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Saturday, March 8, 2008 -- 6:31 am

Having finished the Schoenberg, I've started a book on the city of Timbuktu, past and present. As usual, the first few dozen pages prompted a mad search for more information -- not that I'm in any position to buy up all existing books on the subject, or to download all possible files, articles, and archives, but just to find out what's out there. Who can blame me? To be hearing of an African "ink road" across the Sahara comparable to the Asiatic spice and silk roads, and an impossible desert cities renowned for its libraries and its insatiable appetite for learning and books of all kind; to be hearing of a gleaming Benin capital city where all public buildings were plated in brass (not to mention the production of stunning brass sculpture portraits); naturally I want to hoard and savor these details. But there's surprisingly little out there. Still, I've got the book in my hand, which is a start. But nearly everything else on the market discussing the history of Timbuktu (and there's very little) seems to be pitched, quite literally and intentionally, to a fifth-grade social studies reading level. How frustrating not to have any actual scholarship on so fascinating a topic.

While I'm on the rant, let me cite some more gaps in the scholarly record: Inca metallurgy, and intellectual history (especially the history of science) in medieval Spain and especially Cordoba and the province of Al-Andalus. To judge from various museum exhibits, the Incas came within a jaguar's whisker of discovering electricity -- the chemical mixtures they used for electroplating are certainly work as batteries. And apparently, modern chemistry and many key synthetic processes were discovered or invented during Islam's golden scientific age. I would also dearly love more insight into the fabled central Asian cities of Tashkent and Samarkand. There are a few photographic volumes, which I'd love to peruse but can't spare money on right now, but I'd like a solid meat-and-potatos political, cultural, natural, and intellectual history of these issues.

Of course, there's always the hope that some enterprising and qualified person is working to fill these gaps in the record as I write this. I was similarly incensed about five years ago when I read about the cannibalistic leopard societies of West Africa in another museum exhibit, and a few apparently scholarly works have appeared on the subject in the last couple years.

Sunday, March 2, 2008 -- 7:32 am

There are interesting things you discover as you try to master another culture's cuisine. There's the usual exposure to interesting spices (grains of paradise and long black pepper (pippal) being exciting additions this time around), and the adjustment of heating requirements as you discover that modern cooking in the west tends to involve shorter times and higher temperatures than were available in distant places and earlier times. Sometime, when I'm less hungry, I'll have to experiment with how lower heat for longer periods affects the flavor; I know from my first real cooking style, Indian, that different spices have different optimal times and temperatures for the release of flavor. There are the accommodations of nutritional and palatal sensibility -- such as my strong preference for a little olive oil in my Indian, Persian, and Ethiopian cooking rather than the multiple cups of butter that traditional recipes seem to always call for. (Don't get me wrong -- I love butter! But not congealed over my refrigerated leftovers.) And, as well-illustrated by these last, I've discovered that I'm not a food purist.

This surprises me. I've ranted before, I think, about my bedtime reading of LaRousse Gastronomique and coming across a curry recipe that could only be interpreted as the French interpretation of the English and/or Bangladeshi interpretation of the original Indian recipe, and how my own curries, derived from a cherished cookbook, have won the stamp of approval of various friends of Indian descent but bear no resemblance to the fare served by the curiously homogeneous Indian restaurant industry. Perhaps the issue isn't so much that these adapted recipes are inauthentic, but that they can't possibly taste as good as the original; but this only begs the question of matters of taste, and we start the rapid, coriolitic spiral into absolute relativism in culinary matters.

So I have never used commercial curry powder. This might be part snobbery, but I enjoy mixing the different ingredients from scratch and experimenting with different combinations. I do, however, use commercial mixtures like garam masala and berbere as a matter of convenience, though I've occasionally mixed those from scratch as well. The olive oil is probably a matter of taste and texture (doesn't gum up the mouth as much as butter does), but it also lets me cook at high temperatures without burning -- and so occasionally lets me reduce the cooking time to something under two hours. I occasionally regret the strong whiff of olive when I start to saute my onions, but it's long forgotten by the time the spices are added. Although I recognize that they're good for the flavor, I just don't like bones in my food. And I'm sure there are countless departures in the nature and quality of ingredients available in my local store from what the cookbook authors would have preferred. I've noticed that my locally available eggplants are monstrous compared to what must be available elsewhere (1-2 "local" ones barely squeezing into the pot when the recipe calls for 9), that the blah supermarket tomatos, which are infinitely inferior to those from a farmer's market, must be an altogether different animal from those used abroad in terms of flavor, acidity, and liquid content, and that the "red onion" called for in Ethiopian recipes is presumably something else entirely from the red salad onions the local purveyor puts on display.

The ultimate point of cooking, of course, is to make food you like. (Nutrition would be nice, too, I suppose; and considering, especially in light of recent news stories, I really like having as much control as possible over what ends up in my food.) And the cook is also sometimes restricted by the limited range of ingredients that are actually available, and sometimes liberated by having other items available that the foreign cook might actually have preferred. As I see it, when I depart from the original recipe, the decision isn't motivated by cultural or ideological superiority, or whatever it is that made my grandmother mechanically substitute canned ingredients when the recipe called for fresh ones. Sometimes they win me back a little time for other things. Sometimes they remove or replace ingredients I just don't like. And sometimes they feel like genuine improvements. But a crucial point that probably gets overlooked in debates about purism (if they take place, as I assume they must -- what isn't debated these days?) is that purism is probably a much rarer standard for criticism in the country of origin. A native speaker can get away with intentional lapses in grammar or vocabulary that would never be tolerated in a student because they're presumed to know what their doing, and to somehow have some independent claim of entitlement to the language. By the same token, within a culinary tradition, recipes for the same dish will vary widely, and cooks range in skill far more than native speakers do. So if my cooking is at least as good as *some* cook native to the tradition might be able to pull off under the circumstances, that should be good enough, and purism can, without further reflection, take a back seat to the things that really matter, like flavor and growing as a cook.