Articles in Authors

Clarissa Dickson Wright

We English love our eccentrics. Clarissa Dickson Wright, the renowned cook, TV personality, author and countryside campaigner, who died on March 15 at age 66, is a case in point.

One of the stars of the BBC’s “Two Fat Ladies” cooking show, Clarissa (always known by her Christian name) was a remarkable, if somewhat flawed, person. Despite the advantages of intellect, privilege and money, she had to overcome a very difficult family background, as described in her 2007 autobiography, “Spilling the Beans.” Her father, a distinguished surgeon, eventually became a violent alcoholic who terrorised and sometimes attacked Clarissa and her mother. Formidably intelligent, she began her career as a lawyer and was the youngest woman ever to be called to the bar, at age 21. But after the death of her beloved mother, she plunged into alcohol addiction and was disbarred for misconduct.

Wright attributed her substantial bulk to damage to her adrenal glands from the quinine in the four pints of tonic water she drank each day during this period (not to mention the two bottles of gin and half a bottle of vodka that went with them). She subsequently swore off the drink, but the resulting damage to her health may have contributed to her relatively early death.

She found salvation in TV presenting, cooking and powerful, articulate support for country life. The launch pad of her recovery was “Two Fat Ladies.” Her partner in this activity was Jennifer Paterson, a well-known figure and sometime cook at the Spectator magazine. They traveled the length of the United Kingdom in a motorcycle and sidecar combination, visiting places that were associated with traditional British food and good cooking, often of a hearty nature.

They would stop, apparently casually, at interesting locations where the TV crew had just happened to be waiting, to cook and present dishes to the camera. The Fat Ladies were far from politically correct, only moderately concerned with hygiene (although nobody ever got ill from their cooking) and were very good, rather than truly outstanding, cooks. The series was only brought to an end by Paterson’s death in 1999.

That series and her subsequent TV show, “Clarissa and the Countryman,” which she presented with Sir John Scott, was at least as much about country values as about food. She was always a passionate believer in, and defender of, good, basic ingredients; sustaining and well-flavoured cooking; the countryside and its traditional values and sports.

Interestingly, she articulated her support for country sports at exactly the time the U.K. was changing into a genuinely multiethnic, multicultural society where so many traditions were being questioned. It appeared she found comfort in supporting a way of life that was coming under fierce attack from some.

She positively relished a fight, both intellectually and physically — she was reputed to have left two muggers who attacked her in an intensive care ward. She was quite unmoved by the hate mail she received from animal rights activists on account of her support for hunting. She even threatened to display the letters publicly — which, as it turned out, discouraged many of the writers.

A magnet for controversy

She certainly provoked strong emotions. In 2012, Clarissa suggested eating badgers, which were being culled because they were believed to carry bovine tuberculosis. Brian May, guitarist with the band Queen and a major opponent of the cull, retorted: “I think we should seriously consider eating senseless people like this Clarissa whoever-she-is. She’s obviously outlived her usefulness. I wonder if she would be best boiled or braised.”

Despite this and her considerable personal eccentricities, most people who met Clarissa liked her. Notwithstanding her strong views, she was extremely open to new people, the most generous of hosts and friends, and paid no attention to whether they were rich or poor. In fact, she herself went from inheriting several million pounds to declaring bankruptcy because of her lack of financial prudence.

Perhaps she was so popular just because she made no effort to fit in with convention. The publisher Tom Jaine, who regularly shared a stall with her at Oxford food festivals, remarked in his obituary of her that each year she wore not only the same skirt but that it even bore the same stains.

She is going to be greatly missed by very many people, including at least some of those who loved to disagree with her.

Top photo: Clarissa Dickson Wright. Credit: Cristian Barnett

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Illustration of Poisson = Fish. Poison = Poison. Credit: L. John Harris

The key to mastering the art of the café lifestyle in Paris is to be vigilant. My Café French™ language system can help. Did your French server just scowl at you because you ordered poison (in French, poison, pronounced pwah-zon) instead of fish (poisson, pronounced pwah-son)? The grammatical rule here is that a single “s” appearing between two vowels — “i” and “o” in the case of poison — is pronounced “zz.” And a double “ss” appearing between two vowels, as in poisson, is pronounced “ss.”

La Vie en Rose

One in a series of graphic explorations of French language, food and culture, including:

» Secrets of 'Cafe French': Liver, Faith and Time — Foie, Foi and Fois


More from Zester Daily:

» Following M.F.K. Fisher's Footsteps in Aix-en-Provence, France

» A Coffee Crisis: Paris vs. Berkeley

» Navigating Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto

In Café French, the key to mastering the art of Parisian café life is to be vigilant, especially when considering fish, poisson, poison and James Beard.

Something’s fishy here

There may be reason enough in our polluted world to worry about being poisoned by fish without ordering it that way! That prompts the question: Where does Paris actually get its fish? All 100-mile locavores take note: Paris is a long way from its Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Although the River Seine and smaller rivers and streams around Paris were once sources of freshwater fish, this is no longer the case because of industrial waste, especially from nuclear power plants. So even with its spectacular ocean bounty, France is today a net importer of seafood.

But despite discouraging trends in French gastronomy brought on by social, political, environmental and economic stressors — read Michael Steinberger’s book on France’s declining haute cuisine status, “Au Revoir to All That” — much of the gastronomic apparatus that made France the envy of the Western world over the last several centuries remains intact, theoretically, if not always visible on the plate.

The gastronomic reach of Paris

It was the legendary French writer and gastronome Curnonsky — born Maurice-Edmond Sailland in 1889 — who christened Paris a “tentacular” city and the digesting “belly” of France. Gastronomic France was built like a huge wheel with spokes that radiated out from the hub — Paris. And like some gourmandizing Goliath, Paris reached out over La France Profonde (“deep France”) to rake in the regional treasures of its incomparably fertile terroir.

The Gastronomic Reach of Paris. Credit: L. John Harris

Illustration of Paris Gastronomic Reach. Credit: L. John Harris

You might say that culinary Paris was, in the first half of the 20th century, Curnonsky himself. In a 1927 newspaper poll, he was voted by 3,000 Parisian chefs “The Elected Prince of Gastronomy” (Le Prince-élu de la Gastronomie) and was the first modern French food and wine critic powerful enough to make or break important restaurants. It has been claimed that top chefs would keep a table empty just in case Curnonsky should walk in.

The gastronomic wheel of France circa early 20th century was, of course, made of rubber, as in the Michelin tire company. Curnonsky helped usher in the Michelin era and its starred rating system, becoming the company’s first spokesman and the creator of what is known today as gastro-tourism, or back in the day, “motor-tourism.”

Promoting France’s increasingly-accessible regional cuisine was Curnonsky’s real passion. Similarly, a generation later, American food legend James Beard (1903-1985) would advocate for the regional cuisines of the United States, including the new California cuisine that emerged in the 1970s. Curnonsky had divided French cuisine into four hierarchical categories: At the top was haute cuisine (fancy restaurant cooking), followed by traditional family cooking, regional cooking and finally at the bottom, “impromptu” or “camper” cooking. The resemblance of California’s simple, local, fresh-is-best cooking style — discovered and championed by Beard — to the lowest rung in Curnonsky’s French cuisine hierarchy is worth noting.

Forks and rakes

Like Paris raking in the bounty of France, Curnonsky and Beard did prodigious amounts of personal gastronomic raking, as to which their growing rotundity would testify. The French word for a rake or pitchfork is fourche (foorshhh). A dinner fork, fourchette (pronounced foor-shett), is a “little rake.” (Café French™ tip: Don’t forget to emphasize the second syllable in the word fourchette when you ask your scowling Parisian café server for another fork. It’s bad enough you dropped the first one on the floor without asking to replace it with a rake.)

The physical resemblance of our outsized French and American gourmands went well beyond their balding pates, mustaches and signature bow ties. The expansive real estate they each wore around their middles (the French call a paunch a brioche) like suburban sprawl around an urban core, was their professional trademark. Larger than life (obesity became a “problem” only after World War II), Curnonsky and Beard personified the material abundance of the foods and wines they celebrated and gorged on.

There is something both hilarious and poignant in the discovery that at the James Beard Foundation in New York there is a long telescoping extension fork that Beard would use at meals to skewer food from across the table, especially bread I am told.

Historical rakes and rascals

Appearing a century or two before Curnonsky and Beard, the “rake” (in French, un débauché, pronounced day-bo-shay) was a dandy, rascal or libertine whose large, often refined appetites were, from the perspective of a growing bourgeois culture, out of control. Cafés in Paris and tea salons in London of that period were full of rakes.

The character is featured in English artist William Hogarth’s series of devilishly humorous paintings cum lithographs called “The Rake’s Progress.” The social and personal dramas portrayed in Hogarth’s masterpiece reveal the troubles of one Tom Rakewell (a wordplay on “rakehell” from the Middle English “rakel”) whose “… pursuit of pleasure and sensual satisfaction … shows hedonistic, Epicurean, and anti-rationalist patterns of thought,” as Wikipedia puts it.

I wouldn’t necessarily apply the “anti-rationalist” component here, but Curnonsky and Beard certainly shared “rakish” tendencies. Our twin epicures did not hesitate to pursue their “sensual satisfaction” publicly through their gargantuan devotions to the pleasures of the table, and privately, no doubt, through “hedonistic” behaviors not relevant to our Café French™ discourse.

Meanwhile, back at the café

Seated at my favorite corner table at Café de Flore in Paris’ chic 6th arrondissement, I come across an astonishing line in Beard’s 1961 cookbook “Paris Cuisine,” where he comments on the declining post-WWII cafés in Paris and their “ … very mixed crowd of phony artists, haywire poets and every possible nationality of sightseer.”

Muffling my guffaw in a glass of chilled rosé — a Café French™ survival technique — my thoughts shift back to Monsieur Curnonsky. I wonder what he would think about today’s Michelin-endorsed avant-garde cooking and an artsy cuisinier de poisson (fish cook) who serves a purée de poisson poché (poached fish purée) splattered over a sheet of baked parchment paper and calls it “Jackson’s Pollock”?

Top illustration: Poisson = Fish. Poison = Poison. Credit: L. John Harris

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Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh from the Farm.

In 2008, Susie Middleton was looking for a quiet place to chill out from her intense 11-year position as editor at Fine Cooking magazine. She visited Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in the dead of winter, and there discovered her inner pioneer woman, New England-style. She promptly gave up her job in Connecticut, started raising vegetables on the Vineyard and opened a farm stand at the end of a quiet road. She said, “It’s really rewarding to see the food you grow go directly into people’s hands.”

The author of two previous cookbooks, “Fast, Fresh & Green” and “The Fresh & Green Table,” Middleton chronicled her island experiences on her blog sixburnersue.com.

It blossomed into her newest book, “Fresh From the Farm: A Year of Recipes and Stories,” which includes stories and photos of farm life and 121 recipes. Middleton added diagrams for building raised beds, a farm stand and chicken coop. You might call it a complete recipe book for the good life.

What was the major draw for you to leave a top glossy magazine for life on a small island?

I’d been editor at Fine Cooking for all those years, but I gradually had come to realize that I felt disconnected from the source of my food. I liked the idea of helping people get access to local food and learn to cook farm fresh food. Also, the minute I got my first little vegetable garden out here, I realized that it made me very happy. I am totally charmed by vegetables.

What elements of this lifestyle influenced your decision to start a commercial farm?

I was very fortunate to meet a man who became my life partner, Roy, and he had a little girl who is now just like my daughter. Her name is Libby. Together we lucked into renting an old rustic farmhouse that came with a couple acres of land. We liked it so much that we not only increased the size of our garden, we also built a hoop house and started raising more and more chickens. We’re very small but we raise 500 chickens and have another quarter acre of vegetables planted and a farm stand, which is very popular.

Access to land is one of the biggest barriers for small farmers. It sounds like that was your entry point.

It’s huge. I wrote about this on Huffington Post. We did start very, very small. We were able to be profitable without going into debt. So, if you don’t think you have to get a lot of acreage, you may be able to get started. Considering as a farmer you’re probably going to have to be doing something else anyway, it’s not a bad idea to start small so you can see if you like it.

You’ve been immersed in food for a long time, so how does owning a farm influence your cooking life?

If anything, it’s solidified my approach to cooking: Start with really fresh ingredients, learn some techniques and keep a well-stocked pantry. This book really reflects the kind of food we like to eat and what we like to cook. I want people to have fun in the kitchen and then get it out on the picnic table or the farm table — or the tiny oak table we have in our kitchen — and eat it and enjoy it.

From “Fresh from the Farm” by Susie Middleton (Taunton Press, 2014). Credit: Alexandra Grablewski

I’m crazy about vegetables. Everybody wants to cook more of them, not just vegetarians. So I feel like opening up the world of vegetables to everybody is a good thing.

I’ve always loved high-heat cooking. To me, caramelizing vegetables is a huge way to make them really tasty. I tell people to keep some good olive oil, some good vinegars, plenty of lemons and limes, good Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh herbs, aromatics — onions, garlic and ginger — and a few condiments from your favorite cuisines, and with that you can make delicious meals.

With 500-plus laying hens, you have to have a good egg recipe or two. So, what’s your favorite?

Gosh, we do a lot of frittatas. We use the eggs in a lot of custards. We make a lot of French toast around here [laughs]. I like to make my Green Island Farm open-faced egg sandwich with some of the early Asian greens, like tatsoi. Greens and eggs are an amazing combination.

How did your first two books lead toward this one?

I started out life as a writer. When I first started doing cookbooks I thought it best to maximize my expertise at the time, which was cooking techniques. I started my blog sixburnersue.com six years ago and it has transformed itself into the story of the farm.

Readers do respond to stories. So, will you do more of this?

I have mixed feelings about food memoirs that have a dozen recipes. I think what I’d like to do is something that does have a lot of writing in it, but also has a fair amount of recipes.

Top photo: Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh From the Farm.” Credit: Courtesy of Taunton Press

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Poetry and stories that will make you crave food and romance. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

The idea that foods have aphrodisiac properties is quite old and found in all cultures, but this notion has waned with the rise of modern science.

Arab Muslim culture has had its aphrodisiacal foods, a phenomenon surprising to many people who think of Islam as a prudish religion that bans alcohol and frowns upon the sexual explicit.

However, a millennium ago, the elite in Europe began to change their attitudes toward eating, stimulated by the place of food in Muslim theology as represented in depictions of the Garden of Delights. The sensual pleasures of eating as portrayed in the Garden intrigued Europeans who began to associate luxurious dining with the food of the Arabs. Muslim sensuousness must have appeared attractive as a counterpoint to the ascetic life demanded of Christians. Already by the 12th century the Arabs had a rich poetry concerning wine and sexually explicit literature.

In the Arabic tradition there are “the two good things,” the translation of the Arabic al-atyabān. I always found it interesting that there isn’t a single mention of this idea in Arabic gastronomical thinking in any book on Arab cuisine or, for that matter, in any Mediterranean cookbook. But I alluded to these good things in my book “A Mediterranean Feast.” The two good things are food and sex.

Food and sex are two of the three “fleshly delights” of this world in a saying attributed to the seventh-century Arab poet Ta’abbata Sharrān. “I have never enjoyed anything as much as these three things: eating flesh, riding on flesh, and rubbing flesh against flesh.” The Arabic literary interactions of food and sex are manifold. Some stories find the women berating their husbands for eating and drinking too much but neglecting them in bed.

A good appetite for food and for love was seen as perfectly compatible. There’s the story of Aishah bint Talha, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad’s father-in-law, who says to her husband the morning after the wedding night, “I have never seen anyone like you; you have eaten as much as seven men, prayed as much as seven men, and [had sex] as much as seven men.”

Food and sex inspire writers

Many of these stories, such as the bawdy tale of “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad” in “The Thousand and One Nights,” have a narrative formula that can almost be described as eating, drinking and having sex.

The stories get randier as in the “Slaughterhouse-cleaner and the Noble Lady,” also in “The Thousand and One Nights.” The lady wants revenge on her unfaithful husband and gets it by having an affair with the filthiest man she can find, the guy who cleans the latrines. He says, after their coitus, that he’d like to kiss the lady’s left hand (used for wiping) rather than her right hand (used for eating). This mixture of kitchen humor with scatological humor reflects the fact that the lady first looked for her husband in the outhouse but had found him instead in flagrante delicto in the kitchen, rogering a cook.

But the battle between love and food in Arabic poetry doesn’t always end in a truce. A Hispano-Arab poet, Ibn Mascūd, renounces love for food:

“If you ask me with whom I am in love and why my eyes

Pour forth tears,

I say: a sikbāj*, dishes of jamalī

Bruised white flour is sweeter to me than the saliva of the beloved who is embraced.”

Western aphrodisiacs

The West has its own aphrodisiacal food traditions, although the dishes might be different.

Lovers turn to chiles, because of their active ingredient capsaicin; bananas, because of their phallus shape; asparagus (same reason); oysters, for their zinc content and their tactile resemblances; vanilla, because it’s a stimulant for the nerves; salmon and walnuts, because of their omega-3 content, which keeps sex-hormone production humming; red wine, because it relaxes and reduces inhibitions; pomegranates, because they increase genital sensitivity; and chocolate.

There, now you should have a good idea of and guide to what you’ll prepare your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day.

* Sikbāj dishes, a kind of stew made with vinegar, were of Persian origin and very popular in the 10th century; jamalī is a kind of stew with innards.

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Dried foraged foods from the pantry. Clockwise, from the upper left and moving clockwise: porcini mushrooms, cota tea (sometimes called Navajo tea) bundles, sumac, and nettles. Credit: Wendy Petty

As a forager who lives in a place with a definite off-season, I still manage to fill the winter months with wild food-related activities. Looking out the window of my Colorado office this month, the landscape alternates between snowy white and stricken brown. Today, the wind blew with such force that I found my trash can having a tea party with its friends two blocks from home. There just aren’t many wild edibles that I could forage right now aside from conifer needles.

Sure, I can pick handfuls of cold-hardy greens in the dwindling months of autumn and again when spring leisurely awakens. But the meat of my foraging season occurs between April and September, when plants grow with such urgency here at high altitude that I spend nearly all of my free time picking and processing at a numbing pace. During the foraging off-season, I’m still able to accomplish much as a wild foods enthusiast since it is the perfect time for study and planning.

When the wild plants are bountifully growing, I’m careful to preserve them for the winter. I dry big tins full of nettles and linden flowers. The freezer fills up with blanched greens, and the shelves get lined with stonecrop pickles and elder cordial. Rows of half-gallon jars filled with dried porcini are my pride and joy.

Foragers taking stock and studying botany

My goal is to eat from wild foods as much as possible for the entire year, especially from abundant and invasive weeds. Come late winter, I’m able to analyze my stocks. I take careful notes on which plants I’d like to harvest more in the coming year, and also which recipes or foods aren’t being eaten with enthusiasm. This helps me adhere to the second rule of foraging (the first being never eat a food you’ve not identified), never take more than you can use.

This year, I’ve found that I didn’t pick nearly enough linden flowers to support my love of linden tea. Because linden mostly grows as an ornamental locally, there will be no problem with harvesting more next year. On the other hand, I seem to be the only one who eats the wild mustard kimchi, so I will plan for a smaller batch come spring, even though the plant is an invasive and can be picked freely.

Perhaps the greatest luxury that down time affords me as a forager is the ability to study. I check enormous stacks of books from the library, everything from foraging guides to cookbooks, and novels, too. Seeing the words and projects of others fills my sails with inspiration and sends me off in new directions of exploration.

Snow-covered wild plants in Colorado. Credit: Wendy Petty

Snow-covered wild plants in Colorado. Credit: Wendy Petty

Winter is my best opportunity to dive headlong into the study of botany. I came to foraging through a love of food, so studying botany with seriousness after falling in love with wild plants is a bit backward. I wish I’d known more about botany from the outset. Being able to recognize similar characteristics among plant families and unlocking the meaning of Latin binomials opens  the world of foraging and makes learning new plants infinitely easier.

Studying botany needn’t been intimidating. I highly recommend starting with a book called “Botany in a Day,” by Thomas Elpel. While you may not be able to learn it in a day, any tidbit you can learn about how to accurately describe plants can be very helpful. Being able to determine something as basic as whether the leaves on a plant are opposite or alternate gives you a huge head start in identification.

One of my favorite challenges of the off-season is going for walks and trying to identify dried brown plant remains, and trees without leaves. It’s one thing to be able to identify a plant when it is in flower, it is much more challenging to identify its dried skeleton. But if you can do so, it may help you scout a new location. The same goes for being abile to identify a tree by bark and bud alone. A fellow forager memorized all of his local trees in the summer, and in the winter, he’d practice identifying them by bark alone, calling out their names as he passed them on bike.

Filling notebooks with adapted recipes for foraged ingredients

The final piece of my off-season puzzle is brainstorming recipes. Often, in the heat of summer, I’m too busy teaching or processing large batches of wild foods to spend as much time as I’d prefer coming up with new recipes. In winter, I take the time to really consider my favorite ingredients, and how best to highlight their unique flavors. I have a notebook divided into four sections, one for each season. When I come up with a recipe idea, I write down the basic concept, and note where the idea originated. That way, come harvest time, when my attention is elsewhere, I’m able to open up to the appropriate season and see a list of recipe ideas, ready to go. I take the greatest amount of inspiration from my friends. Some of my closest friends right now are Persian, Mexican and Indian, and I can see the flavors they’ve introduced to me seeping into my own recipes. I love to look at a traditional recipe, as made by a friend, and spin it in my imagination with local wild ingredients.

It used to be that winter made me sad. Especially in the digital age, when I could see the harvests of people living in places where there is something to forage all year long. I’ve come to learn that my own off-season can be productive, even if I’m not able to harvest plants. I’m able to take inventory of my pantry, study botany and brainstorm recipes for the coming year, none of which I have time to do when the plants are exploding with the growth of summer.

Top photo: Dried foraged foods from the pantry. Clockwise, from the upper left and moving clockwise: porcini mushrooms, cota tea (sometimes called Navajo tea) bundles, sumac and nettles. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Kate Lebo's

“A Commonplace Book of Pie” is anything but common. While some cookbooks may help you make poetry with food, this cookbook is poetry, and more. It is a collection of facts, real and imagined, about pie.

“I created these prose poems that are this imaginary zodiac,” Kate Lebo said of the writing in the book that leaps beyond the expected instructions. These are not anecdotes about your aunt’s legacy bubbling up in sunny syrup each time you make peach pie. Rather, these lyric narratives are gripping slices of dreamed lives.

The pumpkin pie fancier befriends bartenders. “People who love chocolate cream pie move through the world in a swarm of music,” Lebo writes. OK, sure. Or maybe not. Maybe you believe other things about these people, and that’s just fine, because this book makes room for discovery within accepted standards.

“We’re both really attracted to obvious things and finding things that are not obvious, shaking people out of their complacency with that object,” Lebo said of Jessica Lynn Bonin, who illustrated the book and accompanied her on tour this fall.

“Both of us are really interested in everyday objects, objects that we take for granted but really inform us in subtle and important ways of who we are, where we are, what type of relationship we have to a place.”

The paintings of pie and its many component parts, Lebo said, are not just renderings of physical objects, but images that have their own stories. The poet is working in a similar fashion with her subject.

“I’m doing that in the pie book by taking something as commonplace as pie and using a form, using poetry, using language to talk about it and break it open in completely new ways,” she said. “We owe allegiance to surrealists because that’s what they do as well, but it’s not surreal.”

“This is not a pipe,” the painter René Magritte said of his painting of a pipe. This is not a cookbook like one you’ve known, but yes, it is a cookbook, and from it you can learn how to make pie.

The poetry of pie instruction

“Position your hands palms up, fingers loosely curled, the same way you relax your hand above your head while falling asleep,” reads the instructions in a recipe for crust. When a pie master suggests a shape of supplication for handling flour and fat, even those with deep attachments to pastry cutters will try to leave them in the drawer.

Like pie, the book has quite a life beyond its crust, or covers. The project started as a collaboration between Kate Lebo and artist Bryan Schoneman. In 2010, the two did a gallery show that involved a pie safe and people clamoring for the pies cooling teasingly inside it. “A Commonplace Book of Pie” appeared first as a zine and part of this show. Lebo sold 2,000 copies of the zine, and expanded the cardboard-bound booklet into a book, just published in October by Chin Music Press.

Here are some ingredients of Lebo’s life that are not inside the book. She was not interested in cooking until she was in her 20s, when she had a kitchen with a view of downtown Seattle and the Olympic Mountains. She baked her way through the “Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook,” and recalls that era as her “cool lady in the city time, singing Doris Day.”

After she got her master of fine arts from the University of Washington, she sold at a stand in her front yard to raise rent money. Her pie stand traveled to places like the Sasquatch Music Festival, and begat Pie School, which let Lebo pass along the fine qualities of pies by teaching people to make them.

Connecting with “A Commonplace Book of Pie”

“Pie is warm, inviting, a symbol everyone is connected to in this culture,” Lebo said. “I can talk to anyone about pie. It’s like football except I actually know something about it. So that kicks the door open for further discussion about something that is less approachable, something that is less familiar.”

Discussions on the book tour have covered a lot of topics. Seattle events drew a lot of literary folks. At a cooking school in the Midwest, people came who love pie. Questions ranged from what’s the secret to making the perfect pie, to how do you revise the manuscript?

People are reading the book to each other, which is something Lebo heard with the zine, too. She has a picture of a child — who attended a reading in Milwaukee, Wis. — reading the book to her family while they were making pie. Another fan is giving the book, along with a letter about what pie means in her family, to her children.

“Pie is a gift and that’s something I’m trying to evoke with the book,” Lebo said.

Top photo composite:

“A Commonplace Book of Pie” jacket cover and author Kate Lebo. Credit: Amy Halloran

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Blue corn bread from the Hopi Food Cooperative in Arizona. Credit: Jody Eddy

The road to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, located about an hour from Tucson, leads deep into the cactus-studded tawny hills of the Sonora Desert. By the time I arrived at the museum for the Native American Culinary Association’s 10th annual Indigenous Food Symposium in early December, my spirit felt energized and ready for the compelling conference that was to come.

NACA’s founder, Apache chef Nephi Craig, organizes the conference each year for indigenous people to exchange information, foster solidarity and inspire one another to reclaim their marginalized food traditions.

Among the topics at the two-day conference was decolonizing the native food diet. Speakers discussed strategies to revive food traditions that existed before reservations were established and nutritionally vapid commodity foods such as white bread and lard forced out traditional ingredients. Indigenous products such as dried buckwheat cholla cactus buds, saguaro cactus syrup, and brown and white tepary beans were what anthropology Ph.D. candidate Claudia Serrato described as “an effort to decolonize our taste buds and change our taste memories.” She pointed out that 46% of Native children are obese and stressed the importance of introducing indigenous foods to children as a means of nurturing them into adulthood.

A return to indigenous foods

Chefs Walter Whitewater and Lois Ellen Frank, who won a James Beard award for their book “Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations,” discussed using indigenous foods for health and wellness and passing on culinary information to the next generation.

Frank discussed the importance of honoring the “traditional ecological knowledge” that we all possess. Whitewater and Frank teach classes to Native children as a means of preserving and often reigniting that knowledge, which they believe exists innately within the young people but has been blunted by a colonial imperialism.

Merging contemporary technology with ancient wisdom is inevitable, Frank said, and one does not exist without the other. Modern and ancient can exist side by side, she contended.

“It’s OK as chefs and people to be hip and embrace the contemporary as long as an abiding respect and knowledge for ancient wisdom remains,” Frank said.

The lunch break featured indigenous foods prepared by Native chefs from around the country. Attendees feasted upon dishes such as traditional Oaxacan sweet and spicy harvest soup, alder smoked salmon and a quinoa Napa wrap blue corn crepe with butternut squash.

Diet of Native Americans can thrive in the kitchen

“The NACA conference strengthens me and the solidarity I experience at it each year reinforces the message that I am not alone,” said Wisconsin-based chef Arlie Doxtator of the Oneida nation. Craig, Doxtator and Chris Rodriguez discussed the role of Native fathers in the kitchen. It’s time to redefine traditional gender roles — with the man cast as the protector and the woman as nurturer and cook — in many Native communities, they urged.

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Participants at December's Native American Culinary Association 10th annual Indigenous Food Symposium in Tucson, Ariz. Credit: Jody Eddy

The role of protector doesn’t need to be disregarded bsut instead should be reconfigured as one of a cook who safeguards his children against the onslaught of diseases, obesity and the loss of indigenous food knowledge, Doxtator noted. Craig encouraged the men in the audience to challenge the traditional paradigms.

The final presentation featured Hopi Native Samantha Antone and two of her colleagues from the Natwani Coalition, who discussed their mission to preserve Hopi farming traditions and restore local food systems. They discussed their seven-year research with Hopi elders and other community members to develop a curriculum documenting traditional Hopi agricultural techniques that’s being adopted in Hopi classrooms.

It was an optimistic anecdote to conclude a conference celebrating indigenous food as a means to sustain, inspire and invigorate the minds, hearts and spirits of Native people.

Top photo: Blue corn bread from the Hopi Food Cooperative in Arizona. Credit: Jody Eddy

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I caught Ed Behr on the phone just as the writer was wrapping up a story about what he called, in an atypical struggle for the right word, “contemporary, innovative, imaginative, fashionable, modern restaurant cooking.” It would be the lead story for the 92nd edition of “The Art of Eating,” the quarterly newsletter he founded almost 30 years ago and has been publishing more or less regularly ever since.

But the highly evolved and ultra-complex haute cuisine of modern restaurant chefs seemed, at least to me, a long way from the subject of my phone call, which was Behr’s latest book, “50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste,” just published by Penguin Press. The book is a series of essays on a gamut of foods Behr finds interesting, challenging or curious, for one reason or another. A lot of the foods he writes about — cantaloupe, for instance, or cabbage, green beans, lemons, corn, rice, lettuce — are the kind of fundamental, even humble ingredients to be found in the kitchen of just about anyone who cooks.

So how does this relate to modern restaurants, to the radical creations of stars like Ferran Adrià or Heston Blumenthal, to mention two names that Behr brought up?

He was quick to explain: “The topics in ‘50 Foods,’ ” he said, “are timeless; they’ll be around for a long time to come. And that’s what I set out to write, a book that would endure for a very long time. Now, with this article, I want to make the connection between those topics and modern cuisine” — and, he might have added, with the almost relentless pursuit of novelty and the esoteric that seems to characterize contemporary cooking at that high professional level.

“With all this sophistication,” he went on, “there’s an enormous lack of information about particular topics, even about food in general. In the book, I wanted to get to the essence of the thing, the nuts and bolts of what it is, along with how to choose it, the flavors that might complement it, buying information, and even when it’s relevant, what wine to drink with it.”

’50 Foods’ not a cookbook, but may inspire readers to head to the kitchen

There is not a recipe, however, anywhere in the book, although an experienced cook could certainly derive some excellent ideas to put into practice. But this is decidedly not a cookbook, even if reading it may eventually drive you into the kitchen to try out a project.

And not all the 50 foods are basics, by any means, although it’s true that what’s exotic for one diner or cook can be dead ordinary for another. Take honey, for instance, which Behr calls “one of the most varied, delicious tastes of all foods, and it’s possibly the food most obviously and directly linked to the place it comes from, sometimes to a short period of days and the particular plants then in flower.” In 9½ tightly organized pages, Behr teases out the esoterica of bees and bee pasture; nectar; colony collapse disorder; industrial and artisanal honey production; honeycombs and why they’re important; the flavors of various honeys (acacia, lime, lemon, tupelo); what to look for when you buy honey; how to store it; how to substitute honey for sugar in a recipe; what complements it best (yogurt, very fresh cheeses); and how (not) to serve it with wine. In short, if you’re interested in honey, here is everything you will need to know short of how to make it yourself. And if you’re not interested in honey (I’m not, though I found the entry fascinating), just move on to the next topic, “Lamb and Mutton,” or the one before it, “Ham and Bacon.”

“50 Foods” is not an encyclopedia, not at all. Part history, part aesthetic appreciation, part a series of strong, knowledgeable and educated value judgments, this is a reading book, a delightful companion on the bedside table where, if you’re like me, you might pick it up in the middle of the night in order to peruse a section on, say, butter, where you will learn of this ideal complement: “crisp raw radishes eaten French style, with unsalted butter, coarse sea salt, and bread that’s either fully dark or tan from flour containing a portion of bran.” It’s enough to make a girl get up and raid the refrigerator right then and there!

Caviar, oysters, salmon and truffles are among the fancy, expensive, perhaps elitist foods he covers, but he goes into great detail also about pears, plums and apples. If you read the section on “The Baguette” and then the one on “The ‘Country’ Loaf,” you will have an excellent summation of the recent, somewhat troubled history of bread in France. And if you read the several sections on various cheeses you may well conclude, as Behr does in the preface, that “cheese is probably the best food just as wine is the best drink.”

In short, the words are those of a superbly opinionated writer. But not an ignorant writer, because Ed Behr is famous for the perspicacity with which he tackles almost any subject, but especially any topic having to do with food or drink.

“The Art of Eating”

You may not have heard of “The Art of Eating,” but it is a publication read with attention and fascination by the likes of Alice Waters, René Redzepi, Dan Barber and lesser-known but equally important movers and shakers in the world of food and wine. The first issue, a scant eight pages, was written and produced entirely by Behr, and it continued that way for several years. Now, “The Art of Eating” runs to 48 information-packed pages, handsomely produced with the help of his wife, Kim, who functions as something between marketing manager and communications director. And it frequently includes contributions from others, both known and unknown (I’ve occasionally written for it). The current issue includes articles on Maryland hot peppers, old-fashioned blanquette de veau, a practically unknown Italian wine called Pelaverga, book reviews, restaurant reviews — in short an eclectic and provocative mix. You can read a few samples from back issues or subscribe (a nice holiday gift, perhaps to go with a copy of “50 Foods”) at www.artofeating.com.

Top photo: “50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste” by Edward Behr. Author photo credit: Natalie Stultz

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