All posts filed under “Books of the Cook

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“Kitchen” Spice Mix

It may seem ridiculously obvious that during the potato famine, the Irish ate a lot of potatoes. But did you know that’s literally all they ate? Although their meager diet was occasionally supplemented with some herring or an oat cake or two, for the most part, all the Irish ate was potatoes. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, 6 to 8 pounds a day. In order to create a little variety in their diet, the thrifty Irish added some “kitchen” to the potatoes, using any flavorful morsel they could find to improve the meal. A little bit of black pepper, some salted fish, foraged shellfish and seaweed, it was all used to “kitchen” the potatoes.

I learned this gem of culinary history from the book 97 Orchard, a thoroughly enjoyable look at the food habits of five different cultures living in the tenements of New York City. Now that I’m back in New York, I’ve started the food book club back up, and 97 Orchard was February’s pick. The book has many fascinating tidbits—so many that I am planning to read it a second time to catch the ones I originally missed—but one of my favorites was the idea of adding some “kitchen” to a dish. Read More

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Oma & Bella

Oma and Bella

The Dialogue Book Club took off this month (as the actual brick-and-mortar closed up shop in April and the team is re-focusing energies on events in Berlin and e-publishing) so I thought I’d share instead a book that I’ve been particularity smitten with lately. I came across Oma & Bella a few months ago, a heart-warming story of two grandmothers, Polish-born Oma and Lithuanian Bella, who survived the Holocaust’s concentration camps and keep each other company today living together in Berlin. Oma’s granddaughter, Alexa Karolinski, filmed their day-to-day life, much of which revolves around food; the intimate story shows simple scenes of shopping at the market, cleaning produce in their night robes, checking on roasting stews in the late hours, enjoying Berlin’s sunny summer sipping Berliner Weiße, preparing for a dinner party, relaxing after a long day with a snack. Most of the film takes place in the kitchen and the food leaps off the screen—you can almost taste the soup, you want to nibble on the cookies. These woman live and breathe cooking, it’s what keeps them going, all day, every day.

After seeing this dedication to cuisine, I couldn’t wait to get the accompanying cookbook and went to three Berlin stores until I stumbled on it at the wonderful culinary outpost Goldhahn und Sampson. Everyone else can order it here (and I think it would make quite the gift, perhaps for upcoming Mother’s Day). The book is a charming little collection of recipes and illustrations, in both German and English, highlighting traditional Eastern European and Jewish dishes including chopped liver, matzah balls, potato kugel, and gefillte fish. Reading through this simple book is like chatting with an old friend—“the food, at its most fundamental, is made for the pleasure of eating. It represents all of the love and warmth that a grandmother has for her family.” The words could not be more mine if I had written them myself. The recipes are straightforward, and most only call for a few basic pantry ingredients, but they are written with love.

Oma and Bella

Written by Alexa, the cookbook is an attempt to preserve the food her family grew up with and the memories of these women. I am constantly surprised when I meet someone who is disoriented by the concept of cooking without a recipe, cooking only with what you have, cooking by taste. This is the way that Oma and Bella cook; after years of cooking for their families, their recipes are not specific but are second nature. As Alexa explains it, in order to translate that free-nature way of cooking into a methodology for the cookbook, she spent years cooking with the grandmothers, translating the “handfuls into half cups, the pinches into teaspoons.” I believe anyone that reads a book like this, that comes first from a place where cooking is rooted in second nature, will be more adapt at that kind of cooking.

The book is also full of kind words of wisdom that only can come from grandmothers. On fashion: “Have an outfit for cooking, preferable a fantastic one.” Health advice: “There’s no sickness that can’t be healed by food.” On cooking: “Measuring all this is a bad idea, you have to feel it.” It’s really hard to look at a picture of these sweet women and not smile, not feel warm inside, as if these lovely ladies are your grandmothers. Clearly, as I mentioned, I am smitten. Perhaps because I never really had a chance to cook with my own grandmothers.

Oma and Bella

Although quite simple, this is a touching book and documentary, both of which I thoroughly recommend, (you can easily stream the film at home), especially if you’ve been as intrigued as I have about the historical and culinary aspects of our life in Berlin.

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Stuffed and Starved

stuffed and starved Raj Patel

I’ve been meeting with a lot of people in Berlin, getting to know other journalists and food-focused friends-of-friends as I find my way here. A few weeks ago I had coffee with a photographer and videographer who spends his time working on documentaries and heading up an NGO focused on education outreach. When the topic turned to me, writing about new restaurants, decadent meals, and exciting ingredients seemed a little trivial, especially in context of the larger picture.

While I do feel that the stories of chefs, producers, food culture, and time-honored recipes are important, Raj Patel shows the other importance of food writing in his book Stuffed and Starved, the second I’ve read for Dialogue’s book club. Patel, a journalist, activist and academic, discusses the politics and economics of the global food system as well as its influences on sustainability, poverty, and communities at the root of food production.

Stuffed and Starved takes a hard look at the disparity in the food system in a clear and fluid way, helping to make the statistics and facts Patel presents digestible. I can’t say that this is an easy book to read, but I do think it is a great introduction to these very important topics and worth digging into.

I’ve become more and more aware of the effects of agriculture on the environment, and know the difference in taste between small farm produce and commodity crops. While these topics are covered in the book, I think the most eye opening is Patel’s explanation on the human cost of food production and the inequality in the food system. Whether it’s Ugandan farmers being paid pennies for coffee beans that earn mass conglomerates multitudes more; Mexico’s agricultural economy, which has suffered severely as a result of NAFTA and the importation of low cost, subsidized products; or a slew of farmer suicides everywhere from China to the U.S., Patel shows that the global food system can be extremely costly.

When thinking about these heavy topics, a first thought might be that changing shopping habits in order to support ethical and sustainable systems can be too costly. When searching the shelves of mega-grocery stores with their array of inexpensive, mass produced goods, organic and Fair Trade is always more expensive. But when you think about that added price going towards the people who produced the products, the choice seems like a no brainer. No one wants to work for less then they deserve, and yet people around the world do just that in order to produce food for our tables.

We were luckily enough to have Patel join in on our book club meeting (via Skype). He was extremely charismatic and deeply passionate about the topics, talking about these serious issues in a conversational way that drew you in. After his call, the group discussed the book, and our personal reactions to it, a little more in depth. It was so great to hear from the author firsthand, and to also speak with this group in Berlin—expats from all over the world and Germans—to see how this information sits on the mind. Although change is difficult, both in our personal choices and on the global level, understanding the who’s, what’s, and why’s of our food helps make those decisions all the more clear. For someone interested in looking at the serious affects of the global food system, I thoroughly recommend this book.