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On Cookbooks As Culinary Tourism
What can we learn from them?
This is the seventh and final lecture in my Culinary Tourism class at Boston University’s masters of gastronomy program. Here are the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth, plus our itinerary from a week traveling around Puerto Rico. From now on, the class focuses on their final long-form projects.
This week, for our last lecture-based class, we are talking about the ways in which cookbooks can be used as a tool and resource in culinary tourism—whether one is actually traveling or not.
"Most likely we travel to exist in an analogue to our life's dilemmas. It's like a spaceship. The work for the traveler is making the effort to understand that the place you are moving through is real and the solution to your increasingly absent problems is forgetting. To see them in a burst as you are vanishing into the world. Travel is not transcendence. It's immanence. It's trying to be here." —Eileen Myles
This has always been my favorite quote about travel from what is likely my favorite book about travel: The poet Eileen Myles' collection The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art.
"The work for the traveler is making the effort to understand that the place you are moving through is real" has been the subtext of this entire class.
Here, too, they encapsulate to me the impetus for travel: To be yourself, somewhere else, and to let that place dissolve "your increasingly absent problems."
I think this also brings up the notions we had discussed last week around place vs. travel and creating a food destination where you may not have believed one existed as a way to reframe culinary tourism abroad. You looked at places you have lived anew through creating a culinary tourism guide and, in that exercise, proved that travel doesn't always have to be literal, and often what we are seeking in the act of "going away" is a shift in perspective, an accumulation of new knowledge, and—as culinary tourists—different things to eat.
"The culinary tourist anticipates a change in the foodways experience for the sake of experiencing that change, not merely to satisfy hunger." —Lucy M. Long
I wanted to return to Lucy M. Long's "Culinary Tourism: A Folkloristic Perspective on Eating and Otherness" to further establish the significance of cookbooks, grocery shopping, and cooking as a key means of culinary tourism. Many of you on your trip to Puerto Rico visited various supermarkets and grocers to deepen the understanding of local foodways.
Long writes, "By turning normally routine activities, such as shopping, cleaning up, and storing foods, into tourist sites, we can more easily contrast and negotiate the sense of difference with the familiar."
Cookbooks and our kitchens provide openings to become a culinary tourist without leaving one's own home; they don't shift the visual backcloth, to return to The Tourist Gaze, but they do shift perspective and are a means of acquiring new tastes, new techniques, and even new movements—cooking being a physical experience, and eating being a visceral one.
"To truly embrace another person’s background and culture, I need to suspend my own assumptions, culinary and otherwise. It requires a conscious effort that feels unnatural, because learning to cook is a lot like learning to ride a bicycle." —Genevieve Ko
In her essay, "A Kitchen Resolution Worth Making: Follow the Recipe Exactly," New York Times writer Genevieve Ko finds pleasure in cooking according to various recipes that go against her ingrained tendencies. She learns that sometimes one can salt later in a recipe to let tangy flavors develop, and notes the pleasures to be found in tracking down ingredients you don't usually have in your pantry.
This is a call to culinary tourism through cooking, through allowing your own tendencies to be overridden in order to learn from the recipe writer.
What is a cooking technique you’ve adapted through openness to new recipes?
I'll admit to following recipes to the letter and being disappointed in them, but I've also brought so many new techniques into my repertoire by following what authors are telling me. Learning about tadka in Indian cooking, for instance, where spices are tempered in hot oil before being added to a dish, has changed how I think of and relate to my spices.
For my cookbook this week, I chose Paladares: Recipes Inspired by the Private Restaurants of Cuba by food writer Anya von Bremzen. I have long wanted to go to Cuba yet have not, and its similarities in culture and ecology—though not political economy—to Puerto Rico have only made me more fascinated by what I might see or experience there.
On the other hand, as we all learned in reading Hanna Garth's Food in Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal, daily life around food there can be quite difficult for most folks.
My question for myself, then, is: What do I learn from Bremzen's cookbook, focused on private restaurants, that illuminates or differs from what I learn in Garth's book?
Von Bremzen is a food writer whose work a couple of folks chose for analysis in our glossy depictions week. She was born in the Soviet Union and has written many cookbooks, as well as the memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food & Longing and the forthcoming National Dish: Around the World in Search of Food, History, and the Meaning of Home. I'm a huge admirer of her voice, rigor, humor, and knowledge.
Her unique experience as someone who grew up in the USSR—a place that, while she was living there, had a very special relationship with Cuba, to the extent that she learned Spanish in school—and emigrated to the United States provides the context here for her trips to Cuba.
Paladares, as von Bremzen writes, are privately owned home-based restaurants in Cuba that were allowed to open up because of economic reforms in 1993, when Fidel Castro began to allow some self-employment during the Special Period of dire economic crisis, following the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of its financial and material support. They became more significant with economic changes in the 2010 and very popular when President Barack Obama loosened travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba.
Paladares are open to tourists and as well as technically to locals, and the name (which literally means “palate”) comes from a popular Brazilian telenovela from the 1990s, called Vale Todo. However, to most, it is clear that the audience for these restaurants is a tourist clientele.
The ones that von Bremzen chronicles tend to be run by folks who've made their way to Cuba from Spain, Italy, and Russia, though many Cubans also run these restaurants that often are sourcing ingredients from the black market or working with local fishermen, organic farmers, and even cheese-makers who produce mozzarella and mascarpone from government-provided milk.
"The sea change in Cuba's dining landscape, ravaged by decades of shortages, has been extraordinary. It's a miracle, really, to find so much sabor and ambition in a country where the most enduring joke has been: 'What are the three greatest failures of Fidel's Revolution? Breakfast, lunch, dinner.'" —Anya von Bremzen
Between recipes, von Bremzen includes the stories of these restaurants and their chefs, who discuss the hardships they face as well as the joy in doing things themselves. The owners of one restaurant, Otramanera—meaning another way—met in Madrid and realized somewhat late that opening a space in Havana would mean doing everything themselves, down to building the tables.
There's a focus throughout on the significance of forming relationships to food access, and the recipes tend toward the simple, with a heavy and expected reliance on produce that grows in Cuba.
Because I live on a Caribbean island, too, with easy and abundant access to a lot of these ingredients, this cookbook is especially useful to me: I have marked off with post-its so many, noting that coconut cookies here called "coquitos" and an avocado salad would be perfect to make with what I have on hand or can access with a quick trip to the plaza del mercado.
I found myself puzzled at the author saying that what Cubans call malanga Puerto Ricans call yautia—these are two different viandas, or root vegetables. I also laughed at the translation of tostones to "plantain fritters"—a friend and my husband both suggested, in response, that French fries should be called "potato fritters." (A fritter requires a batter, and tostones are not battered.) But having this background knowledge and access makes Paladares a more compelling cookbook. Recognition begets fruitful engagement.
Being in Puerto Rico, a U.S. colony, I don't have the same difficulties getting olive oil or potatoes, but there are commonalities in terms of the reliance on imported goods and stores having items one day and not having them the next (in Puerto Rico, though, this is a quite trivial frustration rather than a real problem, unless we’re talking about folks in Vieques or Culebra, whose food access is a whole other piece of writing and research).
Viandas are the foundation of the cuisine in both places. I found myself surprised to read that Havana has a cheese shop, because San Juan does not. I wonder what accounts for this difference, when it would be easier, one would assume, to import a wide variety of cheese to Puerto Rico to sell alongside local varieties. But are my assumptions correct? And what biases and indoctrination account for my assumptions?
What I learn from von Bremzen’s cookbook is the reminder I discussed last week, as well: the systemic power that governs how food and people move around the world has a massive effect on what appears on our plates, and in pursuit of the experience of culinary tourism, we must look at how our positions with regards to these systems govern our expectations and desires. I wrote this lecture and then went to visit the Plaza del Mercado de Santurce. I imagined how someone from the U.S. might see it as scarce rather than a performance of tropical abundance; I imagined that expectation in contrast to what von Bremzen and Garth describe.
"Frustrations with the seemingly never-ending daily struggle of searching for ingredients, struggling to piece together meals, facing sudden changes in the state-provided lunch at work are central to the lived experience of food access in Cuba." —Hanna Garth
The picture that von Bremzen paints here, because of the focus on essentially capitalist enterprise in a socialist state and because a cookbook does need to be a performance of abundance, differs vastly from the experience of locals in Santiago de Cuba that we read about in Garth's Food in Cuba. While not idyllic by any stretch—and this cookbook is far heavier on historic and agricultural context than most—these are fascinating to look at in tandem. The difficulties faced by a food business versus an everyday person, and the more or less free travel and access to information that these folks appear to have as depicted in this text, show distinctly different Cubas.
How do you travel through cookbooks?
This Friday’s From the Kitchen will be about why I am baking tofu these days rather than doing any other preparation. See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
Nothing that I can think of!
Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust to write an essay for the brilliant writer and critic Jamie Hood’s newsletter “regards, Marcel” on reading In Search of Lost Time! Also, the forthcoming The Light Room by the perennial favorite Kate Zambreno—it will be important to a forthcoming essay on creative work.
I’ll tell you the truth: I’m quite happy when my mental labor and social life become more significant and consuming than my domestic labor—is this a food writing crime? Or does it just feel like it because I’m a woman? I can’t remember what I’ve been cooking, because it’s just been the stuff of life, the basic social reproduction. Oh, but there was the beautiful avocado salad inspired by Paladares.