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.

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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)

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.

Cultural Identities through Cookery continued…

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I don’t remember seeing any cookbooks in our house when I was growing up in Transylvania. Meals were assembled based on loosely memorized recipes adapted to the seasonal availability of product or traditional dishes we had enjoyed. Our kitchen was the center of activity where meal preparation took time and given the rudimentary appliances and tools, hard labor. We lived in perfect four seasons and the summer bounty had to be quickly eaten while the excess needed to be preserved. A large pantry held jarred tomatoes and peppers of every color, stuffed vegetables,red and green cabbage, beets and turnips along with pickles of every size. Jams and preserves had their special corner. Berries, stone fruit, rose petals, green walnuts and quince sat next to jars of peaches, apricots and my favorite, sour cherry. Onions and potatoes, staples of any Hungarian kitchen, were stored in the cellar, while sweet red peppers strung with straw were hanging everywhere. Pounded in a mortar they would become the indispensable Paprika of every dish. Aromas of all kinds filled the air as large pots simmered on the tiny stove.

While our backyard garden provided some produce and fruit, a weekly trip to the local farmer’s market was essential. I loved going, not so much for the food as for the colorful ribbons that the traveling Gypsy vendors sold along with trinkets I was not allowed to have. The bustling farmer’s market brought together local vendors as it had for thousands of years regardless of political border shifting.

Most summers though, my brother and I would get shipped off to my maternal grandparents’ house where the same ritual of food preparation took place. I remember a much larger garden and farmer’s market along with more freedom to explore. It is there that I dug for my first pink new potato, tasted tomatoes and sweet peas right off the vine and picked wild raspberries. It is also where I handed a Gypsy girl about my age a few coins for a handful of ribbons in a decorated wooden box.

A typical light summer meal would include a cold soup, perhaps cherry or potato, fresh bread spread with goat cheese and sprinkled with paprika and caraway seeds, sliced red radishes, scallions and mineral water.