If you know me — or at least the social media me — you know that Ina Garten taught me how to cook. And so did Martha Stewart, The Kitchn, America’s Test Kitchen, Mark Bittman, Julia Child and others. All white people. I never noticed that until recently, like really recently. And while they taught me very well, it was a lot of sameness.
As the world continues to focus on Black Lives Matter and social justice, my eyes have been opened to many new (to me) chefs and writers of color. I am learning something new every day. It feels good to finally see so much more of the food world now. But, that is my privilege. I am lucky to have felt so safe in my little world of roast chickens and CSA shares and shopping at Trader Joe’s. I will continue to cook many of my familiar favorites, but now I’m making lots of new things, too.
A few years ago, I bought Alon Shaya’s modern Israeli cookbook, Shaya. I had been to his restaurant in New Orleans (pre-Besh shake-up) and had my best meal in years. I thought about that food for months, it was completely new to me. Then, last year, it was Hsiao-Ching Chou’s cookbook Chinese Soul Food. Thank you, Lucinda Scala-Quinn for recommending it. I’m so thankful for how she made Chinese food feel accessible to me, someone who’d only ever made fried rice in the past. (And that fried rice was a recipe a friend had given me, which I followed to the letter.) When I actually made the fried rice, I realized how customizable it was…and that is how I like to cook, sort of off the cuff. So, I was definitely drawn to that. Cooking from both Chinese Soul Food and Shaya gave me a little more confidence, but I am still working. Another book I am cooking from now is Madhur Jaffrey‘s Quick and Easy Indian Cookery which was recommended to me by Mrs. Jaffrey’s daughter Sakina, who is a friend of mine. She said that she thought I could probably handle a more advanced cookbook of her mother’s, but I took her advice and found an old copy of the book online. It is small and simple and I love it. I now look back on making Mark Bittman’s shrimp curry a few years ago and wonder why I didn’t try to find an Indian chef’s version.
Other than just feeling kind of intimidated, there are other factors that have limited my willingness to jump into new cuisines. For example, living by myself. I could never let myself completely dive in, buy ingredients I don’t use often and then have no space to store them. But once I got going, researching and shopping for ingredients became a really fun part. I like to tinker in the kitchen. Also, since I am the only one eating it, I’d sometimes I worry about having too much food. I generally do share a lot of food with friends, but with COVID and for the most part being confined to my apartment, that’s harder to do right now. With a little time under my belt, I’ve been able to figure out which ingredients are staples for me and which were not always necessary. I’m still figuring that out as I continue with Indian, next up is Thai. I just picked up both Priya Krisna’s Indian(ish) and Leela Punyaratabandhu‘s Simple Thai Food, so I am quite excited!
I am very thankful for a strong foundation of cooking skills. It’s taken me nearly 20 years and I am still learning. I firmly believe that once you get a handle on some basic techniques, figure out what flavors and ingredients work well together, you are off to a good start. You must listen to experienced cooks in areas you are interested in, follow them, watch, learn. Wade in slowly. See how it feels — chances are you will figure out quickly which cuisines you are drawn to and then you should try to learn more. Like for me, Chinese pulled me in immediately. The flavors, heat, many ingredients I was already familiar with, how easy it was to switch things up based on what I had on hand. However, I highly recommend following recipes closely the first time you make new things, especially if you’re not super familiar with it. And, again, read everything you can from trusted sources.
I am part of a new cookbook club organized by a friend of mine. It’s a small group of us and we’ve only met once so far. Basically, it started with a cookbook chosen by the person who brought us all together. She chose Smitten Kitchen and we all made dishes from the book, brought them to one member’s home (in early March) and talked about recipes that worked or didn’t, what we liked about the book, etc. That night’s host chose the next book and her selection was Jubilee by Toni Tipton-Martin. We have met once post-COVID for a quick hello via Zoom…but really, we are on hiatus until things feel safer to gather. Hopefully, we can meet later this summer or early fall to dive in and cook from this wonderful book.
As I started to look through Jubilee, my mind went back to race and my own whiteness. I told a friend recently that I honestly felt like I never really saw someone’s race or color before. I know that deep down, I did see it. I just chose to see what I wanted to see, or not see. Now, especially where food is concerned, I feel like I now see color first before anything else. I don’t really know how to explain that properly. I guess with so much discussion about race, equality and social justice, that color is just now — finally, for me — front of mind. That is my privilege. I’m just so sorry it took me until 53. I feel like I failed. But now is my chance to do better.
Throughout this new route on my food journey (I don’t love the word journey but it just works sometimes), I find that I am wondering how to learn and grow and share while remaining genuine? “Listen, try, go slow” are my first thoughts, like my approach to new cuisines. My growth as a cook in general has been pretty gradual overall. I want to keep focusing on new (to me) voices and approaches to food and cooking. Even before the world narrative became focused on social justice, I was feeling like I needed to change my focus but I didn’t know how. I was feeling lost. I even thought maybe it was time to stop completely, delete my Instagram. But then I wondered, how do I use this platform for good, maybe to help other home cooks to learn and grow, too? That is where I am now. Figuring it out.
I guess all of this is to say, I am working to become more of an ally. I always assumed I was one.
Nope, not even close.