The Urban Forager Returns...
Summertime used to be slo-mo time. School was out; some lucky folk experienced a real vacation time. But now, I find myself working around the temperature rather than the clock; vacations are staggered; school schedules are no longer three months based on the “agrarian calendar.” Walking begins in the early dawn, racing against the waves of heat that begin well before noon. I squeeze in productive activity as all bets are off in the late afternoon. At some point, usually well after the sun goes down, I re-awaken to catch the cool. Has summertime lost its unspooling quality? When was the last time you sat outside for a good part of the day, feeling warm rather than blast-furnace air? Did you, like me, sit under a generously spreading tree, reading a book until overtaken by sleep?
Spun silk of mercy,
sun urging purple blossoms from baked stems.
What better blessing than to move without hurry
Naomi Shihab Nye
Since my last post honoring Mother’s Day well back in May, my summer ritual all but disappeared, overtaken by a publishing deadline for The Urban Forager: Culinary Exploring & Cooking on L.A.'s Eastside. Writing a cookbook, with its exacting requirements, is not for the faint of heart. Its gestation is longer than the carrying time for a baby elephant, and the finished product evinces none of the intensity of the process. As a bridge between pre-cookbook Urban Forager and post-cookbook Urban Forager, I cannot help but share some of its in-process content, as the back story to creation so often includes unseen commitment and labor.
The most inspiring part of this work was searching for and connecting with some of the eastside’s great cooks. Of the five profiled—Sumi Chang, Minh Phan, Rumi Mahmood, Mario Rodriguez, and Jack Aghoian—three are home cooks whose journey towards expertise is both inspiring and feasible. All have been extraordinarily welcoming and supportive; their generosity contributing as well to an unexpected side effect of this project: a fifteen-pound weight gain.
Sumi Chang, Jack Aghoian with his parents Mary and Abraham, Minh Phan, Rumi Mahmood, and Mario Rodriguez. Photos by Ann Cutting.
Their stories are enriched by family members, mentors, and in the case of Rumi and Minh, links between their home countries' food cultures with their adopted country’s possibilities. Of the five, I knew only Sumi and Mario personally. The other three received an email from me out of the blue, asking them to participate in a cookbook that until recently was without a publisher. Each gave me liberal amounts of their personal time, so necessary for a cookbook that depends upon understanding of origin and authentic cooking style. I treasured sitting down with each of these cooks, interviewing them, hearing about their early experiences with food, and then working with a gifted young illustrator, Simone Rein, on visualizing these influences through the metaphor of a personalized table overflowing with delights.
I stood side by side with each of these cooks, watching them work, tracking each step as they made one beautiful dish after another. In all cases, photographer Ann Cutting and I ate what was made, meaning we were treated to pozole, lemon bars, saag, shrimp dopiaza, jahl ghost curry, vegan rice porridge, guacamole, cabbage rolls, yogurt, negi oil, nut cookies, salsa, and frittata. In some cases, the recipes were reverse engineered at every step for dishes that had never been recorded. In others, a recipe was more than ingredients and steps, but a way into understanding the qualities of a great cook.
In documenting Rumi's recipes, we managed to combine our work with a four-course, elegantly presented meal. Between each course, Ann and I ran outside where the light was better to capture a newly plated dish.
Simone's first sketch of Rumi's Table of Influences and the final drawing. Each table went through a number of revisions as the cooks considered how their food history made visual sense.
The words of each cook reveal a conviction that cooking is a form of energizing, creative delight rather than a chore.
One thing I decided is that people who love to cook do so because they are all aesthetic.
The markets in New Mexico were so physically beautiful. They had these corn kernels that were almost blue. They have this sensual quality of food that you either get or you don’t. My jaw kept falling!
The reason I am a cook is that my greatest creativity came out when I made something from whatever I could find in the refrigerator. This began in my childhood and continues today.
Cooking is like breathing. I pride myself on making something from nothing and don’t use a recipe.
I have a starter for bread. I tell my daughter Paloma it is her big sister because when Monica was pregnant, I decided to start my first starter dough with my own wild yeast trap and it’s fine. It's almost nine years old.
Writing the cookbook has felt seamless: a natural expression of my belief in community's variations on the common table. Watch for more stories as the journey to its publication continues. And in the meantime, may you find a quiet moment within our overheated days and enjoy a cooling dish of Rumi's Saag, More to come!