On a First Name Basis

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This stock-photo model knows what I’m talking about.

 

I spend a lot of time with Stefano.

We often cook into the evenings, side by side. He makes me more adventurous, urging me to cook with new ingredients and techniques. Stefano has taught me everything I know about Italian cooking.

But I’m not sure if I should call him by his first name. Because despite how well I feel I know him, we’ve never met. Stefano Manfredi is the author of the bible of regional Italian cooking, Stefano Manfredi’s Italian Cooking. Should I call him Mr Manfredi? Just Manfredi, as is the academic convention for an author?

‘Manfredi’ just won’t do, though. Stefano and I have been through too much together to resort to such formality.

Thankfully, I’m not alone in feeling overly-familiar with cookbook authors. Recently I recieved an informal lesson in Jewish cooking from my friend C. As we rolled kibbeh, she told me different methods for making the dish that she had received from her mother and from ‘Claudia’. From C’s comments, I pictured Claudia as a perfectionist maiden aunt who had enough time to beat eggs before combining them with matzo meal. It turned out that she was in fact famed Jewish food historian Claudia Rodan (who is an egg-white beating perfectionist, but unfortunately not C’s maiden aunt).

Even the most tersely written cookbook is an incredibly intimate text. We learn about the life of the author from the headnote. We take advice from cookbook authors about something that is deeply personal – the food we prepare for our friends and family. At a physical level, we perform actions exactly the way the cookbook author has done before us. The relationship between cook and recipe writer involves emotional, mental and physical intimacy.

Hmm. Putting it like that, perhaps it isn’t seem so strange to use someone’s first name.

 

Readers, do you refer to your favorite food writers by their first name? How well do you feel you know them?

Weekly Reading #7

Every Sunday (or at least by the following Wednesday) I’ll share the most interesting articles I’ve read on cooking, eating and food culture in the past week.

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Biscuits as far as the eye can see. 
  • The folks over at The Conversation have some bad news for you. Everything You Eat is Made of Chemicals. The humorous introduction to food science explains how the word ‘chemical’ is misused in the popular discourse around food. It also includes a video of a man pouring multiple cans of Coke on a cast iron trivet. What’s not to love about that?
  • The Difference Between Potato Flour and Potato Starch, by Gluten Free Gigi, is an important read if you intend to use either ingredient. One makes your biscuits thrillingly crumbly, and the other makes them taste like potatoes. Yikes!
  • Finally, in honor of starving writers everywhere, here is 23 Recipes that Celebrate the Humble Bean by Serious Eats. Go bean it up, my friends.

The Danger of Chef as Dietician

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In my (completely unqualified) opinion, if a food can be balanced on a dumbbell then it is healthy. Problem solved.

 

It should be relatively straightforward. Dieticians tell us what to eat. Chefs tell us how to eat it.

But nothing involving humans is ever simple.

In Australia at the moment, celebrity chef Pete Evans is currently enjoying a somewhat troubled moment in the sun. Evans rose to fame as one of the kindly judges of the hapless home-cooks on My Kitchen Rules. (He also keeps tight control of his image, so I can’t post it here, but if you’d like to gaze upon his preternaturally white smile you can do so here.) You wouldn’t think to look at him that he’d be able to generate much controversy, let alone howling hatred. But generate it he has.

Evans’ nickname is ‘Paleo Pete’ and, when he’s not consoling people whose soufflés have fallen on national TV, he is vigorously promoting the Paleo diet. The diet is based around excluding food groups with the aim of returning us to a pre-Industrial level of health. Evans has been accused of advocating food in place of prescribed medicine; recommending bone broth instead of infant formula; and generally speaking too authoritatively on the issue of nutrition for someone who is not, in fact, a dietician.

Though Paleo Pete is advocating a diet that is a bit more controversial than most, he is part of a proud lineage of chefs turned nutrition crusaders. The most prominent is of course Jamie Oliver, who has done battle with everyone from hamburger-clutching American parents, to new mothers who don’t realise just how easy breastfeeding is. In fact, chefs and food writers have been at it for centuries, with most Victorian-era cookbooks including a section on ‘Invalid Cookery’.

It’s made me wonder just who has the right to publically give nutrition advice.

These questions have arisen because, in my challenge to learn every technique in Leith’s Technique Bible, I’m currently up to the section on nutrition.

Leith’s states that it is the cook’s responsibility to know the basics of nutrition, in order to provide a nutritionally-balanced meal to the people they serve. This duty is the same regardless of whether they’re cooking for family, friends, or a corporate buffet of 200 at the Hilton.

Cooks – either of the home or Hilton variety – need to know that a lactating woman requires more calories, a diabetic should have less carbohydrate, and that no one in the world needs a savoury dish that contains a whole carton of double cream. But should they ever publically advocate these positions, and in doing so represent themselves as an expert in human nutrition to a credulous public?

It’s clearly not practical to make every food professional take a vow of secrecy upon learning any health information. However, cooks and food writers (including bloggers like myself) need to take precautions when talking about nutrition.

  • First off, we need to make sure we actually know what we’re talking about. That means finding out what the scientific consensus is, rather than going with our ‘gut feeling’.
  • Secondly, we need to ensure that our training or expertise is clear. In case you’re wondering, I score a ‘0’ on both counts.
  • Finally, we need to link back to sources written by actual dieticians.

As a consumer, if the blogger or chef you’re reading isn’t informed and transparent, then consider if you should listen when they tell you to cut out dairy.

Weekly Reading #6

Every Sunday (Or Monday. Probably Monday) I’ll share the most interesting articles I’ve read on cooking, eating and food culture in the past week.

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Somehow, even though I didn’t have enough time to write a blog post yesterday, I did manage to make these biscuits. And eat all of them.
  • Food History Research Tips is the perfect starting point for any food history research project. The guide is hosted on the Food History timeline, and I wouldn’t recommend venturing into the main part of the site unless you have nothing to do for the rest of the week. It’s seriously addictive history.
  • The Kitchn answers the question: How Much Would You Pay a Professional to Babysit your Sourdough Starter? Reading this article, all I could think of was the scene in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential where Adam the drug-addled baking savant rings his boss and yells at him, “Feed the bitch…feed the bitch or she’ll die!”
  • Opression Food is a video featuring Chef Sean Sherman (‘The Sioux Chef’). In response to the ‘food deserts’ wreaking havoc on many Native American communities, Chef Sherman advocates a return to pre-colonial foodstuffs as an act of political resistance. Fascinating stuff if you like your dinner with a side of politics.
  •  One for the gamers: some hero at Serious Eats has made the cake from Portal. Apparently It’s Delicious, No Lie.