Chef Tamar Adler Divulges Why She Doesn’t Take Pictures Of Her Food
It’s a commonly held belief that what we eat tells us a lot about who we are. But what about the bygone foods of yore?
Tamar Adler is a Chez Panisse alum, veteran food writer and researcher – and a custodian of forgotten recipes. In her new book, Something Old, Something New, which like her recipes, demands to be languorously relished, Adler unleashes those recipes onto a fast-paced modern world which has forgotten them.
I spoke to Adler about cooking in the #MeToo era, not wanting to photograph her food and how avocados used to be known as alligator pears.
Shira Feder: Your new book, Something Old, Something New, is about reviving recipes that have disappeared from our table. “I did not mean specifically to make a book of old-fashioned dishes for faster time, but that is what it became,” you write in your introduction. I love this idea that in order for things to avoid being lost in translation, some nuance or complication has to be sacrificed to the greater good of preservation. Do you think complicated dishes that demand long amounts of time to cook will ever be fashionable again?
Tamar Adler: I think they’re fashionable now, it’s just different dishes. A lot of people are doing technically complicated cooking at home and doing it with a real sense of excitement. It tends to be different sense than what was technically complicated in the late 1800s and beginning and middle of 20th century, which was why these dishes in particular needed to evolve.
But I have friends who are amateur cooks, who are really into the more technical stuff like sous vide, which I don’t do…there are people who make their own sausage, people who ferment stuff. None of that is necessarily super time-consuming.
But as with a lot of things, food is kind of going two ways right now. There is certainly a food trend for easier, easier, easiest. I recently received a sample of pre-cooked marinated vegetables in Mylar bags to take as a snack. I was like, okay, I love vegetables as a snack, but I could also just boil this and put olive oil and vinegar on it and put it in a bag. It seemed like such a fast and easy solution. Part of it’s going that way, and I do think there’s another trend for really becoming an expert in the kitchen.
Right, in your interview with Grist , you spoke about the polarization of the American cooking world, where either you cooked fantastic, professional food, or you didn’t cook at all.
Yeah, I think that’s still happening, which is another reason why this is a weird book. It’s a very third way book. My first book was a kind of rescue project for ingredients and this is a rescue project for recipes and food preparation. Probably everything comes around eventually and there might be an era when these exact dishes are in vogue again. I don’t think they’re that far from that right now. I mean, I’ve been noticing in this really lovely way more and more menus with like escargot and oysters rockefeller and old-fashioned things.
You’re tuned into the cultural frequencies. You sensed what was to come.
Right, this unconscious camaraderie. I think this is the exact moment when these dishes will be cooked again and I think in restaurants they’ll be just as complicated as they ever were, but with ingredients that are more exciting to our palates now, and more contrast, with things that make them taste new. My book is a way of making them doable for a home cook and in that way it is probably trendy.
I see your recipes as an antidote to the overly aesthetic type of camera-ready food most of us feel compelled to create and consume. Did you create this book, with an eye turned to the past, when most of the culinary world is obsessed with quickly changing trends, as a purposeful rejection of this polarization of cooking professional food or not cooking at all?
I don’t think it was an intentional retort to the trends that — completely agree with you — are either over-aestheticizing or total abstinence. I don’t think the book was meant as an aggressive riposte, but I personally am not moved by the “aestheticization” and feel like part of my personal mission is to pull people away from those poles toward the middle.
I was talking to my husband last night and just saying, “God, there are moments when I wonder: is anyone going to read this book?” Because it’s not about making green tahini almond milkshakes that are very beautiful or how to make spaghetti carbonara in under two minutes. It’s just what I found myself feeling really excited about. His response was that it would be so silly to make books I thought people wanted to read. The thing to do is make the book you want to write. I don’t want to make anybody feel like cooking is so hard that they can’t do it, or take so long that they can’t do it. And I also don’t take pictures of my food.
I just don’t understand why I would. I don’t have my phone at the table because that’s not what I’m sitting at the table for. I don’t take pictures of the notes I take, I don’t take pictures of my happiest moments, I just live them. I don’t like including that kind of exhibitionism in the process of preparing and eating food and my life.
How long did it take you to write this book? You mentioned in the introduction about how you’ve been collecting old cookbooks and menus for a while.
I think probably two and a half years. I certainly wasn’t doing it consciously the whole time between my first book and this one. But actually over that whole time I was collecting old recipes, it just wasn’t clear to me what I was doing with them. So somewhere between two and six years.
What’s an example of a food that could serve as a case study for something that’s fallen into disrepair, which used to be a more commonly eaten food? Or vice versa, like oysters which used to be a poor man’s food and is now a rich man’s food or kale, which is now everywhere. What foods don’t I know of?
One of them is a food preparation. We used to use egg whites a lot to make little risen things. It’s almost like this quaint food technology that works great. Like souffles and little risen gateaux and mousses, things that rely on the aerating quality of an egg, is a good example of something that have fallen mostly out of fashion that I found myself wanting to revive. You don’t use anything but a whisk to make it happen and you have this miraculous and very poetic effect which is that an egg, which holds a bird, takes flight, and I love that.
Why do you think it’s fallen into disuse?
Part of it is that it is a technical step. There’s the separating and the whisking. I think there was probably peak souffle, like it became synonymous with fancy food and as soon as that happened something had to overtake it.
You told the Washington Post that “People want women in food media to be ingénues or broads.” I’m interested in this idea of you rejecting the idea of the professional kitchen as a hyper-sexualized space where women have to be aggressive or sexual in order to make it. Do you think in the age of #MeToo that this will continue to be the case? Do you see the professional kitchen changing?
I think it’s going to change. Maybe not because of #MeToo. I’m inside of it, and maybe not prescient. I know that I felt a long time ago, back in 2012, when I wrote the now highly contentious Bourdain piece I felt the over-masculinity and aggression of the kitchen was creating a terrible generation of aggressive, toxicly masculine cooks. I see a light being shone on the way toxic masculinity can be avoided and is not necessary for good food or a productive kitchen. I see more and more examples of kitchens that reject abusive, traditionally masculine behaviors like yelling or throwing things or hypersexualization and abuse. In kitchens I think it’s definitely going to change and it’s changing already.
In food media, what I meant is that as a food writer I was expected to be either very exhibitionist and intentionally dropping curse words and making sure everyone knew I loved eating bacon cheeseburgers late at night and drinking Wild Turkey and couldn’t fit into my jeans and was one of the guys and was really not what I think of having self-respect. Like there was this food persona that I don’t find to be self-respecting and dignified.
Like women have to occupy a certain persona to belong in the kitchen?
Yeah. Or, as an alternative, to be pretty and quiet…
Is there any Jewish food of yore that has been largely forgotten that you would like to revive?
I grew up in a household where Eastern European food was not only rejected but maligned. My father was Israeli and my mom really didn’t like kugel so I think I don’t know them. Personally I grew up having Israeli pickles and Israeli olives most meals and I miss them.
You have a recipe for alligator pear salad in your book, which is a way more evocative and exciting word for avocado. You mentioned in your Food52 interview that it is often the beauty of a dish’s name that catches your attention when looking at old recipes. I may not care that much for avocados, but alligator pears I want to eat. That feels alive.
Of course, I used to have a restaurant in Georgia and we would just experiment and change a dish’s name everyday until we found a name that would sell it. A lot of restaurants do that.
And with cookbooks, without pictures, the name is…there’s a lot of personality in a name.
Maybe the only part of this book that was intentionally in-your-face anti-trend was my insistence on the beauty of those old words. I had one person say, well, pickled shrimp sounds gross and a word in French will scare people off. It’s my taste. It doesn’t have to be everybody’s. I find these words so evocative, all the consommes named after all those different people, they feel delightful.
In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Ayden LeRoux mentioned that people have become accustomed to traveling the world as they eat food from different cultures. But perhaps our meals allow us to travel in time as well. How far in time do you have to go for a food to become past?
When does the present become the past? Probably a mathematical answer would be a generation. Within our lifetime there’s probably a personal division between things we saw people eat when we were children but I imagine it’s a lifetime more or less. It’s hard to think of something as the past when you had your own personal lens on it.
I think this idea of treating the past as irrelevant speaks to the human tendency to feel shame over things, which is related to peasant dishes becoming fancy foods. Like peasants were ashamed of eating oysters and abandoned the, and then that became an expensive dish.
Yes, and part of it is also individuation. How do we stake our claim on the world as people who are separate from our parents? Rejection is a big part of it. I don’t think there’s any mystery to the fact that humans are victim to fashion and trends when the way we become self defined is to reject the people that made us. That’s what we have to do. It’s the way humans are. Then probably when we get old enough, we would be well-served to look back and take all we can.
And part of this individuation is rejecting the foods of your parents.
So what do you hope for your cookbook to accomplish?
I hope people have a really good time reading it. I also hope people feel like they got something back, like the feeling when you go back to your childhood closet, and the things that are in there are so exciting to you, even though you left them there, against your parents insistence that you remove them, because you were like, I don’t want that CD. I don’t want that teddy bear. I don’t want that fleece. Then going back and that thrill of finding something from your past exciting again. Obviously we’re not all of European continental culinary heritage, but I love reading and being given back something from the past that is useful to me. I hope people feel like I gave them an heirloom they didn’t know existed.
The glory of nostalgia.
Yes, and it feels like a little rebuke to what my friend Cal Peternell calls so umami. You get dishes with so many of the big, intense flavors like fish sauce and Parmesan and truffles that there’s a subtlety and simplicity that tastes old-fashioned in all the recipes in this book. A kind of light, luxurious simple old timey richness. I find it calming and sweet and festive.
Shira Feder is a writer for the Forward. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org