mind – the less traffic the better, wash the spiders off (there were two) and if you’re in an unfamiliar place, check the goddam garden first. There’s no point foraging if it’s there to harvest.

Pork Cooked

We cooked the pork on horseradish leaves from the garden, and they became so deliciously luscious what with the pork fat, lemon, fennel and wine that we ended up slicing them finely to eat with the pork. I brought some horseradish home and planted it, so hopefully there’ll be a lot more of this in the future.

Rhubarb Fizz

There were a great deal more veggies and salads that it may seem here, and considerably more wine, as it happened. This wasn’t wine, however, but the Rhubarb Fizz made by my friend Jem. It was supersweet, but a nip of gin balanced it up nicely.

It struck me thinking about it afterwards that Tammi and I cook together like musicians jamming – confident, mature, communicating with a glance, riffing off each other and then getting to feast too. Neither setting out to impress the other, but to make something that is impressive, something coherent, satisfying and enriching to the people we care about.

Since coming home I’ve finished the Julian Barnes book I took away and neglected (hmmm, in my best Marge Simpson voice. Despite long experience of sophisticated cooking he has remained a bloody kitchen pedant, and I’m no friend of them) and I’ve started the Olney (a proper book, with long complicated sentences).

My favourite food of all to make is a composed salad, a meal on a plate, heavy on the veg. It was the first food I made for Tammi, and I can’t think of a more perfect example of food guided by experience and taste rather than recipes. It is the joy of food that is never the same twice, the ingredients, company, location, mood, season, changing but never losing the heart-joy of placing on the table something that you are hopeful – and confident – will be enjoyed. Richard Olney is speaking here on the subject of such salads, and their endless variation, but I hope that his words are as true of these friendships born in front of the computer screen and cemented at the table –

… One could go on forever, and, in practice, one does.
Richard Olney Simple French Food

Tammi

Tammi in the kitchen.

tor notes that Culinary Success! is best measured in units of husband-approval

So, cooking – it’s not really my thing.

Some people get really into cookery and use seasonal ingredients and make their own gnocchi and everything. I would like to be one of those people. But sadly, I can muster up very little enthusiasm for cooking. But I still cook a little. After all, one must eat!

Since my cookery repertoire is so meagre I often find myself browsing big recipe sites to get spinach ideas and the like.

And I read the comments.

Comments are the scourge of the non-feminist internet. The more general and mainstream the site, the more bigoted and venomous the comments, and usually I avoid reading them unless I’m feeling very masochistic.

But I always read comments on recipe sites because they are 1) informative, and 2) quite low on bigotry (I suppose it is difficult to inject a lot of racist / sexist bile when you’re commenting on something as apolitical as spinach and potato soup).

But recipe comments suffer from their own pollution.

It seems every second or third comment makes reference to the commenter’s husband. Like:

I thought this recipe was okay, but my husband thought it was way too spicy!

Or:

My husband usually hates vegetables, but he thought this was nice. Will make again!

In fact, it seems that maximum husband-approval is the greatest compliment one can pay a recipe:

Wow! 5 stars!!! My husband loved this! He went back for seconds! And thirds! Thanks so much for this!!!

It is incredibly annoying!

It makes me feel like I have teleported into 1950s suburbia (a magical 1950s suburbia, with consumer net access).

It is a reminder of how little things have changed, at least on the domestic front.

I am waiting for the day when I come across a recipe comment along the lines of:

Zomg! My wife loved this. Will make again and again! Thanks!

On that day, I will make my own gnocchi. With a sauce made from seasonal ingredients!

This post is crossposted from Tor’s blog Adrift and Awake. See the comments on the original post here.

Hello, my name’s Zoe and I collect cookbooks.

I used to buy cookbooks like other people once, but I always seemed to like it a little bit more than most. One day Owen turned around and said “It’s a collection, you know that?“. I said “You say that like it’s a bad thing …” and I realised that I had Crossed A Line. I’m not quite at the point where I could appear on the ABC’s Collectors or anything, although my friend Nigel is the proud proprietor of bakelite fingernail polisher Mystery Object™, and hundreds of melamine cups and saucers and I may have to seek his expert guidance on the subject.

Signs you may have a problem: one day’s purchases at the Lifeline Bookfair.

I’m not saying that it wouldn’t have happened anyway, but in part I blame Neil of At My Table. He posted in May 2008 on his satisfaction at completing his set of the Time Life series “The Good Cook: Techniques and Recipes”.

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