I love it when recipes tell a story.
Let’s take my mom’s lasagna as an example. When I think about it, it’s not just the taste that comes to mind but also a wave of accompanying senses and emotions that I associate with it.
Sounds: her moving around in the kitchen, yelling at my dog who was acutely aware of the advantages of kitchen scraps, sight: observing the rhythm of her hands as she assembled ingredients, watching the cheese bubble up around the edges and crisp in the oven, and yes, of course taste and smell: the nostalgic taste and aroma.
Preparing lasagna was done in the same way she approached most things as a mother— scrappy and resourceful and loving. Making lasagna was imprinted in her memory, as it is now imprinted in mine. It’s not really about the lasagna (although, it’s delicious and yes, while you’re eating it, it is) but it’s about the story the lasagna tells — and let’s face it, my siblings and all I have a different story we could tell about eating lasagna: coming home from school off the bus to a freshly cooked lasagna, eating it for breakfast for days after because we were told that it always tastes better in the days following (which it did — I now make lasagna in anticipation of that leftover flavor), looking forward to it as a “treat” when we came home from college. The lasagna is a memory and the memory is a story.
We all have things like this — recipes and meals that remind us of a memory or point in time of joy, or grief, or happiness, but that all tell a story.
For part 3 of cooking my way through cookbooks, I prepared a recipe out of Michael W. Twitty’s newest cookbook, Rice, wherein each recipe tells a different story about the timeless and classic staple that is rice.
When we think about recipes that are passed down throughout time, what we remember is who we learned it from and perhaps, if we are lucky, who that person learned it from — but rarely, oh so rarely, do we know the true origin of that recipe.
In Rice, however, and in his previous book, The Cooking Gene, Michael W. Twitty has done just that: traced the origins of classic recipes that make up his own heritage back through the generations of individuals and stories that make up the fabric of his identity.
The meal I prepared, and can be seen below, is called “Red Rice” and in Michael W. Twitty’s own words (because who could say it better than him?), this recipe “for the Low Country classic was inspired by the erudite Damon Lee Fowler, culinary historian and cookbook author from Savannah and a keeper of old southern culinary traditions. This tomato pilau is one of the greatest dishes ever to emerge from the Low Country and can be adjusted depending on your tastes.”
I tried my very best to follow this recipe to a letter but I also did follow Michael’s advice and adjusted it depending on my taste.
What I can vouch for is that it is one of the greatest dishes ever — if I have learned anything from my mom’s cooking, and now this, it’s that simple really is better and just like my mom’s lasagna, the flavors in this simple rice dish only intensified and melded together in the days after.
Substitutes for this recipe (because I can’t ever not substitute apparently):
- Vegetarian bacon for real bacon. It’s been a while since I’ve had real bacon but I swear the vegetarian stuff tastes pretty darn authentic. There is no way to replicate bacon grease though, which is a true shame! I’ll cook for the next person who can tell me a way to recreate bacon grease sans pig :).
- The recipe recommends homemade stock but I was impatient and used a can of vegetable stock.
- Kitchen Pepper: this is a spice mixture that is referenced throughout Rice and that I have yet to make but according to Michael, it was a staple in early Southern cooking just as much as rice was. It is a blend of black pepper, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, mace, white pepper, and red pepper flakes. The next time I feel especially motivated in the kitchen, I will attempt to make this spice blend.
If you take away anything from my ramblings today, the bottom line is that if you like history, or food, or excellent storytelling, or cooking, or educating yourself, or just a great read, and/or all of the above, I would highly, highly recommend either The Cooking Gene or Rice. You will close the book feeling enriched, more educated as a result, and employed with a new burst of cooking inspiration and recipes to follow.