Thursday, January 22, 2015

Lovely to Look At . . . A Cookbook Review

In Her Kitchen: Stories and Recipes from Grandmas Around the World by Gabriele Galimberti is a visually beautiful book.  Galimberti's premise/project is simple: over a period of eighteen months he traveled to sixty different countries around the world and interviewed, cooked (with only a couple of exceptions), and ate with at least one grandmother in each country (unaccountably, though some regions of the world are omitted entirely, he includes four grandmothers from Brazil, two from Argentina, and three from the United States, though one of those is from Alaska, which might seem rather foreign to those in the lower 48).
The entries are ordered by each woman's last name, and each one is allotted four pages: two of photographs, one of the grandmother in her kitchen and another of the dish she prepared for Galimberti; two of text, one that tells us something about the individual grandmother and sometimes a little about her culture, country, and what she cooked while the other provides the recipe. It's a good, logical organizing strategy and the photographs are wonderful, which is not surprising, since Galimberti is primarily a photographer, whose work has appeared in many publications, including Newsweek, Le Monde, and Vanity Fair. Each woman is shown in her cooking area or dining room, with the ingredients of the dish she made spread out in front of her. They are incredibly diverse and all beautiful, both the women - whose pride and pleasure shine from their faces - and the food, though some of the dishes are more interesting than others. 

I found several dishes I may try, although probably not the caterpillars in tomato sauce prepared by Regina Lifumbo of Malawi, who has a fantastic smile and looks much younger than her 53 years; the caterpillars are dried and are a regional dietary staple. But I will probably make Ayten Okgu's Turkish stuffed eggplant and Gnep Tan's Lok Lak, a Cambodian dish of marinated beef seasoned with onion and chili sauce. Carmina Fernandez of Madrid's Asadura de Cordero Lecca con Arroz, which sounds far less appealing when translated as "Milk-Fed Lamb Offal with Rice" is probably delicious, though it would have to be adapted to use more readily available organ meats. Maria Luz Fedric of the Cayman Islands contributed a recipe for Honduran Iguana with Rice and Beans that Galimberti suggests could be made with rabbit, but I imagine one could also use chicken; however, if one does run across a stray iguana of the proper size, the directions tell how to clean it and prepare it for cooking. Other dishes, like the Alaskan one for fried moose steak, are interesting only because the meats are exotic; otherwise it's just a piece of meat seasoned with salt and pepper and fried in olive oil with some Worcestershire sauce poured over it on the plate.

The biggest problem I find with this book is that it's like the teaser trailer to a movie, giving just enough information about each of the grandmothers, her life, her culture, and her food, to pique the reader's interest, and then it stops. It's true that Galimberti's visits were brief - in Cambodia he asked his taxi driver if he knew any grandmothers, the driver took him home for dinner, and that was that. And that in itself is a great story, one I'd like to know more about, but it would take more than the space allotted. In fact, the visit with Gnep Tan is one of the more satisfactory episodes, since in it Galimberti paints a somewhat fuller picture of her  and her home than in some of the others. Good food writing, like good travel writing, gives cultural and personal background; it opens a window into another world and gives us the feeling we're there, even if only very briefly. It tells us more than the name of the person, where she lived, what she cooked. It's not as if there wasn't room in the book. The text introducing each recipe occupies roughly just one-quarter of a page, leaving an awful lot of white space. Aesthetically, it looks attractive and artistic, which is not surprising, since the author is primarily a visual artist, but in terms of providing information, it's less than satisfying.

The other problem is that the book isn't terribly well edited. An experienced cook may be able to fill in the gaps and errors in some of the recipes, but a novice might run into trouble. For example, In one recipe he tells the reader to put sweet potatoes and corn on the cob in the pot, but if the reader doesn't turn back to the photograph on a preceding page (since the photographs are not on the pages facing the recipes) she may not remember or realize the sweet potato should be peeled and both it and the corn cobs cut into chunks. In the Kenyan recipe for Mboga and Ugali (White Corn Polenta with Vegetables and Goat), a relatively inexperienced but adventurous cook, one who might decide to try making it with more readily-available lamb (that's what I'm considering), might wonder about soaking the meat in salt water, since the purpose of brining it (though Galimberti does not use that term) is not explained. The greater problem would be that although in his introduction to the recipe Galimberti defines ugali as "a sort of white polenta," i.e., grits, in t
he recipe itself he calls it "corn flour," an entirely different product that would not produce the desired results. This may be due to the fact that Galimberti is not, apparently, a cook himself, nor does he seem to be familiar with American culinary terminology, in which case he (or his American publisher) should have recognized the need for an editor who knew about such things. 

What I was hoping for when I requested In Her Kitchen from Blogging for Books was something like the old Time-Life Foods of the World series, rich (if necessarily compressed) cultural and personal context coupled with enticing recipes. What arrived was something essentially superficial, although it's undeniably lovely to look at - a great coffee table book, certainly. And I will try some of the recipes. But I probably wouldn't pay $30.00 for it.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Religion and Violence: Karen Armstrong's Fields of Blood

         I always get excited about a new book by Karen Armstrong, and was delighted to receive a review copy of her latest, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, from Blogging for Books Although it may disappoint those who want further excuses to denigrate some particular religion (like author Sam Harris, who has accused her of being an apologist for Islam), Armstrong’s sweeping and carefully researched historical account does not provide the kind of ammunition such readers seek. Instead, her detailed accounts of various faith traditions show how all of them arose in societies where powerful landowners exercised “systemic violence” to keep the peasants in their places. 
          Religion did not create the inequities and imbalances of such systems—indeed, as Armstrong shows (notably in her explanation of the Indian emperor Ashoka’s dilemma in trying to establish a “benevolent [and nonviolent] model of governance based on the recognition of human dignity”), religion tended, and was intended to serve as a necessary corrective to temper that violence—but in a world where religion was not the private matter it is in the West today, “agrarian aggression, and the warrior ethos it begot, became bound up with observances of the sacred.” 

Ashoka’s dilemma is the dilemma of civilization itself. As society developed and weaponry became more deadly, the empire, founded on and maintained by violence, would paradoxically become the most effective means of keeping the peace. Despite its violence and exploitation, people looked for an absolute imperial monarchy as eagerly as we search for signs of a flourishing democracy today. (71)

One cannot help noticing, of course, that although technologies and the nature of wealth and property may have changed, such systemic violence is still alive and well in our world. 
As an undergraduate history minor, I took several courses from a brilliant professor who was fond of two phrases: “One must not be naïve about these things,” and “and so, just as it happened in . . . it happened again.” Armstrong proves the validity of that second observation, beginning with Gilgamesh in ancient Sumer and moving on to the Aryan conquest of India, the “Warriors and Gentlemen” of early China, ancient Israel, early Christianity, the Byzantine Empire, early Islam, and the Crusades. Eventually she comes to the great shift of the early modern period in the West, when religion became a personal, individual concept, leading to the secular societies that first took root with the American and French revolutions. However, the rise of the secular state did not, as we all know, create a non-sectarian paradise on earth; the title of Chapter 11 is “Religion Fights Back.” 
          As Armstrong explains in greater detail in The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2000), religious fundamentalism arises out of fear and a feeling of helplessness against the juggernaut of modernity, and those emotions are easily exploited in ways that can bring out the worst in us. I am writing this the day after the terrorist massacre at the offices of the Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, but the same fundamentalist mentality which apparently inspired that violence also motivated Jim Jones and led to what happened at the People’s Temple in Guyana, as well as other horrors and tragedies. And as Armstrong reminds us, “Religious fundamentalists and extremists have used the language of faith to express fears that also afflict secularists” (p. 400). One of Armstrong’s many admirable qualities is that she does not take sides; she reports on many such examples from many faith traditions, the people behind them, and what led up to them, including much that even the well-informed reader may not know about the current “war on terror.” She is, I believe, as another reviewer described her: “careful, fair, and true."
           Armstrong’s purpose is not overtly political in the usual sense. Implicit throughout the book, however, is the assumption that we cannot overcome what we do not understand, and the goal of this book is to help us to understand how we got to where we are, if we are ever to be able to live together since, in Armstrong's succinct and apt description, "we are flawed creatures with violent hearts that long for peace" (p.76). 
Early on she discusses the “taint of the warrior,” something many cultures address explicitly with cleansing rituals for those returning from war but which we in the West, with our relatively recent recognition of post-traumatic stress disorder, have only just begun to deal with. I thought of that, and of her description of the "transcendence" the warrior experiences in battle (p. 10) while watching the recent World War II movie Fury.
           Although she never excuses violence, here or in her other work, her underlying argument is for understanding and compassion: “Somehow we have to find ways of doing what religion—at its best—has done for centuries: build a sense of global community, cultivate a sense of reverence and ‘equanimity’ for all, and take responsibility for the suffering we see in the world. We are all, religious and secularist alike, responsible for the current predicament of the world” (p. 401). That may be a hard concept to swallow if we are convinced that we, as citizens of nations or members of religions, occupy the moral high ground, that God is necessarily on our side. The book begins and ends with the concept and ritual of the scapegoat, the idea that we can always blame the “other.” In all our long and violent history, scapegoating has never solved anything, as this powerful and important book makes abundantly clear.