I know I know… I own too many cookbooks. Even I have to admit it now that I can no longer fit my collection into the kitchen bookcase and the shelves in the pantry cleared for the overflow. And yet I just bought another cookbook, a big heavy one. Do I have a cookbook-buying disorder? No, I don’t think so. But it’s true that my family looks at me in disbelief every time I bring one home. After all, I don’t even follow recipes. I hate celebrity anything. Dislike fads of any sort. So how could I possibly need so many books filled with recipes, some of them written by star chefs? To pretty up my kitchen? Because everyone who cooks these days (and writes about cooking) seems to own all these cookbooks? I hope not.
I’m a seeker. I’m after stories. History. Trails. Insights. Inspiration. Knowledge. Magic. I’m looking for the great yet surprising teachers– the ones doing more than broadcasting their fabulous recipes and foolproof techniques; I’m looking for the ones who weave recipes into something greater than eating experiences alone, something that connects to tradition and yet is not shackled by it, something that reveals the personal connection to a way of thinking about spice and texture and color and yet is not self-consumed and I-centric, something that invites exploration and experimentation and yet provides a guiding hand, a soft mentoring voice. I’m looking for something unlikely.
And I’ve found one. Really. I may never need to buy another cookbook. At least for a while…
Mourad Lahlou’s New Moroccan, The Cookbook is a great book, completely apart from the recipes. This well-known San Francisco chef shares his own story, his family’s, Moroccan food’s, the immigrant-to-the-US’s all while offering (patiently, I might add) invaluable lessons in flavor combinations, ingredients, techniques and traditions. Yes, he’s a big deal chef, but the book rejoices in the food, not the chef. It carries joy and humility as well as creativity and a strong, even passionate, point of view. I’ve read so many books on Middle Eastern, North African and Mediterranean cooking, but few have I read cover to cover in a single sitting (in spite of its hefty 381 pages). So few have appealed to me on all levels and cracked open the traditions while making something completely new. Anyone reading this book would surely want to take the first plane to Morocco (the second to San Francisco). It’s that good.
Perhaps I was swept away by the book’s dedication to Mourad Lahlou’s grandpa as “the barometer of my soul, and the true author of my story.” Perhaps I was seduced by the incredible, evocative photographs, the care of the type-setting, the quality and beauty of the book itself as an object worth spending $40 on, using, caring for. Perhaps I felt immediately drawn to someone who opens his book with these words:
“Some people set out to learn to cook. They pursue it. They look for teachers. They practice and study. I became a cook in a way that could scarcely have been more different from all of that, in a place so far from where I ended up that it feels like a beautiful, brightly colored dream. I learned to cook from memory. Let me tell you how.”
Perhaps it was the way the book journeys into the heart of Moroccan cooking –”Spice is a Verb”– before he turns to recipes at all. The sense that this chef really hopes you will read the book–not just buy it.
A book for now, it embraces both the past and the present, the old world and the new, using the ingredients of California with the attitude of Moroccan spicing. Julia Moskin’s article in The New York Times reveals his desire to move into the future, to look forward while contrasting him to the venerable cookbook writer, Paula Wolfert, who champions the strictly traditional. I am reminded of Elizabeth’s recent post in which she admires and delights in the traditions of Emilia- Romagna cooking while lamenting the lack of creativity and experimentation in the restaurants and markets.
Next week I’m going to start working through Mourad Lahlou’s recipes just to see how they feel as I move around the kitchen. And then I’ll put them away and see what I come up with on my own as a result of what I’ve learned as I dream of my next trip to San Francisco when I’ll go to Aziza and see if eating at his restaurant is as enlightening as reading his book.
My shelves are safe from the weight of new books for a while–I still have much to learn from this one!