Food fights

Posted: 30 August 2010 in Uncategorized
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Clare Leighton, "Corn Pulling" (1952)

Fights over food permeate every aspect of our society—whether it be the current egg scare, the nature of recipe books, or the role of gardening.

Right now, we’re bombarded with celebrity-chef cooking shows and cookbooks (which are no more than ways of advertising and adding to the chefs’ growing food empires) but the recipe books that provide a cultural context for the food are rare. Clifford A. Wright [ht: lm] found one, Carlo Middione’s The Food of Southern Italy, which he distinguishes from another, Giada de Laurentiis’s Everyday Italian.

A recipe needs an introduction that helps the cook understand the background of the dish and to entice the cook to prepare it, and to provide inspiration and guidance. Middione introduces his recipe by telling us that it is a dish from Apulia. He writes: “When I left Puglia , the battle was still raging between two old men I had met in a restaurant there about whether it is necessary to remove the shells from the mussels of spaghetti con le cozze or not. One felt the shells looked unsightly on the plate, and no host or hostess who wanted to make a bella figura (look good) would do such a thing. The other man maintained you get more flavor with the shells left on, and if your hosts were really considerate, they would let you pick them up and suck on them to get every last drop of sauce. It really depends on the host and guests, whether to shell the mussels or not. Me? I never take the shells off. The discussion about whether the parsley should be cooked in the sauce along with the mussels or simply strewn on top of the finished dish would be too lengthy to present here.” . . .

De Laurentiis’ recipe doesn’t mention al dente pasta and clearly she doesn’t trust us to salt and pepper to our taste, or to even inquire what our tastes may be. Her recipe lacks the charm and inspiration of the Middione recipe, even though her recipe has more ingredients. Her recipe is cold and lifeless. Who makes this recipe? Why do they make it? Do different families make it differently? When do they make it? Do cooks argue about how to make it? Should you use cheese? This is important because Americans might not know that southern Italians never use cheese with seafood. We just don’t know.

A recipe is not a formula. A recipe is an inspirational aide to guide a cook to reach higher, to prepare food that will dazzle others and make them happy and to do that the cookbook author needs to help them in the decision to make the dish in the first place. It’s not just about ingredients. A recipe should have a soul, as it’s about the material expression of a culinary culture.

Just as a recipe is not a formula, so the context of gardening cannot be provided by a mere picture book. The reissue of wood-engraver Clare Leighton’s one gardening book, Four Hedges, is an opportunity to consider what gardening is all about and how it fits into our lives. As Robin Lane Fox [ht: js] explains,

For Clare, Four Hedges house and garden was a return to earthy reality after a dizzying lecture-tour of America. Her observations of labour and nature were not only linked to her eye as a wood-engraver. They connected with the social realism she shared with Noel [aka H. N. Brailsford]. Before they gardened together, she had taught in slum schools in south London, where a child once drew her a picture of spring as a flowery meadow behind a barbed wire gate and a sign saying “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted”. . .

In 1946, Clare was invited to lecture to a big American garden society and told them of the challenge before them. We “must all add our weight to the spiritual balance”, she declared. “The Shelleys and the Mozarts and the Hans Andersens are remembered, not the financiers and the bankers.” The challenge has not changed.

Fighting for food—food with a context, food that connects people, food that nourishes bodies and represents a form of economic and social change—will live on long after we’ve forgotten the financiers, bankers, and celebrity-chefs.

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