On September 30th, a rainy Wednesday evening, Dr. Ari Ariel presented the second Pepin lecture of the year, titled “Hummus Wars: Buying and Boycotting Middle Eastern Foods.” The new head of the Gastronomy program began his presentation with a slideshow of the Guinness World Record competition between Lebanon and Israel, each vying for the award of producing the largest hummus dish. A 9,000-pound dish in Israel was quickly defeated by a group of Lebanese chefs. After a few rounds of back and forth battling, the record for largest dish of hummus was won by Chef Ramzi Choueiri and students in Lebanon for their 23,000 pound serving.
While this might sound like nothing more than friendly competition between neighboring countries, Dr. Ariel says he views the hummus record as an extension of the political climate. It is set, he explains, within “a rhetoric of violence that turns cooks into combatants.” Since 2008, Lebanon has been seeking a legal claim to hummus. By trademarking hummus in the European Union, they aim to regulate the proportions of ingredients allowed in the tasty dip and require Lebanese recognition on every label.
The history of hummus is largely unknown. In Arabic, the word simply means “chickpea,” but the dish hummus bi tahini has become so popular around the world that it is commonly referred to as simply hummus. The exact origin remains a mystery – the earliest recipe is found in a 13th century cookbook – yet several countries claim ownership of the dish. Because hummus exists between multiple foodways and constructions of identity, this attempt to trademark the dish raises questions of authenticity and gastro-nationalism. Who has a right to regulate claims to authenticity? Is authenticity a product of, or a producer of, identity and nationality?
According to Dr. Ariel, the hummus wars prove that, while food can serve to reconcile, it can also push things in the opposite direction. Far from a bridge to peace, this culinary rivalry creates a new space within which political conflict can work itself out. Whether this non-violent space will remain such is yet to be discovered. So the next time you reach for some hummus, remember that the dish is a little deeper than you thought.
Like family bibles and favorite children’s books, cookbooks are often singled out in the home for special treatment. They are kept separately from other books, passed down from generation to generation, with each caretaker inscribing his or her own name within it. However, unlike other treasured volumes, users regularly mark these texts with their own corrections or commentary, adding whole new sections or boldly crossing out recipes that have proved unsuccessful. Years of heavy use are reflected in repairs, occasionally made by professional binders, but more frequently accomplished with tape or needle and thread, providing a tangible link between the craft of cooking and other household crafts.
Don Lindgren, proprietor of Rabelais Fine Books on Food & Drink, made these points in his lecture “The Anatomy of a Cookbook: The Useful Object and Its Users.” This was the first talk in this year’s Jacques Pepin Lectures Series, offered by Boston University’s Programs in Food and Wine. Lindgren emphasized use of the term “object” rather than “text” in his title, noting that there are many aspects of cookbooks that scholars can learn from that beyond lists of ingredients and instructions for their preparation.
Referencing the methodology that historian Barbara Ketcham Wheaton presents in her seminar on Reading Historic Cookbooks, Lindgren encouraged the audience to look for details such as the number of ingredients a cookbook calls for, the source of those ingredients, and the kind of environment they might reflect. Scholars should also consider evidence of the range of equipment in use and the people involved in preparing food – from heads of households planning menus, cooks who prepared them, and the merchants, foragers and farmers who supplied the ingredients.
Lindgren pointed out the importance of considering the motivations of the publisher or author. Cookbooks do not just exist as a vehicle to share recipes; authors may seek to gain publicity for themselves, raise funds for a cause, or support advertisers. The use of pseudonyms is common in cookbook publishing. Lindgren illustrated this point with an example, noting that a volume published by the “Society of New York Gentlemen” sold far more copies after the author’s name was changed to the fictitious “Priscilla Homespun”.
In another example of cookbook sleuthing, Lindgren showed how a bookseller’s ticket, affixed to the inside of a collection of cocktail recipes that was published in 1862, shed light on another historical moment. This slip of paper, pasted inside the cover of the book, indicated that the volume was sold in a shop in Havana that was in business from 1873 to 1877, providing evidence that contradicts the conventional wisdom of when cocktail culture developed on the island of Cuba.
After his talk, participants were invited to examine a number of cookbooks from Lindgren’s shop. Many took home a catalog and went home inspired to consider the “useful objects” on their own kitchen shelves in a new light.
Members of the Gastronomy Community and the public are invited to a lecture by Dr. Helle Brønnum Carlsen on Taste and Judgment as a Key to Becoming a Responsible and Enjoying Eater (Food “Bildung”).
Dr. Carlsen will discuss an aesthetic approach to food, and how food knowledge and attitudes concerning foods (food Bildung, or food literacy) are used to frame the consumer’s choice as those of a responsible, reflexive human being. Dr. Carlsen, a scholar in food and aesthetics, obtained her Ph.D. at the Danmarks institut for Pædagogik og Uddannelse, now Århus University, from the Institute of Pedagogical Philosophy. She also has a Master of Arts in Literature from Copenhagen University, where she studied food and literature, and a Master’s degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry from DPU. In addition to teaching, Dr. Carlsen has served as an advisor for the Copenhagen House of Food, as a chef consultant for the Ministry of Education, food critic/reviewer in the monthly gastro-magazine Smag og Behag, freelance food writer, and lecturer. She has published 15 cookbooks, 2 academic books about food and philosophy/education and, most recently, a book for teaching food knowledge and cooking skills.
This lecture will be held on October 15, 2015 at 6:00 pm, in the College of General Studies, 871 Commonwealth Avenue, room 511, and is sponsored by the Gastronomy Program and Boston University’s Programs in Food and Wine.
Student Claudia Catalano recounts her experience cooking with Chef Jacques Pépin, one of the founders of the Gastronomy Program at BU and a celebrated chef in his own right.
It’s 7 pm on a Wednesday night. Eighty ticket-holding foodies sit attentively while gulping down sparkling rosé. I’m standing underneath a kitchen demonstration mirror, my hands trembling as I peel and core apples as fast as I can without losing a finger. The audience is captive, but not because of me. I could be flambéing a roast goose and they wouldn’t notice. Their eyes are fixed on the man by my side—the legendary Jacques Pépin.
I was proud and honored to be assisting the celebrated chef while he visited BU for three days. Pépin co-founded the Gastronomy program and at age 79, and he still comes to work with the culinary students each semester. The time spent with Jacques in the kitchen culminated in 2 evening events that were open to the public. For both nights, he demonstrated recipes from his 2007 book, Chez Jacques, while discussing his philosophy on food and his journey as an artist. Besides being a prolific author and beloved television personality, Jacques is also a painter.
The menu was the same for both dinners and reflected simple traditions from his lifetime of cooking. We started with fromageforte—a savory cheese spread made from odds and ends of leftover cheese (camembert, stilton, chèvre, cheddar, anything!), garlic, white wine, and a generous pinch of black pepper. Packed into little crocks and served with freshly made croutons, it was a quintessential product of his humble upbringing and resourceful approach to cooking.
We also made duck liver pâté with shallots, duck fat, ground bay leaves, thyme, peppercorns, and a few glugs of good cognac. The students hovered around an extra crock and slathered the rich earthy spread on the same crisp croutons.
While he demonstrated the dishes, cracked jokes, and told stories from his early years in New York, the students buzzed around behind the scenes to churn out scores of plated portions for every other course. With the help of Pépin’s longtime friend and equally accomplished chef, Jean-Claude Szurdak, we had been prepping and cooking for the event all day. After the fromage and pâté, we made truffle and pistachio sausage with warm leek and potato salad. Ground pork shoulder was seasoned with pickling salt, white wine and garlic, and then combined with chopped truffles and pistachios. Logs were rolled tightly in plastic wrap, then foil, and left to cure in the refrigerator for four days (these were made ahead). On the afternoon of service, we poached the sausages and cut thick slices to serve atop the potatoes.
For the main course we made chicken thighs with morel sauce and rice pilaf. The sauce was enhanced with the soaking liquid from the dried mushrooms, fruity white wine, the pan drippings, and cream. It was the perfect marriage of elegance and comfort food. To cap off the meal, we baked rustic apple tarts with hazelnut frangipane.
Amidst all the prepping and cooking for the big events, Jacques still found the time to teach us how to bone a whole chicken for galantine—a task I’ve seen him perform on videos and TV. He’s so approachable, it’s easy to forget how accomplished he really is. But when I watched him work I realized I was observing a man with a lifetime of embodied kitchen knowledge – knowledge that flows out of his fingers with ease and grace.
In addition to the perfected techniques and beautifully executed dishes, there’s so much more I took away from my three days with Jacques and Jean-Claude. So much that I had to boil it down to “Jacques’ credo”:
1) A chef is a craftsman before he is an artist. A young chef who is trying to be “creative” is like a writer who doesn’t have a good grasp of grammar—it just doesn’t work.
2) Good food should be simple.
3) Home is the best restaurant.
4) For experienced cooks, a recipe is an expression of one moment in time.
5) Food does more than fill a biological need. It can mean love, home, comfort…
6) The best food is the food you know (Jacques isn’t interested in what he called a “plated unborn vegetable”).
7) You can make a convincing “Champagne” by mixing white wine with Pabst Blue Ribbon (this one I got from Jean-Claude at the after-party!).
8) Great food is even better when shared with friends and the people you love. So if nerves get to you in the heat of the kitchen or you dropped your tart on the floor, just relax and have another glass of wine. As long as you keep good company, everyone will still have a good time.
Alumna Andrea Lubrano describes her exploits during the week-long Tent: Food NYC, exploring Jewish food culture in New York City from October 19th through the 26th, 2014.
New York City, a land made up of culinary diversity, was host to twenty remarkable individuals this past October during the first Tent: Food NYC, a program of the Yiddish Book Center. Hosted by The Center for Jewish History and led by Lara Rabinovitch, the Food Editor of Good Magazine and the “Queen of Pastrami,” this week-long intensive seminar had the best itinerary this gastronome could hope for. Plus, I got to share my most profound interests with likeminded individuals, who in one way or another understand the significance of food as a tool to preserve and enrich our cultural heritage and that of others.
Although this week, as one would imagine, explored specifically Jewish food culture in New York, it did so strictly under the parameters that Jewish food culture, like that of the Irish or Italians, is of equal significance to the fabric of the city, so there was little to no religious undertone.
To give you a re-cap of my week, every morning, more or less, we began our day defining the diversity of Jewishness in the realm of food traditions. We reviewed historic Jewish cookbooks and recipes held in the special collections library at the Center for Jewish History and also got a private showing of the menu and cookbook collection held at the New York Public Library.
We had a cooking demonstration with Eli Sussman, the head chef at Mile End Deli. We learned some pitching tips from a lecture with Gabriella Gershenson, the Food Features Editor at Every Day with Rachel Ray. We also went on a tour of Little Odessa and Brighton Beach with Knish expert Laura Silver, learned about MAZON, a national non-profit organization that works on ending hunger, and had a lecture with Mitchell Davis, Executive Vice-President of the James Beard Foundation, about the future of our food and the importance of intertwining flavor and health into the larger conversation.
I’m most definitely forgetting some other wonderful and informative events, probably because the week was so engaging and full of enriching experiences.
As if the daytime schedule wasn’t eventful enough, all the participants were required to dine together every night of the week. And further encouraged to talk to a different participant as a way to keep the group dynamics flowing. A memorable dinner, aside from the tasting at Bar Bolonat and the meal at La Vara, was probably our Shabbat dinner, where all twenty of us shopped, cooked and cleaned for a home-cooked-family-meal.
All in all, this experience has truly given me a whole new perspective on the revival of Jewish food in the U.S., which being a non-Jew I initially thought only encompassed matzo ball soup and pastrami sandwiches. Thanks to Tent, today I know that Moroccan tagines, Iraqi qatayef, borscht, mamaliga and kvass have more than one culture associated with them. At the heart of the Jewish diaspora live the roots of their culinary diversity, making Jewish food as geographically specific as that of any immigrant American. If you haven’t already looked up this wonderful program in the hopes of joining their next seminar, I’m sure the fact the program is completely free of charge will encourage you to do so. There are also fashion, creative writing, museums, journalism, pop music and comedy workshops under the Tent umbrella (www.tentsite.org/).