A cookbook/biography is a cookbook that gives biographical elements. It could be called a biographical cookbook. I think these books that meld recipes and life stories are fascinating. My interest in food extends beyond how to make it or how to eat it. I want to know where it came from and what stories it tells.
Food says so much about a person. The cook who chooses to prepare a certain food is making decisions based on more than simple preferences. Often these selections are made while being seeped a particular culture, in consideration of the time they have to put into preparing their food, and what environment they are surrounded by. What kind of food grows nearby? What kind of animal is easily raised there? Okay so maybe these questions are not as relevant today as they used to be, but often they are. And if you are going to look at the history of food, these questions are always a part of the story.
Most modern Americans hop in their cars and drive to grocery stores where food is already packaged and easily popped into the microwave. A modern French woman may walk to the local butcher or cheese shop and later prepare a meal, knowing where each ingredient has come from. And she will, often times, take several hours to prepare and to enjoy her food. A woman in Nigeria make take half the day tracking down and preparing the food she will feed her family. She will pound a yam or grind meal for several hours.
Let’s take the example of a Nigerian woman. Let’s say she is rural, has a plot of land that she doesn’t own, but she farms it. This rural woman is 70-years-old, still farming, her arms and legs taut and lean with muscles from working the earth daily.
She helped her mother and her grandmother preparing the same kind of food. She knows the stories about the food, where to find it or how to harvest it, how to keep it, what cooking utensils to use. She looks at a yam and remembers the time of drought and that somehow miraculously her grandmother arranged a trade for a yam, after months of not having the fresh vegetable. She traded a beautiful, much-loved basket that was handwoven by her husband’s mother, who kept a patch of that certain grass near their home. By adding just the right spices to the yam, pounding it to just the right texture, and adding just enough water to it, the family enjoyed the best yam stew they had ever remembered. “it tasted like liquid gold,” this woman told her daughters, years later. It took the taste of dryness our of their mouths for the rest of the evening.
This is not a true story. But it could be. It tells the reader a lot about this family, these women, and where they live.
My book, “Mrs. Rowe’ s Restaurant Cookbook: A Lifetime of Recipes from the Shenandoah Valley” explores Mrs. Rowe’s Appalachian culture. She grew up on a mountain farm and that informed who she was, how she saw food and life. Right from the start, she knew where food came from, that it came from the earth, through back breaking hard work.
I am not going to give you too much of her story, not here, not now. But you can imagine the stories of food that can come from a woman who has lived 89-years and more than half of her life was devoted to a restaurant business. These stories about “food” become more than simply how-to make it. They become a lens into which we view a life and a culture.
I’d love to know about your food traditions and stories. Feel free to comment.