How I study Food

Originally written January 8, 2013. 

In the last few months, I’ve decided to start taking the study and practice of food, cooking, and culture more seriously, creating for myself a study plan in the manner of self-directed Goddard studies. As I decided to embark on a serious, directed study on food, I wondered where I would start.

I examined the curricula from Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and French Culinary Institute (now International Culinary Center, or ICC).
I pored over the most recent edition of The Professional Chef (CIA’s textbook), as well as previous editions. I perused Professional Cooking, a competing textbook written by one of CIA’s graduates. I thought seriously about enrolling in FCI, as my friend had for pastry, not necessarily to pursue a career in a kitchen, but to nail the fundamentals. To be immersed, forced to stand in a kitchen, spending hours on technique, getting it right. A place where I wouldn’t have to worry about waste, buying my own ingredients, making dinner according to Curt’s or my appetite. But the price tag is hefty – $46,000 for 6 months of intensive study – and with a wedding to save up for, and the enrollment dates not working with our travel or wedding plans, I reconsidered. Additionally, I thought the advantage of taking a professional course would be personal enrichment of fundamental techniques – however, how skewed are the techniques toward French cuisine, despite the recent renaming of the institution?

I was born in New England, migrated to the Atlantic provinces of Canada, followed by the prairie province of Manitoba, then to the Gulf Coast of Florida. My parents are Filipino, my dad from Cavite in the region of Luzon, and my mom from Cebu in the Visayas, regions that have separate main dialects. Growing up, I would hear both the Tagalog and Cebuano dialects, absorbing some words, but not knowing how to distinguish between the two. So it was, with the food that my mom fed us: I wouldn’t have been able to differentiate between the ethnic origins of siopao, blueberry jam, pork adobo, fried chicken, spaghetti, or strawberry mousse. I’m marrying someone who was born in the Midwest and grew up in Florida’s Gulf Coast region, whose comfort food sits nestled within the womb of Southern classics. And we both live in New York City, visiting the Greenmarket for our produce once a week.

So where does that leave me, in terms of what food calls out to be mastered in my kitchen? Would mastering French technique assist me in my quest to understand food, culture, and context? Would an institution geared toward classic French cuisine give me a great base to explore other cultures’ techniques and cuisines? Perhaps. Anthony Bourdain said once that everything we know about cooking we learned from the French. But I think this is somewhat of an ethnocentric view of cooking. There’s no collective unconscious explanation of how the Chinese, Native Americans, and Africans developed their cuisines. And as I browsed the bookshelves of Kitchen Arts and Letters, Strand, and Barnes and Noble, I realized I was most interested in cultural studies of food, the books that went deeply into a region to emerge with a picture of tastes that reflected the cornucopia of people who lived there. Gumbo in Louisiana with its influences from Natives who gave us filé, Africans’ okra, and French roux. Arroz con pollo in Tampa, reflecting the history of Cubans in Ybor City. By going deep into a region’s food, I would also learn the history of slavery, the African influence on rice plantations in the Carolinas and “Big House” cooking.

For me, mastering the techniques of cooking meat, vegetables, eggs aren’t enough – though these are important to me too. I also want to know how people have handled their ingredients through years – the traditional recipes that stay traditional, that have become classics not just because of their thrift, but because they’re also delicious. Closer to “home,” is the question of how immigrant cultures have created and recreated home once they arrived to a new land, absorbing new produce and cooking techniques, integrating them into their homeland’s way of cooking.

I have started my study with an overview of Southern cooking: at Curtis’s and my wedding, we will be serving both Southern and Filipino food. While partially a symbolic gesture (the Southern and Filipino “merging” on a buffet table), it’s also an attempt to show complementary cuisines. There’s a large Filipino community in Tampa Bay, where Curt and I both spent our youth. My mom was telling me sometime last year about how her friends gave her lemongrass, mango, pandan, calamansi that they grew in their backyards. While Florida’s latitude is more northern than the Philippines, there are nonetheless enough similarities in climate that one can grow some of the same produce. This made me think of other similarities: roasting a whole pig, vinegar/barbecue sauce. If not the same, I felt the cuisines might at least be complementary.

So I’ve started with the American South. There’s a desire to please both of our appetites here, as both Curt and I will have to eat everything I make, and we both love Southern food anyway. In the following entries, I’ll discuss the different dishes I’ve made in the past few weeks, what I’ve learned about their origin, and the history of the people and place that contributed to the dish.

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