Photo credit: C. Bertelsen
Dealing with the death of beloved parents takes a great toll on people, leading them on journeys of self-discovery often not possible while parents still live and breathe and exert influence on their adult child’s life. Rarely does settling up an inheritance take sixteen years of patience and hair-pulling, constantly reminding the bereaved of their loss. But that is exactly what cookbook author Kitty Morse endured as she stayed true to her English father Clive Chandler’s last wishes, to preserve an ancient Moroccan riad (villa) in Azemmour, Morocco, and keep it in the family.
Ms. Morse’s tenth book, Mint Tea and Minarets (La Caravane Publishing, 2012),* melds the poignant tale of how she saved the riad, Dar Zitoun (House of the Pasha), with a number of Moroccan recipes handed down in her pied-noir family. The daughter of a French mother and an English father, Ms. Morse grew up in Casablanca, speaking French, Arabic, and English. Her perspective as a cultural insider imbues Mint Tea and Minarets with nuances not found in other English-language books on Moroccan cuisine.
Woven into the saga of how she maneuvered her way through Moroccan bureaucracy are short vignettes brimming with colorful characters, like her male cook Bouchaïb and the various officials she encounters. Like the Holy Trinity of Moroccan cooking – cumin, turmeric, and ginger, these anecdotes spice the main story thread and leave the reader itching to either fly to Morocco on the next plane or make a beeline to the kitchen to start on cooking dinner, no matter the time of day.
One of the more memorable stories reminds me of something I read years ago in Women of Marrakech, by Leonora Peets, the wife of an Estonian doctor who worked in Marrakech from 1929 until the early 1970s. Ms. Morse tells of a young woman named Kenza, whose husband divorced her for being barren and sent her away, divorcing her in an age-old fashion by ripping up their marriage contract and saying, “I divorce you” three times. Three years later, Kenza appears with a son and the husband quickly takes her back. Bouchaïb says, when Ms. Morse fails to understand how three years later there’s a child, “But the baby is his, Katy! My mother told me that once a woman conceives, she is able to carry her baby for as long as she likes before giving birth.” L’enfant endormi, or sleeping baby, serves an important cultural purpose, making it possible for young mothers to ensure the patrilineal heritage of their children. (p. 127-128) This mirrors Mrs. Peets’s observation, too, of a midwife repudiating a Western doctor’s diagnosis when he declared a young woman not pregnant: “Of course there is a child! But he is sleeping. He will come into the world when the time is ripe, sooner or later.” (Women of Marrakech, Duke University Press, 1988, p. 90)
A review of any cookbook must, of course, include a few comments about the recipes, preferably ones actually cooked by the reviewer. I chose a few recipes to try out: Pancakes – Baghrir – and a recipe for butternut squash and sweet potato purée remind me of the influence of sub-Saharan African women on the cuisine of the American South, as does the inclusion of a recipe for peanut chicken couscous from Togo, although this recipe came from a friend of Ms. Morse and appears not to be traditional. Moroccan chef Fatéma Hal has been collecting dadas’ recipes and even published a book, Les Saveurs et Les Gestes, summarizing the results of her research. Hopefully, Ms. Morse might consider pursuing this avenue of study in a later work.
Getting back to the recipes, all turned out quite adequately, although I would have liked a bit more spice in the peanut chicken couscous. And the sweet potato/squash dish flavored with ras el hanout would be delicious served with some form of roasted meat; it stars with roast turkey in the book. As for the pancakes, they turned out wonderfully well and the butter-honey syrup made them sublime. I even heated some up the next day for a delicious breakfast. It might be necessary to add a slightly larger amount of water when mixing the batter, as it seemed somewhat thick, in keeping with how I remember the consistency of the pancakes from my time in Morocco.
The glossary at the end of the book will be helpful to those readers who’ve never had the pleasure of traveling to Morocco. However, should there be future editions of the book, I strongly recommend that Ms. Morse add an index, making it easier for the reader to find the recipes without flipping through a lot of pages, as well as references to cultural information. Although there are 35 recipes listed along with each chapter heading in the Table of Contents, there are no page numbers listed, making it a tiresome task to track down the recipes.
Mint Tea and Minarets provides a slice of small-city Moroccan life, embroidered with engrossing storytelling and spectacular photographs taken by Ms. Morse’s husband Owen Morse. Well worth reading, along with a glass of mint tea and some homemade Moroccan pastries.
**Another interesting aspect of Mint Tea and Minarets crops up with a brief mention on page 74 of the dadas, or African female slaves whom Moroccans historically considered to be gifted cooks. Many recipes remained secret because as slavery diminished, the demand for these women’s cooking skills did not. By keeping recipes close to the chest, so to speak, families ensured employment for their newer members as the years went by. I plan to write something about this in relation to the similar phenomena found in the slave-holding American South. The French-Moroccan chef Fatéma Hal looked briefly at the impact of these cooks in Authentic Recipes from Morocco.
*For a list of Ms. Morse’s other books, see her Website.
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen
© 2013 C. Bertelsen