Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Mediterranean Cooking

This September, I'll be teaching a seminar in the Graduate Liberal Studies Program at Wesleyan University, "Multiculturalism in the Art and Architecture of the Medieval Mediterranean." I'm very excited to return to this topic. Last time I taught this class, at Swarthmore College in Spring 2003, I used cooking to introduce the complexities of the topic. In the absence of a textbook form pan-Mediterranean art, we read excerpts (and recipes) from Clifford Wright's, The Mediterranean Feast: The Story of the Birth of the Celebrated Cuisines of the Mediterranean from the Merchants of Venice and the Barbary Corsairs (New York, 1999). Class specimens included cannolis procured from Philadelphia's Italian Market. I truly believe that the cannoli is the best example for medieval interactions in Sicily, the marriage of local shepherds (cheese) and the introduction of sugar by the Arabs. During my time at Monte Polizzo, the Stanford Excavation in western Sicily, I witnessed a further multi-cultural creation: the granita con vodka. Imagine, delicious hand-shaven granita with an American alcoholic spin. The bars of Salemi accommodated this cocktail beautifully.

I am happy to see some new publications on medieval cuisine since 2003, most notably Lilia Zaouli's
Medieval Cuisine in the Islamic World: A Concise History with 174 Recipes (Berkeley, 2007). This is a great addition to English bibliography, the volume had already been available in French and Italian. The preface is written by the Islamic cuisine historian Charles Perry, who among many things has written “The Taste for Layered Bread among the Nomadic Turks and the Central Asian Origins of Baklava,” in Culinary Cultures of the Middle East ed. S. Zubaida and R. Tapper (London 1994), pp. 88-91. Another new book is Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination (New Haven, 2008) by Yale historian Paul Freedman. See also the interview on The Splendid Table (NPR, July 12, 2008). Freedman dispels many of the myths about medieval spices (such as its function of keeping food from spoiling) and connects their allure to religious and social practices.

Mediterranean cooking made a large appearance on a recent Martha Stewart Show devoted to international chefs. Among the guests were my favorite hipster Jamie Oliver, who prepared a Sicilian squid linguine. A couple of years ago, Oliver toured Italy in his VW camper, connected with the people, and collected recipes (mostly from southern Italy) for his book
Jamie's Italy (New York, 2005). Oliver is by far the most relaxed cook and it was great to see him make mistakes on live TV (I hope they weren't staged).

Another guest was the much less known Jim Botsacos, who prepared roasted jumbo prawns. Botsacos is the chef of Molyvos, a well-established Greek restaurant on Seventh Avenue, just below Central Park in New York. I cannot help but associate this restaurant with Eleni Gage (author of
North of Ithaka, New York, 2005) who first took me there in 2006. Jim Botsacos has co-authored The New Greek Cuisine (New York, 2006), which is based on his recipes for Molyvos. I will always associate Molyvos with the fabulous Greek-American writer Eleni N. Gage, whose memoir North of Ithaka (2005) has rejuvenated Nicholas Gage's Eleni (1983) into a second generation. When I first met Eleni, she was still working for People Magazine and we met around the corner from her office at Molyvos. We had some mezedes, we couldn't afford the entrees. That same year, my mother-in-law (an expert chef) got the Molyvos cook book, having no idea that we had actually been to the restaurant.

No comments:

Blog Archive

Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States