In his book, Near a Thousand Tables, historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto wrote:
“One of history’s longest and most luckless quests has been the search for the essence of humanity, the defining characteristic which makes human beings human and distinguishes them collectively from other animals ...Cooking is at least as good as all the other candidates as an index of the humanity of humankind....”
It is therefore not surprising that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has described French cuisine as “the best gastronomy in the world” and has supported his country's bid to UNESCO to add it to the world’s list of intangible cultural treasures. Naturally, the Italians were not thrilled because to them, “Italian gastronomy takes priority,” said top Italian cook Massimo Mori.
So Italy teamed up with Spain, Greece and Morocco to get UNESCO to pick the traditional Mediterranean diet, whose abundant use of olive coupled with moderate wine consumption is said to be the healthiest in the world.
Could cooking really be a good indicator of our humanity that the French and the Italians are seriously offering their bids to have their national cuisine enshrined as a UNESCO world cultural treasure?
My very first stab at serious cooking was when I was in law school and my children had nothing to eat when they came home from school. Like my children, I was also hungry; except for the usual snacks, there was nothing cooked on the table to eat. We could not wait for my wife to come home and cook for us every afternoon. She was working full-time and supporting the entire family while I struggled to become a lawyer, a dream I had always wanted to accomplish even before coming to Canada. So I decided to cook, a decision that almost ripped my ego and machismo apart. Where I came from, the women always took charge of the kitchen, so it was an unusual decision to take on this chore, but someone had to start the revolution.
I pulled out all the cookbooks from our small library and started browsing over the different gourmet recipes and menus. Le Cordon Bleu’s Classic French Cookbook immediately caught my attention because of its glossy cover and beautiful full-colour photographs of authentic French dishes: from appetizers to fish, poultry, meat and game main courses to delicious desserts. I set the book aside. It was impossible for someone with very little taste for good food to start something monumental like mastering the French way of cooking; in no manner was it for beginners.
Then I chanced upon Julia Child’s From Julia Child’s Kitchen. Intimidation took the better of me, however. Not French cuisine again, and put the hefty book back on the shelf. Just then, another book, not as grandiose or as formal as Child’s, caught my eye. It was this fairly old-looking book, frayed with its cover missing, that my wife bought for fifty cents from one of her sorties to those garage sales which became a convenient outlet whenever she wanted respite from me and the children. The book’s title captivated me, The New York Times 60-Minute Gourmet by Pierre Franey. I told myself this one would be a piece of cake—something close to heart—and the recipes looked quite easy to cook. When I started to browse through the pages, I was again floored, another French cookbook. But this time, I tried to muster every bit of courage that lined my hungry stomach and, of course, remembered the images of my hungry and ready-to-start-a-revolution children begging me to cook dinner already and not to wait for their mom.
The good thing about Franey’s book was its eclectic arrangement. It started with poultry; chicken has never intimidated me, and I knew I would have very little difficulty trying one of the chicken recipes. And strangely, for a French chef’s cookbook, it offered as its opening salvo an Italian recipe. The recipe carried an interesting title, Poulet Scarpariello, meaning chicken shoemaker-style. It made me laugh after reading Franey’s comment that the lowest compliment one can pay a French chef is to say, “He cooks like a shoemaker.”
After reading the recipe about ten times and committing it to memory, I drove with my children to the supermarket to buy the chicken (a whole week’s supply of chicken) and the rest of the ingredients to go with it, including a bottle of dry white wine, lemons and sprigs of parsley. The following day, I cooked Cuisses de Volaille a la Diable, aka devilled chicken legs, and the next day, a little more complicated recipe, Poulet Saute Provencale or sauteed chicken with tomatoes. What do you know, after my first month with the chicken recipes came fish, beef, pork, and pasta, until it was time to renew my acquaintance with Le Cordon Bleu and Julia Child.
One of my Cordon Bleu favourites is Veau Saute a la Marengo, a dish that took its name from the Battle of Marengo in 1800, when Napoleon Bonaparte’s chef, Dunand, first created it in celebration of the French victory over the Austrians. It’s a classic recipe for sautéing veal chunks with tomatoes and mushroom stew with its traditional garnish of crayfish, deep-fried eggs, and croutes. I have also cooked from this cookbook Pot au feu de Pintade (braised Guinea fowl with baby vegetables,) and Homard et Poireaux Tiedes a la Badiane (warm lobster and leek salad with star anise).
Self-taught only through my own readings of cookbooks idly lying at home, I have also ventured outside the French kitchen by looking with a keen eye on Italian, Spanish, Mexican and Oriental cuisines. I have rediscovered my own roots too by recreating my own mother’s traditional favourites: adobo, sinigang, kare-kare, and binagoongang baboy. These days, I am into Asian fusion or the fusion of Asian and continental cuisines such as the dishes made popular by Susur Lee.
All my children are grown now, and each one can whip up a mean dish or two on their own, but they still come home once in a while to graze on my home cooking. Our friends whom I have invited on lazy weekends always come back to savour my home-grown gastronomic efforts. If they can be considered my food critics, then I can boast I have satisfied their palates.
Julia Child once wrote that a good cook is not born; one learns by doing. One can cook one’s native dishes or borrow a recipe from a great chef’s cookery, but the end result will always bring delight and ecstasy whenever you see your family or friends enjoying the fruits of your labour. The smell of chopped thyme and rosemary, or pungent onions, braising sauce, and even perhaps a dash of curry powder, all bring out the aromas and flavours of the kitchen.
Well, will it be the French or the Italian cuisine that should be on the UNESCO list? Jean Brillat-Savarin, a French lawyer and politician known as both an epicure and gastronome, wrote in his famous work, The Physiology of Taste, “The destiny of nations depends upon the manner in which they are fed.” The simplest meal satisfied Brillat-Savarin, as long as it was executed with artistry. I rest my case.