I’ve been remiss lately about updating my “books” section of the blog, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading! Despite the busy schedule, I usually read at least a few pages at lunchtime and then again at night before bed. I recently devoured Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton (it took me all of 2 days to plow through that) and was wondering what to start next, when I got an email from Cheryl Tan, author of the cooking memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen. She’s going to be doing a book event at Leopold’s in Detroit this Saturday, August 13th at 7pm and wondered if I might be able to help spread the word. Consider it spread!
After reading Cheryl Tan’s memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen, I would venture to say that no one would be more surprised at the turn of events in the author’s life as Tan’s own girlhood or teenage self, if such a thing were possible. Born under the fierce and headstrong sign of the Tiger, she grew up in Singapore, moving to the States after high school to attend college and build a career as a journalist. As a child, she was pushed to achieve academically, but was never expected to learn “womanly” tasks such a cleaning and cooking- there were maids for that. Her paternal grandmother, however, was a powerhouse in the kitchen, not only doing the family’s daily cooking while she was alive, but churning out tarts and dumplings by the hundreds during holidays and festivals. The family recognized that Tanglin ah-ma (Tan’s nickname for her grandmother) was a great cook, but it was also taken for granted, and Tan simply didn’t possess any curiosity at the time for anything taking place in the kitchen.
Tan makes sure to emphasize the difference between an interest in cooking (or lack thereof) and an interest in food. Somewhat ironically, she echoes Calvin Trillin’s characterization of Singapore as “the most food-obsessed nation on earth”- in one passage, she tells how she’d visit the computer lab late at night in college to go online just to look at photographs of Singaporean food (surely one of the earliest instances of online food porn!) because she missed it so much. But it didn’t occur to her for several more years that she might actually be able to learn to create the food she so desperately craved.
Tan’s culinary exploits started slowly and humbly, with meatloaf and other dishes “built on the salty shoulders of a can of Campbell’s soup”, and evolving through her twenties as she met her husband-to-be and they began cooking together. She developed a fondness for baking, which she found calmed her after particularly harried days at work. 2008 brought about a turning point- her job was becoming increasingly unbearable, and stress-related health issues were signaling to her that she needed a change. She decided that she would spend a year traveling back and forth between the US and Singapore, spending time with her Aunties and learning to make her grandmother’s recipes. Her grandmother had passed away when Tan was a child, but fortunately, her father’s sister-in-law had spent years cooking with Tanglin ah-ma and knew how to produce all of the key dishes the family had grown up with.
Tan’s journey is an enjoyable one to tag along with, as we follow her from tentative observer to capable cook able to serve her family a multi-course meal (the ambitiousness of which would have sent even the most experienced cooks into a panic). In the beginning, she insists on measurements for everything, which her aunts laugh off: “Just agak-agak“, they insist, a phrase that roughly translates as “guesstimate” or “adjust as you go”. As someone who has observed and taken notes of my future mother-in-law making her Puerto Rican rice without measuring anything, this scene made me chuckle with recognition.
Although Tan displays the characteristic cockiness of an oldest child at times (and a Tiger at that), she also doesn’t hesitate to portray herself in a sometimes unflattering light. She admits that anything still resembling the animal it came from makes her squeamish, and confesses that she messed up a batch of dumplings for being too stingy with the filling. The pressure she felt as a child to achieve is ever-present, as her family are all harsh judges of food and don’t hesitate to let her know when her efforts are “sub-par”. Still, she is willing to put herself on the line by exposing herself to their critiques for the sake of learning.
The book is a great read not only for food lovers, but for anyone interested in Singaporean and Chinese culture. Through Tan’s stories of her childhood and her interactions with her parents and older family members, we glimpse the chasm between the older generation and the new, the cultural gap between Singapore and mainland China, and the struggles of being a modern, Westernized woman in a culture that has contradictory expectations for women (Tan’s parents push her to succeed in her career, while her aunts all nag her about having babies!).
One of the things that struck me most about the book is exactly how much it can take to overcome the notion that one “can’t” cook, or the fact that it never occurs to many people to even try to learn. If it takes a major cathartic event for someone who grew up eating amazing home cooked food to want to learn, what will it take for the average American? How do we get the average person back in the kitchen, so that narratives like Cheryl Tan’s are the norm rather than the exception? I hope to be able to get her thoughts on this and other questions at her book event this weekend- hope you in the Detroit area can make it!
Disclosure: I received a copy of A Tiger in the Kitchen from the publisher for review purposes.
The year after I graduated college, I spent a year working and traveling in France. It was an adventure for a girl who had grown up in suburban Michigan, and although I had traveled fairly extensively in Europe in college, living somewhere and learning how to fit in to another culture on a daily basis was nonetheless a challenge. However, France is one thing; China is quite another. I envy and greatly admire someone like Fuchsia Dunlop, who in her early twenties decided to attend a school for foreigners in China in order to learn Chinese and study the culture. Not only did she choose China for her adventure abroad- she chose Chengdu, in Sichuan province, a mid-sized provincial capital where the sight of foreigners still provoked stares and finger-pointing. Not initially having any intention of a career in food, Dunlop found herself seduced by the intense allure of Chinese cuisine, and has since made it her life’s work to learn about it and instruct others. She takes us on her journey in her fascinating memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.
The memoir chronicles several of Dunlop’s visits to China, both as a student and to research her cookbooks (Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking; Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province), but it’s that first year that really makes an impression, as Dunlop experiences many foods and flavors for the first time. In one memorable passage, she recounts her first taste of stir-fried rabbit heads, a dish she had once avoided but eventually succumbed to in a late-night, post-drinking attack of the munchies. She rapturously describes the creaminess of the brains; the silkiness of the cheek. Equally evocative are the descriptions of humble noodle dishes enlivened with scallions, ginger, and the zing of chilies and the famous Sichuan peppercorns. Every day provides opportunities for discovery, and Dunlop is not shy about diving in headfirst. She makes friends with street vendors and other locals, fully taking advantage of her surroundings where many Westerners would languish and bemoan the lack of “normal” food.
In addition to the vicarious thrill of reading about the inevitable exotic fare, the book also reveals a great deal about the Chinese culture, their relationship to food, and their relationship to foreigners. In the cooking school Dunlop attends, her curiosity and hunger to learn drive her forward in spite of the outright scorn and derision of her classmates, both for being foreign and female. However, she manages to find a few kindred spirits, including a would-be pick-up artist who takes her under his wing and teaches her authentic Sichuan home cooking.
The Chinese attitude to food and cooking is equally as fascinating as the dishes Dunlop learns at cooking school. Cooking is looked down upon as a menial task, regardless of the complexity of many dishes. Recipes are closely and jealously guarded by chefs, and many have been lost to the ages because a chef refused to share his secrets with the next generation. The years of famine have created a culture of extreme excess and wastefulness, where it is commonplace at a banquet or other large dinner to throw away three times as much food as what is consumed. Middle and upper class appetites for a more meat-heavy diet are exhausting the environment, while peasants in the Chinese countryside still subsist on simple diets with very little meat. In one chapter, Dunlop suffers a crisis of conscience when treated to an extravagant dinner with Communist leaders in a poor provincial town, but fears angering them by refusing their generosity.
I don’t think I can overemphasize the impact this book had on me in terms of rethinking what we (i.e. Westerners) consider edible, and the attitudes towards a living thing becoming food. In China, the boundaries are fuzzy at best. Pretty much anything that moves is fair game; no distinctions are made for creatures considered “cute” or “lovable”. Where we would look at an animal and possibly see a creature with a soul, a Chinese person might simply see a potential meal. Dunlop describes it thus:
Culture shock hit me hardest when I was invited to lunch by a motherly middle-aged woman in her special rabbit restaurant, not long after I had arrived in Chengdu. ‘Come into the kitchen and watch,’ she urged me. When we entered, the main ingredient for our stew was sitting sweetly in the corner of the room, nibbling lettuce. The following is an extract from my diary, written in the kitchen that day as I watched:
Death of a Rabbit
Hit rabbit over the head to stun it.
Hang up by foot.
Slit its throat.
Immediately peel off skin.
Chop brutally into small pieces with a cleaver.
From live rabbit to dish on table in less than 10 minutes. (pp. 49-50)
The above incident perfectly illustrates Dunlop’s observation that “They didn’t kill animals before they cooked and ate them. They simply went about the process of preparing a creature for the pot and table, and at some random point it died.” (p. 49; italics mine).
Rabbit may not be that far out for many adventurous Western eaters, but Dunlop ventures much farther afield, sampling various types of offal, dogs, rats, insects, etc. At the end of the book, there is a moment of truth of sorts when, back in England, she finds that her perspective on what is edible or desirable to eat has irrevocably shifted. In the months since I have read this book, it’s a subject that continues to surface from my subconscious from time to time. I don’t know if I’ll ever be intrepid enough to try some of the delicacies which become familiar flavors to Dunlop, but I am inspired to push the limits of my comfort zone and expand my palate and my mind. If I took anything from this book, it’s that taste is one hundred percent a matter of cultural perception, and completely malleable under the right circumstances.
It’s always a happy occurrence to come across a book that covers overlapping topics of interest to me- in this case, wine and France, and more specifically, malbec (a favorite grape of mine) and southwestern France (where I lived for a year). I’m not quite sure why Families of the Vine sat on my shelf unread for as long as it did- it came out in 2006- but I’m very glad I finally got to it. Reading it was a little bittersweet, as I regretted not having visited any of these vineyards when I last was in France, but I now have an itinerary for my next visit!
Over the course of two years, Michael Sanders (author of From Here, You Can’t See Paris, about a French village restaurant and also on my reading list) spent time with three winemaking families in the Lot valley near Cahors, the city which lends its name to the wine’s appellation. In Families of the Vine, we are introduced to Yves & Martine Jouffreau-Hermann of Clos de Gamot, a vineyard dating from 1610 and whose signature wine is considered the quintessential expression of red Cahors; Jean-Luc Baldès of Clos Triguedina, the prodigal son who returned to the family vineyard after studying in Bordeaux; and Philippe Bernède of Clos la Coutale, who favors fast cars and producing a more international (read: softer, fruitier) style of red wine.
Le vin de Cahors has, in recent centuries at least, always played second fiddle to its cousins from Bordeaux and Burgundy. Sanders gives a bit of history explaining that due to geography and political power, Bordeaux gained the upper hand that it still enjoys to this day, in spite of the fact that the “black wine of Cahors” was once preferred by the English over the lighter claret (the Brits’ name for Bordeaux). Cahors wine, by law a minimum of 70% malbec with merlot and tannat making up the remainder, received appellation status in 1971 thanks to native son Georges Pompidou.
The book takes place in 2002 and 2003, with Sanders writing about the 2003 growing season and the 2002 vinification process, in that order. The 2003 growing season was unusually hot and dry, causing much stress on the part of the winemakers. In some cases, hot dry weather can be a boon to the grapes, but in this case it wreaked havoc on them, causing the winemakers to have yields that were 50% or less of their normal harvest. Coincidentally, I was visiting France at the exact time of the harvest Sanders writes about, and I well remember la canicule- the devastating heat wave in which hundreds of elderly people across France died.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the book for me was reading about vinification, and the struggle between old and new ideas among France’s winemakers. This is a subject that has been on my mind lately, as some of my more wine-savvy friends have been talking about natural wine and what it means. The crux of the problem is that, although in an ideal world many French winemakers would love to make a more traditional product, the market demands wines that can be consumed just a few years after being bottled. Many winemakers simply don’t have the resources to cellar the wine for the requisite time, which requires not only the space to do so, but the capital to be able to tie up their money for years on end. Some, like Bernède, are embracing the more fruit-forward, “Parkerized” styles of wine, which are easier to sell internationally and don’t require as much investment. Others, like the Jouffreau family and Jean-Luc Baldès, are trying to hang on to the more traditional style of Cahors wine, which typically requires at least 10 years in the bottle to reach its full potential. Yves Jouffreau-Hermann has even gone to the extreme of planting a difficult hillside vineyard, Clos St-Jean, whose grapes he hopes will yield a truly outstanding wine in years to come.
The main thing I am taking away from this book (apart from a burning desire to return to southwestern France to sample some of the wines of the region) is the importance of supporting producers who are dedicated to making quality wine in the traditional manner, even if it means sacrificing easier profits. Like any artisanal tradition, when these winemakers are forced to cut corners to survive, we will all suffer for the lack of variety and quality. I admit that until now, I have never cellared any wines, instead just buying them as I needed them. But after reading the personal stories of these families and how much work they do for relatively little profit, I think it’s time to start endorsing that by choosing more “challenging” wines; wines that require a bit of commitment.
The only thing this book sorely lacks is a map showing the region and locations of the vineyards and châteaux, but other than that, it’s a wonderful introduction to anyone unfamiliar with winemaking, and a great resource for anyone interested in Cahors wine or the lives and struggles of the people behind the grapes.
Note: The photographs from this post were borrowed from the internet. Clicking on the photos will take you to the websites where they were found.
Although signs of spring are finally here, it was somewhat cold and gloomy the past couple weeks. Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India was just the book to transport me to balmier climes as I read about Madhur Jaffrey‘s rather idyllic childhood in Delhi in the 1940s. I bought this book a while ago when it first came out in paperback, but with my backlog of must-read books, it took me a while to get to it. However, I’ve been on somewhat of an Indian food kick lately, so, to the top of the pile it rose.
The book was a wonderful example of the memoir-with-emphasis-on-food genre. The stories flowed naturally, and the mentions of food were neither stilted nor overly sentimental. The daily routine in her household compound included meals with 50+ people at a time- parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and the patriarchal paternal grandfather (Babaji) at the helm of it all. In the Indian tradition, adult children (i.e. the male sons and their families) were practically required to live under the same roof as the grandfather, so Jaffrey grew up with dozens of cousins to run around with. Even still, she describes feeling lonely at the center of all that familial chaos. Jaffrey was a bit of a tomboy, but also portrays herself as a “sensitive soul”, which would probably explain her getting into acting in her teens (Jaffrey had a career in film and television before becoming a world-renowned cookbook author).
The family must have been wealthy by Indian standards, as the daily meals described sound like nothing short of a feast. Prepared by servants, with the women of the house contributing some dishes, the meals typically contained several courses, accompanied by an array of chutneys and freshly prepared flatbreads such as parathas and pooris. Dinners were preceded by what the French call l’apéro: drinks and light snacks such as nuts. Eventually, upon Babaji’s cue, the clan would proceed to the dining table, which was so long that you could barely see who was at the other end. The gatherings would continue on into the evening, sometimes with a musical performance or poetry reading, ending only when Babaji was sated.
Jaffrey grew up during a fascinating time in Indian history. The book is set against the backdrop of British colonial rule, the rise of Gandhi and the strife of Independence and Partition. Jaffrey’s family was fortunate to survive that tumultuous period relatively unscathed, but she wistfully describes how the changes affected her young life, such as the fact that most of her Muslim school friends were forced to leave Delhi. In spite of the many unsettling and disruptive aspects of Partition, Jaffrey strikes a positive chord describing all the new foods that that were introduced to Delhi as a result of the migrations of groups from other parts of India. Jaffrey describes the “exotic” foods shared with her by classmates of different religious and ethnic backgrounds- Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, etc. Of course, their food always seemed more appealing than what she had brought in her own lunch box! The popular Delhi restaurant Moti Mahal opened during this time period as well, introducing many of the foods that would become Indian restaurant staples in the U.S.
At the end of the book is a section of family recipes. I made Tahiri (rice & peas) from this book, as well as Aloo Gosht (Meat & Potato Curry) and Kale in Mustard Oil from two of Jaffrey’s other cookbooks. All were absolutely delicious- follow the link above for my post on the Aloo Gosht.
Do you like to read? Eat? Laugh out loud, forcing your beverage of choice through your nose? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions (you talk to your computer screen? weirdo…) and if you have not yet read any of Calvin Trillin’s food essays, get thee promptly to a bookstore or library.
I only wish I had encountered Trillin’s food writing earlier- I feel a retrospective bereavement for all those years I was missing out on it. I had heard of Trillin from working at the bookstore (his Obliviously On He Sails, a poem about the Bush administration, and About Alice were both pretty good sellers for us), but for whatever reason, his food books did not get ordered. I was at the library a few weeks ago browsing the Food/Cookbooks section as I am wont to do, when I came across Feeding a Yen and decided to give it a try.
The common thread in this volume of essays is Trillin’s “Register of Frustration and Deprivation”- a list of food items whose authentic incarnations can only be found regionally, and for which the author pines nostalgically. Each chapter discusses an item on the list- Basque pimientos de Padron, Ecuadorian fanesca, Cajun boudin, and many more. Since the book’s concept strongly involves a sense of place, many of the essays have the element of great travel writing as well, which was a bonus for me.
One of the funniest essays, especially for anyone who is a regular consumer of “food information” online, was New Grub Street, which talked about Chowhound.com‘s self-proclaimed “Alpha Dog” Jim Leff and other New York food writers such as Robert Sietsema (check out his funny but somewhat snob-noxious blog post “Things We Hate: Overused Food Words” in the Village Voice). These writers are a rare breed in that their lives seem to revolve around a bizarre one-upmanship of who can find the best hidden food gems in New York. At one point in the essay, Leff talks about a restaurant that serves amba, an Iraqi mango hot sauce. He intones gravely to Trillin, “It’s not considered available. It’s extremely rare. This might be the rarest single food in town.” (p. 84). I was at Marvin’s house while reading this, and called out “Hey hon? That mango stuff you have in the fridge… is that called amba?” I felt more than a little amused (ok, smug) knowing that less than 15 feet away was an item considered by a New Yorker (the Chowhound Alpha Dog, no less) to be a such a rare and exotic foodstuff!
I am looking forward to checking out Trillin’s other food books- I love his dry wit, and his writing alone is enough to make me add foods to my own Register of Frustration & Deprivation that I haven’t even tried yet (I actually had a dream about pimientos de Padrón after reading that essay!). Alice, Let’s Eat looks like a good one…
Incidentally, Trillin’s book About Alice, a touching and humorous ode to his wife (who died of cancer in 2001), is a beautiful read to get you in the Valentine spirit, or to give as a Valentine’s gift. We listened to it on audiobook (read by Trillin himself) on the way down south and thoroughly enjoyed it.