Monday, March 07, 2016

Clean, clean, clean

Some ripe age ladies I ran into a few years ago. 
Friday's Piglet review of Diana Henry's Bird in the Hand and Pierre Thiam's Senegal was brilliant and made me jealous. I wish I'd written those lines and thought those thoughts, but I didn't. John Birdsall did. Birdsall makes such a strong, fair case for Bird in the Hand that I don't even feel I need to cook from the books to agree. (Though I will.)

This morning Jessica Koslow, proprietor of the adorable Los Angeles restaurant Sqirl, advanced Heidi Swanson's Near and Far over The Food of Oman, a choice I would not have made, though I thought Koslow's review overall was solid. I've cooked nothing from Oman (which looks great) and only the turmeric tea and a pleasant honey-sweetened lassi from Near, but I've spent enough time with Swanson's book (and cooked enough of her recipes in the past) to know that it is just not my thing. I want to be very clear that this is a matter of personal taste, not any failure on Swanson's part. What she does, she does extremely well -- and the better she does it, the less I like it, if that makes sense.

Swanson specializes in lovely, healthy, and delicate vegetarian dishes that she styles and shoots exquisitely, albeit a little wistfully. Everything appears forlorn, pretty, and somewhat wan. In this book there aren't a lot of substantial meal; she seems to be focusing more on dainty drinks and tidbits, grain salads, ricotta bowls and pantry "staples," like quick-pickled rose petals. Swanson: "I tend to keep dried rose petals around and make these now and then for a fragrant addition to couscous or as an accent on fruit salads. . . " She is very fond of rose petals and suggests finishing your breakfast yogurt bowl with optional "fresh or dried rose petals" or "a bit of bee pollen."

Why not fairy dust?
They were terrifying, the cows. 
For some, these touches will be inspiring, evoke a casually graceful and sophisticated lifestyle. In me, they provoke sighs. I find her writing precious. Swanson likes her biscotti "crushed into a little cup of creamy vaniglia or melone gelato." She suggests serving homemade vin de pamplemousse "in a Picardie glass filled with ice. . . I stock up on vanilla beans from the grand cru vanilla bar at Eric Roellinger on Rue Sainte Anne just for this recipe."

In one headnote she describes a big package of raw sugars a friend who lives in India sent her, along with a strainer. The friend tells Swanson in her note that the strainer is "perfect" for making paneer and yogurt. Swanson tells us: "The strainer is flimsy plastic and hard on the eyes, and while I typically avoid plastic, it's effective."

Maybe that last example isn't irritating. I don't know. It just presses my buttons. It would be hard to shop for Heidi Swanson.

What differentiates Near from her previous books is that she's organized chapters around her travels (to Morocco, India, France, Japan, and Italy) and shares dishes she brought home with her and made her own. As Koslow puts it: "This is world cuisine as seen through Swanson's eyes: natural, healthy, clean, simple."

And then, in the next paragraph: "Her recipes rely less on technique and kitchen wizardry, and more on simplicity and brightness through clean cooking."

Clean. I'm not the first person to see the problem of using the term "clean" to talk about food and cooking. Is world cuisine dirty and in need of a Heidi Swanson cleanup? How exactly is Swanson's food cleaner than what they cook in Italy and Morocco? Is it clean because she doesn't cook with meat? Because she explicitly calls for non-GMO products and organic corn starch? Because she avoids plastic? Because she garnishes with rose petals? Does she use less oil? Fewer ingredients?

I don't know if Swanson's food is actually "clean," whatever that means. But there is something overwhelmingly clean about this book, so I sort of understand what Koslow is getting at. But for me, it is not a plus. In the photos of her travels there are no people other than Swanson herself, posing in various exotic, seemingly empty buildings, looking contemplative. In the Indian chapter there is a picture of a ceiling fan with some cute ceiling paper as well as a photo of Swanson wandering in a vacant temple, but not a single Indian person to be seen anywhere. No flooded streets, no cows, no one cooking, no moped carrying a family of five plus their goat. All the colors in her India photos are elegantly muted, too. It's like this great, bright, roiling culture and cuisine has been visually purified and drained of all its dynamism and grit and humanity, not to mention meat and plastic. It is just too pretty. It is just too clean.

FOR ME.

I must repeat: This is a beautiful, thoughtful book. It has integrity. It feels personal and sincere. I'm sure the recipes work. It is going to transport and inspire someone. I am not that someone. You know how it is when you wander into some shop and all the furniture is white and all the coffee tables are glass and you like threadbare old Oriental rugs, antique samovars, and oak? Or vice versa?

I have failed to say anything about The Food of Oman, which I bought and which is packed with dishes I have never seen before and am dying to cook. Coming soon. 

48 comments:

  1. Agree wholeheartedly. I too cook Swanson's recipes (from her former books and website-- and again and again, some of them), but her aesthetic is too precious and too austere and too lifestyle-y for me, particularly in this most recent book. I was hoping Oman would advance partially because I believe in spreading success, and Swanson has already had plenty. Let's give someone else a chance. Having said that, Koslow's argument was not without heft; I just don't agree with the reasoning behind her conclusion. And, as I said, I have my own agenda and bias in this particular pairing.

    Don't even get me started on "clean" eating. I know you've discussed it here before, very astutely, so I'll leave it at that. You point out that as Koslow uses the term it might apply more to Swanson's whole vision than to the food, but I suspect very strongly that they are intended to be one in the same.

    The Piglet is great, and I love it, but the discussions here are so much more fun and interesting. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Heidi Swanson is definitely an individual and she has a consistent vision -- I respect that. It's just a style issue with me. I agree, it would have been nice for someone else to have a moment in the spotlight. Swanson is already such a star.

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  2. Great posting. "Fairy dust"--ha! I agree with you completely about Heidi Swanson and her gauzy "vision" of food and travel. Something about the sun seems to block her view of what's vibrant right in front of her. I have not had any luck with her recipes, despite my best intentions and efforts. For me, they have all turned out to less than the sum of their parts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I had some successes when I cooked from Super Natural Every Day a few years ago. I should go look at my comments in the book to remember what they were.

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    2. I purchased Super Natural Every Day based on your post. There are several recipes that I love and make on a regular basis. But I find her lifesyle intimidating. She is the friend with an always perfect home and I'm the friend that is always a mess and covered in dog hair. While I love SNED I don't feel the need for another book by her. I purchased Made in India based on the Piglet review and am really excited to get started.

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    3. I've made a bunch of recipes from Made in India. The potato curry -- not my favorite. But the cauliflower-pea curry -- delicious. The rice worked great, though maybe a little bit un-fluffy. The spinach and black pepper, big hit. I wish lamb shoulder was more widely available.

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  3. Thank you for nailing exactly what I've always found irritating about Swanson (and have felt vaguely guilty for finding irritating, but NO MORE). Her food actually seems a bit bleak to me, when it's not being twee.

    Koslow's review made me want to rush out and get Oman, so at least there's that -- and it turned me off wanting to check out Sqrrl, what with the blatant self-promoting. So far the best review up there has been Phyllis Grant's, which is no surprise.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I ate breakfast at Sqirl last year when I went to LA -- it was tiny, bright, crowded, and I had this very delicious, very healthy bowl of crunchy rice and savory toppings. It was a clean restaurant! Very Heidi Swansonesque, but somehow in actual restaurant form it isn't overkill.

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  4. Fantastically put. If a book could be waiflike and always on the brink of requiring the smelling salts, this would be it.

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    Replies
    1. Very delicate. To be fair (I thought about this last night after I posted) it must be very hard when you become associated with a certain aesthetic to break out of that, even when you go to exotic countries. Pictures of people and lots of color would be inconsistent with Swanson's look, her brand. I think that consistency is part of what Koslow liked and I can see how it matters in the way a book "hangs together." Internal coherence.

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  5. I guess your review of Heidi Swanson is too "harsh" (as my kid would say) to include in an actual Piglet review, if you were assigned one (everything seems very civil over there). But I love it, and it gives me so much more information about what this book is like than what I read over at the Piglet! I actually AM a fan of "clean" eating (occasionally, as a break from overeating), but not at all a fan of "clean" as a permanent aesthetic, or philosophy, or something. When the eating-of-your-vegetables spills over into a moral and aesthetic code, it's not so healthy anymore. And, a travel book cleaned of other people? Troubling. Like all the other commenters on that Piglet review, I was left wanting to read the Oman book.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There was a little harshness this morning over at the Piglet. But nothing terrible.
      I like eating "clean" food too. I like those restaurants where you feel every bite is pure, perfect, healthy, the very, very best. I just can't achieve it at home or consistently. It seems like it can become an obsession.

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    2. As a waitress in a town where people claim every dietary restriction known to man... I confirm that it can become an obsession. "Do you keep a separate kitchen area for organic vs. non-organic ingredients?" Um, no.

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  6. This is THE BEST. Thank you for putting words to the feelings I had about this cookbook/lifestyle guide. I really wish Oman would have gone through to the next round over Near and Far, but I really can't say I'm surprised - I think Swanson is very polarizing. You're either on Team Clean, or you're not. I feel like her book is similar to the one reviewed via cartoon last year - "My life is perfect." Thanks again!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, yet another way you can divide people into two camps. . . I suppose the two camps probably line up on other issues as well. I have good friends who I think would respond very warmly to Swanson's vision.

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  7. Great post. I found when I cooked from Super Natural Everyday that the meals were actually weirdly heavy (potatoes in everything) but also very bland. She's not for me either.

    On another note, really looking forward to Koslow's forthcoming books. Aren't you a little annoyed that she plugged them so heavily in the review?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I remember thinking I was going to lose weight cooking from a healthy cookbook and being startled that I didn't and that I was always full. Oat cakes.
      I didn't notice Koslow's self promotion!

      Delete
  8. For a very long time, I have found Heidi Swanson irksome and tiring in ways I couldn't quite put into words, but you have done it here perfectly. I agree with you - what she does, she does well, it just doesn't appeal to me on any level. I used to follow her blog, but when she started Quitokeeto, the online pop-up shop selling outrageously priced honey and $200 mortar and pestle sets, I just couldn't take it anymore. I have made a few of her recipes and they have been good, but little on her website tempts me into the kitchen. I can throw together plenty of yogurt bowls and grain salads on my own and those aren't the things I need direction on.

    I love your take on the Piglet. When, oh when, will you be asked to judge?!?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I will never be asked to judge and that is for the best! I would hate that pressure.
      I was enthralled by Swanson's blog when I first found it. Enthralled. Gradually, though, I realized that we weren't really a match and drifted away. I haven't even seen Quitokeeto.

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    2. You should totally be asked to judge! I love your reviews of anything: food, movies, whatever. Reviewing is your forte.

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  9. I love this post so much!!! And yes, the clean vs ethnic vs real vs whole vs healthy debate, it's bothered me for years, but I couldn't exactly pinpoint why, and you did in just a few paragraphs. Brilliant, and thank you.

    xox

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  10. I was put off by the very first recipe that I tried of Swanson's - the baked oatmeal. I remember as I spread all those different layers wondering why I was doing so. It's a pretty good recipe, but the next time I made it, I just dumped everything in one bowl and spread it in the pan. Same difference! I think the whole "clean" eating thing has become a fad for a lot of people. It makes them feel superior to the rest of us hogs eating down here noshing in the dirt-LOL! Besides, what is clean today will be found to be not-so-clean next month.

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  11. I was just telling my husband last night that we'd ruin Swanson's house in 14 seconds. All that white. Her photography is exquisite, her home lovely, her aesthetic perfectly curated. And in a house with a wheelchair user, white cat, and klutzy carpal tunnel sufferer who all eat meat and carbs, it would never, ever work.

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  12. I actually think you were VERY charitable to this book - what you wrote here really resonates:

    "In the photos of her travels there are no people other than Swanson herself, posing in various exotic, seemingly empty buildings, looking contemplative. In the Indian chapter there is a picture of a ceiling fan with some cute ceiling paper as well as a photo of Swanson wandering in a vacant temple, but not a single Indian person to be seen anywhere. No flooded streets, no cows, no one cooking, no moped carrying a family of five plus their goat. All the colors in her India photos are elegantly muted, too. It's like this great, bright, roiling culture and cuisine has been visually purified and drained of all its dynamism and grit and humanity, not to mention meat and plastic. It is just too pretty. It is just too clean."

    You're acknowledging something that troubled me as well, and not because of an overly precious use of dried rose petals or bee pollen - what you so perfectly conveyed in that quote sounds to me a lot like... colonialism? Like using another culture as a backdrop for your own aesthetic and tastes is something that western writers and artists have been doing to other cultures for at least the past 400+ years... and it’s troubling and it’s gross, even if it is “just” a cookbook.

    Thank you for your blog! I just discovered it and have had a great time reading through your back catalog. And just bought your book, which is hilarious and inspiring.

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    Replies
    1. Agreed! Couldn't put my finger on it but, indeed, the word *is* "colonialism". I say this as someone who enjoys occasionally visits Swanson's website with the gauzy pics. Even made a couple of the recipes which turned out good.

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  13. "What she does, she does extremely well -- and the better she does it, the less I like it, if that makes sense." Yes! This made me spit tea into my lap, laughing in recognition.

    There's just something about that wan perfection that raises my proletarian hackles and urges me to behave just a little badly in response (usually by shuddering or sticking my tongue out at the pages). To each their own, though; others can't seem to get enough.

    Personally, I'll continue to dig deep into the pages of "The Food of Oman," to relish photos of people truly smiling (you can see it in their eyes), a beautiful country I'm likely to never visit, and food that I want to eat. Tandoori-spiced shrimp, dhokkri (lamb and dumpling stew that I made with chicken), Omani lentil soup that may have ended the 30-year reign of my beloved Egyptian shorbet ads as #1 lentil soup, spicy Zanzibari squid curry, and flatbreads o'plenty.

    I'm looking forward to your take on it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I continue to.

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  14. I'm certain that I would find Swanson insufferable. Her aesthetic is merely a different manifestation of American exceptionalism and elitism that is based purely on her having breathed rarefied air for too long. And as j cabes said upthread, it reeks of colonialism. I'm sure she would get along famously with Gwyneth Paltrow.

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    Replies
    1. I like to think of it more as SF elitism...

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  15. Heidi Swanson is a strange, only-in-California, blond happening for me, but I'll give her this - she introduced me to Bob Dylan's kooky Theme Time Radio Hour.

    http://www.themetimeradio.com/

    On one of her Favorites Lists.

    Thanks for the tip, Heidi!

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  16. And may I add, since I"m still irritated about it, what a smug, catty, small-minded thing that was she said about the plastic strainer her friend was gracious enough to send her all the way from India. Vomit.

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  17. These so called "cooks" that are nothing but a product, are very annoying, the Rachaels, Ree Drummonds, Swanson, Paltrow, etc. They don't live in the real world. Or maybe its the crazy 30-40s. I don't know. My own daughters make me crazy too. "is that gluten-free, dairy-free". "is that gmo". "is it organic"...egad. A pot luck is nothing like a real pot luck any more. These people have ruined that, for sure. Family dinners are a trial of who's alergic or sensitive to what.
    I was at an "epicure" thing the other evening. Everyone was 30-40's except three of us. All those gluten free, dairy-free....etc...etc. I noticed no one questioned the gluten freenessssss of the VODKA in the cocktails or the organicnous of the white or the red....
    SNOBSSSSSS
    It seems to be how snob can everyone outsnob the other food snobs.

    okay...I'm fine now. I'm just going to refill my outrageously priced Kraft Beer.

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  18. ooh by the way I did have the Swanson book on hold at the library. I thought it sucked. It wasn't even a pleasure to read. I love reading books about food. This one was just bizarre from the first page. Must have been a contractual obligation I thought, or else she wanted to go on a trip and write the whole thing off and some stupid gullable publisher without a brain thought it was a good idea. But that's just my humble opinion

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  19. I have been following piglet and have read some of the books...I like Hot Bread Kitchen the most. Loved your review, I could get why it irritated you. Lets eliminate "clean" along with "guilty pleasure" when referencing food or cooking. so there.

    ReplyDelete
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