October 2004

Tom Bernard


Spanning the Globe

And so, without quite planning it, I ended up taking the summer (and part of the fall) off. Wasn’t quite intentional, wasn’t wholly avoidable, but there you go. Public apologies to Jessa for my slackertude, and to the, oh, let’s be optimistic and say six people who read this column for depriving you of your virtual fishwrap lo these past few issues.

Among the reasons for my absence from these pages was the fact that I recently began a new job, one that required me to pack up The Lovely Wife and The Kid and move them across the vastness of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Not a great journey in terms of the miles covered, but there’s been a certain amount of culture shock involved in going back to working for a living after a prolonged absence from the world of grown-ups, and although I’m again living in the area where I grew up, coming back to the area has required me to reconcile where I am now with my own adolescent reminiscences of the place.

Bear with me; there’s a point to this, beyond the fact that I’d probably do well to use the health insurance that comes with the aforementioned new job to find myself a good therapist, because clearly I have Issues. In fact, there’s even a culinary point to this.

The point is this: I was more or less comfortable living in Boston. One of the things that made me comfortable was that I knew the culinary landscape. I knew where to get a good (dammit, a great) cup of coffee, and where the best burritos were to be had, which barbecue joint had the best atmosphere and which the superior food. A good burger? But of course. A brunch worth waiting in line for? Got it. Great pizza?

Well, here we come to a bit of a problem. It’s not that there was any shortage of passable, even good pizza in the greater Boston area. It’s just that over time, I came to realize that I could make a better pizza at home than we could ever find at any local pizzeria. It all comes down to a question of subjective judgment masquerading as an obsessive-compulsive pursuit of the Platonic ideal of Pizza-ness. Making perfect pizza is an alchemical process, in which dough (rolled paper thin, because, and again, I’ll cop to this being totally subjective, my perfect pizza has a nice, crisp crust), sauce and cheese metamorphose into something far greater than the sum of its respective parts. Expecting the guy on the corner to have all these elemental ducks in a row is, unfortunately, less certain than pulling a damn-near perfect pizza out of my own oven would be.

Again, this is not just a question of pizza. The same is true of burgers, or chicken soup or apple pie, hummus, pho, cassoulet or mole poblano, comfort food or haute cuisine (or a fusion of the two).

Every food has its proponents, its advocates, people who know, exactly what the right, best, most authentic, tastiest incarnation of that food is, and how it should be prepared. Of course, as with my quixotic quest tilting at the windmills of pizza excellence, there’s a lot of room for argument. For example, the fact that my late grandmother made the best apple pie that ever was or ever shall be doesn’t overlook the fact that there are those misguided souls who insist that they hold the secret to pie-ful perfection. Of such disagreements are family feuds born. At the same time, it’s safe to say that in most cases it’s possible to reach, if not a compromise, then at least a tacit agreement that the exemplar of any recipe has certain qualities on which almost all proponents can agree. [The most notable exception being the whole proper New England Clam Chowder versus Hideous Manhattan Tomato Monstrosity debate, in which there can be no accommodation made.] Thus, most culinary feuds exist in a state of uneasy gastronomic détente.

Anya Von Bremzen’s The Greatest Dishes: Around the World in 80 Recipes exists in this demilitarized zone. The premise of the book is quite simply to research and present the exemplary version of some of the greatest dishes in the global culinary canon. From Apple Pie to Wiener Schnitzel, Von Bremzen explores the history, and the characteristics of some of the most popular foods to capture the global imagination. She then endeavors to present a recipe that encapsulates the ideal version of each dish, the one that will satisfy reader’s appetites for both good food and nostalgia.

Clearly, this is a subjective undertaking, especially when it comes to comfort food. There is no possible way to satisfy every palate with a recipe for something like chicken soup. It’s one of those global comfort constants, with as much variation in preparation as there is in the places where it is prepared. Von Bremzen tips her hand about the impossibility of presenting 80 empirically ideal recipes when she discusses fried chicken. After discussing the proper way to prepare classic American southern fried chicken (and yes, I know that’s something one can never truly achieve but that they were born in the south, but let’s stipulate that it is at least theoretically possible to cook chicken in hot fat anywhere these two ingredients can be found), she notes that the best fried chicken she ever had came from Georgia -- Tbilisi, that is, just like her own mother used to make.

At best, a book like The Greatest Dishes is a survey course in global cuisine. Despite her stated aspirations, ones she achieves in large measure through a combination of good research, engaging writing, and recipes that make for darn good cookin’, it seems unlikely that Von Bremzen intended the book to be comprehensive. The book is a good place to start, one that serves as a foundation for further exploration and experimentation, because adding personal touches to a recipe is what truly makes a dish great.

The Greatest Dishes: Around the World in 80 Recipes by Anya Von Bremzen
ISBN: 0060197315
368 Pages