The Blog

Bitter Lemons: The State of Cookbooks in an Uncivil World

Food writers are often a hungry, wistful lot, gazing about the world through muddy rose colored glasses that can only be rendered clean by a few hours over a hot stove.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Not to sound overly simplistic or anything, but I'm not sure what it is about conflict and personal trial that compels food writers of most stripes to beat a hasty retreat to their home kitchens.

Okay, fine. I lied.

I know what it is, and I'm sure you do, too, but it just sounds very pat and ever-so-slightly milquetoasted to actually say it, given the state of the world these days: it's the comfort thing -- the safety factor, the I-Want-My-Mommy feeling -- that made people like M.F.K. Fisher and Laurie Colwin and (even) Elizabeth David run screaming back to their respective lairs, sauté pan in hand, to cook up the stuff that made them feel good. When Joseph Wechsberg waxed rhapsodic about Demel's, he wasn't just giving them free advertising: sitting out the war on this side of the pond, he missed his family -- many of whom perished in the Holocaust -- and he missed his strudel in the same way that Proust missed his madeleine. And, bottom line, that's what this whole food writing -- and cooking, feeding, and eating -- business is really all about at the end of the day, isn't it? Lest we forget. it's about comfort: giving it, talking about it, and getting it through both the written word, and the food on the plate. But it's also, like it or not, about peace -- and it matters not one iota whether we're talking about Peace of Mind or Red Peace or Blue Peace or your own particular version of any of the above, so please, whoever you are, keep your ladles in your soup for just a minute.

Food writers are often a hungry, wistful lot gazing about the world through muddy rose colored glasses that can only be rendered clean by a few hours over a hot stove, a family photo album, or five or six years worth of any decent food magazine. But not all food writers are like this: there's that business of the multi-millionaire celebrity chef/cookbook author screaming BAM or YUMMO at an overwhelmingly corpulent audience whose idea of real food extends probably as far as the nearest McDonald's -- that's not comforting. Then there are those buxom Food Network babes who are paid six figure publishing advances for their witty tomes, but who also need hand doubles because they can't chop an onion without dismembering themselves -- that doesn't make me feel safe and cozy. Then there's that publicly televised flagellation-with-a-filleting-knife that takes place weekly in one famous chef/author's prefabricated restaurant kitchen-as-torture-chamber; I watch it sometimes because it's like a car crash. Like most people, I can't turn away from it -- human nature being what it is and all. There's also that talented cookbook author/host/chef/restaurateur on Top Chef, and the hosts of all those other gastro-masturbatory reality television shows that (peculiarly, given that food is all about sustenance) pit egomaniacal wannabees against each other in ways that would make Michael Vick proud.

The bottom line is that not one of these celebrity chefs or celebrity chef television shows (which spawn more celebrity chefs as well as an entire professional kitchen's worth of almost-rans) displays the slightest thimbleful of recognition that food is essential consolation for heart and soul as well as belly, and that, as a supposedly food-loving people, if we have any hope in hell of learning about empathy, history, and the inherent value in other cultures (regardless of politics or religion), we might as well start by talking about real food, keeping it in our civilization's lexicon, preparing it authentically, sharing it, and making damn sure it gets passed down to the next generation.

In the September 3rd and 10th 2007 issue of The New Yorker, journalist Jane Kramer took on the Syrian Jewish culinary force of nature, Claudia Roden, who has, over the years, traversed the globe in search of indigenous foods of many regions, most notably the Middle East; crusty, notoriously resolute, deeply academic in her approach, and unwaveringly inflexible in her dedication to traditional food of cultural significance, Roden grew up a secular Sephardic Jew in cosmopolitan Egypt at a time of great and earnest bonhomie among Jewish and Muslim segments of the population. Settling in London after Nasser expelled the Jews from his country, Roden grasped at straws to keep alive that world she'd left (although she claims that it was because she didn't have much else to do at the time; I don't believe her), and she did it through food and the inevitable story telling that goes along with it. But whatever Roden claims, her gastro-genetic memory is somehow still steeped in bowls of the melokhia that will jettison her back to what oddly (given her family's eventual expulsion) was a kindler, gentler point in her life; she never -- at least not publicly -- talks about loathing her non-Jewish neighbors around whom she grew up and enjoyed her young life. Rather, she looks to them as part of the fabric that made up a vibrant Levantine gastronomic society that was decidedly the same, regardless of whether one was Jewish or Muslim. She might not admit it, but the food that she eats is a direct, soul-saving link to a time that now appears (certainly as of the last news report coming out of the Middle East) lost forever. This, as food writing goes, is the real thing, devoid of ego and pomp and instead, functioning as a mouthwatering snapshot of personal and historical experience, and rife with cultural empathy.

So this is what I want: the real thing -- the real food writers and the storytellers and the home chefs who may or may not have spent any time in a professional kitchen. When the going gets tough, I want to read the people who've actually weathered some modicum of Life, cap L, and found their way through it with food as their torch. Not to sound sadistic in any way, but I take comfort in knowing that Nigella Lawson's tendency towards the creation of deeply soothing dishes comes not only from an innate British ability to produce them well, but likely also from the immense and earth-shattering personal storms she's weathered; I don't read -- or watch -- her because she's a total babe (which, of course, she is). I find that her food and writing wraps itself protectively around the reader and the eater in the same way that it likely envelops and protects her children, and there is something distinctly, unwaveringly human about that, in this most inhuman and wildly uncivil time in which we live. Elizabeth David, writing in battle weary England of the 1950s, reached back to what must have been a deeply sensual wartime experience lifted straight out of the pages of The English Patient (like Kristen Scott Thomas, David was a serious looker in her time, but I digress); that corporeal and gustatory heat -- the flavor of the desert, the lemons, the olive oil, the rosewater -- was lost on David's return to Britain, until she recreated it as an edible tether to a different sort of life not only for herself, but for the tired British people, changing their palates forever and doubtless giving birth to the Jamie Olivers and Rose Grays and Nigel Slaters of the world. David's recipes are quite idiosyncratic and she was reputed to be prickly as a cactus, but she was very definitely the real thing.

I'll take Laurie Colwin, who, during the 1960s, fed tuna sandwiches to the vast and hungry multitudes at Columbia University's sit-ins and office takeovers, and who lived in a Greenwich Village apartment so small that she was forced to wash arugula in her bathtub, all to cook her family's handed-down recipes for the people she loved. I like knowing, too, that Jacques Pepin still toasts his bread, slathered with the Fromage Fort of his Lyonnaise youth, directly under a flame, the way his mother did when she used up every edible anything in the darker days of the war; rather than consider it cuisine economique, he talks about it as food of his heart. Give me Suvir Saran, who, in his 30s, grows misty at the glories of his auntie's Indian kitchen and becomes visibly moved when speaking of the women of his childhood who soothed not only his belly, but his soul; talk to me about Andrea Nguyen, whose mother, when Saigon fell in 1975, escaped with her life and an invaluable sheaf of family recipes that would be a vital connection to another, better place when, perhaps, the family was together, and at peace.

So, at a time when publishers are putting out fewer and fewer cookbooks because they'll only take a chance on celebrity chef "bobbleheads" (as Anthony Bourdain calls them), we are now, simultaneously at a point -- culturally, socially, and historically -- when, as food loving people, we must have real culinary chroniclers of life or we will risk forgetting (to twist a Brillat-Savarin dictum) who we are, and where we came from; we desperately need the words of the learned home cooks and writers with vital connections to Real Life in all its history, pain, glory, and survival, in order to remember that what we eat and the way we eat it, at its best, is not only a construct of physical need, but also of civility, peace, and cultural empathy.