Food and drink 

Middle Eastern food flight - Breaking down time, geography and stereotypes

I was visiting with an old friend the other day and, over a fine impromptu lunch, we ended up talking about favourite food writers.

The context was that food, given its double-barreled status of primality and universality, can be a metaphor to delve into nearly any old whim, be it political, cultural, sociological, anthropological or just plain fun.

I mentioned that two of my favourites were the eclectic M.F.K. Fisher and the more contemporary Michael Pollan. I like Fisher because she liked to shake people up with her cooking, dubbed by her ex-husband as her cuisine personnelle . She would then turn around and use food in her writing as an entry point into everything from World War II politics to her families’ quirks and, in her later years, death.

Pollan, of An Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire best-seller fame, is an equally dynamic and accessible writer who can have you regarding food from polar-opposite perspectives, and in ways seldom considered. What about we humans as personal caterers to plants’ desires? Or the natural history of a Chicken McNugget laid out at your feet?

My friend Mark’s favourite is Claudia Roden, and while I think I’m modestly well informed about food and cooking and writings about same, I drew a blank at the mention of her name. This, apparently, is as culturally revealing as other manifestations of my Canadian-ness.

Born to a Jewish family in Cairo, Roden later moved to London where she became a writer of substantial and much deserved acclaim. This partially explains her greater fame and popularity with Europeans and Englishmen of a certain persuasion, like my pal who hails, as does composer Benjamin Britten, from Lowestoft, the easternmost town in Britain.

Sadly for us, Roden is not so well known this side of the Atlantic, with the exception of those steeped in the culinary arts no matter which side of the great pond they come from, including Nigella “The Domestic Goddess/Celebrity” Lawson, who also happens to be from England.

Lawson penned a glowing endorsement for Roden’s most recent book, the award-winning 2005 Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon, in which she re-visits the cuisines explored in her first book to see how they’ve evolved since the 1960s.

But Lawson’s comments pale in comparison to this one by historian and former New Yorker art/cultural critic, Simon Schama: “Claudia Roden is no more a simple cookbook writer than Marcel Proust was a biscuit baker. She is, rather, memorialist, historian, ethnographer, anthropologist, essayist, poet…” I laughed aloud at the image of Proust as biscuit baker.

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