When I moved to my current house, I discarded – with much pain and anguish – hundreds of cookbooks. Granted, they ended up at a local culinary school, but my name isn’t affixed to the collection. And I didn’t really care. All that mattered to me was that they would huddle together, at least in theory.
Of course, I kept some of my cookbooks. Many more than I probably should have!
One of those books, Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, made the cut and traveled down I-95, loaded into a cardboard box labeled with the name of some fancy wine that I’d never heard of. With my usual efficiency when moving into new quarters, Ottolenghi’s book almost immediately took a spot on a bookshelf in my dining room.
And, until last week, stayed there. Unopened. Forgotten, more like it.
Last week, however, I sat in a chair across from the bookcase, doing wrist-strengthening exercises to get back into kitchen-worthy shape after that fracture I sustained fours days into my trip to Spain in October. Bored with the exercises, I thought, “Hmm, I should look at that book.”
Well, once I started turning the pages, I knew I must cook from it. I grabbed a pad of fuchsia-colored Post-It notes. Soon, I’d marked nearly 20 pages with ripped strips of sticky paper. Narrowing my choices down to a manageable what-can-I-cook-tonight, I zeroed in on “Chicken with caramelized onion & cardamom rice.”
The recipe appeared on the New York Times‘s cooking site – see link above, exactly as it appears in the cookbook. Note that, for some reason, I couldn’t find a single raisin in my rather extensive pantry, probably for the first time in my serious cooking life. So what to do, short of walking 2 miles to the grocery store and back?
Use prunes instead!
And that bit of skulduggery worked splendidly!
The recipe for Chicken with caramelized onion & cardamom rice took me back to my older little brother’s wedding, when he married the daughter of one of the Shah of Iran’s generals. The lavish wedding feast, laid out on a carpet on the floor of the house, resembled a marvelous shiny mosaic, the varied rice dishes melting in my mouth, the stunning sight of green herbs laid over the shimmering white grains the stuff of poetry. Dill. Mint. Parsley. All swirled over the top.
But Jerusalem is not just a cookbook; it’s also an instructive primer about food cultures.
For example, Ottolenghi points out something important about rice:
“Although rice has never been grown locally, it has become a staple Palestinian grain and definitely the basic ingredient in all ceremonial meals (people of lesser means and from the countryside often had to make do with bulgar, which costs less).”*
He also takes to task those who flog the concept of culinary appropriation. Inserted between comments about the recipes and their history lies a one-page reminder: “A comment about ownership.” Given that Jerusalem, and the region surrounding it, is home to countless groups intermingling via ingredients, Ottolenghi squashes the idea of pure, unadulterated ownership of food.
“As we have seen through our investigations, and will become blatantly apparent to anyone reading and cooking from this book, these arguments [“about ownership, about provenance, about who and what came first”] are futile.”**
And Alexandra Springer, interveiwing Ottolenghi and Adam Liaw for The Guardian, writes: “Liaw said he also found the idea of cultural appropriation of food tricky.”
Food is one of the great unifiers. […] Before you speak someone’s language, before you understand their history, before you walk a mile in their shoes, you eat the same food that person eats, and get some insight into how their life works, the way their culture works. So I don’t really believe in cultural appropriation in foods because it’s such a wonderful window into other aspects of the multicultural societies that we live in. ***
All I know is this: As I ate this chicken/rice, I couldn’t quite get over the incandescent mixture of flavors. The rice stayed wonderful when I saved it for reheating – heaven forbid – for two more meals after I cooked Ottolenghi’s recipe for meatballs with broad beans. A confession: I used Fordhook limas as a substitute.
When I cooked these recipes, I said a brief prayer of thanks to the women who created them down through the ages, those geniuses who borrowed this spice, that herb, and put it all together to make something that fed their families, their friends, and – maybe – even their enemies.
With all the lip service of how food brings people together – and it does, it can – it’s just not right to insist on ownership of recipes, to exclude people from cooking the food of others because “those people” don’t belong to the group. Talking about culinary appropriation, which is basically insisting on exclusiveness – that’s divisive.
It’s time for a different, more inclusive dialog.
To get started on that path, go no further than Jerusalem.
* Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, p. 184, Jerusalem (Ten Speed Press, 2012)
**Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, p. 16, Jerusalem (Ten Speed Press, 2012)
***Alexandra Spring, “Yotam Ottolenghi: ‘I don’t like to tell people what to eat’ “, The Guardian, January 30, 2019.