9 Years of Writing about History … A Celebration!

Nine years ago, I decided to poke a toe into the world of food blogging. I settled on the name, "Gherkins & Tomatoes," based on a painting by Luis Meléndez, a tribute to the period of history known as "The Age of Exploration." Faced with a blank screen demanding something, anything, the first words that…

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Seeking Food at the Crossroads of History

When it comes to the kitchen, I've always been a seeker, a pilgrim in a more modern sense of the word, "A person travelling to a place of particular personal interest."* It all began on a diesel-perfumed street corner in Puebla, Mexico. I stood in the shadow of a broken streetlight, sunshine and sweaty bodies…

Place and Food, Genius Loci and Terroir

Genius Loci* 1. The prevailing character or atmosphere of a place. 1.1 The presiding god or spirit of a place. ~ Oxford English Dictionary Years ago, psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn published a book titled Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994). He certainly had a point, and a very, very apt one. You can't shed your…

The Scent of Cinnamon and Chasing Down Humoral Theory

Purple bougainvillea flowers hung thick and rope-like over the sand-colored walls, their little white hearts nearly pulsating in the blazing noon heat of Rabat, Morocco. The door of The English Bookshop stood half-opened. The stern English proprietor stood behind the counter, his thin pale fingers reaching into scuffed cardboard boxes, filled with the newest shipment of books…

The Power and the Glories of Eating Alone

King Louis XIV did it. M. F. K. Fisher did it. The faceless man in Edward Hopper’s painting, “Nighthawks,” did it. Mr. Bean did it, too. And so did I. Daring to eat a proper meal alone in public probably ranks as one of the few acts that cause normally confident people to quiver a…

SLIVERS OF BACON, SWEET ONIONS, AND FRESH CHEESE: TARTE FLAMBÉE, FLAMMEKUECHE, OR ALSATIAN PIZZA BREAD

I just cooked this for dinner tonight, in anticipation of the storm-of-the-decade. Strasbourg in the Cold (Photo Credit: Cyril Bele)One cold, rainy day in October, I sat in front of a fireplace in a  small weinstub, or bistro, in Strasbourg, France, listening to my growling stomach. I couldn’t face another round of choucroute, that heavy…

France and America: Why Paris Haunts Us So

It's been several days now, the media stream moves onward, darting here and there to other news, other disasters. And yet I remain static, stuck, still mulling over the attacks on Paris, mourning the loss of all those lives, as well as the so-very-French joie de vivre. Why does Paris haunt me, and others, so? In the hours and…

Paris, Mon Amour

Paris will always be my first love, at least as far as cities go. I've spent many, many days and nights loving Paris, and France, in the company of people I deeply love, as well as on my own. Yet another ode here, yes, among many. I cried when I heard of the mayhem in Paris, not because…

Food, the Dog Days of Summer, and a Few Other Shocking Facts

The dog days of summer arrive, as they always do, abruptly and relentless with a seemingly never-ending swelter.  Visions of panting tongues and listless tails crowd my thoughts. But what does that phrase have to do with summer heat? A quick glance at an etymological source informs me that real, breathing dogs played no role in the…

Parsleyed Ham and Kitchen Breezes: The Letters of M. F. K. Fisher and Julia Child

Today is the 20th anniversary of M.F.K. Fisher's death, so in tribute and at the request of her friend Leo Racicot, I am reposting this, something I wrote last year after attending Barbara Wheaton's "Reading Historic Cookbooks" seminar at Harvard. Sometimes words, both spoken and written, take on terrible power. Use the wrong word and,…

Prometheus Unbound: New Evidence on Humans’ Early Use of Fire

I woke up this morning fully intending to end my two weeks of silence on this blog - due to familial obligations - with a preliminary examination of the role of ducks in French cuisine. But that alluring topic took a sudden backseat when I opened up my local newspaper and read, "Humans May have…

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…

December 12: The Virgin of Guadalupe

Patron Saint of Mexico and the Americas Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes once said that "...one may no longer consider himself a Christian, but you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe." Apocryphal or not, the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe makes fascinating reading. And the food's pretty…

Cutting Boards and French Comfort Food

Worn and well-used cutting boards like mine, made from one piece of blonde oak, tell stories of past meals. This gouge here, that’s from the day I sliced the boule with the extra thick crust, for the open-faced cheese-and-tomato sandwiches. And that dent there, well, I pressed a little too hard on the chef’s knife…

Why Study the History of Cookbooks, Or, The Art and the Mystery of Food*

Behind that glossy copy of Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, the one that I wish I'd scored for Christmas, lies a long and fascinating history, filled with stories, mysteries, egos, and more intrigue than it’s possible to imagine. Cookbooks tell many tales, revealing secrets. In fact, just take a look at some of the titles of some…

The Gift of French Cuisine

The French peasant cuisine is at the basis of the culinary art. By this I mean it is composed of honest elements that la grande cuisine only embellishes. -Alexandre Dumaine I don’t remember exactly when it happened. One day I resisted even opening my then-pristine copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking…

Les Rêves de Julia (Julia’s Dreams): Meditations and Memories

Food and cooking serve as metaphors for life and love. Each plays a huge role in the way I see and photograph the world. I seek to nourish both eye and soul with my photography, in much the same way I feed bodies through my cooking. The work of food photographer Penny de los Santos…

Eating Dessert at the White House + A Word about Dallas, November 22, 1963*

Bill Yosses, the current White House pastry chef says pie is the all-time favorite in the Obama White House, but adds that “The dessert that was the biggest hit last year was a sugar cookie in the shape of the First Family’s dog, Bo. This year we have a black and yellow bumblebee to celebrate…

Pears – an Exploration of Ancient Food Preservation

The soft, beguiling fragrance permeates the air, rising above the aroma of the Jonagolds and the Galas, even over the sweet perfume of the Golden Delicious apples piled in baskets, resembling yellow baseballs. The knobby Bartlett pears (Pyrus communis), also known as the Williams pear, still slightly green but with a small and promising pink…

Why Do We Cook?

What does it mean to cook? Some - Harold McGee for example - would say that cooking means to prepare food by heating, while others, such as historian Rachel Laudan, extend the definition to include modes of preparation beyond heating. I tend to agree with the latter and not the former. So, with that sticking point…

Remembering Julia Child, “Our Lady of the Ladle”*: A Reprint and More

(Julia Child died on August 13, 2004. Her birthday was August 15; she would have been 92 years old. The following article originally appeared in The Roanoke Times on Sunday, Aug. 22, 2004, page 3 of the Horizon section. I wrote this with tears in my eyes, I'd only met her once. And yet, what…

Mushrooms on My Mind, Naturally

It’s hard to imagine another form of earthly life that has affected human beings as much as the kingdom Fungi. Seeking the taste and perceived medicinal benefits of mushrooms,human beings followed a path from superstition to science: from foraging to farming, from medieval old wives’ tales to modern clinical trials, and from food eaten to…

The Little Fish with Big Taste: The Much-Maligned Anchovy and its Cousins

When I finally discovered that anchovies (Engraulis encrasicolus) weren’t just for crappy pizzas anymore, I was pretty long in the tooth, so to speak. It took me a long time to even dare to add anchovies to the food I cooked. In that, I am not unlike other cooks over the centuries: What if I…

In My Grandfather’s Garden, or, a Long Apothegm on Apricots

I don’t really remember my grandfather very well, for he died just a month before I turned 14. Yet he left a legacy that lies hidden deep in my brain, a usually dormant place where I apparently shelve all my food memories. But in the right circumstances, and with the right stimulus, that place –…

Doing What’s Necessary: The Logical Outcome of Haute Cuisine, or, An Extremely Brief Meditation on the History of Privies and Toilets

I came face to face with the truth about outhouses on my first day in my Peace Corps village. Not that I’d never seen (or used) an outhouse before; I became intimately acquainted with the concept during the summer I worked as the assistant cook on an archaeological dig in Ozette, Washington. There, the pit…

Mushroom: A Global History – New book coming out

I am thrilled to announce that my new book about the culinary history of mushrooms is due out in September 2013. A sneak preview: Known as the meat of the vegetable world, mushrooms have their ardent supporters as well as their fierce detractors. Hobbits go crazy over them, while Diderot thought they should be “sent…

The Zen of Artichokes

I love autumn. If it’s not the leaves and all the color, then I find poignancy in the drying and dying weeds littering the ground. They embody survival to me. One plant I particularly love is a thistle-like plant, filled with tiny seeds attached to billowy white parachutes. The least puff of wind forces the…

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…

Waiting for Pears

I bought four very green, very hard pears four days ago. Waiting for them to ripen made me think about how quickly everything happens in our lives today. There’s something soothing about watching the ripening process, something profound actually, because no matter how much I might have wanted to make a pear cake, I just…