Thursday, November 26, 2009

Writing about food

Thanksgiving Day is a day when we enjoy food like few other times during the year. In a country that has lost the ability to cook, Thanksgiving is one of the few days when the kitchen stove gets fired up and food is actually prepared, and shared.

In light of that, I thought it was fitting that The New Yorker the week of Thanksgiving included four captivating “improvisations” about food preparation. These were penned by Judith Thurman, writing about aspic, Anthony Lane on eggs, Jhumpa Lahiri, about her father’s recipe for a rice dish that she referred to as pulao, and finally, Heston Blumenthal on duck.

Food writing is something I’m developing an interest in. What I find interesting about the best writing in this category is that it is often about much more than mere ingredients in a recipe, or simply reviews of restaurants and haute cuisine. Food, like most other subjects, has its own rhythm, politics, culture, and is often connected intimately to people, as well as their geography.

Lahiri’s improvisation was especially of interest because I had just read her essay in State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, a marvelous book that seeks to update the state guidebooks that were created by the WPA’s Federal Writer’s Project. She’s a wonderful writer, who covered Rhode Island for this captivating collection of state essays, where I first met her father.

Lahiri writes,

But there is another rice that my father is more famous for. This is not the white rice, boiled like pasta and then drained in a colander, that most Bengalis eat for dinner. This other rice is pulao, a baked, buttery, sophisticated indulgence, Persian in origin, served at festive occasions. I have often watched him make it. It involves sautéing grains of basmati in butter, along with cinnamon sticks, cloves, bay leaves, and cardamom pods. In go halved cashews and raisins (unlike the oatmeal raisins, these must be golden, not black). Ginger, pulverized into a paste, is incorporated, along with salt and sugar, nutmeg and mace, saffron threads if they’re available, ground turmeric if not. A certain amount of water is added, and the rice simmers until most of the water evaporates. Then it is spread out in a baking tray. (My father prefers disposable aluminum ones, which he recycled long before recycling laws were passed.) More water is flicked on top with his fingers, in the ritual and cryptic manner of Catholic priests. Then the tray, covered with foil, goes into the oven, until the rice is cooked through and not a single grain sticks to another.

Today is a day when I’ll sit down around the table with family, like many others. I know that I will appreciate the bounty and variety of foods that I’ll be sharing with others in our home.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you, my regulars, and all the others that may have stumbled upon my writing, here at Words Matter.

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