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Cooking With…There Has To Be A Word For This Somewhere

with 15 comments

Yesterday was my birthday, and as these things go, I had a Grand Plan about what to do with it.

The blog part of the Grand Plan had to do with talking about a book I love that I love just because I love it, if that makes any sense. 

I have no sensible reason anywhere for why I as some enamored of this thing.  It isn’t any of my usual genres, fiction or nonfiction.   It’s not political in any way.  It doesn’t help me fill in the gaps in intellectual history I’m always trying to correct for.

It just is.

And so I brought it down to the office and set myself  up to do a post yesterday and…

And I had one of those nights where I came awake at two o’clock in the morning and just couldn’t get back to sleep.  In this case, it was a night filled with recalcitrant cats, summer quilts that departed for the nether reaches of the bedroom whenever I tried to turn over, and people who insisted on playing music loud enough to be heard in spite of the ear thingies.

I ended up staggering downstairs in what was still the middle of the night, unable to think through a post, never mind write one.

I was better in the afternoon, mostly because I sat down on the love seat after lunch and fell asleep for two hours, but by then there was a birthday cake the size of Montana and people who wanted to sing at me.

Well, that was then and this is now, and I’ve got my Monday morning work done.   I’m even what could reasonably be called conscious.

So let’s go here:

The book is called A Mediterranean Feast: The Story of the Birth of the Celebrated Cuisines of the Mediterranean from the Merchants of Venice to the Barbary Corsairs, with More than 500 Recipes.

Now, note:  I said this wasn’t part of any of the genres I usually went in for, and that’s true, but it needs a qualifier.

There was a time in my life when I was an avid collector of cookbooks, and those cookbooks still lie all over my house in stacks and boxes.

Those cookbooks, however, were not like this one, which is not strictly a cookbook.

What I went in for when I collected cookbooks was what Bill would have called “food porn,” big glossy things with hundreds of photographs of food looking impossibly good.

I liked that kind of thing in spite of the fact that I had spent about a year working a side job as an assistant for a photographer who specialized in food articles, and I know everything and more about why you wouldn’t want to eat any of the food you see in magazine articles.

A lot of it would kill you, for one thing.

At any rate, this book is not like those books.

It has no photographs.  It doesn’t even have any line drawings.

The author, Clifford A. Wright, is described as “a cook, food writer and research scholar specializing in the cuisines of the Mediterranean,” and that last bit about being a “research scholar” seems to be what really matters to him.  He’s got a master’s degree and part of a doctorate from the New School in philosophy, and he’s a “center affiliate of the Gustav E. von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles.”

In other words, he’s more an academic writing about food than he is a food writer as it’s normally understood.  He may have recipes, but he also has a lot of information.

And it’s very interesting information, the kind of information I didn’t realize existed about food. 

I don’t suppose there’s anything odd about the fact that this kind of information exists.  It’s just that I didn’t think of it before I saw this.

There are sections on the derivation of ingredients, on the spice trade, on climate and climate shifts, on food in war and peace, on food as a class marker.

Reading this book was, in a way, an awful lot like discovering what went on in the Ag Department at Michigan State. 

I have a very healthy respect for Ag Departments these days, although if you’d asked me about them before I went out to the Midwest, I’d probably have laughed.

It was one of those cases where I just didn’t know what there was to know, and because I didn’t I thought it was negligible.

It turns out there is a lot to know about how wheat grows and which flowers will do what when and what you can feed pigs.

And it turns out that there is a lot to know about food and cooking and why and how people did it and what it started as and what it developed into.

And none of it has to do with neoPuritan nonsense about how we should all realize we’re not living on the pampas anymore before we get as fat as pigs and sink into the landscape.

Sometimes I write on this blog about knowledge for its own sake, about wanting to know just because you want to know and not because you see any immediate purpose for the knowledge.

Well, this is me wanting to know just to know.

I don’t doubt that there is somebody somewhere for whom this particular knowledge is utilitarian. 

The fact is that this knowledge is not utilitarian for me, but I love knowing it.

The book has been out for years now, and for all I know may be out of print.

But it’s a very good book, the chapters can be read as articles on their own if you’d rather not do the whole 692 pages at a single clip, there’s a good glossary and a list of places to get unusual ingredients if you want to try some of the recipes, and the recipes do very nicely when you make them.

So, for what it’s worth, this is the kind of thing I do for fun.

Written by janeh

July 14th, 2014 at 9:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

15 Responses to 'Cooking With…There Has To Be A Word For This Somewhere'

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  1. If you ever watch Good Eats, you’ll see Alton’s frequent interactions with a “nutritional anthropologist” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nutritional_anthropology played by Debra Duchon, from the Department of Anthropology and Geography at Georgia State University.

    In some ways, she’s also a nutritional archeologist, since some of the things she talks about are revealed by finding ancient foods, preserved in archeological digs, or sometimes even ancient outhouses, in ancient poop, human & otherwise. Eww.

    You are right, there are esoteric fields of human study that may seem trivial if you’ve never thought about them, but are in fact crucial to understanding the world around us. Having grown up in Michigan myself, Ag schools are well respected. The central valley in California is home to some R&D agricultural centers too. Pretty cool stuff.

    Remember when having 6 billion people was supposed to have us all in permanent famine? Ag schools are the reason we’re not.

    Just learning new stuff is one of the major points of life, to me. It’s one reason I love my job. New client = learning entirely new industry.


    14 Jul 14 at 11:52 am

  2. Some people can make esoteric information quite fascinating. There’s a woman named Margaret Visser who used to be interviewed on CBC radio years ago about various odd tidbits about food and eating customs – she wrote three books about food and dining, and then followed up with a fascinating book on the structure – and meaning of the structure – of an obscure church in Rome. I gather from a quick google she’s been active since those days, and that there’s a couple more recent books I haven’t read.

    I’ve also read other authors – one on salt, and another on cod, I think – who wrote more on the history of food than the science.

    I’ve never gone in for food porn – it makes me feel inadequate. When I buy a cookbook, which I haven’t bothered to do in years, I like ones that aren’t based on cans of things (add one can of cream of chicken soup, etc), don’t require ingredients that are either very difficult to find at all, or ask for a half teaspoon of something that you can only buy in kilogram lots, at vast expense, and will probably never use again. And I like recipes with a small number of ingredients, plus, if possible, something that requires only one pot. Not too much chopping, either. Stews are always good, if you don’t have to chop up too many vegetables.

    There’s a TV show featuring two women named Anna and Kristina who try to make recipes from a different cookbook each episode, often screwing up. That’s the only cooking show I like.


    14 Jul 14 at 4:32 pm

  3. There is a woman on Food Network who has a show called “5 Ingredient Fix.” She takes oil, salt & pepper as givens, and each recipe has no more than 5 other ingredients. As I recall they’re all commonly available things, too.


    14 Jul 14 at 4:41 pm

  4. Why I always hesitate a little on “pointless knowledge.” Pretty much anything can be interesting well told and with the appropriate level of detail. And in the world of facts, everything is connected. You start out with cuisine, and wind up with climate, trade and class markers. Sometimes I start with uniforms purely to paint or identify toy soldiers, and I wind up in fabrics, dyes, mercantilism and the centralizing modern state.

    Mind you, there can still be pointless fantasizing, useless speculation and wordplay masquerading as wisdom. But facts are like Tolkien’s Road–all one, really, and once you start out, likely to lead you anywhere.


    14 Jul 14 at 6:24 pm

  5. An excellent book along those lines is Ian Plimer’s “Not for Greens”, published by a small Australian publisher in Victoria. Here’s Amazon’s blurb:

    “The processes required to make a humble stainless steel teaspoon are remarkably complicated and every stage involves risk, coal, energy, capital, international trade and finance. Stainless steel cutlery has taken thousands of years of experimentation and knowledge to evolve and the end result is that we can eat without killing ourselves with bacteria. We are in the best times to have ever lived on planet Earth and the future will only be better. All this we take for granted. Greens may have started as genuine environmentalists. Much of the green movement has now morphed into an unelected extremist political pressure group accountable to no one. Greens create problems, many of which are concocted, and provide no solutions because of a lack of basic knowledge. This book examines green policies in the light of established knowledge and shows that they are unrealistic. Policies by greens adopted by supine governments have resulted in rising costs, increased taxes, political instability, energy poverty, decreased longevity and environmental degradation and they don’t achieve their ideological aims. Wind, solar and biomass energy emit more carbon dioxide than they save and reduction of carbon dioxide emissions does nothing to change climate and only empties the pocket. No stainless steel teaspoon could be made using green “alternative energy”. This book argues that unless the greens live sustainably in caves in the forest and use no trappings of the modern world, then they should be regarded as hypocrites and treated with the disdain they deserve.”

    If you can find a Green politician who doesn’t own or use even a stainless steel teaspoon, build a very large statue to him because he’s a very rare bird indeed.


    14 Jul 14 at 9:49 pm

  6. Here’s the link: http://tinyurl.com/maq9fm2


    14 Jul 14 at 9:50 pm

  7. Hmm. That would be the same Pilmer that inspired this it appears:


    I think I’ll take anything he says with, oh, a toss of an entire salt mine over my shoulder.

  8. Good for you, Mike. And that would be the same Skeptical Science blog that is run out of Queensland University by John Cook and the stellar bunch of mostly unqualified people here: http://www.skepticalscience.com/team.php

    It is the laughing stock of the blogosphere as a minimal amount of open-minded research would clearly demonstrate.

    And anyone who takes any notice of official Australian government sources like the Australian Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency (and, sadly, our Bureau of Meteorology) should be careful never to leave the house without the close company of a responsible adult. They actually quote, as they are bound to do, but should ignore, the thoroughly corrupt IPCC summaries for policy makers.

    I’d trust Plimer with my life, Mike. He’s a very well-qualified skeptic and not a true believer in the Green religion. Strange how you, someone who is so skeptical about other religions, can’t and won’t even try to see through this one.


    15 Jul 14 at 7:34 pm

  9. This link is the last thing I will say about global warming deniers or any other conspiracy theory on this blog:


  10. Excellent. And speaking of religious wars, this covers the other one currently waging very nicely:



    15 Jul 14 at 8:16 pm

  11. “Skeptical Science blog that is run out of Queensland University by John Cook…It is the laughing stock of the blogosphere as a minimal amount of open-minded research would clearly demonstrate.”

    >>Skeptical Science has become a well-known resource for people seeking to understand or debate climate change, and has been praised for its straightforwardness.[15] Marine biologist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg has described it as “the most prominent knowledge-based website dealing with climate change in the world”,[16] and The Washington Post has praised it as the “most prominent and detailed” website to counter arguments by global warming skeptics.[17] In September 2011, the site won the 2011 Eureka Prize from the Australian Museum in the category of Advancement of Climate Change Knowledge.[18]

    Cook is trained as a solar physicist and says he is motivated by his Christian beliefs.[19] He is one of a number of Christians publicly arguing for scientific findings on anthropogenic global warming, and is an evangelical Christian.[20]

    Skeptical Science is affiliated with no political, business, or charitable entity.[21] The site does not contain banner ads and is funded entirely by Cook himself, with reader donations.[1] All regular and guest authors contribute strictly voluntarily.<>Moreover, the rapid-fire response to new climate data envisioned by the Scientific American editors does, in fact, already happen. Reputable science blogs such as Skeptical Science (http://www.skepticalscience.com) and RealClimate (http://www.realclimate.org) do a bang-up job of highlighting current research and dispelling anti-climate science nonsense. There is no need for the IPCC to duplicate their work; rather, the IPCC can serve in a better capacity by offering a different product, one created not in a flurry of quick response, but in deeper, slower contemplation.<<

    I.e., if skepticalscience.com is "the laughingstock" of any particular "blososphere", well, that tells you you may disreagard that particular "blogosphere".

  12. None of the above sources are objective witnesses in this context, Mike. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg is the marine scientist who runs to the media every week or so with a new claim that the Great Barrier Reef is dying right before our very eyes. He has never been supported in any of his claims by independent evidence, and his panic-stricken outbursts are invariably countered with minimal publicity some weeks later, often from scientists at his own university. The reef has been damaged in places by severe cyclone activity, but it has always recovered, and the recently damaged areas are recovering. Over all it’s in good health.

    He’s the Australian equivalent of your very own James Hansen, with even less credibility if that’s possible. Consult your kids’ library and refresh your memory of the story about The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

    Scientific American lost any claim to credibility in climate science issues when it did the hatchet job on Bjorn Lomborg years ago, which to this day it has neither apologised for nor corrected despite the fact that it’s story was proven to be rubbish.

    John Cook’s actual qualifications (BSc) are very modest by anyone’s standards, let alone someone who pretends to be an expert. He’s listed as a fellow in Science Communication or some such at UQ in his LinkedIn entry. Here’s an alternative view of John Cook. The picture of Cook in the Nazi uniform is his own: http://climateaudit.org/2014/05/17/threats-from-the-university-of-queensland/

    Skeptical Science was/is also the home of Professor Lewandowsky. Steve McIntyre (the man who destroyed Michael Mann’s Hockey Stick) records his dealings with the Lewandowsky’s and Cook’s consensus survey here: http://climateaudit.org/2012/09/14/the-sks-link-to-the-lewandowsky-survey/

    Real Climate is Hockey Team central, Mike. There’s a lot of good stuff there, but their history over the last few years is one of defending the corruption evidenced by the Manns and other climate frauds of this world when they should have been defending real science.

    If you believe these clowns have anything credible to say about climate science, you need to get out more.

    Finally, The Eureka Prize has even less credibility than the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s also the exclusive preserve of left-wing political activists.


    16 Jul 14 at 9:14 am

  13. Mike, further to my last, and on a less partisan note, you may be interested in this:


    Judith Curry is the real deal in climate science as you will see if you Google around a bit. She’s a climate scientist of some repute but despite not being a skeptic in any extreme way, she is beloved of skeptics because she respects their point of view

    The linked article is interesting in its own right and is the sort of thing you’ll find in her blog and in other skeptic blogs which is why they are worth reading.


    16 Jul 14 at 9:31 am

  14. “None of the above sources are objective witnesses in this context,”

    I’d trust, I do trust, every one of those sources infinitely more than any of the wackadoodle sites that DON’T like them, mostly because the wackadoodle sites regularly get their conspiracy theories thorougly debunked by said sites.

    As I’ve said before, get back with me when the Greenland ice sheet stops shrinking and the Arctic polar ice cap starts recovering.

    Until then, feel free to enjoy your pollyanna view of the climate, provided of course Australia doesn’t run out of fresh water and/or burn to the ground first.

  15. Baaaaah!


    16 Jul 14 at 7:46 pm

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