Pearl S. Buck: Brown Bean Shrimp with Garlic Green Beans

Pearl S. Buck: Stir-Fried Shrimp and Garlic Green Beans

There’s an old familiar standard by which so many of our meals are measured: Is it as good as mom used to make? We tend to praise dishes that conjure up where we’ve come from—but what about the ones that take us where we’ve never been? If we don’t have any immediate plans to go floating down the Mekong or tooling around in Tuscany, food can be our quickest ticket: a sensory trip through another culture without the jet lag (or constantly needing to disturb the person in the aisle seat when you need to pee).

All this might help explain why my nervousness when I heard about Pearl S. Buck’s Oriental Cookbook: A Rich and Variety Collection of the Best Dishes from All of Asia. As a friend said when I showed her the cover: “I am going to guess this book is a masterpiece of political incorrectness.” Not really a trip she wanted to take.

Awkward “O word” aside (it was less outré in 1974 than it is now), a book summarizing an entire continent’s cuisine in 300 pages seemed destined to be a cursory summary at best, uncomfortable generalization at worst. On the first page, though, Buck addressed my fears head-on. “It would take many books to describe Asian cookery,” she begins. “Nothing could be more different … than China and Japan, geographically and demographically, or in their cuisines.”

The daughter of American missionaries, Buck was five months old when she arrived in Huai’an, in Eastern China. She grew up preferring local food to the stuff her parents made; she’d secretly eat with the servants before joining her family for dinner, too full to dig into her second meal. Through her travels—first with her family, later with her husband—she came to discover the regional specialties that would become some of her all-time favorite dishes, including deep-fried Szechuan duck and Shanghai-style fried noodles.

When The Good Earth was published in 1931, Buck’s novel became America’s default portrait of Chinese culture; the best-selling book in the U.S. two years in a row, it won the Nobel Prize for “rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life.” But her cookbook transports readers in an even more immersive way: through their kitchens.

Before you can explore a new place, of course, you have to get to know the layout; Buck continues her role of culinary ambassador through her instructions to American cooks, which range from chopstick etiquette (“They are not at all difficult to use after one has had a little practice.”) to the “seven items essential to housekeeping” (oil, fuel, soy sauce, vinegar, rice, salt and tea … although MSG also makes her shortlist). Can’t find MSG at your local grocer? There’s a handy mail-order guide in the back of the book.

But beyond these small adjustments, Buck comforts her readers that “the Western kitchen is more than adequately adapted to the preparation of Chinese meals.” Although her novels present a culture half a world away, her cookbook suggests that it’s closer than we might think. There will be different tastes, and new techniques, but soon those surprising dishes will become familiar, and even comforting—just like those ones mom used to make.

buck3

Stir-Fried Shrimp and Garlic Green Beans Recipe Continue reading “Pearl S. Buck: Brown Bean Shrimp with Garlic Green Beans”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Molasses Pumpkin Pie

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow - Molasses Pumpkin Pie

New Yorkers are rumored to be a cynical bunch—and, for the most part, they don’t disappoint. Moving here from California was like watching Annie Hall in reverse: shedding the golden optimism of the West Coast for the Woody Allen snarkiness of the East. Since sarcasm is my lingua franca, I usually fit right in … until November 1 rolls around. Because when it comes to holiday traditions, I’m an unrepentant sap.

“There is no season which so vividly recalls the endearments of home and so fully awakens the recollections of its blessings as the return of these annual holidays,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote on Thanksgiving Day, 1828. I might put it a little less floridly, but Longfellow and I agree on the main points. We love the family gatherings. We love the familiar traditions. And most of all, we love to eat.

“Talking about Thanksgiving Day puts me in mind of the Pioneers and ten thousand other things,” he wrote to his sister Anne. And those ten thousand things? They’re all food: “geese, turkeys, ducks, chickens, roasted pork, plumb [sic] puddings, sour apples and molasses and pumpkin pies baked in milk pans.” Sure, the Pilgrims are important. But for Longfellow, pie is the priority.

Born and raised in Portland, Maine, Longfellow was particularly proud of pumpkin pie’s New England roots. He summarily dismissed British holiday desserts, saying that their traditional mince pies were “far surpassed by the ‘New England peculiar’ baked pumpkin and pan-dowdy.” When observing Thanksgiving in Venice in 1828, he reassured his father that his dessert needs were being handled. “You must not think … that I am deprived of all your New England comforts. On the contrary: my good landlady has promised me baked-pumpkin and hasty-pudding for dinner to day!” Crisis averted.

But more than pie, Longfellow relished the holiday’s sense of community, and extended an invitation to supper for others who were far from home; Charles Dickens, on his second tour of America in 1867, spent Thanksgiving at the Longfellows’ table. The holidays, Longfellow wrote, were meant to “gather friends and relatives together, and call in from the thoroughfares of the world those that have been thrown out of the family circle, and jostled apart in the crowd.”

Although he was one of the most popular poets of his day, Longfellow’s work is now often criticized for being overly sentimental. You might say the same about his thoughts on Thanksgiving: “At such times,” he wrote, “the heart clings to home, as the dying man clings to life.” Sappy? Sure. But for this cynical New Yorker, ’tis the season for a bit of saccharine, in both our hearts and our desserts.

Molasses Pumpkin Pie from Scratch

Continue reading “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Molasses Pumpkin Pie”

George Orwell: Treacle Tart

George Orwell - Treacle Tart

Imagine this: It’s a Sunday night, the end of a long weekend full of gift shopping, cookie baking, and fun-but-exhausting holiday merrymaking. You can’t possibly cook now, you decide, and turn to your trusty takeout-menu drawer. What are you in the mood for, though? Thai? Italian? Indian? Ethiopian?

If there’s one thing I bet you didn’t say, it’s “British.” Despite the U.K.’s recent restaurant renaissance, its meals have been a culinary punchline for nearly a century, ever since World War I hobbled the country’s food culture. George Orwell summed up its characteristics rather bluntly: “simple, rather heavy, perhaps slightly barbarous.”

Orwell was obviously never one to hide his feelings about food; his travel writings slam chefs everywhere from France to Burma. You’d think he’d be a little kinder to his home cuisine, but he savages everything from fish and chips (“definitely nasty, and has been an enemy of home cookery”) to rice puddings (“the kind of thing that one would prefer to pass over in silence”) to pretty much any kind of vegetable (“usually smothered in a tasteless white sauce”).

But Orwell did reserve some praise for what was, in his mind, Britain’s crowning culinary glory: “sweet dishes and confectionery—cakes, puddings, jams, biscuits.” Best of all were the Christmas treats: plum pudding, and treacle tart, “a delicious dish … hardly to be found in other countries.”

So how could a food lover like Orwell explain the U.K.’s mediocre showing in the kitchen? As he tells it, it’s because the best English cooking isn’t at a charming bistro or fancy restaurant, but is made at home, where foreigners don’t have access. That may be bad news for tourists—but it’s a moment for home cooks to shine. When we’re baking scones or Yorkshire puddings, Orwell says, we can be chefs of our own making.

* * *

orwell images

Continue reading “George Orwell: Treacle Tart”

Beatrix Potter: Gingerbread Cookies

Among all children’s authors I loved growing up, Beatrix Potter always seemed the most wholesome by far. My favorite books were the eyebrow raisers: the delicious nastiness of Roald Dahl, the nightmarish worlds of Maurice Sendak. Even The Velveteen Rabbit gets borderline traumatizing. When the only person you truly love gets scarlet fever, and all your friends are burned, you can finally become “real” if you cry? That’s more drama than a episode of Dawson’s Creek.

I remembered Peter Rabbit and Jeremy Fisher as cuddly and innocent in comparison, but on a recent visit to the Morgan Library, I realized I had it all wrong: Potter had a not-so-secret dark side. Not a book goes by without some cute animal about to be skinned, drowned in a sack, or baked in a pie. Potter began her original draft of The Tale of Mr. Tod, “I am quite tired of making goody goody books about nice people.” Her editor nixed it; turns out, readers wanted those goody goody books.

Still, a few less-than-goody bits made it into print. One of my favorite Potter characters is Cecily Parsley, an adorable rabbit who moonlights as a beer brewer. Potter’s illustrations show Cecily soaking some barley in front of comically large barrels marked “XX.” It’s impossible to imagine other favorite children’s characters doing the same: Anne of Green Gables opening up a distillery, or the Goodnight Moon mouse tippling on some homemade hooch.

Did Potter take a cue from Cecily and start her own homebrews? Probably not. She did cook; at her beloved Hill Top Farm, in England’s Lakes District, she planted an herb and vegetable garden that Peter Rabbit would have loved to pillage. Much of her produce came from those gardens, but not all her recipes were virtuous. When Potter’s family recipe book went up for auction this fall, hiding in her gingerbread was a good dose of ale—a little bit of naughty in the midst of all that sugar, spice, and everything nice.

* * *

Continue reading “Beatrix Potter: Gingerbread Cookies”

Allen Ginsberg: Aloo Gobi

When I was a kid, I hated lamb. Well, let me clarify: My mother hated lamb, so I hated lamb. I had never actually tasted it, since it was barred from our home, but that was entirely irrelevant to my 10-year-old self. My mom seemed to be right about everything else, so why would she be wrong about lamb?

It wasn’t until I moved away—with an apartment of my own and a boyfriend who tore into lamb like a rabid chupacabra—that I actually took a bite. It was at an Indian restaurant, another territory where my family had always been cautious. We’d consider the menu at length: lots of thoughtful nodding with a smattering of “hmm”s. Then we’d order the same chicken tikka masala and garlic naan we always did.

Allen Ginsberg had our number. Traveling around India in the 1960s, practicing Buddhism and Krishnaism, Ginsberg was eager to bring his new lifestyle to the States. He had just one concern, he told Hare Krishna founder A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Could Americans handle the food?

Allen Ginsberg: So my question is this: … Is this something that a large mass of people can enter into?
Srila Prabhupada: In time, yes. Why not? …
Allen Ginsberg: Yes, but what it requires is an adaptation to Indian dress and
Srila Prabhupada: That is not very important.
Allen Ginsberg: And an adaptation to Indian food. …
Srila Prabhupada: Then that is Indian food? Do you mean to say it is Indian food?
Allen Ginsberg: Well, the curried vegetable dishes.

Although Ginsberg seems skeptical that potential converts could handle the Hare Krishna diet, he was a culinary adventurer himself. In his letters, Ginsberg lists dozens of local delicacies he sampled over the course of his wanderings, like a beat-poet Anthony Bourdain. In Hong Kong, he recommends the 100-year eggs; in Korea, try the snail and cuttlefish dish; in Denver, check out the all-organic Mercury Cafe (where you could catch him singing the occasional set with his rock band).

But even Ginsberg had his own culinary prejudices to overcome. In a letter to the poet Gary Snyder, he expressed surprise at how well he ate in India. “Food quite good … Bombay has great food all over. I’ve even drunk water practically all over and not been bugged. And everybody tells me it was instant death.”

* * *

Continue reading “Allen Ginsberg: Aloo Gobi”

Salman Rushdie: Lamb Korma

You can’t escape food when reading Salman Rushdie. Start looking and suddenly it’s everywhere: Pyarelal’s saffron pulao in Shalimar the Clown, Sisodia’s feast in The Satanic Verses, the grandmother’s pantry in Midnight’s Children.

It’s the same with the real Rushdie; he’s a man surrounded by food. His marriage to Top Chef and cookbook author Padma Lakshmi is an obvious connection. But so is his involvement with At Vermilion, the Manhattan restaurant that once offered a tasting menu devoted to his work (complete with autographed novel to take home, goodie bag style). You think you’re reading an article about the fatwa and boom —out of the blue, it links to the author’s recipe for curry. Food just follows him.

Why Rushdie decided to give Parade magazine his korma recipe, I’ll never know (it doesn’t quite jibe with other articles on offer: “Fire Up the Griddle! Pancakes for Every Meal of the Day”). But his description of the family history behind the dish (it’s his son’s favorite as well) reminds me why food plays such a crucial role in his novels: Community comes together over a good meal.

Korma was a favorite dish in Midnight’s Children, too, but in a less heartwarming, more threatening context. “This, whatsitsname, is a very heavy pot,” that grandmother says, “and if just once I catch you in here, whatsitsname, I’ll push your head into it, add some dahi, and make, whatsitsname, a korma.” I decided to go with Rushdie’s version of the recipe instead – more lamb, less dismemberment.

* * *

Continue reading “Salman Rushdie: Lamb Korma”