Great Books: Eat Up, by Ruby Tandoh

Ruby Tandoh is great. Ever since she was catapulted to food fame by her appearance on The Great British Bake-Off, I have been gleefully following her. Her recipes are straightforward and delicious, she is unapologetically queer and nerdy, and she celebrates food for what it is! Reading her writing or hearing her talk feels like one of my friends sitting on my famous metal mesh chair, holding a glass of wine and telling you that yes, fancy hazelnut porridge and Cream of Wheat with Raisinets are both great. (Confession: the second one is something I have eaten more than once.) So I was thrilled to finally read her new book, Eat Up.

cover of Ruby Tandoh's "Eat Up"

It was so good.

Eat Up is a manifesto, but it does not tell you what or how to eat. Instead, it tells you how to live ethically with food. Tandoh walks you through all the ways you relate to food: as sustenance, as a vehicle for emotions, as a vehicle for politics, and as something that engages all the senses. Sometimes, the book is political, arguing against fatphobia, ableism, classism, or racism as made manifest through food. Sometimes, the book is meditative, asking you to savor whatever it is that you are eating. And sometimes, it is a food memoir, and that is where the writing is best. I laughed as I read of Tandoh seeking her Ghanaian great-aunt’s groundnut soup recipe, and grimaced right alongside her as she ate eels by the seashore. Most of all, though, this book is a response to the same authenticity-obsessed, elitist, snotty food world that irritates me.

Tandoh makes short shrift of the cute world of the food movement, the tyrannical one of the diet industry, and all the ways status is disguised by concern. There are many books that talk about the sugar lobby and the corn lobby. One of Tandoh’s strongest points is when she points out how, contrary to a lot of scientific evidence, a diet lobby also exists. The world of health foods and weight loss plans is not just about fake concern, but a multibillion dollar industry. It just happens to be an industry supported by the elite. Tandoh’s point regarding this is pretty unusual in the food world, and it is welcome. She also skewers the food movement, pointing out how unrealistic the locavore, artisan world it promotes is for so many. Some of this is direct – but some of it is simply honoring the food that the food movement often ignores. Tandoh might sing the praises of home-baked cake, but you will find love for cheap tea, Wotsits, and Burger King here too. Above all, Tandoh has little patience for the fake concern of much of the food world. People in the food world, she rightly points out, are not actually concerned about your weight or your tastes or your exposure to something. They often just enjoy the power and making fun of you. And Tandoh proposes resisting that temptation – and eating while we do it. After all, we need to eat to be strong.

Like me, Tandoh traces an emotional world through food. Recipes interspersed throughout the book seek to summon up a feeling – of joy, of ease, or of comfort. More than that, she talks about the meanings of food, and how different foods are needed at different times. She also discusses, effortlessly, the distance between what is socially “acceptable” to eat and what we actually crave – and how the latter is sometimes more helpful than the former. Many food books tell you not to eat Kit-Kats. Tandoh reminds you that, of course, it is okay to have one – and that your attachment to them is not a bad thing. This is the book’s strongest point: that food and emotion does not always go in a specific marketable, status-oriented direction.

The book can get repetitive at points, and sometimes a bit wordy. Tandoh herself jokes about this as a former philosophy student. I also think the recipes may be a bit hard for some people to follow, since they are written in a highly narrative style. That said, the book is still incredible as a resource and as a way to think about food. Tandoh is young, and Tandoh is bursting with ideas, and I think this is going to be the first of many incredible books about food. You should absolutely read Eat Up, so that you can join me in eagerly waiting for more.

Eat Up, by Ruby Tandoh

A note: I may also going to write a Jewish commentary on Eat Up after this.

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Great Books: The German-Jewish Cookbook

I wrote back in December about how excited I was for this book to come out, and the final product proved my excitement worthwhile. The German-Jewish Cookbook, by the mother and daughter Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman and Sonya Gropman, was released last month. It is the first English-language cookbook of German Jewish cooking since World War II! For those of you who are unfamiliar, German Jewish cooking is a delicious and very separate school of cooking from the more-commonly known Eastern European traditions of Ashkenazi cooking. The book not only documents the cuisine, but is also beautifully written and wonderfully illustrated. I have been re-reading the book quite a bit as I eat my breakfast, and I always leave the table hungrier than when I started!

The cover for the German-Jewish Cookbook

The book is part memoir, part history, and part cookbook. There are of course the memories: not just of the culinary tradition that the authors grew up with, but also of the German Jewish community of Washington Heights and their food. Interspersed with the memory is history, both German Jewish and of how the culinary traditions came to evolve. It is not a history of independence and nationalism, but rather of traded traditions and influences from everywhere! And then, of course, there are the recipes – for classics like Berches, the potato-based challah of German Jewry, carp in aspic, roast goose, and delicious marble cake. I have tried several of the recipes, and recommend them all.

German Jewish cuisine is unique, delicious, and oft forgotten. The ingredients are often similar to the Eastern European Jewish food that gets all the press – you have your potatoes, herring, schmaltz, and matzah. But many of the ingredients are very much German from assimilation – smoked meats, Bundt cakes, and aspics galore. And then there are all the influences of increased wealth and access to food in the late 19th and early 20th century – and hence you have citrus flavors, wine sauces, and cakes that mark German Jewish cuisine as something all its own. It is not a sexy story of authenticity – which, by the way, does not exist – nor is it one of Jewish separation alone. And unfortunately, the German Jewish community is smaller than the wider Ashkenazi community – and in the assimilation of Jews into North American society, much of the German heritage was simply lost – though it was very much kept alive by those who fled the Nazis and their descendants. This book is a wonderful step towards preserving this tradition.

For me, receiving this book was a meaningful way to connect with a past my own family was a part of. My late grandfather was born to German Jewish immigrants in South Africa, and though five thousand miles from home, grew up with the German Jewish cuisine and food culture of his parents. Many of the classic dishes in this book were things he ate growing up, and told me about in his old age. And when he waxed poetic about his visit to Germany in 1928, it was the food that often triggered his memory. My grandfather missed this food, but never gained a true love for the Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine from Eastern Europe more common in South Africa. Though he is no longer alive to share in the joy of this book, I know that he would have approved.

The German-Jewish Cookbook: Recipes and History of a Cuisine, by Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman and Sonya Gropman. UPNE, Boston: 2017.

Great Books: The Cooking Gene

I’ve been excited about Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene for over a year now: I’ve made squealing tweets, excitedly brought it up at opportune moments, and may or may not have had a countdown for the book’s release. Twitty himself is one of the best young Jewish food writers out there, and his blog Afroculinaria is beyond fabulous. His work to document the contribution of black people to American kitchens – and how it was really African-American folks who made American cuisine as we know it – is controversial and extraordinary. So, when I finally got the book courtesy of Amazon Prime, I was quite excited.

The Cooking Gene cover

And what’s even better? The book lives up to the hype.

The Cooking Gene chronicles the contribution of black people to American cooking – and the way that enslaved people built American cuisine, willingly and unwillingly. Twitty uses his own family history, both documented and found through genetic testing, to document the rise of soul food and Southern food (which are in many ways one and the same). In a beautifully woven narrative, Twitty charts the influence of African methods of cooking, native and African vegetables, methods to ensure food security, and others. At the same time, Twitty pulls no punches in describing the horrors of slavery and the intense oppressions visited upon enslaved black people and their descendants: the imprisonments, rapes, abuse, racism, and erasure are all described without the equivocation found with many white authors.  Twitty, who is a Jew by Choice, also weaves his own Jewish experiences into the narrative – and also points out the complex role of Jews in regards to both slavery and Southern cuisines.

The book is a strong rebuke to white food writers like myself.  Who has made our food? Who is responsible? And can we separate the sins of racism from which we still benefit from the way that we eat and talk about and write about food? Whose authenticity is it anyway? The Cooking Gene is an important intervention in this regard, and is also a wonderfully written book. I strongly urge you to buy it.

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, by Michael Twitty

Kook soos ‘n Jood: Jewish Snapshots in Afrikaans Recipes

Your author has been on holiday for two weeks in South Africa visiting his relatives and taking a break from all the stress and tsuris of New York. While here, I’ve also been brushing up on my much-forgotten Afrikaans, and delighting in all the delicious food of the Afrikaans-speaking cultures: the peppery and sumptuous Cape Malay cuisine, the hearty Afrikaner cuisine, and the many delicious things Cape Town has to offer. Anyway, while brushing through Afrikaans cookbooks I’ve also spotted a few parallels with Jewish foods that I’ve felt compelled to share.

“Welna se saadbeskuit” – Sonskynkafee, Mariëtte Crafford

“Coffee in our world is not “coffee” unless there is a biscuit that goes with”

The recipe: a more refined take on the traditional South African rusk, with lots of seeds. South African rusks (“beskuit” in Afrikaans) are somewhat plainer, although still absolutely delicious. Crafford’s version contains sesame, rapeseed, sunflower seeds, poppy seeds, and linseed alongside coconut and bran – and the final version is probably quite nutty, though still sweet.

The Jewishness: I’ve often opined that the rusk/“beskuit” is different from the Ashkenazi “Mandelbrot” – the former is chunky and rich and very rustic, the latter is refined and nutty and terribly elegant. But this recipe reminds us: authenticity is bullshit. This is an Afrikaans rusk with many elegant seeds, this is a delightfully chunky Mandelbrot with buttermilk. Buttermilk! Our ancestors in Eastern Europe would have certainly approved – especially of the poppy seeds.

Tamatiebredie recipe in Afrikaans, with a picture

“Tamatiebredie” Kook saam Kaaps, Koelsoem Kamalie and Flori Schrikker

“If you are not satisfied, you will not be very happy either.”

The recipe: a Cape Malay classic, the tamatiebredie, a luscious meat stew cooked in a surprisingly sweet tomato sauce. Sometimes it is cooked with beef, but more often – and here too – it is cooked with mutton The dish is a blend of the flavors brought by Malay slaves taken to South Africa during Dutch colonial rule, Dutch cooking methods, African meat, tomatoes from the New World, and a stewing method common to many cultures. (This admixture – contrary to apartheid and white nationalist lore – is also what produced the Afrikaans language, with its melodic rhythms and endless diminutives.) The recipe here is deceptively simple and utterly delicious.

The Jewishness: similar sweet meat dishes with a tomato sauce are common across Europe and North Africa – it is a formula for many recipes that Jewish traders brought with them from their own participation in early transatlantic trade. Sometimes it is cooked with okra, sometimes it is cooked with beans, and sometimes other ingredients are added. Of course, it is also sometimes very simply stewed meat with tomatoes – like the tabikha of Algerian Jews. This recipe may have been introduced to Dutch Jews, and then the Dutch, from the Ottomans or the Venetians – where Jews first encountered the tomato in the 16th century. Nowadays, tamatiebredie itself has been adopted by many South African Jews: I remember eating my grandmother’s slightly piquant take on it as a child.

Eierbootjies recipe in Afrikaans

“Eierbootjies” – Uitgerys, by Mareli Visser

“I like a runny egg, because egg yolk is, for me, the tastiest sauce in the world.”

The recipe: a lovely, puffy bread filled with cheese with a cracked egg on top, based on “several versions found on the internet.” The name is literally “little egg boats.” It’s hardly a traditional South African recipe, but uses the bread and eggs in such a familiar way. Like other places, South Africa too has had quite an “internationalization” of food in recent years. This recipe is presented as somewhat Italian – what with the mozzarella cheese and everything.

The Jewishness: this is basically a ­khachapuri – a delightful Georgian Jewish cheese boat often served with a fried egg on top. Differently, the cheese used is a slightly saltier and lighter sulgumi. But essentially, the recipe is the same. And wherever it is from, this is a delicious concept.

Bonus: another recipe in this book, for the South African doughnut skuinskoek, is essentially a classic recipe for the Yiddish pontshik with the delightful additions of anise and butter. I am absolutely making these for Hanukkah this year!

Five Myths About Medieval Cuisines – and Jewish Foods and Books to Unlearn Them

Arabic descriptions of cumin (right) and dill (left) in a 14th-century translation of Dioscorides Materia Medica, with ink illustrations of the flowers
Arabic descriptions of cumin (right) and dill (left) in a 14th-century translation of Dioscorides Materia Medica. (British Museum, public domain)

Your humble author has been on a bit of a “spice binge” over the past month – in that he has been steadily gobbling up books about the history of spice and sugar cultivation. And so much of this literature is on the medieval spice trade – one that spawned colonialism, far-flung trade, and globalization as we know it. Medieval Europeans, Arabs, North Africans, and Middle Easterners loved their spices, and couldn’t get enough of valuable aromatics traded through complex networks from halfway across the world. And from the spices, I have been learning about the deeply different – and yet eerily familiar – cuisine of Europe in the High Middle Ages.

Many traditional Jewish dishes are holdovers from medieval recipes. Ashkenazi recipes such as kugel and forshmak grew out of late medieval German-Jewish cooking, and many Sephardi recipes grew from the pre-expulsion late medieval food of Spain. (Spanish travelers were shocked to find Sephardim eating quince jam in the 19th century, just like Spaniards in the motherland.) Some Iranian Jewish recipes date back over a millennium. When I have told friends, in conversation, about the age of many Jewish dishes, they seem surprised. “Wasn’t medieval food…bad?” Well, not always.

We believe a lot of myths about medieval European and Arab cooking. Some of these myths have a kernel of truth to them – and, of course, the food consumed in 1200 was very different to that consumed today. We know this from manuscripts, archaeology, and surrounding history. But many of these myths are the exact opposite of what actually happened – both in Jewish food and more generally in the food of the old world. Many Jewish recipes offer counterpoints to these myths, and serve as an example of what happened to food more generally in European and Middle Eastern history. So, here I will briefly discuss the five myths I’ve heard most frequently – with the Jewish foods and books that offer lessons in the other direction.

Dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter - men and women dressed in gold eating confections and drinking, with a bearded servant and a young boy in a scarf attending
Dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter (England, 14th century). Many of the confections being consumed were probably heavily spiced in real life. (British Library, public domain)
  1. Medieval Europeans did not eat things from outside their area – and hence their food was bland. Food trade is as old as civilization itself: imported spices were found in archaeological digs at Sumer. Medieval people were no different – and there was plenty of movement of people and goods in medieval times that also brought different foods and different methods of preparing food throughout medieval realms. Exotic spices and foods were much-prized, and many crops were introduced by new rulers, such as citrus in Spain by Arab rulers. This did not make a bland cuisine – and besides, people in all civilizations had been seasoning their food with local goods for millennia.
Pihtije, a Serbian aspic
P’tcha? Nope, pihtije – the Serbian p’tcha. (Photo VI via Wikimedia/CC)

Jewish food: P’tcha. This calf’s foot aspic is famous for turning heads and stomachs, but many Ashkenazi Jews – including myself – find it quite delicious. In my experience, it is often trotted out by nationalists as an example of “declining” Jewish culture – because people “do not eat it anymore” – and by others as an example of “weird” or “lost” Jewish food. In the 18th and 19th century, p’tcha  was a delicacy that was saved for special occasions, for it took a long time to make. Now, it’s still common enough in Haredi communities and making a hipster comeback. This dish, however, is not really Jewish in origin – but Tatar. Turkic tribes, ancestors of today’s Tatars, introduced soups made of cow or sheep feet to Eastern Europe in the 13th century during Mongol rule. Hence the name p’tchaand the similar Serbian pihtije  – comes from the Turkic word for “leg” (paça in Modern Turkish). And while Sephardim eat calf’s foot soup hot, Ashkenazim and other Eastern European peoples developed an aspic out of it. Heads up: p’tcha is an upcoming blog recipe.

Book recommendation: A Taste for Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice, by Michael Krondl. This book is a wonderful biography of the spice trade in Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam, and how each of these cities was really made important initially by their trade in spices. He also takes copious notes in Venice of the city’s medieval cooking – and how much of Italian food today is from the late 19th century. He also does excellent due diligence in noting the Indonesian influences on Dutch culture that go back centuries.

Cooking and feasting from the 14th century Rylands Haggadah, from Catalonia in Spain. The top right panel depicts painting the doorpost with lamb's blood during the Slaughter of the Firstborn in Genesis. (
Cooking and feasting from the 14th century Rylands Haggadah, from Catalonia in Spain. The top right panel depicts painting the doorpost with lamb’s blood during the Slaughter of the Firstborn in Genesis. Medieval Sephardic cuisine was, like its Spanish and Arab neighbors, highly spiced. (University of Manchester, public domain via Arizona Jewish Post).
  1. Medieval people used spices to hide the taste of meat or fish that had gone off. This myth is based on the assumption that because medieval people did not have refrigeration, they were constantly dealing with food that was rotten, so pickling and spicing developed to hide the rotten taste. In fact, the opposite is true in some part: pickling and spicing preserved foods that were liable to go off quickly. Many spices were used with salt to preserve meat, and many foods were pickled and thus able to “keep” for longer. Such is the origins of today’s salted meats, sausages, herrings, lox, and other goodies. In any case, those who could afford spices generally could afford the freshest meat. Here, too, spices came to play other roles: they were seen as correcting “harmful” qualities of a fresh food, thus bringing their “humors” into balance. Spices were as essential to the medieval Galenic medical system as they were to cuisine – and humors were discussed as nutrients are today. Those most likely to deal with rotting food – the poor and peasants – generally did not have spices either.
Escabeche
Escabeche. (Photo Pisco Trail)

Jewish food: Escabeche. This recipe originated as an Arab and Jewish preparation for cooked fish, which it remains today. In escabeche, cooked fish is preserved in a heavily spiced vinegar mixture, often alongside anchovies. Vinegar was not meant to hide the taste of overripe fish, but rather to keep the fish not rotten. Hence the sauce must be acidic enough to preserve the fish. Spaniards continued to prepare escabeche after the expulsion of Jews from Spain, and brought the recipe to Latin America and the Philippines. Jews, meanwhile, prepared the recipe in Turkey, France, and the Netherlands, and from the latter the dish ended up across the Dutch and French colonial empires too. Today, dozens of variations exist around the world – including the garlicky Catalan version, the eggplant-filled Uruguayan recipe (link in Spanish), and of course the simple and elegant Filipino recipe. Of course, escabeche is still found on Jewish tables too. Escabeche is also the origin of my favorite dish from my parents’ homeland of South Africa, Kaapse kerrievis. The Capetonian version has Malay and African influence! (I’m also planning to make this for you.)

Book recommendation: Out of the East, by Paul Freedman. In this book, Freedman explores many of the ways spices were used – as an approximation of Eden, an expression of class, and as a stimulant and flavoring. In addition, many scholars now note that some spices, including cloves and pepper, have antimicrobial properties that aid in keeping food fresh.

Manuscript illustration of Richard II dining with his dukes in a lavishly decorated dining room.
Richard II dining – and drinking – with his dukes in the Chronique d’Angleterre (Bruges, late 15th century). The boat probably contains salt. (British Library, public domain)
  1. Medieval peasants and medieval kings ate mostly the same food. I’ve heard this myth peddled by a few starry-eyed leftists who believe that everything “pre-capitalist” was good. (This is also a terrible reading of Marx.) But in medieval times, the starkest inequality was in food. Nobility, the wealthy, and those of other privileged classes generally enjoyed a much higher standard of nutrition – and a much more varied and secure diet – than their less fortunate counterparts. For the majority, poor and peasants, food was much more monotonous, much less secure, and of lower quality across the board. Even if famine was rare, diseases related to malnutrition such as pellagra were not. In fact, the lot of the rural poor would not significantly improve in many parts of Europe and the Middle East until the twentieth century – and despite problems, food is far more equally distributed now than in the Middle Ages. In the cultural realm, divisions of food by class were cemented by ideologies that someone naturally “born” into a station should not eat food of other stations. According to this narrative, nobility would be sick if they ate gruel, and a peasant would be sick if they ate white bread. Inequality in food was not only a fact of life, it was taken as the order of the world.

Jewish food: Rye and wheat bread. Bread was the truly the medieval staff of life – and bread and gruels often accounted for 80-90% of a peasant’s calorie intake. Across much of Central and Eastern Europe, the “base grain” for such bread was rye. Though we often think of dark rye breads as a somewhat upscale “ethnic” food, rye was often specifically not a luxurious or even slightly special food for most medieval Europeans. Rather, it was a base grain for an often impure bread filled with other additives – seeds, nuts, and so on – that wrecked digestive systems. Poorer folks often relied on grain that had gone off, leading to ergot poisoning. The wealthy, however, tended to eat higher-quality bread – rye breads, mixed breads, and above all white breads – for whiter flour was far more expensive. The breads tended also to have fewer additions, and were generally better proportioned with the rest of the diet. No wonder then that in the 19th century, when mass-produced white bread first became available to the working class, it was incredibly popular – it was far less dangerous and seen as healthier.

Book recommendation: Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine and Empire is magnificent, and very informative to this particular discussion. Laudan is very firm about the fact that food for the hoi polloi until very recently, by and large, was monotonous and not always secure, whilst the food of nobility, kings, and the wealthy was far better.

Three baked challahs
Baked challahs. This is a royal bread. (Photo mine, October 2016)
  1. There were no noodles in Italy or the Mediterranean before Marco Polo brought them in the late 13th century. One of the most commonly attributed traits to Marco Polo is “the man who gave Italians pasta” – but by this time, Italians had been eating pasta for centuries. Noodles spread from China through the Silk Road to Persia during the fifth century, and are first mentioned outside China by the Jerusalem Talmud as itriyot, and later in the Babylonian Talmud as rihata – both words of Persian origin. Pastas such as rishta, lissan, and couscous were common in the medieval Arab world, from which they were introduced to Sicily, Spain, and Southern Italy by the tenth century. Pastas became popular in Sicilian and Sephardic Jewish cooking. Meanwhile, lokshen – the Ashkenazi noodle – reached Eastern Europe both from Central Asia and Provence via Germany by the fourteenth century. The Yiddish lokshen derives from the Persian word lakhsha, or “to slide.” In any case, by the time Marco Polo came back from China in the 1290s, Jews and non-Jews alike in Italy were chowing down on all sorts of pastas and noodles – though the explorer may have introduced new varieties of noodle to Venice, from which recipes spread throughout Europe. Arab Jews continued to eat their own ever-evolving noodles.

Jewish food: Jerusalem Kugel – a noodle kugel made with a tantalizing caramel with a heavy dose of ground black pepper. Though the recipe only dates to the early 19th century, Jerusalem kugel has a most medieval spice combination of black pepper and sugar – one that would not have been out of place for the many sweet-spicy pasta recipes of Medieval Italy. In some ways, the Chasidic families who invented it travelled back in time. I recommend this recipe by Giora Shimoni.

Book recommendation: Oddly enough, Claudia Roden’s A Book of Jewish Food has many recipes for noodles that are somewhat similar to the noodle dishes consumed by Arab Jews in the medieval world.

Rosemary
Rosemary – one of the few things that has constantly been used in Mediterranean cuisines. (Photo mine, December 2016)
  1. What constitutes national culinary traditions now is directly descended from what people ate in these places in the Middle Ages. One of the more outrageous claims of nationalism and the cult-like worship of “authenticity” is an idea that the “national” culinary traditions of today have a history that stretches back to the medieval. This is quite far from the truth. The ingredients, prevailing norms, and social context of food in the Middle Ages, across the Christian and Islamic worlds in which Jews lived, were very different from today. The boundaries of dishes and foods were different. Communities were identified differently. And how people related to the food on their plate was very different. National culinary traditions – including the “French” and “Italian” traditions we often think of as seminal and timeless – were largely invented in the 19th century, products of increased wealth, nationalism, and romantic and ahistorical ideas of country life. Widespread education spread these dishes, because they were “taught.” And though many of the recipes themselves reach back to the medieval era, it is likely that a Venetian or Parisian from the 15th century dropped into Venice or Paris today would not only not recognize the “national cuisine” of her home city, but would find that their tastes hewed much closer to North African or Turkish food today.

Jewish food: Spinach with raisins and pine nuts. This was a recipe that was indeed eaten in the Middle Ages, and all these ingredients were popular at the time as well. The preparation itself came with Jews from Catalonia to Italy through trade. However, the sweet-savory combination in Italy later lost favor, and the dish became a largely Jewish recipe that only gained widespread popularity after World War II. Italian cuisine, meanwhile, moved from a sweet-sour complex to an herbal one, and began to limit sweet foods to dessert in imitation of the French from the 18th century. So now, this spinach dish, Jewish in origin, is “Jewish” once again – though it was very popular in Northern Italy during the late Middle Ages.

Book recommendation: Sidney Mintz’s classic Sweetness and Power is important for two reasons: one, it clearly outlines how sugar played an integral part in colonialism and the slave trade; two, it shows how the European diet was fundamentally altered by a regular sugar supply for the poor and the introduction of tea and coffee, both of which often “needed” sugar. The entry of sugar, just like changing performances of class and adjustments in the commonality of spices, radically rejigged European cuisine, and as a result what was common in 1700 was very different from what was common in 1800. Jam, for one.

Qatayef with cheese and pistachios
Qatayef (Photo Abbad Diraneyya via Wikimedia Commons)

BONUS: In the Middle Ages many of the culinary cues were taken from the Arab world – and so it is well worth your while to read Clifford Wright’s blog post on the delicious realm of medieval Arab cooking. Don’t tell Trump, Farage, Le Pen, or anyone seeking to make Europe or America “great again” – but actually, totally do.

Great Books: Cuisine and Empire, by Rachel Laudan

Friends and many readers know that I am a long-time fan of Rachel Laudan’s work. Laudan is a culinary historian and polymath extraordinaire currently based in Austin – though formerly of Mexico, Hawaii, and England – who has authored some truly incredible academic work on the formation of creole cuisines in Hawaii. More importantly for this blog, she is also the author of the incredible “A Plea for Culinary Modernism” and a blistering critique of the historical assumptions of the “Slow Food” movement. For your author, devoutly anti-authenticity and skeptical of any simplistic food history that has the nerve to claim that the notoriously inadequate diets of old were better whilst celebrating produce that was as much a product of the new, Laudan’s pieces were godsends. So it was only a matter of time before I tackled her masterwork – the mammoth, fascinating Cuisine and Empire.

This book is fabulous.

Cuisine and Empire book cover
(Image via Amazon)

What is it about? Roughly speaking, Cuisine and Empire discusses the evolution of the “culinary” family tree through the spread of foodways via trade, armies, politics, and religion.  The book thus charts the expansion of culinary trends, traditions, and habits from the beginning of city-states in Mesopotamia to the comparatively luxurious “middling cuisines” of the modern First World. The tale is one of the extraordinary past of the most everyday thing. Laudan divides the book into histories of ancient grain cuisines, sacrificial cuisines in the Axial Age, medieval Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian culinary paradigms, and then the evolution of Western and global cuisines after 1650. Ancient roots of modern food are demonstrated – for example, the continued focus on carbohydrates. At the same time, what is seen as high and luxurious cuisine has changed and stayed the same – but has always been in communication with the “ideas” and “tools” that spread throughout imperial worlds.

Reading Cuisine and Empire is a truly rewarding experience – and educational, for the golden calves of culinary history are swiftly destroyed in the book’s narrative. The romance of premodern, “peasant” cuisines is swiftly dispatched – Laudan directly notes the misery and often lacking nature of “common” food for most of human history. Most cuisine as we know it today is a “middling cuisine” – a hearty fare making use of many “exotic” and formerly high-cuisine ingredients, and a good amount of animal products, but cheaper than in the past due to changes in agriculture and food distribution. Italian farmworkers and poor Chinese laborers, however, certainly did not eat the “authentic” cuisines of their countries, but rather largely a poor and wholly insufficient diet. Food was also labor intensive – grinding grain took hours, preparation was a task wholly invasive of lives. There was no romance in the duty of cooking for most – and to say so is deeply naïve and misguided, not to mention romantic.

Slices of Mohnkuchen, showing the thick poppy seed layer.
Our ancestors certainly did not eat things as luxurious as Mohnkuchen very often.

Speaking of romanticized authenticity, Laudan also shows how our cuisines date to a time that predates the nation-state system. Foodways and ingredients, recipes and flavors, were spread through the various centers and routes of power – and most certainly do not stick with the history of an unbroken national tradition. Thus the critique in Cuisine and Empire of the doyennes of the ethnic food world – including my beloved Claudia Roden – as focusing on an ahistorical amalgam of élite recipes as “representative” is well and truly backed up by the history she demonstrates. Finally, Laudan shows that our food of today is in many ways quite disconnected from that of the past. Who knew that hemp seed was a major part of the ancient Chinese diet? (Yours truly, who has a severe allergy to hemp, is grateful that rice began to predominate in the first millennium CE.) Or the variety of foods available on the streets of ancient Rome? From the rituals of human sacrifice to the ways in which food was conceived of as digested, fermented, and “cooked or putrefied in the stomach,” Laudan shows that our modern understanding of food is quite modern indeed.

The book is, of course, imperfect. In terms of critique, I have two main comments. Firstly, this is no beach read – and though I myself enjoy dense, academic books, the tenor and tone could be quite intimidating for some lay readers. The tone can also be occasionally repetitive, but the writing is strong enough that those moments are still informative. The other one is that many of the trends Laudan mentions are not mapped out in the book to sub-Saharan Africa to the same degree of detail as other regions – even though food historical studies would support Laudan’s conclusions. This problem is important for two reasons: one, because the role African foods have played in our cuisines is still under-cited, and two, because quality food scholarship on Africa is still largely undeveloped in the West, and Laudan’s book could have made more of a contribution there. That said, Cuisine and Empire does cover sub-Saharan Africa to some extent, which is very welcome. Overall, however, this book is a masterpiece.

Herring fridge
My beloved pickled herring – itself spread through the Hanseatic League and Russian, Danish, and Dutch imperial rule. (Photo mine, May 2015)

Cuisine and Empire is a book well worth your time, and vastly informative. And to those of us interested in Jewish cuisines, Cuisine and Empire offers some important reminders – and insights. To begin, it is a reminder of a truth often repeated on this blog: Jewish cuisine is not unique in and of itself and has been influenced and usually based on wider culinary trends – here, “imperial cuisines.” What makes food Jewish is the significance attached to it and nothing more.

In addition, Cuisine and Empire offers us a vocabulary and history to challenge the too-romanticized history of Jewish food. It was most certainly not the case that all our ancestors ate brisket and p’tcha – it is more likely that only the wealthier ate well and the poorer among us subsisted on some bread and maybe something else for most of the week. (This reality is also well chronicled by Hasia Diner.)  Food is always political and tied to class, and the romanticized history is as much a “French terroir strategy” of our own in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Besides, much of our demarcation of Jewish cuisine – and this blog is not exempt from this critique! – is tied to the same nationalist storytelling Laudan critiques. Finally, it is so very important to remember how much food systems have changed in the past century – and doubtlessly much of it for the better. Thus our creations in a “middling cuisine” are not only new, but reliant on different ingredients than in the past and generally in a much better-supplied and –nourished atmosphere. The past was not pretty, but rather one of even more inequality than today. And that is one of Cuisine and Empire’s biggest lessons.

Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, by Rachel Laudan. University of California Press, 2015.

Great Books: Out of the East

We have a common image of Western European food as bland and boring. Not spiced or subtly spiced in the hopes of bringing out a “natural” flavor or one that does not cause “excitement,” Western food is seen as nearly flavorless except in the hands of the most seasoned cooks. Many abhor it, while white nationalists and racists claim it as a heritage rather than the supposedly malodorous cuisine of “Other” groups. Even in the Jewish realm, traditional Ashkenazi food is narrated as “bland” (a patent myth). And in all this, the food of the medieval ancestors – idealized by the right, misunderstood by the left – is assumed to be much the same, save for the potato and corn from the Americas. Bland, and certainly not spicy.

Manuscript illustration of Richard II dining with his dukes in a lavishly decorated dining room.
Richard II dining – and drinking – with his dukes in the Chronique d’Angleterre (Bruges, late 15th century). The boat probably contains salt. (British Library, public domain)

But what if I was to tell you that…this was not the case? That the high cuisine of Medieval Europe more closely resembled the fragrances of Middle Eastern and Indian traditions today? That ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and pepper permeated the tables of the wealthy? That the idealized bland cuisine of Europe would have been looked down upon by the who’s who of Medieval Europe?

For that is indeed the case.

Paul Freedman’s Out of the East: Spices in the Medieval Imagination is a revelation. The book is a holistic examination of the way that Medieval Europe was shaped and changed by the spice trade, which through circuitous means brought pepper, nutmeg, cloves, galangal and other spices from India, Indonesia, and West Africa to the (generally wealthier) tables of Europe. In Europe, a cuisine emerged of deeply spiced dishes – often referring similar ones in Muslim countries – that would resemble more closely the Indian or North African cuisine of today than any Western European forebears (save, perhaps, that of Spain). Spices touched on morality – for Protestant thinkers protested the “moral decay” spices induced – and on status – for one could show wealth with many judiciously used spices. And so too were the sweet and spicy aromas and tastes of seasonings associated with the divine – it was said that the corpses of saints smelled of cloves, as did the Garden of Eden. Indeed spices ruled the imagination – as they did politics.

Dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter - men and women dressed in gold eating confections and drinking, with a bearded servant and a young boy in a scarf attending
Dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter (England, 14th century). Many of the confections being consumed were probably heavily spiced in real life. (British Library, public domain)

Traced too are the culinary roots of modern political systems. Globalization in many ways is rooted in the spice trade that stretched to what was then the far corners of the earth, bringing cloves from Eastern Indonesia all the way to Portugal. Colonialism – and the European encounter with the New World – took off on a search for spices, and it was control over the spice trade that brought the Dutch to begin four centuries of varied power in Indonesia, culminating in colonial rule. Capitalism, in many ways, also began with the trade in spices. Though the book is about flavors of then, Freedman deftly hints at the continued consequences of the medieval hunt for certain tastes today.

Over the course of the book’s ten chapters, Freedman makes short shrift of many common myths about food and globalization. Many have always sought food from afar and to escape what Rachel Laudan poetically termed “the tyranny of the local.” To claim that today’s so-called “authentic” European cuisine has a form untouched by trade is to trade in mythmaking. Spices are proof that Europe’s food has referred to others and depended on others since ancient times, as Freedman clearly shows. In addition, European food has not always been “bland” or dependent on herbs for flavor. Once upon a time, the high cuisine of France and England was also spicy and pungent and peppery – and bland was certainly not a flavor pursued before the abnegations of the Protestant Reformation. And then there is this matter of medieval European cuisine: it was not always the same, and it was never solely rooted in Europe. What we consider modern French or European cuisine only arose in the seventeenth century, and the knights and dames of the High Middle Ages would probably feel more at home with Moroccan or Palestinian food than what white nationalists or anti-globalists seem to call their heritage today.

Arabic descriptions of cumin (right) and dill (left) in a 14th-century translation of Dioscorides Materia Medica, with ink illustrations of the flowers
Arabic descriptions of cumin (right) and dill (left) in a 14th-century translation of Dioscorides De Materia Medica. Cumin and dill seeds were popular spices in many medieval communities. (British Museum, public domain)

In a time when white supremacists seek an idealized and fake medieval “authenticity” to justify their disgusting aims, Out of the East is a reminder of a cosmopolitan medieval world. Not to say that racism didn’t exist – it certainly did, as did strange myths about the people of the lands from which spices came. Rather, it was that the knights and nobles of Europe in the Middle Ages looked far afield for inspiration, for thought, and to furnish their tables. It was not home cooking that was seen as worthy of celebration, but rather one that spoke of networks reaching across the Earth. Meanwhile, those of lower rank in the medieval hierarchy sought to imitate the elite with similar spicing – such that pepper, a plant grown in India, became common. Muslim Arabs may have been a theological opponent, but in every way the culture was dependent on them – much as we in the United States eat indigenous foods like corn and rely on immigrant labor today. Some things never change, and some things always go against nationalist histories.

Cooking and feasting from the 14th century Rylands Haggadah, from Catalonia in Spain.  The top right panel depicts painting the doorpost with lamb's blood during the Slaughter of the Firstborn in Genesis. (
Cooking and feasting from the 14th century Ryland Haggadah, from Catalonia in Spain. The top right panel depicts painting the doorpost with lamb’s blood during the Slaughter of the Firstborn in Genesis. Medieval Sephardic cuisine was, like its Spanish and Arab neighbors, highly spiced. (University of Manchester, public domain via Arizona Jewish Post).

What implications does this history have for discussing Jewish cuisine? Firstly, we may need to reconsider what medieval Ashkenazim considered “typical” of high Jewish cuisine. This step goes beyond remembering that potatoes only arrived in Eastern Europe in the late 18th century – rather, it indicates that what “good eating” looked like, even for the poor, was vastly different from today. The black pepper of Lithuanian Jewish cooking and the tang of many Hungarian dishes is a remnant of what once may have been a highly festive cuisine – and, if Gil Marks’ z”l research is any indication, certainly was. Secondly, we also can better understand now as well the ways in which Sephardic cuisine differs from that of Spain – in that many of the spices were kept in exile even as Spain moved on to different flavorings in the modern era. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it is a reminder that Jewish cuisine went under exactly the same influences as other cuisines – and is as much a product of trade and interchange as it is of preserved tradition.

Out of the East: Spices in the Medieval Imagination, by Paul Freedman. Yale, 2008

A shout-out of thanks to Estara Arrant, Hadas Binyamini, Avital Morris, and Douglas Graebner, without whose wisdom I would never have learned to navigate reams of images of medieval manuscripts.