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Culinary Research: Tasting, Writings and People


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#1 ludja

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Posted 14 November 2005 - 11:43 AM

A quote from "The Note on Attribution" in the preface of "The Cooking of Southwest France" by Paula Wolfert.

“When I develop a recipe, I base it on my various tastings of the dish, the literature and oral lore that surrounds it, and my own amalgam of methods and techniques, most taught to me by various cooks through the years”.

Is there anything else you could share about how you approached the actual process and viewed the dynamic between researching recipes and traditions via tasting dishes, personal interactions and reading written sources?

Thank you very much!
"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"


#2 Wolfert

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Posted 15 November 2005 - 03:17 PM

It's really not a systematic process. I work more or less instinctively, but the primary source for everything I do is...FIELD WORK. (Caps intentional!) I can't emphasize this enough. I know some very successful cookbook authors whose fine recipes are derived from their excellent libraries. Their work entails studying texts then working out their versions in their kitchens. I can't seem to work this way -- I need to go there, meet the people, watch them cook, eat with them. When someone asked me why I emhpasize field work so much, I could only reply that I am after more than the recipe, I'm really after the spirit of the dish, the passion of the cooks who execute it well. I love their enthusiasm and find that it feeds my own.
“C’est dans les vieux pots, qu’on fait la bonne soupe!”, or ‘it is in old pots that good soup is made’.

#3 bleudauvergne

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Posted 16 November 2005 - 03:54 AM

Paula, how much time did you spend in the field, traveling in the SW, for the rewrite? Was it difficult, when you first started out, mustering up the courage to ask if you could enter a cooks kitchen and observe? For the restauranteurs, did you find that they readily volunteered to cook something specific that you requested, or did you find yourself more of a detached observer in their working kitchen?

#4 Wolfert

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Posted 16 November 2005 - 04:11 PM

Paula, how much time did you spend in the field, traveling in the SW, for the rewrite?  Was it difficult, when you first started out, mustering up the courage to ask if you could enter a cooks kitchen and observe?  For the restauranteurs, did you find that they readily volunteered to cook something specific that you requested, or did you find yourself more of a detached observer in their working kitchen?

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Good question. Thank you for asking it. For the rewrite, I didn't do all that much new field work -- just enough to catch what was going on. Remember, I had spent five years working on the first edition so I was very familiar with the region and knew lots of people there. As a result I knew exactly what I needed to do..... refresh my tastebuds, and figure out how to use newly available ingredients to introduce dishes that couldn't be made in the US at the time I first put out the book.

I work differently for each book I've published. Usually I make contact first and then arrive when invited and take away whatever is offered. If you spend enough time in a region you find a balance, and sometimes you're surprised: I may go to a cook for one dish, and take away another that's much more interesting.

Happily I now have a certain amount of "street cred" so I'm usually welcomed by chefs. Also, often a chef I know will call up one I don't know and introduce me. As for courage, I don't think field work is for the timid. You have to go for it because it won't land in your lap. I always prepare myself with a good kitchen vocabulary, and I always bring a home cook a gift -- nothing expensive or fancy, but something I think she might like. When I first meet a woman home cook, I will embrace her, kiss her and then touch my heart -- a way of showing friendship and building solidarity.

I genuinely like these women, and they can feel that. We have fun cooking together. With the chefs it's different. I still bring a gift such as maple syrup or some new fangled whisk. I work on the premise that you give before you take. THen I simply observe taking copious notes. They don't like being bothered during service, but I've been around enough to usually be able to understand what they're doing. If I have questions, I wait til service is finished before asking. It's always fun and exciting to stand in a restaurant kitchen when twenty or more dishes are being prepared at once, and to try and figure out as many as possible. But the greatest pleasure for me is to spend relaxed time in a home kitchen with another woman, with whom I can bond and share the pleasures of good home cooking. Maybe that is why I went back to the Mediterranean after the book was finished.
“C’est dans les vieux pots, qu’on fait la bonne soupe!”, or ‘it is in old pots that good soup is made’.

#5 bloviatrix

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Posted 16 November 2005 - 08:39 PM

The research you've done for all your books has taken you to multiple countries -- what languages do you speak? And when you have no proficiency in the local tongue - how do you communicate?
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#6 Wolfert

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Posted 17 November 2005 - 10:34 AM

The research you've done for all your books has taken you to multiple countries -- what languages do you speak?  And when you have no proficiency in the local tongue - how do you communicate?

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Tangier was a great place for me to start learning to speak and communicate in other languages. Three languages (FRench, Spanish & Arabic) were spoken by people there but not always by everyone. Sometimes people would start speaking in one language and then suddenly speak a second one ! I learned quickly to communicate with a few words to make contact and then to juggle the languages the way the locals did. This was great training for my work later on. I lived in Paris for 8 years and my children were born there so I speak French.

Before a field trip, I always make a point of learning kitchen vocabularies in languages such as Catalan, Sicilian, Turkish, and Italian, so I can figure out recipes when I read them in a local cookbook, and communicate with home cooks in their kitchens.

I also studied Georgian with a tutor, and Greek following the Pimsleur Method, and managed to speak each well enough (if quite poorly) to get by. (Please Note: I can/t remember a word of either language today.) Aglaia Kremezi can vouch for the fact that I learned to read and speak Greek poorly, because we traveled together through Northern Greece.

As for Georgian, the Georgians would show me off at parties by asking me to write out their name and words in their language. That was fun, but the tutoring I'd received turned out to be uncessary -- they all spoke excellent English!!!
“C’est dans les vieux pots, qu’on fait la bonne soupe!”, or ‘it is in old pots that good soup is made’.