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How a Poet Who Didn't Go to Cooking School Learns Culinary Acumen

I didn't go to cooking school. Most of my culinary acumen has come from cooking my family's recipes for over twenty years.

My aunt fixing noodles, 2012

As we say goodbye to 2022, I am taking a moment, like many of you, to reflect upon the impact of these past devastating years: my mom and aunt dying, my best friends' parents dying, so many people dying as COVID 19 took over our lives, I am happy to report that I learned some things this year, including how I am allowed to be mediocre and that I don't have to take everything so personally. And most importantly that food is everything.

This may sound flippant to some, but what I am trying to say is that when you cook other people's food, you will deepen your admiration and appreciation for their culture and traditions. You will make connections with people through their recipes. Your cooking journey through your cookbooks will help you expand your perspective on how ingredients can work together to elevate the eating experience, and identifying common crops is how we eat across borders e.g. collard greens can be found in so many food cultures and these common threads are what will save our humanity (or if nothing else bring more chairs to our dining table). Also, cookbooks can help us to examine our stereotypes about other people's food. Yes, it's true, we have stereotypes about each other's food.

How many times have I heard someone say that kimchi was smelly or insinuated that the food of my people was somehow not as desirable as other cuisines, say French.

Sure, I like coq au vin as much as the next bloke, but why must you make it out to be a competition? Okay, let's agree to agree that Korean food is the best food there is (haha, just kidding). But let me rephrase that to say that Korean food is the best food there is for me.

I am tipping off my hat to the brilliant Caroline Hagood whose recent Electric Literature post on the top seven books written by writers of color which helped her see beyond literary genre inpired me to do the same, but with cookbooks. So here goes nothing: My top seven cookbooks that are helping me cook beyond genre.

This list is in chronological order of when I got the books and not in order of preference. All offer good insight and practical information:

Sundays at Moosewood

My copy is stained and tattered, pages held together in various places along the spine with packing tape. This particular cookbook showcases ethnic and regional recipes from the cooks themselves and why I feel so connected to this book: each region includes an introduction by the cook, personal stories well worth reading. From Africa south of the Sahara to Mexico, over to Chile and Armenia you can really get a quick education on ingredients and cooking techniques specific to these countries/continents.

I cooked a lot from the Italy chapter. The cook Anthony Del Plato's recipes are homey and accessible, in terms of you can make a great pasta dish with a not a long grocery list--shells, broccoli, olive oil and garlic, voilá! I remember I made my first caponata and focacia to bring to the reproductive march on Washington in 1992. I boarded the bus with my bosom friend Rosie Schaap and we scooped caponata with the homemade yeasty bread. Rosie raved about both dishes, but I knew I needed to cook that eggplant more.

Yes, the recipes are tasty, but what is equally appealing and endearing are the remembrances the cooks share. Del Plato's story about his family, growing up in Brooklyn and how his mother mostly spoke Italian and didn't learn English until he was 8 years old. How great it must have been invited over to his house for dinner!

A Korean Mother's Cooking Notes

"I don't need a cookbook to cook Korean food" is not anything I would say. But I will freely admit that I don't measure much. My friend Bianca gave me this book right before I was coming back to NYC in Feburary 2005 after three years of living in Seoul. She wrote in her note that she knew I would miss my mom's cooking when I was back in New York, and she was right. Bianca's own beloved mother had died some years before she moved from Toronto to Korea.

The Korean mother in question is Chang Sun-Young who compiled family recipes into a book for her daugther-in-laws who kept asking her for recipes. There is a nostalgia this book evokes as many of the recipes are similar to my own family's, but my mom and aunt never wrote anything down on paper so I cook from memory. Or what Uncle Roger calls "feeling". And I guess, in a way, after years of cooking from this book, I have become an adoptive daughter-in-law to this Korean mother.

One of the most revelatory recipes in this book is for rice porridge (죽). The author writes that it was a good way to stretch rice especially in the hungry days when food was scarce. But this dish besides from being really delicious, represents the love and care of my mother who would make it for me whenever I got sick and couldn't eat anything else. This cookbook really is a love letter to all the daughters (and sons) of the Korean diaspora.

Vegetarian Cooking for Everybody

Deborah Madison really understands how we can build and expand our relationship to the vegetable kingdom. This tome of good eating is a lesson on how human carnivores can stop thinking about vegetables as sides: we can realign the food we put on our plates.

The Korean dinners my mom made were fully vegetable forward, and it came naturally to her because a trademark of Korean food is endless varietals of mountain greens, from fern bracken and sweet potato stems to minari and aster leaves. But we also ate a lot of meat because my dad liked it. I remember him telling me once that it was important to eat pork in the winter. I remember steak and bologna fried in butter taking up a lot space on our plates so it has taken some practice to redistribute my plate. Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone has become my encyclopedic resource, a complement to my other cookbooks that do not offer as many options on how to prepare leaves, roots, bulbs and stems in the way that Madison envisions.

Without this book, I would not have been able to imagine cauliflower as the head honcho in a curry with cashews or how a stew can just be tomatoes, red peppers and aromatics, which makes me realize just how meat-focused my cooking has been all of these years. And I don't say this in a judgemental way, for many of us the reality is that we have to eat what we got and eat when we can. And though I may be passing on the pork this winter, as I have been working on eating less of it, at least I know what all there is to eat instead.

Dori Sanders' Country Cooking

What I really love about Dori Sanders is how much of her family she shares with us. The sections in this wonderful cookbook offer us a photo album of family gatherings through regional cooking. I have never been to York County, South Carolina, but it sure does sound lovely and delicious! From chapters titled, "A Corn-Shucking Supper" to "Miss Hattie's Hurricane Survival Fireplace Dinner", you will be reveling in stories of old-fashioned hospitality and resilience––Miss Hattie really did have to cook over a fireplace in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo knocked out the electricity all through York County.

Another reason why I feel so connected to this cookbook is that it reminds me so much of A Korean Mother's Cooking Notes. I relate to the common thread between Sanders and Chang as they are both dedicated to keeping alive the tradition of cooking their family recipes, both have embued their books with love and warmth by sharing family lore and encouragement. Also Dori Sanders's wild persimmon beer recipe perked up my ears as persimmon is such a beloved Korean food crop. I love her description of layering persimmon, honey locust pods and cornmeal in a crock and then filling it with rain water.

Yes, country cooking is exactly what Korean cooking is.

Mad Hungry

Though this cookbook has been blurbed by the likes of Eric RIpert and Martha Stewart, don't mistake it for fancy. Nothing wrong with fancy, but fancy cooking is not what you want for everyday cooking, which is what this cookbook is all about.

I have depended on Mad Hungry for getting dinner on the table like a coal miner needs their headlamp. For sure Lucinda Scala Quinn knows how to put together recipes her boys and the rest of us can successfully execute. I like this book's focus on supporting young men in their journey on how to cook for themslves. Certainly, there is an outdated notion that women and girls are to do the lion's share of the cooking, but everybody eats so everybody can learn to cook.

Much like my boyfriend Matt's experience growing up in Kansas: one night a week he and his siblings were in charge of dinner. Matt cooked a lot of Tex-Mex cuisine for his family, tostada being a favorite. By the time we met, Matt had perfected his tostada technique and it's one of the first things he prepared for me as we first started dating. Perfecto.

There are some glitches in this cookbook, which will come as no surprise as it is impossible to expect one book to be everything to everybody. But as I am wholeheartedly critical of non-Koreans making what they think is Korean food, I did pause at Quinn's bibimbop recipe, which she named "Paulbimbop" after a friend who put his own Italian-Greek spin on it. But okay, live and let live. Eat and let eat. I continue to cook a lot recipes from this book, in particular the Crunchy Sesame Chicken Wings that are baked with a coating of sesame seeds, Vinegar Glossed Chicken and a vegan chocolate cake that comes out pretty fudgy. Success.

Cook Korean!

I would not normally say, "Cook Korean!" to anyone, but I will say, "Get this book!" especially if you are interested in learning more about Korean cooking. Robin Ha's vivid and quirky graphic novel of a cookbook is organized by types of cuisine e.g. noodles, seafood, etc. with an intro section listing basic pantry and icebox sundries that people not familiar with Korean food will find appealing and accessible.

Certainly one might find the anthropomorphisizing of tofu and drawing pigs with smiles (see kimchi stew recipe) while they are boiling in a pot disturbing. And the winking squid and mushrooms licking their lips don't do much for my appetite, but the recipes are solid and Ha thankfully keeps her "fusion" to a minimum (Spicy Caviar Mayonnaise?) And her kimchi recipe is legit––yes, it's okay to cut your Napa cabbage to make a quick kimchi. Even the purists will need to sit down on this one. My old Korean lady aunt made kimchi this way many times.

In Cook Korean! as with A Korean Mother's Cooking Notes, Dori Sanders' Country Cooking, and Mad Hungry, you will observe that family is key. And for many of us who keep returning to our families because they are our beginning, Ha's depiction of her mother are especially dear and poignant. She pays homage to her mother, a single working woman, for making sure that dinner was always on their table when she was growing up. And I vibe with this so much because my mom, though not single, but working everyday and getting home late, always managed to get hot food into our bowls.

My mom passed away on Mother's Day of 2020 and not a day goes by that I don't think about her, but I keep her memory alive and well whenever I cook the foods she used to cook for me, many of which I can find in this terrific comic book cum cookbook.

In Bibi's Kitchen

You will meet eight strong and lovely bibis (grandmothers ) from eight African countries that "touch the Indian Ocean" in this utterly satisfying cookbook. Throughout the chapters, you will find, in addition to historic info, beautiful photos of the grandmothers alongside their favorite recipes plus a Q&A that includes their life philosophy and thoughts on cooking.

With In Bibi's Kitchen, you will feel lucky to be in the good hands of eight bibis who share their wisdom in the structure of their recipes, thoughtfully taking into consideration the econonmy of money and time. And if you grew up in a family that had to keep careful count of pennies and cents like I did, then you will appreciate how many of these recipes keep their ingredient lists short.

And what a revelation how just a handful of ingredients can yield such deliciously appealing dishes. For instance, in the Tanzania chapter, you will meet Ma Shara whose stewed eggplant in coconut milk recipe is spectacularly unfussy and flexible, and redeemed for me how not to under cook eggplant.

Ma Shara shares how much it means for her to pass down her food traditions to her children:

" means a lot to me to pass these foods and how to cook them to my children and grandchildren so they can know what we eat, because there's a lot of benefits to eating what we eat. It's nutritious, healthy food, especially compared to a lot of contemporary food."

I know my mother would be nodding her head in agreement.


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