Cultural Identities Through Cookery continued..

For those of us for whom cooking comes naturally, it is hard sometimes to witness scenes of total food illiteracy. The last fifty or more years produced an entire generation that not only does not know how to cook but does not have a clue about where food comes from. Some of this dilemma could be related to our mothers’ and grandmothers’ need to enter the workforce instead of staying in the kitchen, but also to big agricultural businesses which managed to infiltrate every aspect of our lives. The timing was perfect and before we realized what happened, we stopped cooking from scratch and turned over critical responsibility for the health of our families to faceless powers whose only goal is profit.
When I say that cooking comes naturally, I neglect to mention the years I spent learning how to cook, the examples and the encouragement that I was provided, the opportunities to practice and foremost, the appreciation I received while developing cooking as my language of love. Preparing a meal is much more than the practical steps required to construct an edible dish. The practice of cooking takes finesse and a feeling that cannot be acquired by following a recipe.

Cooking with love takes creativity and thriftiness. It encompasses the respect and admiration for ingredients and their providers. Selecting fruits and vegetables that were tended with care and pride will enhance the simplest dish with fresh aroma and delectable taste. The attention provided by those who treat our earth with love, transcends every bite of food and satisfies our palates through all our senses. When food becomes a medium to savor and linger over, quality not quantity becomes the norm and satisfaction is on the highest level.

I was fortunate to grow up in the kitchens of the best and most resourceful cooks: my grandmother, my mother and a constant parade of local domestic help who contributed their customs and traditions. They cooked from the heart instinctively, knowing how to marry ingredients for the tastiest outcomes. They learned like me at the feet of their maternal ancestors and knew how to make the best of freshly available ingredients, always cooking in the season. Nothing was wasted for resources were scares and the need great. Uneaten summer bounty of fruits and vegetables was preserved for the long winters and added a welcome surprise to sparse dishes.

My earliest memories place me on the clean scrubbed pine planks of my grandmother Dora’s kitchen floor, playing with the brass weights of a scale treasured both for its usefulness as well as its pedigree. I was around two and a half. Very soon after that, I was allowed to help sort veggies and legumes. I watched and listened and tasted while asking a lot of questions and annoying my caretakers.
I also spent time in the garden where rows of tomatoes and peppers ripened next to peas and beans and where freshly plucked carrots still warm from the earth’s heat, tasted like honey. Onions, radishes and potatoes came in all shapes, colors and sizes. Everyday provided a new discovery, a new exciting flavor, a newly ripened gift. Chickens pecked away by the hog pen and the hen house where every morning a selection of multicolored eggs waited to be retrieved. Apple, peach and apricot trees were scattered among the tall walnuts which made the best summer hideouts, while raspberry bushes provided a natural fence along the river. At the very back of the garden lived the most important members of this little paradise, the bees.

Every morning, fresh milk was delivered along with yogurts and cheeses. The family who lovingly tended to water buffalos, provided us with the riches and most nourishing of their offerings. A parade of other farmers stopped by to share their latest products.
When we sat down for our noon meal, our table was covered with dishes lovingly prepared from the very best and freshest ingredients.

The foundation of my love for cooking was built early and everything that followed became the structure which I rely on for today’s creations. When food is scarce, innovation becomes critical. I remember savoring a simple bowl of caraway seed soup with croutons never realizing that it was invented to quiet growling stomachs.
Romania behind the Iron Curtain suffered from misguided agricultural policies dictated by the Soviet Union and local market shelves were left bare. Were it not for the creativity of cooks who were accustomed to starvation having already lived through wars and devastation, I would not have absorbed the invaluable knowledge of cooking something from nothing.

My grandmother’s tiny village seemed to defy it’s expected condition. The seasons cycled from summers to winters and through autumn and spring with total disregard for who was in office. Small plots of veggies thrived behind twig fences. Everyone had a specialty. A need for fresh mushrooms encouraged foraging and educating each other about their safety. Grape arbors producing several varieties adorned the yard of a nearby neighbor and the surplus became an easy homemade wine shared with all. Chickens, geese and ducks roamed without care and the aroma of freshly baked bread mingled with the smell of frying onions drifted through open windows. Time stood still! Simple pleasures passed down through generations beckoned all to break bread at large communal tables. Living close to the earth is the simplest and most satisfying of pleasures.
This language, my favorite language of love is universal. Pleasurably sharing earth’s bounty establishes a human connection for which no words are needed.

Cultural Identities Through Cookery continued…

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Is there such a thing as American Food? Yes, it’s the mingling of all the traditions contributed by every cook who entered this country and made it his or her own. People from all corners of the world came adding their special touch to the previously adopted dishes.
New York would become the original incubator of American dishes. Italians may have brought us Pizza but New York perfected it. German and Dutch immigrants introduced Hot Dogs and Hamburgers, now a national pastime. We think of Chinese food as part of our American kitchen forgetting its origins and frequent the strangest yet perfect of all combinations, its marriage to the Jewish Deli.
The newest group introducing us to their cuisine are the Vietnamese. In Dallas there’s a Pho shop in every shopping center.
Refugees from nations under conflict who find their way to the US usually get into the food business for survival. Not finding familiar dishes when they arrive, their entrepreneurial spirit leads them to what comes naturally. Those who are able to introduce us to their specialties and manage to ‘Americanize’ their dishes mostly survive.

Restaurant chains which not only have more buying power but are publicly traded, have steadily pushed Mom and Pop stores out of business by undercutting pricing and compromising on quality. Higher rents, over regulation and labor costs have also contributed to their demise.
While Mom and Pop stores are the incubators of ideas, the chains have become the great equalizers where uniformity and quality control are traded in for charm and uniqueness. While dependability has enabled chain restaurants to thrive, by diluting the differences among cuisines they are instrumental in establishing the ‘American Kitchen.’

My contribution has varied over the years. At first nostalgia fed my desire to Americanize Transylvanian cooking with ingredients only available at that time. Then when I met TJ I taught myself how to cook his favorites, mostly from family members and thus added a combination of Arabic and Persian food to my repertoire. As time passed and we started eating a healthier, I tweaked all my recipes and slowly eliminated animal products. My cooking is American Cooking even as it hardly resembles what is typically considerd as such

Chopped veggie salad

Chop the following and combine in a large bowl:

1 medium red onion; 1 red, 1 green and 1 yellow bell pepper; 1 tomato; 1 cup of arugula; and 1 cup of kale. Drizzle with 1 tsp. of Agave nectar, 1 Tbsp. of rice vinegar, 1 Tbsp. of Sesame Oil, salt and pepper to taste, and toss. Sprinkle with 1 Tbsp. of sesame seeds.

Smashed Cauliflower

Cut up a large head of cauliflower and brown it in 1 Tbsp. of oil. Cover and simmer till very tender. Season with salt and pepper and mash well with a fork.

For a fast and yummy dessert, remove the pits from several large dates. Swirl honey or agave nectar with 2-3 Tbsp. of Tahini and dip dates in the mixture.

First Edition of American Cookery

First Edition of American Cookery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cultural Identities through Cookery continued…

English: Dobos cake at Gerbeaud Confectionery ...

English: Dobos cake at Gerbeaud Confectionery Budapest, Hungary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Food is nourishment. Food is love. Food is war. Food is indispensable. Food is harmful. Food is power. Food is hunger. Food is human. Food is animal. Food is global. Food is scarce. Food is abundant. Food is food.

My daily routine (most days):
Wake up at 4:45 an and feed the dog.
Fill 2 bowl with fruit.
Wake husband.
Go to the gym.
Return for breakfast: eat prepared fruit plus oatmeal or amaranth or quinoa and beans or sweet potato or bread and avocado or leftovers from dinner. Coffee and hot tea, lots of water.
Husband off to work.
Household chores then shower, reading and writing for a couple of hours.
Plan for lunch, alone or with friends and a walk, couple of hours.
Afternoon nap, 30 min max.
Catch up on calls and mail.
Prepare dinner.
Feed dog.
Eat dinner, conversation, TV, sleep.
Repeat!
My life revolves around food. Writing about, preparing, feeding, eating, talking, fearing, reading, watching, denying, enjoying, accepting, loving, living.
Which came first, an obsession that lead to a preoccupation or a preoccupation that led to an obsession? It probably doesn’t matter since both outcomes are the same. My life revolves around food.
Since my earliest memories in childhood involve food, I have to make the familial connection to two people in my life who introduced me early on to this earth’s bounty: my father George and my grandma Dora, both no longer with us. My cultural identity can be traced through the food that they were instrumental in introducing me to.

I came into my father’s life both as an instrument of hope and renewal. Born not long after his shattered life was beginning to rebuild, after tremendous losses and inexplicable horrors, after experiences no human should endure, after the Holocaust that altered his mind and his body. One of a handful who survived, my father returned from concentration camp to his home town, a walking cadaver. His stomach was destroyed by starvation and he tolerated only light mostly boiled foods in small quantities. I didn’t realize till later that he was living out his desires for delicacies he could never digest through me. He delighted in the newest market selections as he closely watched my reaction and encouraged experimentation. I was thus exposed early on to goose liver slowly roasted then spread on fresh bread like butter, or goose cracklings made with just a hint of Hungarian Paprika and a pinch of salt. There were platters of Duck and Chicken roasts and bowls of red cabbage and fried potatoes, some available in season or preserved for long winters. And lots of cakes, breads and pastries…ours was after all part of the Austro-Hungarian way of cooking. In the fall, I enjoyed freshly pureed chestnuts swirled with sugar and cocoa, or hazelnut cookies spread with fresh raspberry jam, or walnut and raisin bread for breakfast washed down with hot cocoa. Occasionally, I accompanied my father to the local coffee shop where I ordered either a slice of the famous Hungarian Dobos Torte or a Napoleon with hot chocolate and freshly whipped cream of course.

At Grandma Dora’s where I spent summers as a child, the mood was different and food preparation involved a lot of work. I remember helping the cook pick fresh carrots or potatoes from the large garden along with parsley and tomatoes or other ripe selections. She also coralled the fattest chicken in the yard and reached under the hens for a supply of eggs. Water had to be hauled from a well and milk was delivered at the crack of dawn as flour was kneaded into loaves and placed above the stove to proof. Large pots simmered on the stove and I would hide out in the walnut tree from where I observed my brother and cousins performing their little battles of Cowboys and Indians always ending in someone running to Grandma tears.

Cultural Identities through Cookery continued…

Baked Alaska

Baked Alaska (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Memories are strange. Although they don’t really have a physical presence, they exist as if you can feel, touch and hear them, as if they preside in a parallel universe to hold our hands, using us as vessels to connect past and future. This connection is never stronger for me than when I’m preparing a dish that has been lovingly passed down through hands that toiled to create and nourish, both body and soul. No words are necessary as food is an international language. Many times the ingredients may not be familiar but we always identify with the love that went into their preparation. Sharing food evokes trust and promotes peace. Many conflicts have been resolved over a common spread of offerings, both at personal and national levels. I believe in food diplomacy.
You only have to visit the nearest ethnic enclave in your neighborhood to see how immigrant communities congregate around restaurants and grocery stores that connect them to their past through food. I do this at least a couple of times a week. I like to visit the Southeast Asian centers popping up in areas of Dallas that have been abandoned by mainstream retailers. Hardworking immigrants not unlike those that have been coming to our shores for generations, are eagerly introducing us to the the food of their lands sometimes with more love than substance. This was the case last weekend when I ate at a ‘North and South Indian Restaurant’ proudly advertising Vegetarian and Vegan selection. The host went out of his way to explain every dish and to point out its ingredients. Although I’ve tasted better, his enthusiasm convinced me that this place will only improve with time and as large Indian families occupied most tables, I was made to feel as welcome as in someones’s house.
I read the other day that Mark Bittman, chef and New York Times contributor paid a visit to a well known Armenian outpost in Glendale where he joined the owner in the kitchen to learn some ‘tricks’ of the trade. Armenian refugees fleeing political and economic unrest headed to California in huge numbers and found themselves welcome in Glendale. A walk around its business district reveals retail store signage in several languages and the aroma of simmering pots of specialties enticing you to enter. Since for many years Armenians lived in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Russia and other foreign lands, the food is an exquisite blend of the best those countries have to offer, from kabobs to rice dishes to desserts.

Glendale may be home to Armenians but Santa Anna boasts the largest Vietnamese population on this side of the Pacific and Texas is a close second. Hidden from the main restaurant scene, small Mom and Pop stores have been quietly introducing Dallas to Pho, Bah

Sarmale

Sarmale (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

n Mi and Specialty Noodle Bowls.  A couple of years ago they went ‘public’ and now there are Vietnamese restaurant in several locations. They have won Dallas over with hot and spicy chicken broth poured over noodles, accompanied by fresh sprouts, jalapeños, limes, and cilantro.

When we first moved to Dallas, the immigrant population was almost nonexistent but a poor lost soul from Transylvania opened a small restaurant serving the much acclaimed ‘Continental’ cuisine of the day: Chateau Briand, Chicken Kiev, Veal Scaloppine, and Baked Alaska with the occasional Vienner Schnitzel. If asked, he would prepare a dish familiar to his compatriots such as Stuffed Cabbage (

Glendale, California, 1910.

Glendale, California, 1910. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sarmale) or Goulash. He also baked the best bread available in those days and sold it to other restaurants. It would be the ticket to his survival as when the restaurant closed, he made his living baking. Customers are a fickle bunch. Few old establishments survive unless they follow current food trends. But what’s old is new again and the Continental Style of classic restaurant offerings is making a comeback.

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Who are You to Judge Me?

JUDGEMENT DAY

JUDGEMENT DAY (Photo credit: Million Fishes)

English: Judging team at an aerobatic competit...

English: Judging team at an aerobatic competition, comprising (left to right) recorder, grading judge, assistant judge. Photo taken at 2008 Tequila Cup Aerobatic Competition, Marana, Arizona. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have we all become judges of our fellow man’s actions or has it always been this way? Is today’s instant, in our face world of communication, anything we express or sometimes just think about travels around at lightening speed. I was thinking about this as I was talking to my husband this morning about the grading systems. As he was describing how his compensation depends on surveys sent to his customers, I remembered how a few years back when I returned to school to complete my MA in the Humanities, I continually stressed about grades. Why? For the same reason he does in a way. Maintaining a high grade point average meant  scholarship money or in other words a monetary reward for performance. I even had a very animated discussion with one of my professors who consistently gave me high grades then at the end when it mattered, he gave me a B. When I questioned him he told me that he believes a B is ‘excellent’ and he only gives A’s to a very few. He also hinted that he was following certain ‘rules’ and had to ‘spread’ the grades around not to look suspicious. All my complaining and argument about how the grade matters to me because it lowers my overall average and thus it endangers me financially, left him cold. When I checked into going to the department dean to complain, the process was so cumbersome and so weighted in the professor’s favor that I did not pursue it.

So what’s going on here? In TJ’s case, the bar is continuously raised with the claim that outstanding customer service is a corporate goal. But the lack of  fairness becomes an excuse not to reward. By being judged on items beyond his control, he’s playing on an uneven field. The fact that the freeway is under construction and will be for another 3-4 years and makes his place of work difficult to get to puts people in a bad mood. Also he shouldn’t be held responsible for the appearance of the showroom or the behavior of other employees, all beyond his control. These impediments to proper compensation are simply excuses not to pay. I’m sure that my professor did not make the connection between his B and my fear of not getting scholarship money, but by following a script which told him how many of each grades he should award, he was complicit in a larger scheme.

Grading or judging starts very early in life. We are measured, weighed and examined, then put into categories which determine everything from how much we should be fed to how tall we should grow. If we don’t fit neatly into the boxes that were arbitrarily drawn by unknown interests, than we get more labels. Our level of intelligence is tested and retested then graded and if acceptable we get to travel the ‘right’ path to success. This system is so ingrained in our psychies that we follow like sheep never stopping to question, only striving to fit in. And those who try to question are considered trouble makers and admonished in short order. Is it any wonder that cheating is rampant even by those who are put in charge to educate. When ‘success’ is dependent on unrealistic judgement, rebellion is not far behind especially when one’s livelihood is at steak.

Fitting into a group or tribe based on judgement by consensus helped us survive and evolve into today’s societies of nations. However, as evidenced by todays worldwide conflicts, our inclination to judge has reached a dangerous level. At the root of all disagreement is a propensity to categorize, to blame, to revenge, and ultimately to possess: the haves against the have nots.

So how can we ease up on being judgmental, on grading everything and everyone? By starting small. We may not be able to stop wars but we can change the grading system. We may not be able to get Republicans and Democrats to love each other, but we can entice businesses to be less greedy by boycotting their products. We may not be able to do away with the boxes we’re all supposed to fit in, but we can support the outliers who want to walk the path of unconformity and who, given the freedom to do so, will save humanity’s future.

English: Here comes the judge. Bulls being jud...

English: Here comes the judge. Bulls being judged. The judge is a Texas rancher. Unlike the usual practice, he commented on his judgement and gave an appraisal of each animal. National Hereford Show – Tenbury 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Salad Bowl or Melting Pot, regardless which expression conjures up images for you, the basis for both is alimental. Yes they refer to us, the citizens of this country, the settlers, the immigrants, the refugees and those born to them, the last five hundred or so years of assimilation and dissimilation. Comparing us to a Salad Bowl indicates that even as we are mixed, the individual ingredients are still identifiable, in other words in the same way you can pick out the onions or tomatoes in your salad, you can tell when you’re in Korea town, or in Little Italy even as they are both located in an American city.
A Melting Pot would be more appropriate in comparing a blending which is less distinguishable such as Rice-a-Roni, the combinations of rice and pasta introduced by an Armenian family, or a Hamburger or Hot Dog, brought to America by German immigrants and appropriated as American food.
Of course the blending refers to more than food but I leave that part for another story. Here I’m concerned with cultural identity.
What is the first thing that immigrants look for when coming to America? Food of course, but not just any food, the food of their homeland, the food that their mothers made, the tastes of home. This association makes us feel less foreign and more accepted. It’s the human need to belong. Food also makes us proud of our heritage. When a food we grew up with across the oceans makes its appearance in America, we feel a connection.
First sought after are the staples such as bread. When we first arrived in Dallas in 1965, the only breads available came in a plastic bag from the grocery store. While at first we were fascinated and intrigued, we quickly reverted to our desire for the freshly baked chewy and crusty bread of our past. Luckily we were not alone as many other immigrants had similar cravings. A few small bakeries appeared trying their hands at the art of bread baking. As demand grew fresh bread became available even in grocery stores While the best bread has only three ingredients: flour, water and salt, baking bread is one of the hardest processes to perfect. The variables are almost uncontrollable. The right oven temperature, the perfect blend and grind of flours, the humidity, the kneading and proofing are all steps where things could go wrong especially when baking in large batches. As many bakers who have tried can attest, baking bread is a trade, baking good bread is an art form. Although today bread is widely available, the art of baking has become illusive. To cover up for inadequacies bakeries have resorted to flavorings and additions. Cheese breads, olive breads, fruit and nut breads while all enticing and acceptable are far removed from the simplicity of the original. They have sadly become complete meals or desserts.

When a French style bakery entered the arena claiming that they imported an authentic brick oven and secret recipes we were very exited. While better than previous selections, it still did not live up to our expectations. Oh yes, expectation: that illusive something based in memory. That was the missing ingredient and one that could not be filled. No imported brick oven or secret recipe would live up to nostalgia. It was not only about the bread, but the aroma permeating the air as we approached the bakery, a shabby little hole in the wall where the baker and his wife had been up for hours lovingly practicing their art form, where you were recognized and greeted by name, where you didn’t have to point out that you preferred a darker loaf and where your business was appreciated. Immigrants trying to duplicate that feeling of home bring with them the foods of their ancestors and thus enrich our lives with the one connection we humans have to one another that causes minimal friction: food.

Bread

Bread (Photo credit: CeresB)friction: food.

Cultural Identities through Cookery continued…

English: Apicius, De Opsoniis et Condimentis (...

Recipe for (Rosh-Hashana) honey cake, out of a...

Title page of Pegge's 18th century edition of ...

Cookbooks or cookery books are so much more than collections of recipes. They are a mirror into peoples’ most intimate lives: the way they use food as nourishment of both body and soul. Cookbooks also reflect a society’s economic condition, its dietary restrictions governed by religion and even political and racial attitudes. For many women cookbooks served as a diary where favorite recipes were recorded next to the growth charts of children; where teardrops fell over personal losses; where simple additions reflected the meager balances in old tin cans; where prayers for better days competed with thanks for past rewards.

Crude recordings of recipes have been discovered in ancient caves and old egyptian and greek text. The personal nature of nourishment is also reflected through the ages in historical writings and in fiction. Ancient manuscripts and uncovered writings across the globe show that cookbooks were treasured by women and passed down lovingly to daughters. Inside the pages of these well worn diaries rested their secret hopes and expectations as well as their quiet rebellion.

In many of the handwritten cookbooks and later even the commercially published ones, recipes for food were complimented with recipes for medicinal cures and pomades. This was a natural compilations of products which shared the same source materials. Observations of the effects of certain herbs or roots on the body’s wellbeing led to the creation of special concoctions. Nourishing and healing went hand in hand and the most immediate remedies were found in the kitchen.

My most treasured cookbook belonged to my grandmother Dora. It is well worn with personal additions or comments covering every page. Written in Hungarian more than a century ago, it reflects the excesses of the Hapsburg kitchen. Most recipes are not practical for today’s fast paced life, nor would they please our palate, however the lists of required ingredients such as game, fattened geese and pigs, offer a peak into the economic status of the elite. These cookbooks were used to instruct the staff and rarely did my grandmother do more than taste and approve. Even as she liked being in the kitchen, it was to supervise and direct the chopping, peeling, boiling or frying of ingredients. In later years as times changed  she would become more hands on an when scarcity during the wars became an issue, her creativity is reflected in the substitution of ingredients penciled on the side of a recipe.

For me, reading old cookbooks serves as a journey into a not so distant past when women spent their lives in the kitchen, mostly out of necessity. I cook because we have to eat and it relaxes me, but I also do it as an act of homage to all those women who came before me. Today we argue about the insensitivity and discrimination that kept women at home and yes, I am a child of the sixties, a time of liberation, but I believe that the ability to create healthy home cooked meals is a great loss to our society. A family gathered around the table sharing in the fruit of their labor as well as in their daily intrepidations, is a happy family.