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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Like it never left…inspiration knocked on my door this morning. Continue the story of your culinary life, it said. So after a few months away, I pick up at the moment when I met my husband, when two cultures collided in food and love. I was oh so young, naive and vulnerable, an immigrant barely familiar with my new country, searching for identity in a land too vast to provide comfort. My first tries at assimilation turned disastrous and I was hungry for acceptance. It would come from outside this land, from someone who felt just as strange and unwelcomed.
He was here temporarily on a student visa with every intention of returning to his native country upon graduation. We met at an Italian restaurant where we both worked and forty years later as they say, the rest is history.
There’s a lot to write about when it comes to our heated and tumultuous years together but here I’m going to focus on the most pleasant of memories, those involving food.
As all immigrants will attest, the very first thing we look for when in a foreign country is a food we can identify with, one that reminds us of home, Mom and that special feeling of comfort that comes with memories left behind. Sure we marvel at all the new and interesting selections at the supermarket, but we gravitate towards the sections that import those familiar items that we yearn for.
In those early days of the 1970’s, Dallas was an isolated outpost where imported food was as rare as the foreigners searching for it. I’m not talking about ready to eat meals, no we were willing to prepare fact similes of our memories in our kitchens, what we were missing were the ingredients, the spices, the perfect vegetables, fruits, lentils and mostly the exact recipes. We would create feasts from the combined trials of tastes which would satisfy our palates and provide a smidgen of satisfaction.
I already had a repertoire of Transylvanian recipes for which I had my mother to consult and which went through a transformation over the few years that I had already resided in Dallas. With my new romantic affair came a whole world of exotic aromas of far away lands, of steaming platters of saffron rice, of stews made with delectable herbs and spices, of salads sprinkled with freshly chopped mint and hot tea sipped slowly with crystalized sugar pebbles. I was not only in love with the bearer of such treats but with everything he represented. A journey had begun and with it, a life of indescribable appreciation for food, it’s history and cultural connection.
My first experiment went terribly wrong. I found a Persian cookbook and decided to try a recipe which seemed easy enough as all the ingredients were available: lamb and carrot stew served with steamed rice. Just like in every other country, regional cooking differs widely and my husband was from the southern part where this dish was not popular. It was tasty enough but not familiar to either one of us.
Luckily a wonderful cook arrived in the shape of a sister in law who happily shared the tricks of the trade. From her I learned the delicate touch needed to prepare the perfect rice, the restraint when adding spices and the balance between hot and cold foods, an ancient observance westerners would benefit from.
Thus began my journey into one of the world’s oldest and most delectable cuisines. Slowly simmered meats were joined by eggplant and yellow split peas resulting in dishes which paired with rice made for satisfying meals I couldn’t get enough of. In addition, the hot coals of our grill provided the heat for best kabobs ever.

Not unlike other Americanized foods, my collection of recipes experienced the transformation necessary given availability of ingredients, dietary changes and time. Long simmering and labor intensive dishes gave way to easier to prepare versions which became standards. I reduced fat content, used lighter meats or eliminated them completely. Today, those old recipes have become completely vegan and not less satisfying for the transformation.

Perfectly Easy Rice
Fry 2 cups of rice for a few minutes, I like short grain brown, mixed with 1/2 cup of lentils, in 3-4 tbsp. of grape seed oil. Season with salt and pepper and 1 tsp of turmeric. Add 4 cups of water mixed with vegetable broth and 3-4 tsp of dry dill weed. Simmer on medium for about 20 minutes till liquid is absorbed and rice is just under cooked. Cover with a lid wrapped in paper towels, and steam on low for about 20 more minutes.

Stewed Eggplant with Mushrooms
In a large pot, fry one chopped onion in a couple of spoons of oil till golden. Season with salt, pepper and 1 tbsp curry powder. Add a couple of cups of cubed eggplants and continue browning and stirring for 10 minutes. Add a can of crushed tomatoes and cook on low for 15 minutes. Add 2 cups of chopped mushrooms, re-season and cook 5 more minutes.

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.