Imagining the Mediterranean in the Kitchen

tomates confits

How can we define the Mediterranean as a unified geographical unit? Is it possible? This is a question I have spent a lot of time thinking about anthropologically. While teaching a course on the ethnography of the Mediterranean a few years back, I came to the conclusion that the Mediterranean is an imagined place. It is culture works like Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad that fuel our imagination about a place unified by this wine dark sea. Even if we see this body of water as the connective tissue between diverse countries, it is hard to deny the cultural contrasts of the countries that surround the Mediterranean–Catholic and Muslim, affluent and poor, Arab and Latin, and the list goes on. Particularly in the kitchen, these differences become strikingly apparent through the flavor of spices, the cuts of meat, and the variety of cooking techniques.

Wheat, olive oil and grapes may be the iconic crops around the Mediterranean, but can these ingredients create a unified cuisine? During week 6 of my culinary course, we focused our attention on dishes from around the Mediterranean. Most of the recipes were Ducasse’s French interpretations of classic recipes such as Moroccan Pastilla, Spanish Caldero, and Italian Risotto. At first, I was taken aback by the disregard for the original recipes of these dishes, as we add butter and jus de beouf as we stirred. To my palate everything tasted French in the end. As the week progressed, I came to see it differently: the Mediterranean is an imagined place for M. Ducasse as much as it is for the cultural anthropologist.

For the chef, the Mediterranean is made-up of the flavor narratives that tell the stories of cultures that are closer together than further apart. This reflection caused me to take stock of my own preconceived notions about the dishes we were cooking. There is no authenticity (a point I am always preaching to my students). The food we made represented a historical mixing together of places, cultures and their changing traditions. When thinking about the Mediterranean, whether in the kitchen or at the library, it is important to take into consideration time, the porousness of cultural traditions and the fluidity of conceptions of place. Looking at the Mediterranean through food allows for a complex and delicious exploration that will always be undergoing transformations as we continue to imagine and reimagine this place.

It’s not just dessert


At the start of pastry week, I considered sweets to be an island unto themselves on the culinary map. However, as the days passed, I began to reconsider my separatist approach to dessert.

Sugar marks moments of celebration, it picks us up when we are down and it offers closure at the end of a meal. Dessert is not all laughter and smiles; as evidenced by Sidney Mintz’s iconic book Sweetness and Power, sugar certainly has a political, social and economic darker side.  Many times in my life I have tried to discount sweetness. Perhaps this is because sugar was always underplayed and even sidelined in my childhood. My mother only allowed dessert on special occasions or as an exceptional treat. While doing fieldwork at the Porta Palazzo market, I was disappointed that the first job I landed was selling sweets. To my surprise, this turned out to be the most interesting of all the places I worked at the market: I learned about people’s desires, insecurities and health issues. I began to understand that sweetness can teach us a great deal about our humanity–whether we choose to embrace or reject it.

Saturated with sugar and butter, towards the end of pastry week I started to wonder how  people could eat the desserts we were making at the finish of a multi-course meal. I asked the chef instructor if he considered the rest of the meal when imagining and designing a dessert. He looked at me with a strange expression, “No, I have heard that there are people in this healthy movement who try to make lighter desserts but that’s not what pastry chefs do.” He continued on lecturing us about the differences between crème mousseline and crème princesse. In culinary school, pastry is also an island out on its own.

Just as each savory course should consider the next, maybe dessert should also be more closely integrated into the menu. Good meals should have coherence and diners should be encouraged to enjoy the pleasures of sweetness. Wouldn’t it be nice if this pleasurable moment did not leave them feeling guilty and ill? It must be possible to build a bridge between the island that is pastry and the land that is the rest of the meal.

Is culinary school sustainable?


Learning to cook produces a lot of waste. Questions of sustainability pushed forward in my thoughts last week as I gutted, prepped and cooked fish that I would ultimately throw out. The fact that so much food goes in the garbage while learning to cook runs counter to the frugal realities of professional kitchens. Your average restaurant cannot afford to throw out the pieces of meat, vegetables and other ingredients that are excess or that were not cut correctly. Perhaps this is why we pay so much for culinary education–the material costs are high. Yes, in learning we need to make inedible mistakes but we also need to understand that waste is not on the menu in the real world.

How could culinary schools promote sustainability? Shouldn’t frugality be programmed into the culinary student’s DNA? Using every little bit of each ingredient seems like an invaluable skill that should be part of any good culinary curriculum. When I asked about composting, the chef nearly began to laugh. What about planting a didactic vegetable garden in the sunny spot behind the school? These ideas met with looks of amazement. Well, I have always been an idealist.

If we aren’t going to learn to practice sustainability through minimizing waste, perhaps we could at least talk about it on a larger scale. Last week’s program was dedicated to seafood. Shockingly, we not once discussed issues of declining fish stocks, the fragilities of marine environments or the plus and minuses of aquaculture. Slyly, I tried to bring up these topics each time a new fish or mollusk was introduced.

It has always been my dream to incorporate hands-on culinary activities more fully into food studies classes. I think they both need each other. Chefs, especially aspiring chefs, need to be made aware of the larger political, economic and social issues surrounding food. Food activists, policy makers and intellectuals in training need to understand the labor and skill involved in farming and preparing food. True understanding comes from the development of personal relationships between actors in a food system and through honest engagement in each other’s work. In my mind, this marriage will some day lead to greater sustainability.