The Meat of the Matter: A Question of Sacred Reverence

Meat eating presents modern society with a bit of a dilemma. How to raise and slaughter large numbers of animals under humane conditions, while keeping the price down and within wallet reach of most consumers? That's the major issue, tinged with other, often moralistic, questions. First, right up front, I am not a vegetarian, and…

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Reflections on a Green-Grape Tart

Sugary milky sweetness, that first delicious taste, imprints itself on a baby’s tiny tongue, and seals forever a great love. From the very beginning of life, then, a yearning for that nectar haunts us forever and never leaves us in peace. This primal urge for sweetness led to the scourge of slavery and fuels the…

Another Holy Trinity of the Kitchen: The Magic of Milk, Eggs, and White Flour

Every time I pour crêpe batter into my 8-inch Teflon*-lined crêpe pan, I see deep scratches, the ones that Habiba made with the fork she used while cooking a three-egg cheese-and-herb omelet one wintry Moroccan morning. The scratches don’t affect the pan’s performance, just as wounds and scars don’t fundamentally change who we are and…

Two Moons and a Ksar

It’s funny how sights, sounds, and smells trigger memories, isn’t it? Tastes, too. When I photographed a blue moon the other night, a very specific image bubbled up for me.* Perhaps, in a way, you could deem it a Proustian madeleine moment. Although I didn’t really eat anything. Standing there, trying to keep the camera…

Arabs in France: An Early Account by an Egyptian Imam

Rare is the native English speaker who reads and writes Arabic, classical or otherwise. And thus a vast body of literary work lies inaccessible to those who desire to increase their understanding and appreciation of the Arabic-speaking world. Because there is this hole in the material available to scholars and others, the scholarship of much…

Unquenchable: Natalie MacLean’s Terrific New Book on Wine

If, like me - overwhelmed by the hundreds of possible choices in front of you at the grocery store or local wine shop - you’ve ever stood in front of the endless shelves of stunning wine bottles and felt like just closing your eyes and grabbing a bottle, any bottle (preferably one on the lower…

The Creation of French Africa: Officialdom at Work

True, the British colonized the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Nigeria, but for all practical purposes, like a roll of the dice, West Africa fell to the French. And it wasn't an easy roll of the dice, either. Carton after carton of documents from the late 1800s arrive at my assigned reading space in the…

Belleville Revisited

The Belleville market -- straddling the crossroads of Paris's 10th, 11th, 19th, and 20th arrondissements -- presents the determined photographer with a tremendous dilemma: how to take pictures without being literally swept up in the crowds and jostled like a buoy bobbing in heavy seas? Although the market runs from the Menilmontant metro stop to…

The Bibliothèque Nationale de France and Me, Etc.

Dear readers of Gherkins & Tomatoes /Cornichons & Tomates, Soon I will embark on a great adventure, doing research on France's colonial empire at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the Archives nationales d'outre mer in Aix-en-Provence, thanks to a grant from the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Until I return, I will not have the…

Vivre en l’Outre-Mer, or, The Trials of Living in French Congo ca. 1923: Part III

Once settled into their bungalow overlooking Stanley Pool in Brazzaville, the Vassals faced the problem of hiring household help, especially a cook. Unlike many Europeans, they found a cook who knew his business, of whom Gabrielle wrote: I am glad, too, to have a change from German cooking.* Our primitive black Matamba is far superior…

Famine in Somalia: Why are Food Writers Not Talking about the Black Horse?

"When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, 'Come!' I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, 'A quart of wheat for…

Vivre en l’Outre-Mer, or, The Trials of Living in French Congo ca. 1923: Part II

Like many writers of her era, Gabrielle M. Vassal tended not to be very complimentary of Africans in Life in French Congo (1925) and compared them negatively and constantly to the Asians she'd known during her sojourns in Vietnam and China. She recorded her experiences during a trip to Libreville early during her stay in…

Vivre en l’Outre-Mer, or, The Trials of Living in French Congo ca. 1923: Part I

When the French government appointed Dr. Joseph Vassal, Englishwoman's Gabrielle Vassal's French husband, Head of Health Services for Equatorial French Africa (A.E.F.), he exclaimed happily to her, "Je suis nommé en A.E.F." Naturally she asked, "What's A.E.F.?" So he replied "Afrique Equatoriale Francaise," and pointed to Gabon, Tchad, Oubangi-Chari, and the Congo, with its capital…

Eating Around the Empire in a Day: The 1931 Paris International Colonial Exposition

To her sons who have extended the empire of her genius and made dear her name across the seas, France extends her gratitude. ~~ Inscription on the facade of the colonial museum, now the Cité Nationale de l'Histoire de l'Immigration Before EuroDisney, people who might never be able to go to Tahiti or Senegal or…

Couscous in France: It’s a Long Story

To look at all the Maghrebi/North African restaurants in Paris, you might be tempted to think the food they serve appeared only recently in France. It’s not hard to visualize this scenario when you consider the exodus of pieds noirs and Harkis (local men who served as soldiers for France) that occurred as Algeria fought…

Léon Isnard: Bringing the Cuisines of Africa to France

"It seems that the word couscous is a Gallic version of "rac keskes," which means "crushed small." ~ Leon Isnard Whether you think about it consciously or not, the nineteenth-century European drive for overseas colonies still molds our world. Ever since the Portuguese sailed for Prince Henry the Navigator out of Sagres, an ocean-facing place…

An Ancient Mediterranean Taste: France’s Boutargue

The Egyptians who fled to Marseille from Egypt after the Napoleonic debacle there  (1801) brought with them a hankering for batarekh, now called boutargue or poutargue in Provençal. Happily, Marseille happened to be a place where they could find batarekh, a caviar-like product made from the pressed and dried roes of grey mullets (Mugil cephalus).…

The Lost Arabs of Marseille: Food, Family, and France

In his  timely Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831 (2011), Ian Coller writes of the Arab families associated with Ya'qub Hanna, an Egyptian, a Copt and first non-French general who'd served with  Napoleon Bonaparte in his military campaigns in Egypt. The cover, I believe, was chosen to highlight the idea of…

Fatéma Hal, Queen of Moroccan Cuisine in France

Fatéma Hal, a Moroccan chef with a penchant for busting female stereotypes, cooks traditional Moroccan food at her Parisian restaurant, La Mansouria (11, rue Faidherbe, 11th Arrondissement, Paris), opened in 1984. The restaurant began with only women working there, including Fatéma's mother, the cooking in "the hands of women." Unusual for France, non? One of…

Cooking with Saint-Pierre (John Dory)

As it fell on a holy-day, And vpon an holy-tide-a, Iohn Dory bought him an ambling nag, To Paris for to ride-a.* ~~ Child Ballad #284A: "John Dory" I first met John Dory at the open-air fish market in Rabat, Morocco. He's a solitary soul. Doesn't hang out too much with his own kind. And…

Banania — an Image of French Colonialism?

I will tear down those Banania smiles from the walls of France. ~~ Léopold Sédar Senghor, poet and first president of independent Senegal*   Branding. Such a loaded word, when you consider it. For many Americans it suggests branding cattle and other property, to prove ownership. Very capitalistic, those cowboys, don't you think? In any…

Culinary Diffusion? Yes, in Alain Ducasse’s Kitchens

In a way, it's the French version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." World-famous French chef, Alain Ducasse, chose fifteen women from Sarcelles, a suburb of Paris housing mostly poor immigrants mainly from France's former North African colonies. An article in The New York Times tells the whole story, almost a Cinderella saga: 15…

Cabbage and Black-Eyed Peas, Oh My! A New Year’s Tradition in the South

New Year's Day, coming up fast. Planning your menu, are you? There's a good reason to hesitate, to take your time, because there's really only one thing to eat that day. Black-eyed peas, a gift from a part of Africa ruled by the French for a long time. They were there as early as 1659 at St.…

Coconut Groves and Coconut Dreams

"Columbus had no idea, of course, of the almost infinite ramifications of his voyages on the way future people would eat." ‑‑Raymond Sokolov‑‑ Why We Eat What We Eat(1991) Trying to get the meat out of a coconut is like trying to pull a tooth without Novocain, a very painful process. I know---I tried to…

Eating Cat Meat: A Taboo?

One of the most memorable sayings you learn when you first study Spanish is, “Dar/vender gato por liebre,” or to “give or sell a cat instead of a rabbit,” meaning deception. Digging into the history of Spanish cookbooks, you’ll find a famous --- and oft-quoted --- recipe for roast cat in Ruperto de Nola’s* fifteenth-century…