|Some ripe age ladies I ran into a few years ago.|
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.|
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.
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.